Why is “Christian” Music so Awful?

A friend of mine used to quip, “When you’re talking about Christian music it’s pretty safe to substitute ‘bad’ for ‘Christian’.

Who hasn’t had to endure a Christian rock band or sit through a worship with some aging trendy strumming a guitar and inflicting folk music or light rock on everyone?

Why is it that so often Christian music is so awful? I think there are a couple of reasons. The first is that the musicians and their audience mistake a worthy message for talent. Then they get a martyr complex if they’re criticized. “You’re obviously not very spiritual if you can’t enjoy my music!  The second problem is that the audience are often either totally uncritical or they haven’t the ability to criticize intelligently. Too often the audience actually like the crap that is being dished up. The third factor is that market forces are usually not in play. Market forces often have a surprisingly sharp and salutary critical effect. Market forces weed out the junk, but in the Christian market they’re doing it for love, not money, so no one is telling them to get off the stage ’cause it won’t sell.

These are all the practical problems. There is, however, a deeper problem. Christian popular music is almost always pretty bad, but  the problem with most “Christian” music is that it is secular music with Christian words. In any decent art style and substance are supposed to match up. The meaning and the media are supposed to harmonize.

Most “Christian” music is taken from the secular world. Whether it is the music of Broadway musicals, Country Western, Las Vegas ballad crooners or light rock or heavy rock and roll it’s secular not sacred. When you then add sacred words to the secular music there is a natural disconnect. That’s why so much Christian music (even when it is well written and well performed) doesn’t really work. Oh sure, people might like it. They might even have nice feelings about Jesus by listening to it, but the secular music was designed to produce certain types of feelings, and why should those warm sentimental feelings or hard emotional feelings be linked with worship?

We might like listening to Christian country Western or a sweet Broadway type ballad about Jeezus or we might get all hyped up listening to Christian rock, but is it worship? Is it really inspiring us to draw closer to God? Is it really deepening our spiritual life or is it just music we like which makes us feel good and it makes us feel even better because it talks about Jeezus too? Forgive me for being cynical, but think about it. The worst example is Christian Rock music. At the risk of sounding too puritanical, rock and roll music was, from the beginning highly sexualized, laden with rebellious, heavy and nasty rhythms linked with the drug culture–designed to alter consciousness and demolish self restraint. The acid rock and heavy rock was also obviously linked with an occult and demonic sub culture.

So you want to put cozy Christian words to all that? To my mind that’s like putting a gospel tract inside a porn magazine.

The same criticism applies when the musical style is not quite so bad as acid rock. You name the popular secular style–the music wasn’t written to deepen prayer, lead to worship or open the soul to the sacred. It was designed to produce shallow emotions about love and romance at best, and lust and sex at worst. Pope Benedict XVI comments on this in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. He acknowledges that down through the ages this has been a recurring problem in the church. Sometimes the hymn writers put Christian words to beer drinking songs. At other times they adopted the popular operatic style. Now they adopt light rock, hard rock, and virtually every other secular style.

The antidote is to be more aware and appreciative of sacred music. There is a kind of music that on its own–even without words–is designed to open the mind and heart to the sacred. Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony which evolved from it–is the music of worship. Especially in the liturgy this is the music which we are supposed to use because the music lends itself to worship. It opens the heart and mind to a new dimension and reveals the spiritual aspect to our lives in a way that secular music with Christian words does not. That’s what sacred music is. What is required is catechesis about this music and an effort to appreciate it. Truly sacred music is an acquired taste. It takes some effort. It also takes some effort to produce it at a good and worthy level.

The problem in most mainstream Catholic parishes is that they’ve had nothing but crap music in church for as long as anyone can remember. The people actually think its okay because they have never heard anything else. They take on board the blend of muzak, Broadway tunes, folk music and light rock thinking that this is all there is. Then if they ever do hear Gregorian chant or sacred polyphony they hold their ears and say, “Geesh, why does Father want to bring in all that gloomy music? We’re outta here.” Alas. Its true.

Does this mean that Christians should listen to nothing but Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony? Is that all we should ever use in the liturgy? The purists would say so. But I’m of the opinion that we have to work with what we’ve got. We have to meet people where they are and move on from there. Chant and polyphony are the foundations of the music we should use. In addition to this we have the library  of sacred hymns (and there’s enough there to warrant another blog post completely) the worthy ones of which will serve to complement the words and actions of the sacred liturgy.

If that doesn’t please you–I guess you can always enjoy Jesus is My Friend…

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