I have pretty wide-ranging taste in music, but until recently I didn't listen to contemporary Christian music. A friend called my attention to a song or two with pretty substantive lyrics, so I began listening now and then.
What has struck me pretty forcibly is how much of both the music and the Christian commentary on the stations that play the music indulge in an uber-personal and sentimental interpretation of the Christian message and experience. The relevance of the Christian message is focused squarely on the individual and translated in deeply emotional categories. There is often (not always, but often) no sense of a larger, cosmic narrative. No sense that God would be involved in the world if it weren't for "me."
Don't get me wrong. I think that an individual's engagement in his or her faith is extremely important. I believe that God is relational and I think that God loves us. But the deeply sentimentalist appropriation of those truths that reduces God to loving parent and cosmic bellhop is a disturbing reductionism. Gone is any sense of larger purpose of God, which embraces us, but isn't reducible to our personal concerns. Gone is the larger sense of a narrative that lends meaning to human life beyond our domestic concerns. Gone is the sense that the Christian message is anything more than divinely assisted therapy.
Although it would be hard to prove, much of this state of affairs is attributable to an intellectual movement called Romanticism. As an identifiable school of thought, it didn't last very long. Some estimates suggest that it really held sway no more than the last half of the 19th century. But its influence has had the half-life of uranium and it could be argued that we are still deeply under its influence.
You can hear it in the Romantic era's painters, like Caspar David Friedrich who argued, "the artist's feeling is his law." You can also hear it in Isaiah Berlin's observation that the Romantic movement gave expression to "a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals."
Whatever the merits of the Romantic movement, its central inspiration as Berlin describes it is hardly Christian. But having shaped the modern mindset, Romanticism has insinuated itself into the church nonetheless. Hence the content of a lot of Christian radio programming and much of what is offered from American pulpits.
Does that matter? Aren't we simply re-stating the Christian message in a way that is accessible to modern Americans? Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that.
The effort to address the Gospel to the needs of its audience always depends upon distinguishing carefully between packaging and substance. It is possible to redefine the Christian faith so completely that it no longer fairly represents that message. And there is much in the Romantic Christianity that is substantively at odds with the Gospel:
- A recasting of the Christian faith as a means of meeting your goals and satisfying your needs.
- A vision of God that is no larger than a desire to address your creature comforts.
- A view of the relationship between God and humankind that empties faith of all legitimate awe and wonder.
The list could be expanded.
The other problem is that the diminutive faith that emerges from wedding the Gospel and Romanticism is neither powerful enough to attract serious minded people, nor deep enough to provoke its adherents to a deeper faith. I've listened enough to "Christian" radio now to know that the narrative never changes. Deep faith amounts to little more than expecting yet more answers to the same kind of prayers.
After all, if life is "a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective," then why wouldn't God be as completely consumed with me as I am?