"Secular, Sacred … or both?"

Kate Bowman has me cheering for her new commentary at Christianity Today: “Secular, Sacred … or Both?”

Great stuff.

And you can offer your opinion, just like this guy did, here. In fact, you’re encouraged to offer your response, to counterbalance that diatribe.

(Here are some of the other responses that have come in.) Just email music@ChristianityToday.com.

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  • Christian

    Gotcha. I had received a screening invite from Grace Hill and had thought they were behind the junket.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    If I understand you correctly, you went to a junket orgnaized for the Christian press, correct?

    Not quite. The junket was for all the media, and they happened to make a point of inviting the Christian media as well — presumably because, however sublimated or downplayed the religious element might be, it’s still there.

  • Christian

    Peter: If I understand you correctly, you went to a junket orgnaized for the Christian press, correct? And when you got there, the people behind the film said that it doesn’t really explore Cash’s faith, or his conversion.

    So I have to ask: Why is this movie being promoted to the Christian audience? What did the studio hope for when it flew in Christian critics, only to tell them that the movie doesn’t deal with the one area the Christian press would be most interested in?

    These aren’t really questions aimed at you, Peter. I’m just perplexed. Perhaps my assumptions are all wrong.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    Actually, I’m not writing a review of this one, per se — at least not for CT Movies — but I am writing the junket report, which will probably go up around Tuesday.

    Actually, I’ve already written the junket report. And yeah, at least two of the interviewees — director James Mangold and actress Reese Witherspoon — admitted that the film doesn’t get into the religious side of Cash’s life all that much, though Mangold at least said this is because the film focuses on the ’50s and ’60s and not on the ’70s, which is when Cash became very overt about his religion.

    Just for the record, I don’t know enough about Cash’s life to say whether this is a fair explanation, or justification, or whatever. Although, come to think of it, the film isn’t all about Cash — there is also the question of how prominent a role faith played in the lives of the Carters, and Reese, who plays June Carter Cash, basically said the film didn’t go as far with this aspect of the story as it could have, either.

    Ain’t offering my opinion, just passing on what the filmmakers themselves said while promoting the movie.

  • James Stewart

    Gabe – I just wanted to add clarification that in my comment the artists (Sarah, Bill, Sufjan) were not held up as examples because I think there is some strength of character granted simply by virtue of their independent spirits. I cited them partly because they are among the artists Kate refers to in her article, and partly because I know all three of them (Sufjan less well than the other two) and so have something on which to base my observations.

    I don’t have time to keep following these comments, but a few months ago, I wrote something about why I occasionally let myself get riled up about CCM. You can find it at http://james.anthropiccollective.org/archives/2005/01/why_i_might_let.html

  • Gabe Syme

    Martin, It’s probably just you and me left on this old post, so here are my final thoughts.

    Isn’t that a chicken-and-egg argument, though? Aren’t sales just as much a function of marketing as the other way around?

    My point is that if an artist can no longer draw a good crowd or sell enough recordings, for whatever reason, it is not the responsibility of any label to keep them on life support. The vast majority of artists have a life cycle. If the church was running CCM, they could ask the “congregation” to donate money to support those artists (all artists?) whose life cycle was over. But CCM is a business, not the church. It is an industry, just like Indie is becoming, and secular always has been. Those in the 70s who thought it should be all ministry had noble, but unrealistic ideals. Imperfect as it is, CCM gives many good and godly artists an opportunity to make music and-or minister, and make a living doing it.

    You’re coming on a bit strong there…

    Perhaps, but that is the attitude I hear in comments from more than a few on the site that CCM should be “burned to the ground.” Sorry, but that is terminology used for something God abhors, which is what many posts imply. They feel it is worthy of God’s judgment and condemnation.

    …every time I listen to the local Christian radio station — is that it’s predictable music full of shallow lyrical platitudes. It’s not a false gospel, but it’s only a tiny slice of the true one.

    Sure, I hear shallow music on some CCM stations, too, but I also hear many more songs that impress me, inspire me, and cause me to sing along. The secular industry wrote the book on shallow music, and the Indie industry is flooded with it. It’s not just the CCM.

    I guess most of us are saying we no longer see that in CCM.

    For the life of me, I cannot understand why, if you can’t see the good things in CCM, you should even care about it. It’s like you want to destroy what you don’t like because, well, because you don’t like it. Many mature believers are able to find good things in the music of the CCM, even though they ignore the shallow stuff. It just seems a bit over the top to say nothing good can come out of CCM (or the CBA, or Christian video, or whatever).

    You sound like a very thoughtful and intelligent person, Martin. I hope I am, too. I have tried, but I cannot understand the reasoning behind the views on this site that CCM is “corrupt,” “irrelevant” and should be “burned to the ground.” It has its flaws, but what doesn’t in this flawed world? To me, the extreme views are a condemnation of the many mature and decent Christians in CCM who are just trying to make good music that glorifies God.

  • Martin

    It’s really just economics–they could no longer sell enough records to justify the expense of recording them and marketing them.

    Isn’t that a chicken-and-egg argument, though? Aren’t sales just as much a function of marketing as the other way around?

    If you really believe that CCM is sinful, evil, preaching a false gospel, and leading people astray, then your condemnation of the industry is justified.

    You’re coming on a bit strong there. Kate’s article didn’t say that and neither did anyone in this thread.

    What I do believe — and this is reinforced every time I listen to the local Christian radio station — is that it’s predictable music full of shallow lyrical platitudes. It’s not a false gospel, but it’s only a tiny slice of the true one.

    For one, I am glad there is a Christian music industry that creates music that edifies the body, lifts God up in worship, and presents Bible truth in good lyrics.

    I guess most of us are saying we no longer see that in CCM.

    The “subculture” terminology is quite pejorative and condescending. I lean more toward terminology like “paraculture,” which for me better captures what the church should be. The NT is very clear that the church is different, a “peculiar people” set apart for God’s purpose. If we are “below” culture, we are impotent. If we are “in” culture we are compromised. But we are to be “alongside” culture, “para”culture, calling people out of darkness and into the light.

    Brilliant! Wish I’d thought of that. I would have said “counterculture” but it connotes a sort of combative stance which may not be the best image.

  • gabe syme


    Nice CSLewis quote.

    I would have to disagree with your reasons why the artists you mentioned were dropped by their labels (too old, too fat, too honest, too sexy). It’s really just economics–they could no longer sell enough records to justify the expense of recording them and marketing them. (In the case of Jessica Simpson, I would say that someone made a wise decision that had to more with what she represents than what she looks like.) It’s just like in the “real world” of the secular recording companies. If any of those guys could still draw a huge audience, and sell lots of records, they could name their own terms and do what they wanted to do. The fact that they could no longer do the former, meant they could no longer do the latter. (And BTW, I’m a fan of all those guys. Bob Bennett is an incredible artist and I will go out of my way to try to catch him concert, but his style is out of style now. That’s life. Get over it. Same with the other 70’s artists you mentioned.)

    If an artist doesn’t want someone else directing their musical career or ministry, then that artist should be an Indie artist, start their own label, and be responsible for their own success or failure. And they should never look back, and never whine about the success of CCM artists. And if they become popular as an Indie artist, the real test will be what they’ll do when a label offers them a contract. Until there is a full-fledged “Indie Industry” (oxymoron?), I think most would take the contract. The lines are just not as clear cut as many want them to be.

    Let me add that CCM parallels the CBA (Christian publishing), so I can speak with a little authority here. I have self-published seven books and done all my own marketing and risk-taking. I am also a published author with a major Christian/secular label. (I’m also a songwriter-singer, but that doesn’t count here.) I can do what I want with my own books because I know they are mostly niche products (although a couple of publishers have offered contracts for them). I wrote a book for the industry because I wanted to reach a much wider market than I could as a money-crunched self-publisher. They edited, cut, and rearranged my manuscript quite mercilessly, but I was okay with that because THEY WERE PAYING FOR THE BOOK and THEY HAD THE DISTRIBUTION CHANNELS. And if the book doesn’t sell well, I’ll have to look for a smaller publisher who’ll give me a chance, or else just keep self publishing. That’s life and it has nothing to do with whether or not the CBA should exist.

    My point is, there is plenty of room and opportunity for every artist to get their work out there for someone to hear or read. CCM is not preventing anyone from expressing their artistry. And, for the record, I never suggested that CCM artists were better than Indie artists. I only said, which is true, that it’s harder to find the really good Indie artists because every one with a song and a six-string, regardless of true gifting or talent, can be an Indie. Mark my words,though, soon the Indies will find a way to “thin the herd” so only the strongest and “best” are put out front and supported (I’ve already seen it happening in some Indie online communities).

    Bottom line: It’s all good, and it all comes with some bad. CCM, Indie, secular all turn out good “Christian” music, as well as bad. Let’s celebrate and embrace the good, whatever that may be for each of us, and stop focusing on the bad.

  • Martin

    Gabe, maybe I need to articulate the difference between CCM music and the CCM industry. Musical preferences are a matter of taste, and Christians ought to be free to like what they like. My problems are with an industry that tells artists what they can and can’t write about, how they can and can’t look, and how their music can and can’t sound. Randy Stonehill? Don Francisco? Steve Bell? Too old. Bob Bennett? Too fat. Mark Heard? Too honest. Jessica Simpson? Too sexy. (I’m not making that up!) When a single Nashville song merchandiser is deciding which songs are released as singles for every Christian label (I’m not making that up either), then there’s a problem. I’m suggesting the indie route as a way for artists to be who they are (made in God’s image, not the CCM industry’s image) and say what God puts it on their hearts to say (not what some suit at a record label thinks will be a hit).

    I guess artists who truly don’t feel that their mission is compromised or constricted by the CCM industry can continue to work within the industry. But that doesn’t mean their stuff is better than what an indie artist puts out, even if the indie artist doesn’t have a big production budget. The first record-store clerk I really got to know — a big fan of the Replacements and Hound Dog Taylor who nonetheless was interested in the Christian rock I listened to — had a motto: “90% of everything is crap.” It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to really “connect” with only a small portion of what’s out there.

    In closing, I offer this from C.S. Lewis: “The moment good taste knows itself, some of its goodness is lost. Even then it is not necessary to take the further downward step of despising the ‘philistines’ who do not share it. Unfortunately I took it.”

  • Gabe Syme

    I like the name, but it does indeed belong to Chesterton (The Man Who Was Thursday).

    I agree with your comments. The “subculture” terminology is quite pejorative and condescending. I lean more toward terminology like “paraculture,” which for me better captures what the church should be. The NT is very clear that the church is different, a “peculiar people” set apart for God’s purpose. If we are “below” culture, we are impotent. If we are “in” culture we are compromised. But we are to be “alongside” culture, “para”culture, calling people out of darkness and into the light. The purpose of the church is basically two-fold: edification (to build up, to be disciples) and evangelization (to reach out, to make disciples). Both tasks are equally important in God’s eyes, neither more important than the other, and either one spiritually powerless alone. And, in light of this string of posts, Scripture is clear that boths tasks can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways, with a wide range of gifts. So, if CCM edifies many believers in the church, then let’s celebrate that. And if non-CCM artists reach many in the culture outside the church, then let’s celebrate their efforts. But let’s not get into an internecine battle within Christ’s body over which is better, or why one is worse. They (that would be the culture) will know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another…not by our taste in music.

  • Joel Buursma


    – Gabe, is that your real name, or are you quoting G. K. Chesterton? Cool either way.

    – Question: What would the secular music industry be like if there were no Christians working in it? Should I be shuddering at the thought?

    – I get confused about this “division of sacred / secular” talk. I think people mean “should there be a Christian subculture, and should we avoid the culture at large”. But when I hear the phrase, I always think of OT things like Jacob building an alter and calling it El-Elohe-Israel, and the Tabernacle and the Most Holy Place; as well as NT things like Jesus talking about worshiping in spirit & truth, and the apostles talking about how the early church was the new temple. All of these things seem to point to some kind of distinction between sacred & secular. Maybe we need new terms.

  • Gabe Syme

    Response to all above:

    I don’t mean to offend, but the tone and attitude I hear in this string of posts, in varying degrees, is simply arrogant and self-righteous. Your broad-brush condemnation of CCM is also a judgment of many good and honorable Christian brothers and sisters who pursue their music and their professions out of pure hearts and a desire to minister to others. Yes, there are those in the CCM industry who minister in the flesh, without the Spirit of God, and those whose motives are not always godly. But read Phil. 1:12-18 to see how Paul viewed those–he didn’t condemn them! If you really believe that CCM is sinful, evil, preaching a false gospel, and leading people astray, then your condemnation of the industry is justified. But just remember that God will hold all of us accountable (me, too!) for our judgment of other believers.

    I’m a big fan of the Indie movement, but it has, or will have, all of the same problems that you condemn in the industry, just in smaller proportions. You are incredibly naive if you think Indie artists are more mature, or better artists, or more purely motivated, just because they are Indies. Frankly, in my experience as an Indie artist, the percentage of really inferior music (such as mine!) is much, much higher among Indie artists than in the CCM. There are great Indie artists, but you’ve got to swim through alot of swamp to find them. That’s why “Indie” is fast becoming yet another Christian music industry, with its own internal structure and machinery so the best ones can rise to the top and be promoted, so they can make a financial living. I’m all for any and every artist getting their music out there any way they can, and letting God create an audience, and hopefully even create an income. The democratization of music via the internet is great, but any implication that Indies are better than CCM artists is just plain nuts.

    I think your real gripe is not just with the CCM, but with the Christian marketplace that actually wants what CCM produces. If the demand were not there, CCM would go away. So your criticism of CCM is really a judgment of “the church” and its tastes and preferences in Christian music. You really think it is just awful that all those immature Christians out there in evagelicaland can’t see how wrong it is for them to subsidize what you consider an inferior, even unbiblical, musical industry. If they could just hear and decide to like the music YOU like, they’d become more mature and better Christians, like YOU. But the only way your vision of that could happen is to destroy CCM.

    If you will read Romans 14, you will get some insight into what Paul’s attitude was toward the “weak in faith,” as you apparently think consumers of CCM must be (how can they like what you condemn, and still be mature?). He did not condemn them, but understood that the body of Christ is made up of a wide range of attitudes, preferences, fears and faiths, and he showed great humility and restraint in his attitudes toward them.

    Or read Phil. 2:1-11 (especially verse 1-4). Again, Paul was always seeing division and immaturity in the church. Rather than condemn the masses of common people that were coming to the gospel and the church, I believe he rebuked those who held them in contempt, and he called the self-righteous to have the same attitude as Jesus. The call was to humility of mind, to become like Jesus who humbled Himself to become like one of us. Paul didn’t hold up his intellect and certainly more refined tastes and preferences as some sort of standard for judgment, but humbled himself to serve the body and seek its unity.

    Brothers, you sound like intellectual idealists, who condemn whatever does not measure up to YOUR ideals, because everyone else’s tastes, preferences, and ideals are by definition (yours) inferior. That is elitism. You accuse those in the church who consume and enjoy CCM as having their heads stuck in the sand. Well, wherever you’ve got your own heads stuck, it has made you blind to your own self-righteous attitudes.

    The body of Christ is bigger than your idea of what it should be. It’s bigger than your opinions. Should we be embarrassed by CCM? I’m not. I’m embarrassed by the competition, condemnation, judgmentalism and disunity that this whole issue of music is causing in Christ’s body. The answer is not less CCM, or more Indie and non-CCM. The answer is more humility and acceptance.

  • Martin

    Gabe, I don’t think anyone’s implying that Jim Pruitt is representative of the entire CCM industry attitude. If you spend a little time on his Web site you’ll see that he spends as much time attacking CCM artists as he does attacking artists who work outside CCM. This is a guy who vaunts himself as an authority on how CCM bands should behave, but couldn’t even get his own band to play by his rules. (The other band members wanted to play stuff like “Stand by Me” during their prison-ministry gigs — so Pruitt quit.)

    I have to agree that there ought to be room for both kinds of music-by-Christians. I don’t buy the idea of a one-size-fits-all calling for Christian musicians, either into CCM or out of it. Lots of old CCM’ers have lost their record contracts to younger bands and gone the indie/DIY route so they can keep playing. I think that’s a healthy thing, and I hope it eventually makes the CCM industry irrelevant. There’s something to be said for following one’s calling without having it corrupted by a bunch of airbrush-wielding image consultants.

  • The Cubicle Reverend

    By the way, I heard some songs by “Arcade Fire”. I’ll have to get back to you on this one. It is so textured and mult-layered I do not think I can give it an honest review just after one listen.


  • The Cubicle Reverend

    How can we go from the renaissance to CCM? We were the artistic community. But CCM and so many of the other books and movies, etc. that come out in christ’s name are trite, are quite frankly nonsense. We should be embarrassed. The quality of work is poor at best. Bach wrote divine works that included many subjects. As a Christian who writes poetry I feel that my work should reflect my faith whether overtly or not. I write about what I feel God is leading to write about (death of a parent, meeting old friends, my loss and regaining of my faith) and even my non-christian friends have told me I express that. CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, TS Eliott also very capably expressed this through literature and poetry as well as apologetics. It is time we took our heads out of the sands and stop sequestering ourselves. You’d be suprised at what people will get into. For a while I did stand up comedy and a comedian I met asked me why I wasn’t talking about studying to be a minister. He was right, when I talked about that this very wordly crowd found it funny. Who would have thought?

    Plus, there are christian artists out there (Pedro The Lion, Over The Rhine) who’s work edifies me and makes me think about my faith, even though their lyrics do not always say God, but their work expresses their faith. We have limited how we view God and write or do whatever to please Him.

  • Thom

    Man…I wish I had spell checked that.

  • James Stewart

    Gabe – if CCM really did simply exist to perpetuate a sort of music that wouldn’t be accepted in the mainstream because of the way it “edifies the body, lifts God up in worship, and presents Bible truth in good lyrics” then I’d say you had a point. But CCM left those boundaries a long time ago. Even if we could put aside the theological triteness of much of its output (which in itself undermines all three criteria), a few minutes at GMA week will show that it has long since moved on to seeking to present an ‘alternative’ to mainstream culture.

    The crossover artists that Kate refers to in her article are helping to muddy boundaries that never should have become so clear, but there remains an attitude within CCM that involvement in that scene is a symbol of the “soundness” of an artist. Lately we are seeing more of a shift, as some of the CCM world tries to push itself into the wake of “coolness” left behind by artists like Switchfoot (not, mind you, Sarah, Bill, or Sufjan whose more independent spirit discounts them) but there is still a very strong in/out attitude forced out very hard through the many organs of CCM.

    And it’s precisely these boundaries that have undermined any chance CCM may have had of touching many of us with “bible truth.” That mindset has reduced much of the output of the CCM machine to artistic disaster, but has also twisted much of the content to a simple “God loves me if I love middle class american suburban life” refrain, which is about as far from edifying as it gets. There are spots of light, but they are usually beaten out or end up leaving the industry. Similarly it is all too easy for many of us to appear artistically elitist when we talk about CCM, when most of its key proponents don’t rate artistry as a central part of what they’re about.

    (we could also talk about how there is no real difference in approach, or indeed ownership, between “CCM” and “secular” labels beyond the demographic they’re marketing too. but that’s another conversation)

    If CCM were to redefine itself to reclaim the mandate you suggest, perhaps more of us who are otherwise “elitist” and “snobs” (because we aren’t comfortable with its insularity and the artistic degradation that has been born of that) would have time for what little was left of it. For a long time I hoped that would happen, but time has made me doubtful, and I increasingly suspect that the best hope is to burn it to the ground and see what emerges from the ashes.

  • Thom

    What really hit me about the counter balance was that he denounce the lack of a theological basis for Kate’s position…yet he did not provide any thelogical basis for his own. Mere quoteing of Bible verses is not the same thing as a scriptural and theological basis.

    Plus, he made sweeping accusation, used verses to back himself up that were not supported in any way. Frankly, while there may have been weaknesses in Kates peice, it was miles above the counterpoint in it’s logic and far closer to scripture than the reactionary clap trap of the counterpoint.

  • Gabe Syme

    I’ll start. How about a post to counterbalance both opinions? When I read the CT article, I detect a subtle undertone of elitism and, for lack of a more nuanced term, artistic arrogance. When I read the “this guy” response (his “diatribe”), there is nothing subtle about his judgmentalism and knee-jerk conservatism. Both made some good points, but neither in my mind was totally convincing.

    There is room in my secular-sacred world for both kinds of music created by Christians. What I object to strongly, though, is the implication that the music of artists who choose to perform outside of CCM is somehow more artistic and strategic than the music of those who choose to do so within the CCM. That is an elitist and arrogant attitude. You can latch on to a “this guy” diatribe now and then and imply that he’s representative of the entire CCM industry attitude, but that dog won’t hunt. Most average Christians never make that distinction, which is mostly made by critics, commentators, and academics. Average Christians are able to enjoy the music of CCM Christian artists, and non-CCM Christian artists, without making artificial distinctions about the quality or genuineness of the artist.

    For one, I am glad there is a Christian music industry that creates music that edifies the body, lifts God up in worship, and presents Bible truth in good lyrics. And let’s be honest. If it were not for the creation and expansion of CCM, secular labels would not now be open to artists with “Christian” or even spiritually sensitive music. My conviction is that the success of CCM not only created, but maintains by its presence the openness to artists that are not in the CCM mainstream. These artists owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to all those who have paved the way for them, and who create a larger marketplace that makes their music marketable. And let’s also be clear that not all Christians who go outside CCM are automatically better just because they can “cut it” in the “real” world. If CCM disappeared tomorrow and the secular labels thought they could make a profit, the market would be flooded with much worse than CCM has ever offered at its most commercially crass low end.

    Bottom line, I’m willing to put up with some cheesy CCM-style Christian music in order to get the really good Christian music that opens my heart to truth, lifts my spirit to God, entertains me, and motivates me to serve the Lord more fully. It’s the same compromise I make in the publishing industry, the periodical industry, the video industry, or any other media. I’m not willing to throw the baby (good CCM music) out with the bathwater (inferior CCM music). If it all went to the non-Christian, pagan-run, secular labels, I’m afraid they would eventually drown the baby and just give us the bathwater. I’m for good CCM artists, and for good non-CCM artists.