An Open Letter to Contemporary Christian MusicApologetics, Culture, Music, Religion — By Robin Dembroff on June 17, 2010 at 12:01 am
Dear Contemporary Christian Music,
I wouldn’t be writing this letter if I hadn’t heard you were feeling a bit better. After all, you have been off-color the last hundred years or so.
I’d like to make sure you know that I’m sorry you haven’t been well. I’ve said harsh words, but, truly, I don’t revel in your illness. I was glad to hear news that you may be starting pulling through—I’ve been losing hope. The end of this dangerous and infectious illness is long overdue.
You were so vital during childhood. Like any kid, you imitated your parent—chanted her chants, sang her Psalms. In general, though, you managed to reinterpret those established traditions and make them refreshing. Your work was fit for worship, being not only true, but also beautiful.
That remained accurate as you got older, even when you were given new tools and opportunities. When you got an organ, you weren’t sure at first how to use it. You made some awful screeches come out of it. Eventually, though, you got the hang of it and produced some great pieces. People today still play them, in fact. And all the work you did later with full orchestras and symphonies—we definitely play those. But we call those by the name you went by at the time, ‘Music’, not your new, self-given title, ‘Christian Music’.
I really admire that, until recently, you didn’t feel the need for that adjective. You called yourself ‘Music’ and worked hard at living up to the name. You made contemporary music, and made it well; that was enough.
But, of course, that was before the world severed itself from history, and you fell into the the same illness—the deep, itching illness of insecurity and fear. You seemed to think it acceptable to scorn your inheritance: you called it ‘cultic’ or ‘formulaic’, ‘boring’ or ‘dull’. Ironically, you called it all the things you were about to become.
The 20th-century hasn’t been kind to you; I get that. You said that you only wanted to help people who hated you–who wanted nothing to do with you if you identified with your history. I did (and still do!) admire your motives. But you were foolish to think you could ever actually deny your roots, even if we pretend that it would be right to do so.
The new plan—a sort of evangelical bait and switch—was dangerous, as shown by the results. You worked so hard to write sermons into your songs that you forgot they were songs. The ‘bait and switch’ had no ‘bait’. Pardon the pun, but for the last century or so, you’ve been singing to the choir, embarrassing a good number of them with your bad pitch and worse instrumentation.
Instead of playing a strong part in secular music, you became a shadow of it and called yourself ‘Christian’ music. Simultaneously, you burned the bridges behind by claiming emancipation from the history you would need to find an identity apart from this shadow.
Christian lyrics—sure, you have those. Didactic ones, usually. But Christian music? Beautiful music is Christian music, and you’ve stopped making that for a regrettably long period of time.
But I hear good things recently, even amid the awful things. I hear that you’ve sent some talent into the world, despite the radio stations that refuse to play anything but a two-dimensional status quo. [As always, they continue to expect different results from playing the same song over and over again simply because they give it a hundred different titles.]
I hope the good things thrive and expand. Once you’re well, we’ll hear some beautiful music played to the Lord. Until then, though, get some rest, read the latest Rolling Stone magazine and take an online music theory class. No one ever said beauty was easy, only that it was simple. But, as the Fire Theft reminds us in their sublime piece titled “Heaven”, “it’s the simple things that are so hard to grasp.”
All the Best,