Three weeks ago I wrote about Christians having to live with TV and pop culture that is frankly yucky. I said that even though pop culture is often disgusting and rotten, Christians who are moving from death to life in Christ have to engage with it because 1. there is some good in it still and 2. they do not really have a choice not to have some level of interaction with it. In a discussion on Facebook, someone pointed out that I focused too much on tolerating evil than on moving toward good. Here I want to properly emphasize why Christians should learn to deal with stuff that is yucky and gross: the point is not merely to prolong our existence but to endure long enough to introduce what is truly good, free of taint and impurity. With that, I will turn once again to the video game Fallout 3. Continue reading From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2
Yesterday, Mackenzie attempted to defend “Christian Music.” For what it is worth, I’ve listened to a lot of the bands he mentioned. I grew up with each of them, in fact, save the O.C. Supertones. I’m not even here to tell you that he’s entirely wrong. Those artists will absolutely give you the the sort of theological thoughts that will be beneficial as you grow in your Christian faith. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love most of the songs he linked to, and you should probably even go listen to them. Just remember that we were but angsty teenagers when those came out.
As well as Mackenzie stepped up to the plate, I’m fairly certain that what he did was point you to the benefits of certain Christian artists, rather than describe the whole of the industry. And an industry it is: there’s a huge market for Christian music, and record labels (and publishers, and store owners) know that. If you don’t conform to a particular image of Christianity, you might not even be allowed to sell your album in Christian bookstores.
But if we try to talk about the industry as a whole, we’ll find that there are at least as many problems as there are genuine examples of goodness–musically or lyrically. Most of Christian music has been derivative of mainstream charts: if a boy band was doing well (read: remember N*SYNC?), there’d be a “Christian” version, usually singing about God instead of girls (after all, His love was written on our hearts). The same was true with rock music (Linkin Park took off, and then bands like Pillar and Pax217 came and tried to do the rap/rock thing) and pop music (as Brittney Spears and other similar artists took off, suddenly there was a place for Jaci Velasquez and Stacie Orrico).
It isn’t necessarily a problem for Christians to attempt to cater to what is currently popular. But it would be better for us if we were leading the charge, rather than shuffling along behind the parade, picking up the ticker tape. By focusing on imitation rather than innovation, we’re short-changing the potential that music has to influence our lives.
The point against Christian music, however, is less about the derivative nature of much of it, and more the absolute massive amount of it that exists and is, plainly, forgettable. While there are some gems, including those mentioned by Mackenzie, there are a thousand bands that no one listened to for each of them. When the WOW music series came out, it showcased the best-of-the-best Christian bands (at least in “Contemporary Christian Music,” CCM). What quickly became apparent, at least to me, was that those 30 songs were also all that the radio played, meaning it was really all we had to offer. Any band not on WOW sounded like they were trying to be there (and not quite making it), and it was a fifty-fifty shot that any band from the album would have any other good songs.
Perhaps the worst offender over the years has been worship music. If that sounds irreverent, you’ll forgive me. I’ll put out the same qualifier I’ve had to do in the past: God can use even the least talented musicians and songwriters in good and positive ways, but we should still be striving to make beautiful music. I recommend you sing loud in church, even if you’re terrible (as I am, believe me). But when it comes to the stuff we’re producing, the stuff we’re selling and presenting to the world at large? That should be excellent. It should not be repetitive, and it should definitely not say nothing at all.
There is hope. Even in the wasteland of 3-chord songs (and even albums), we need not despair. Some Christians are making excellent music, and some are asking questions that will challenge us to be better believers. Bands like P.O.D. and Emery take every-day problems and present them in sometimes painful music–the former used explicit language in a way that should give us reason to think critically, while the latter managed to deal with suicidal thoughts in a simple and powerful way. The Christian hip-hop market has simply erupted with music that is not only lyrically fantastic, but has also broken into the mainstream by its solid production quality.
So perhaps some “Christian music” will seek after and wear your soul down with its repetition and boring lyrics. But those gems that Mackenzie pointed out? Those sort of anomalies haven’t gone away. In fact, I hope they are on the rise.
Imagine if you will, that you are traveling with a small and unlikely group, preparing to face the elements.
You drive for hours, and then pull up into a promising-looking row of cars, tents, and sloppily hung blankets. Home sweet home, for now.
Once you choose a camping spot, you try to make it as cozy as possible, and divide up who will be sleeping in tents and who will be in the backs of the cars. You do your best to cook whatever you have with you into some semblance of a breakfast burrito. You put up shields against the sun, and talk amongst yourselves while looking suspiciously at the neighboring tents.
It’s quiet…but you know they’re out there.
Packing up as much ammo and sunscreen as you can fit into your tiny, cross-body bag, and wearing your most comfortable long-walk shoes, you and the others prepare to storm the entrance. There are no children with you—children couldn’t survive here.
You won’t be coming back to camp until the hunt is over for the day.
As you approach, you begin to hear noise. It starts as a low, muttering rumble. You see a Ferris wheel in the distance. Motionless. As you come over the ridge, you see them.
Bodies in torn clothes and half-clothes and no clothes at all, swarming through the valley in every direction. You see a pack of them devouring the contents of a hot dog stand, while another set wanders into a tent labeled “SONY.”
You check the map and mark what you think are your best bets. You take a deep breath, and push through.
You’re inside now.
You can’t risk being completely cut off from each other, but you temporarily split off into smaller groups to divide and conquer. One group finds water, another power. You try to find medication for the other guy you left at camp, whose leg is swollen from an allergic reaction, but no luck. You regroup and survey the horde under the largest tent, looking for a weak spot.
“There,” says one, pointing to a small open patch of grass in the middle.
You choose the attack carefully, coming from the slightly less dense left flank of the crowd. You move quickly, before the bodies have a chance to react. You grab the open spot just before a girl with feathered hair and body paint reaches it. She blinks at you, and then shuffles away.
You catch your breath for only a moment, and then you see the bodies nearer the front grow louder, and their dirty, sweaty hands go up as they press against each other, grunting and reaching towards the fresh meat that just came on stage.
As the music starts, you relax a bit, and you remember:
You are not in an episode of The Walking Dead. You are at Coachella.
(This has been a dramatization of Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.)
Please understand: I have nothing against Coachella. I enjoyed myself when I went last year. But there has to be some other, better alternative to buying $400 tickets a year in advance to go risk heatstroke and wait in line to charge your cell phone.
It’s true—there might not be any other chance (except maybe Outside Lands in San Francisco) for you to see all of the bands on that lineup that you like at once again. And there is value in that. I’d rather get a package festival deal than spend $60 on a ticket, $15 on parking, and $10 on Ticketmaster fees to go sit really far up in an amphitheater and watch one artist I like from a mile away. At least at a festival I have a fighting chance of getting closer.
But even though I saw twenty-five bands in two days, I only really got to enjoy probably five full shows by bands I really liked. The rest of the time I was thinking, “I have to run to the Mojave stage to see ten minutes of Calvin Harris! Then I need to stop by Beirut, and start camping out for Florence and the Machine!” It was pretty chaotic. Except for earlier in the day when it was just too hot to move, and most of the bands playing weren’t remotely interesting.
Is the money and effort spent really worth stumbling into the office on Monday morning dead tired, sunburnt, and sporting a dirty wristband?
Jimmy Kimmel’s lovely viral video of Coachella attendees expressing love for bands that don’t exist hit on an important truth: most people who go to Coachella REALLY REALLY want cool points. I know I did. I’m almost unsure how Coachella managed to have any prominence in the days before our social validation came via social media. My very first Instagram photo was of that stupid Ferris wheel.
Maybe one day, a la Woodstock, my kids will ask me to tell them about the time I went to Coachella, and about all of the things I saw. But I sincerely doubt it.
Because the only thing revolutionary about Coachella is the number of different ways teenage girls have invented to paste things onto their bodies to avoid wearing actual clothes. There’s not really anything that makes it special, beyond the fact that you can tell your friends that you went.
Would I go again? Possibly. If it had the most killer lineup of all time, and my friends were going and wanted to see exactly the same bands I wanted to see. Or if someone paid for my ticket. Or if they decided to hold the event some less scorching month of the year, like November.
But in general, it felt like more of a bucket-list conquest that doesn’t need repeating. There are plenty of cheaper ways to see good music, and sometimes it’s a lot more awesome to go to a show without smelling like an animal, and go camping when you’re not wearing a $50 Urban Outfitters top that you’re afraid someone will spill beer on.
Plus, I have a few more episodes of The Walking Dead to watch.
The late 90’s and early 2000’s spawned a musical era of cookie-cutter pop, rap songs with the same lyrics, and a general sense of distaste with the music industry. The commercialization was insultingly blatant, the lyrics were shallow and vapid, and the music was exceedingly predictable—so much so that the University of Bristol designed a software program that could accurately predict the success of any given pop song. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with performers like Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, or Kelley Clarkson, but all they did is set up a generation that was thirsty for something worth listening to.
Enter folk music. Given a platform in the 60’s, praised in the 70’s, and driven underground by 80’s hair-rock, folk has returned in recent years with a vengeance, thanks largely in part to social media and low-cost recording techniques. In spite of a recent attempt to over-saturate the market, the genre continues to grow, as listeners devour the image of musicians playing their own instruments and writing their own lyrics—lyrics that speak to everyday problems or challenge the listeners to think. The songs have a shred of substance to them, the musicians look and act like normal people—and who doesn’t love an electric banjo? If there was any doubt to the legitimacy of folk music, it was erased when Mumford & Sons’ encore record, ‘Babel,’ won album of the year at the 2012 Grammy’s. Critics may have been at odds over the album, but the common folk loved and appreciated it.
Yet for every ‘Babel,” there are a thousand other albums that never sell but a few hundred copies. Artists like Josh Ritter and The Tallest Man on Earth (references which should definitely increase this article’s credibility with hipsters) remain relatively unknown—which somehow increases the allure of folk in general. Everybody likes having a secret that nobody else knows: Ever heard of Joe Pug? No? He’s great; you should go look him up.
Amidst this great multitude, this horde of banjo’s and upright basses; amidst the good, the not-so good, and the terrible—there runs a shining grain, not unlike the one that Martin Luther held when he spoke “If thou couldst understand a single grain of wheat, thou wouldst die for wonder.” This grain of wheat—this common thread of folk—is the honest expression and sincerity that music in general has been so tragically deprived of in the last few decades. Contrary to what agents and producers tend to think, people can only listen to so many songs that talk about smoking pot in an Escalade or a famous singer breaking up with her umpteenth boyfriend.
The sincerity of folk is wonderful because it reflects, in some small way, what worship music was intended to be. Reading through the Psalms, one gets the feeling of spontaneous emotion expressed through the frame of rhythm and verse. The Book of Worship consists of authors who cry out to God in anguish, praise him in wild ecstasy, and supplicate him in the midst of crushing apathy. This isn’t surprising, given the fact that the man who wrote a majority of them was pretty expressive himself. When the Ark was brought to Jerusalem, “David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, and David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel were bringing up the Ark of the Lord with shouting and the sound of the trumpet.” (2 Samuel 6:14-15) This isn’t a four-chord reaction to the power of God; this is a organic, impromptu celebration. It’s dancing in the delight of the sovereignty of the Lord—and it looks a look like an open field folk concert.
This is not to exclude the necessity of Jesus Christ as the center of worship, but there is an aspect of common grace that is transferable onto Christian worship; any decent pagan can find delight in Creation, but only a Christian can respond to the personal Creator behind it. Good music can be enjoyed by anybody, and sincerity and spontaneity are not the pillars of praise. That said, a Christian can worship with the breath of the wind, the pulse of the ocean, and the twang of a steel-stringed guitar because they are things made to be delighted in. It could be that God sits up on his throne during a Bob Dylan show and says to the angels around him, “Watch this—I gave that man his talent, and my daughter, standing there in front of the stage, can see it. Bob Dylan is praising me, and he doesn’t even know it: my child knows it though. Look at that, watch her sing his songs to me.” It may be that God delights in our appreciation of his world, whether it is snow-capped mountains or The Lumineers.
C.S. Lewis said that “the most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.” Perhaps the most valuable thing that folk can do for a Christian is to express that same rare emotion, that same raw experience of created life, in ways we have not thought of. Our modern problem is no longer that we will miss the forest for the trees, but that we will miss the forest for the nymphs. Folk helps us combat this malaise; it helps us to appreciate the sea for Poseidon. It highlights the Creation, and we in turn can highlight the Creator.
So amidst the hordes of Dylan-impersonators, the technically deficient fiddle playing, and open-tuned acoustic guitars, look for that single grain of wheat—that childlike sincerity. It may not be found in every song, or with every band—but generally, it is there. Give an ear to it, listen to it. Cultivated appropriately, this grain can grow into an acceptable harvest—it might just turn out to be proper worship.
Music is, mostly, a non-rival good; my having it doesn’t decrease your having it. There are exceptions: if you’re going to a concert, the seats are limited (my being there makes there less room for you to be there). But, if we’re talking about being a fan, listening to music on iTunes, there’s really no way in which my loving a musician and your loving a musician have any logical rivalry. Which creates a little mystery in my mind—the mystery of the “I liked them first!” cry occasionally lifted among fans of rising musicians.
Music being non-rival, why do we cherish that “I was into them before they were cool” badge? To be sure, there are some virtuous uses of the phrase: the almost parental pride of the first fans smilingly rejoicing as their companions grow, or—on the other hand—the lament that the musician “sold out” to reach a different audience. I can see what they mean.
At other times, though, it takes a more sinister tone: the disdain of the old fan for the new; the fan who begrudges his or her beloved band their fame. It is as though these old fans would rather the band fail, so long as they can tag them with the label “Mine.”
This “before it was cool, I was” mentality leans toward a selfish wish more for my success as a music-listener than the musician’s success. Clearly, the band is not being cherished as much as the fan’s ability to choose music. They love the band as they love a mirror, because it reflects their own good judgment.
I know the feeling because I’ve felt the same way.
By nature, I am not a generous person. I’m too afraid for it; always scared that if I give some away, there won’t be enough left for me. Consciously, I fight it, and, by God’s grace, I’m making progress. Still, if I were standing in line among the workers in the parable, watching God hand payment to the eleventh-hour workers and the ninth-hour workers, I could see myself nervously tugging at the hem of my shirt, thinking “What if He runs out?”
It smacks of Jonah. Sitting in the shade, overlooking Nineveh with the cocky, askance look of the hipster. The small, selfish, fearful caricature of love that says, “Your loving would make my loving less important.” It’s a jealous fear that assumes the “in group” can only be so big.
Divine love is a non-rival good. Music resembles the love of God in this way. It fills a room, creating more joy the more people experience it. The way it lingers on the air and can be held and known in that moment, but not forcibly possessed by the receiver. The person receives; the music or divine love rolls across them, generous and entirely out of their control. A selfish attitude toward these things seems almost impossible; how can you want others not to have something when their having doesn’t decrease your having?
I wonder what it does to us to prize these feelings toward music, and I wonder what it would do for us to train our souls away from them.
I think that certain strains of modern worship do some things really well, and some things really poorly. I’ll be using my own church as my primary example, since this is (obviously) where I experience the most “corporate worship.”
First, the good.
Freaking awesome guitar solo as the bridge.
This is often one of the first things people attack in modern worship. But I think a very strong case can be made for the electric guitar’s rightful place in worship music. In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton notes that “in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox, there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration.” Satan is the (temporary) prince of this world, and to Chesterton, to be a Christian is to be defiant, to be an ultimately triumphal revolutionary. And to my ears, nothing (except for maybe some trumpets) captures this sense of defiance triumphant as well as the electric guitar solo.
It is exuberant and loud and even disruptive (C.S. Lewis may well have called it “masculine,” in his lovably complementarian fashion). Even better, it’s a demonstration of extreme technical skill on the part of the player, harnessed and displayed not for his own glory, but for the glory of the one who gracefully created the player and (we assume) who also rejoices in the joyful noise.
Is it ideal for quiet meditation? Of course not. But all worship need not be quiet meditation, and for those times when you want to meditate loudly, then the electric guitar solo will help you do that. When you want to meditate on our calling to resist the devil, to be a light in a dark place, to cast off sin that’s been weighing you down, then the electric guitar is just what the Great Physician ordered (or, and I cannot stress this enough, some ska).
Now, the bad.
I’m So Meta Even This Acronym*
Certain modern worship songs are absurdly self-referential. We’re singing about singing. We’re singing about raising our hands (but only, as my friend James pointed out, in a purely metaphorical sense, because we look silly when our hands are raised). We’re singing, in extreme cases, about dancing. In some songs (the good ones), this is only a side-bar, almost an aside: “By the way, a proper response to the deep theological truths we are contemplating would, indeed, be praising, raising your hands, and dancing.” I have no beef with these songs, because they do actually focus on the theological truths contained within them.
But in many other songs, the reason for this singing and (metaphorical) dancing and raising of hands is tucked away somewhere in there, but the main thing really is to be singing about singing. And in the case of When The Spirit of the Lord, it reads more like a spiritual bucket list than anything else.
When the entirety of the song is talking about worshiping, it’s easy to wonder whether the song still, in fact, qualifies as “worship” at all. After all, if I were to spend five minutes talking about “When I get that hamburger, I’m gonna eat it!”, that’s clearly not the same as actually eating…
And when taken too far, we can easily slip into…
Two Sundays ago, I spent five full minutes singing Swell. And, by the way, the title is not a reference to our state of being in Christ. It is, rather a reference to the motion of “the river,” which is, evidently:
- Bringing joy, joy, joy, to my horizon
- Deep deep inside me
In response to this, I am, apparently, to let it swell. Repeatedly.
Read the lyrics. What is the river? Why is it important that this river, which is inside of me, is bringing joy to my horizon? Why is it swelling? Again, what is the river? Why should I let it “swell real deep”? Why should I let it “show in [my] feet”? And for the final time, what is the river? Can anyone tell me? Anyone?
I don’t even know what I’m praising here. The Holy Spirit? I guess? But no, can’t be the Holy Spirit, because the river is an “it.” So just the generic power of God? Maybe? And I’m praising it for “bringing joy to my horizon”?
My beef with this song isn’t that it says untrue things. It isn’t that it contains incorrect theology. It’s that this song comes incredibly, incredibly close to saying nothing at all. The concept of agreeing or disagreeing with its theology doesn’t even make sense, because it contains no theology at all.
“But you’re missing the point!” someone might say. “Just praise God, don’t worry about the specific words! Just… just let it flow, you know?” And this is, in fact, a semi-valid argument. It’s been around a long time: after all, this reasoning was even present in the early church (although then it applied to speaking in tongues). Paul’s response to this phenomenon speaks for itself:
“If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unproductive. What should I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing praises with my spirit, but I will also sing praises with my mind.”
1 Corinthians 14:14-15
It’s possible to sing Swell and praise God with your spirit. But I challenge you to try to worship God with your mind while singing it.
Go ahead. I’ll wait. While singing that song, try to praise with your mind as well as your spirit. Is it more difficult than worshiping while silent? Of course it is, because doing so requires you to disconnect what you’re thinking from what you’re saying!
That’s the real problem I have with some of the songs I’ve mentioned in this post. The entire purpose of corporate worship is to assist the believer in worshiping with both the spirit and the mind. But when the songs are so absurdly simplistic, even borderline meaningless, that worshiping with your mind requires you to actually block out the song itself, that’s a huge, huge problem.
Like I said, modern worship does some things well. But it also does some things really, really terribly. To be fair, personal preference (great post by Nathan Bennett here) does play a role. But we have a problem. And the solution isn’t more cowbell.
*Credit to xkcd.
Christianity and hip-hop seem to be converging lately. There has been a flurry of discussion surrounding a number of artists, both Christian and otherwise. We’ve seen major mainstream attention focus in on Lecrae and his releases in the last year or so, and the discussion there has centered around the Christian’s role in mass media as an evangelism tool: when producing rap for a mainstream audience (as he is clearly doing on Church Clothes, and arguably on Gravity), what should be the priority? Some argue that a clear Gospel message, preferably with Jesus’ name sprinkled into every song, should be the entirety of the album. Others suggest that rappers and other artists need to establish themselves within their genre, even if that means writing songs that are less explicitly ‘Christian.’
But what if the roles are reversed? What if we are facing an individual who has never professed faith before, was recently baptized, and is now releasing an album called Jesus Piece? Continue reading ‘The Game’ and Christianity: A Tree by its Fruit
This is not a review of Mumford & Sons’s newest album. Ms. Alicia Prickett did a fantastic job writing a thoughtful review on Mumford & Son’s newest album a few days ago. This post seeks to understand a couple of questions. The first: where did this genre we call folk music come from? The second: why is this genre so popular today, why is contemporary folk music making a resurgence? Continue reading Why Folk Music Rocks
One of the most successful bands who managed to maintain popularity within Christian circles, P.O.D., released an album this last July, entitled Murdered Love. I reviewed the album with my good friend Nick, which you can listen to here. We talked a lot of about the album, and ended up spending a decent amount of time on one particular controversial track, but we were overall pretty much in agreement: the album works for what it is, and in some ways is a return to form for the band. It may not be up to the caliber of Satellite, but it comes closer than anything else they’ve released. I’ve already alluded to it, but there is one track that will have people up in arms (and, in fact, has already done so): the track is called “I Am,” and might be the most explicitly Christian track they’ve ever released.
And it uses the word “f*ck.” Continue reading P.O.D., “I Am,” and Living in Culture
Last week, Humble Beast artist Propaganda released his latest album, Excellent. You can snag it here for free, or you can support Propaganda and the label by purchasing it on iTunes, a physical copy from their website, or at a show. The album lives up to its title, and is definitely worth a listen. Most people who’ve heard of Propaganda prior to this release know him from his now-famous G.O.S.P.E.L. video. He’s a great poet and an energetic performer who considers his words carefully; this is not only something I appreciate deeply, but that I’m quick to point people towards when I get the chance. Continue reading Propaganda Doesn’t Have an Answer, and Neither Do I