The New Path of Christian Music

Bands like Holy Soldier and Bloodgood were replaced by a new breed of culture-savvy evangelicals who highlighted brokenness and mercy over spiritual warfare. Groups such as Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer, as well as worship songs emphasizing meekness, brought a new era of kinder, gentler culture warriors. This integrational model of CCM best typifies those who seek to transform culture with a sort of obvious ambiguity. Put another way, while groups such as Jars of Clay are far from the "Jesus is returning soon" approach of the 1970s and '80s CCM, they are, nevertheless, unabashedly evangelical in their message.

But there remain the separational artists who try to avoid sullying their ministries by using the tools of mainstream culture (although separational artists are largely distributed by record companies owned by corporate monoliths). These musicians remain entrenched in a cause, one that is (at times) sutured to the twin towers of Christian evangelism and Christian nationalism. But this genre is shrinking, according to evangelical author and producer Charlie Peacock. Its demographic remains church youth groups and middle-aged evangelical parents.

Many young Christian musicians now avoid being pigeonholed by the CCM category. As inheritors of the culture war, these are skeptical persons of faith (even if evangelical) who hope to offer their own voice in the midst of millions—though not confined by what is viewed as the trappings of an industry built on false dualism and money.

Transformational artists seek out very different venues, hoping to produce art that is drenched in what they view to be authentically human, reflecting all the complexities and uncertainties of postmodern culture. In so doing, any attempt to transform society is merely incidental to their individual muse.

Certainly there have been general-market musicians who have held and voiced religious belief since the music industry was born; there is no shortage of pop stars thanking God for their respective awards. But these differ greatly from musicians who take religious belief beyond their music, while also remaining distant from religious record labels, Christian or otherwise. Since Bono waged war on poverty (albeit in his own way), the band U2 has become emblematic of what the future may hold for artists hoping to engage society and belief, while also enjoying mainstream success. Even Jars of Clay's previous entrenchment within the CCM industry has not dulled their ability to embrace humanitarian causes, espouse Christian belief, and engage the cultural mainstream.

This new paradigm is not, however, confined to mainstream success. In their heyday, the indie group Pedro the Lion garnered a cult-following from young, hipster, "Emo" evangelicals who sought a musical home unlike what had previously been offered. But lead singer Dave Bazan attracted criticism from various evangelical gatekeepers as he explored the very edges of Christian identity in recordings and on stage. In classic postmodern form, Bazan's quite public musings have blurred categories associated with both "Christian" music and Christianity. The result has been nothing short of a fundamental paradigm shift. Though Bazan is merely one of many examples of this shift, a pattern has emerged, one where Christian-based musicians often avoid gesticulating like old-time evangelists offering altar calls. Now, musicians of faith often entertain thoughts associated with postmodern theory, while holding to the practicalities established by Jesus. Groups like U2 established a sort of precedent, clearing the way for Dave Bazan, as well as groups like Camera Can't Lie, Switchfoot, Mutemath, and Bruce Cockburn.

Today's CCM is more diverse than the "Jesus music" of previous generations, in some ways reflecting the collapse of corporate record companies, the rise of "indie" music, and an ever-changing evangelicalism. These changes will continue as Christians become increasingly tolerant of those with whom they share a world. Progressive Christianity is charting new paths for those of faith who seek to create art that is both inclusive and world-changing. Christian musicians continue to write about the environment, famine, the third world, poverty, racism, sexism, sexuality, and the like. The culture war is not over. But its tone has changed.

6/8/2011 4:00:00 AM
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