What is Christian Music? (The Very Short Answer)

What is Christian Music? (The Very Short Answer) December 10, 2013

This post really should be longer, and indeed there will likely be further installments on this topic to come. However, since I don’t have time for a longer installment at the moment, and since I’ve learned from wise advice and experience that the shorter posts tend to generate more comments anyway, this will be a short post. (But you have to provide the comments to prove my rule of thumb correct!) [Edit: Ummmm, assuming comments haven’t mysteriously been turned off, that is! Not sure how that happened this morning but it’s been fixed now.]

Kyle Boreing recently offered a well-worn answer to the question on Musicscribe, inspired by something he read from Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman. The nub of the rather vague quote Kyle cited appeared to be that “There is no such thing as Christian music.” Kyle clarified his terms a little better to concede that there can be explicitly Christian songs that deal with sacred themes and biblical stories, and on the flip side there are blatantly profane songs that are anti-Christian. This is trivially true. However, there remains in both his post and Foreman’s quote the same ambiguity that always arises in these discussions as between SONGS and MUSIC. On the one hand Kyle acknowledges  the obvious fact that songs can contain a clear pro- or anti-Christian message, and on the other hand he says, “To call one type of music ‘Christian’ over another type of music is like saying ‘This donut is more spiritual than that bagel’,” which seems to be going back to music qua rhythm, melody, etc. But then ultimately he wants to claim that a story-song or some other song that’s not necessarily explicitly Christian might be just as “Christian” in its own way as long as it isn’t offensive.
In my view, Kyle is limiting his options. He dislikes “labels,” so he wants to avoid using words like “secular” or “non-Christian” for music he considers good. But isn’t this, in a subtle way, accepting the stigma that’s been attached to those labels? Why couldn’t we reclaim them as neutral modifiers, thereby retaining the clarity they bring to our conversations about music? Because otherwise, we run into awkwardness.
Think about it: What’s your favorite wholesome pop song? Mine is “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Now, is it a Christian song? Well, despite the fact that some people bizarrely seem to see it as some kind of message from God to man (I have the Godtube videos to prove it!) not particularly, no. And that’s okay. On my ipod, it’s in the “Pop” genre, where I put all the mainstream pop music that I listen to. I also have a CCM “label” for my favorite CCM artists, which is also okay. Now, I could potentially go through and figure out which CCM artists are pop, which are rock, etc., and make giant pop, rock, etc. playlists with all the mainstream and Christian artists together. Sometimes, I do make special playlists that bring them together, like my Questions and Answers series. But I don’t feel like doing a big artist dump for each genre, because I like the “labels” I use. They keep things tidier, and they make it easier for me to match my mood. Most of the CCM I have is more thoughtful and contemplative (Chris Rice, Fernando Ortega, Rich Mullins, etc.), but mainstream, classic pop/rock is what I listen to in the car for fun. It’s not that one is inferior to the other, it’s just that they’re different.
And that’s my point: Instead of awkwardly trying to say “no music is Christian” or “all music is Christian,” or whatever Jon Foreman is driving at (I know YOU didn’t put it that way Kyle, so don’t say I misquoted you!) how about if we refine our terminology? Let’s keep the “secular” (or “mainstream”) and “Christian” labels, because they’re useful and clear, but let’s make a further subdivision within both categories: worthwhile versus not worthwhile. Yes, I said both. I will take my mainstream, secular pop/rock oldies over whatever schlock my local CCM station is belching out any day of the week. And in fact, we do so every day, my trusty ipod and I. Christian music isn’t necessarily good music, and vice versa. But, both ways of categorizing what we listen to have their place.
So that is my very short answer to the whole debate. Ultimately, I’m probably saying the same thing Kyle was trying to say, only more clearly. At least, close to what he meant to say. There are still a few loose ends here where I suspect we will part ways. For example, what of Christian metal and holy hip-hop? To hear my full opinion on those topics, you will have to stay tuned!
By the way, while I’m talking about Kyle, I’ll put in a plug for his Kickstarter campaign. He’s recording a new solo album and needs to raise 10,000 dollars in 52 days. This is his first in eight years, and it will be fully produced with all-new songs. But, he needs help from loyal fellow southern gospel fans like you and me to get it done! Bring a nickel and tap your feet (or something) here. 

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  • I gotta say, you explained it much better than I did!! You are correct in comparing individual SONGS to musical STYLES. I dearly love the SG music “style,” but there are indeed some songs that just leave me scratching my head. Same for secular/mainstream. I must say we pretty much agree on the argument.
    And THANK YOU for plugging my Kickstarter campaign!!

  • Sure. What are fellow SG bloggers for? 🙂

  • JordanP

    I could never, in good conscience, not give distinct labels to music, regardless of where it fell on the spectrum. That could be from my degrees in music, and having to spend so much time characterizing music. But, nonetheless, why would someone ever want to shed giving labels to music. Seems like that might just be a way to brush off criticism of some sort.

  • Well, it’s probably a reaction to radical fundamentalism on the other side, where every possible type of music must have a worldview attached to it. But nominalism obviously isn’t the answer.

  • JordanP

    I agree with you. That’s the unique thing about music. You don’t hear this argument about anything. Imagine hearing someone make the argument that classical French cuisine is more spiritual than modern western cuisine. Or a little closer to the topic, Surrealism is more glorifying to God than Impressionism. I just wish we could accept music, as an art form, for exactly what it is.

  • Well, I actually am going to draw the line at certain music styles as far as what’s worth redeeming and what’s not. And I actually think visual artwork could be a good analogy in some cases. I do say that realist art is a better art form than abstract art (especially when the artist is quite insistent on creating nonsense—White Field With Dot #1 and so forth), and since God is better glorified when the art is more excellent, one could say that God is more glorified by realist art.

  • JordanP

    I’m not disagreeing with you. I was simply pointing out that we never hear those arguments, and most wouldn’t even have a thought of that sort cross their mind. I have absolutely no problem pointing out poor examples for music. Every genre is riddled with it, SG being no exception. I’d actually go so far as to say that much of what is currently being offered in SG fits the bill of pretty poor music, but that is a totally different discussion.

  • Lydia

    Actually, I’ve heard lots of arguments of this kind about the visual arts. Maybe that just means I’ve moved in overly thinky circles all my life, but Francis Schaffer, for example, had lots to say about Christianity and the visual arts, and we used to have big debates about it in college–what styles were glorifying to God and such. Much like this debate about music. Literature, too.

  • Marcia

    Since no one has mentioned this in the comments section yet . . . forgive me, but to state the obvious:
    The difference between most other art forms and music (the kind we’re discussing here) is that music–songs, more specifically–have words.
    And that changes everything.
    Because songs have words, I think they must be evaluated/categorized differently than other art forms.
    The “music” of SG music (I’m talking melodies/harmonies/instrumentation/
    arrangements/methods of vocal production–in other words, everything BUT the words), for me, is not an “art” form I respect or even like to listen to (sorry, all you SG fanatics!). However, some songs still draw me in despite their musical deficiencies. The power of the message overrides my own musical preferences.

  • Aw, come on, I’m sure there’s some music made by southern gospel artists that you secretly enjoy. 😉

  • Pingback: Of Christian Metal and Holy Hip-Hop | Southern Gospel Yankee()