The Problem With Christian Radio

I wrote this for another blog, which is becoming a podcast (more on that eventually) so I figured I’d post it here. It also gives me the delightful excuse to throw some jams your way.

You say, “Christian music.”
Your agnostic friend thinks, “A load of unoriginal crap by Casting Crowns and Tree63.”

He certainly doesn’t think MuteMath:

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And the world of Christian music-lovers wonder where to direct their angry mob.

I hold that Christian Radio shoulders the bulk of the responsibility. I hold that Christian Radio – in its noble effort to reach as many individuals as possible with the message of the Gospel – effectively works against authentic, beautiful music. Worse, it ends up packaging the message of the Gospel in such embarrassingly banal, watered-down, and unoriginal songs, that the Gospel is obscured, if not actively resisted by the listener.

I will focus my complaint against The Educational Media Foundation, the charity behind K-Love and Air 1 Radio, with the knowledge that much of my complaint against them could be made against other Christian Radio stations. This the EMF’s mission statement:

K-LOVE Radio & Air 1 Radio are a part of the EMF Broadcasting family. K-LOVE communicates the Gospel through mass media to leads as many people as possible toward salvation and spiritual growth. Air 1 Radio delivers positive cutting-edge Christian music to teenagers and young adults.

Nowhere does it mention that the Christian music need be good music, or that it be beautiful music, or that it be well-written, creative, inspiring, touching, or original music. No, for music to be played to the EMF’s over 5 million listeners, there are two pre-requisites: it must be positive, and it must be cutting-edge.

And apparently not Future of Forestry.

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The idea that music gains some inherent value by being cutting-edge is ridiculous. ‘Cutting-edge’ is not an adjective that should ever be applied to art. There are cutting-edge computer programs. There are no cutting-edge paintings. You can own a cutting-edge car. You cannot own a cutting-edge song. It’s well known amidst the Christian world that we live in an age of moral relativism; the denial of the existence of objective good and evil. What’s ignored by the Christian world is the mate of moral relativism we so often fornicate with; aesthetic relativism. The denial of value. The relativism that chooses one song over another because it is newer. The Christian philosopher G.K Chesterton had this to say about moral relativism…

“To introduce into philosophical discussions a sneer at a creed’s antiquity is like introducing a sneer at a lady’s age. It is caddish because it is irrelevant. The pure modernist is merely a snob; he cannot bear to be a month behind the fashion…”

…and I believe that can be equally applied to aesthetic relativism. Applying inherent value to ‘cutting-edge’ music is snobbish. (A.D.D. WORD ASSOCIATION LINK). It’s Very Bad Decisions like this that force artists to imitate Pop music instead of writing authentically, force them to think of how to have a ‘new sound’ instead of a beautiful sound. And perhaps the worst part of the whole affair is this: If you’ve frequented Christian Radio, you know that the attempt to be cutting-edge is never more than an attempt. And thus Christian music uses auto-tune, and the suckage, she continues. We’re lucky when brilliance shines through the bleak, as illustrated so wonderfully by Audrey Assad.

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(To be clear, I’m not saying that Pop music can’t be likable. In fact, it wouldn’t be Pop if it didn’t produce sounds our ears are inclined to and sell a couple million copies. I’m saying that Pop music has no value outside of popularity, outside of the ‘cutting-edge’. It does not strive for beauty, and will thus have a limited effect on the world for about month, and then go back from whence it came.)

The second pre-requisite for songs to be played on K-Love is positivity. My first disagreement with the use of this adjective is that it is often no more than a replacement for the word ‘Christian’. ‘I’m Walking on Sunshine’, I assume is a positive song, but it gets no play on Christian radio. This sneak-attack Christianity is not particularly cunning; when people hear a Chris Tomlin song after the announcement “Positive Hits!” they’re not subtly tricked into liking the song more. And if it is not cunning it can only be cowardly.

But that’s not the point. The point is that positivity means absolutely nothing, even less than cutting-edge. Positivity has utterly no meaning without some frame of reference. Is it moral positivity? Mathematical positivity? Emotional positivity? Is the Crucifixion positive?

Is the question of positivity important at all? How about: is the Crucifixion Good? Yes. Is it True? Yes. Is it Beautiful? Yes. Why is whether it’s ‘positive’ important at all, even if we could figure out what we mean when we say it?

The same applies to songs. Positivity does not lend inherent value to music. My guess is that more people have been changed by Johnny Cash than by TobyMac. And let me be the first to tell you, it ain’t because Cash is positive. If positivity is taken to mean ‘happiness’ then we’ve gone off the deep end and ain’t coming back. The beauty of Christianity is not a kind of happy-go-luckiness that seems to be the musical aim of The Newsboys. The beauty of Christianity is that through suffering and death and darkness, the evil world has been redeemed. To choose only songs based on the criteria of emotional positivity is an emasculating of our religion, and a limitation on what has always made the art of Christianity so awesome. Positivity lends nothing to music; it only helps sell it to soccer moms. And thus we don’t hear Mumford and Sons on Christian  radio.

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To summarize my point; Christian Radio is killing beautiful, Christian music. Its very mission statement implies the death of authenticity in song-writing. That’s not to say there are no survivors. In fact, I’m of the belief that there are far more good ‘Christian’ songs than shallow ones. They’re just harder to find.

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Check out my fuller writings on Christian music here and here.

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