What does it mean to make music with purpose or inspiration in this day in age? On one hand, it can be argued that everyone who makes music is inspired toward some sort of purpose. But specifically, what does it mean for Christians to make music in today’s culture? And what on earth is “Christian music” anyway? And how does it differ from any other kind of music that tries to tell an honest story? And is saying you only listen to Christian music the same thing as saying you only use Christian toilet paper?
How can today’s world listen to music that encourages them to get to know the counter-cultural person of Jesus when all they hear from Christian-based media are cheesy, regurgitated catch phrases? When it comes to music as an encouraging, sympathizing, and teaching tool, singer/songwriter, Derek Webb says, “A lot of what I see coming out of the church in terms of Christian music unfortunately deals in probably the most spiritual 2 percent of life and culture. And yet, the Bible gives us a framework and a language to deal with all 100 percent of stuff that we come up against in life. So it’s no wonder when people look at the art that comes out of the church in Christian music on the whole, that they see Christianity as this one-dimensional, irrelevant worldview to modern life that only deals with transcendent moments of worship and the afterlife.”
Despite much of Christian music’s apparent lack of depth, the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry is continuing to thrive financially. Can it really be considered a coincidence that most CCM artists tend to churn out the same soft, fluffy messages? This, of course begs the question of whether or not the monetary motives of the CCM are no different than those of the standard mainstream record industry. If American Christians are eating up what the CCM is putting out, why would it fix what isn’t broken?
In a 2003 episode of South Park entitled “Christian Rock Hard,” eight-year-old Eric Cartman, upon realizing the potential for financial gain, and the ease in which Christian music can be crafted, decides to start a Christian rock band with two other kids from school. Cartman explains that “it’s the easiest, crappiest music in the world…all we have to do to make Christian songs is take regular old songs and add Jesus stuff to them…cross out words like ‘baby’ and ‘darling’ and replace them with ‘Jesus’.” (Spoiler alert!) Cartman’s band, Faith+1, goes on to sell a million copies of its first album, thereby achieving the fictitious “myrrh” status. Some may say that South Park shouldn’t be taken seriously as an indicator of social relevancy, but when most of today’s popular Christian songs make Jesus sound like our boyfriend, TV shows like this make a strong statement.
Christian rock music today includes little mention of loving and serving the poor, reconciling with enemies, being a presence in rough neighborhoods, sexuality, dealing with really difficult temptations, or even funny life situations (exception: Reliant K did a pretty sick version of “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything”). When these bands play live, their sets usually include tons of catchy songs full of clichéd lyrics followed by mushy, emotionally-charged “altar calls.” I’m not saying altar calls haven’t changed the lives of a certain contingent of the population. But all that these bands usually end up accomplishing is convincing a bunch of 12-16 year-olds to stand up at their seats, or at the very least, raise their hands when presented with the (often times vaguely-explained) challenge to “accept Jesus.” As these kids grow up and face real-life problems, it’s unlikely they’re going to turn to songs that simply tell them to ask Jesus to “wrap me in your arms.” If music truly is the universal language of the world, then this sort of production just isn’t going to cut it.
Music plays a huge part in shaping our culture, and vice versa. There is much that can be gained by listening, enjoying, and taking note of what today’s mainstream and indie musicians are saying in their lyrics and then responding accordingly in ways that build up Christ’s kingdom on earth. What would it look like if more people started being “musicians who are Christians” rather than cookie-cutter “Christian musicians?” What would it look like if Christians ripped down the sacred/secular divide and took notice of what so many artists around us are screaming about regarding the messed up state of our culture? We’ve fallen a long way from the days of Larry Norman, one of Christian music’s pioneers, who wasn’t afraid to perform songs that dealt with social issues, politics, spiritual warfare, and hypocrisy. Thankfully, a handful of scattered independent artists are beginning to take up Norman’s mantle and continue this radical, cross-cultural movement. But until the CCM decides that it loves money less than producing positive spiritual change in the world, we’ve still got a long way to go.
Alan Atchison is a Contributing Writer to The Rogue. He is a Senior Publications Editor at the Center for the Advanced Study of India (University of Pennsylvania), where he also earned a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing. He lives in Philadelphia, PA with his wife and two daughters. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.