“Christian” Music, “Christian” Artists…We Should All Be “Christians”

Prior to the spring of 2000, it was very easy for me to find music I liked. I pretty much like anything with distorted guitars or a solo somewhere or other. I owned close to a hundred CD’s ranging from Aerosmith to Filter, from Metallica to Pearl Jam, from Pink Floyd to Smashing Pumpkins. But during my 1999/2000 year of college I began to realize I was not a happy person. In fact I felt downright depressed all of the time. And just ask Lyndsay, it is hard to be around a person like that. One day I was feeling very unhappy and I began to pray and then I began to cry. It was an illuminating experience. I believe I was shown something about myself that day. Music had always been a huge part of my life and often songs could express how I was feeling better than my speaking the words. That is still the case in many respects. That day I thought for the first time that perhaps the music I listened to was having a negative effect on me. Before I go any further, let me alay your fears: this post is not about the so-called evils of secular music nor do I believe that in order to be a good Christian you must give up secular music. I am just telling my story (as Aslan would probably say this is my story, not yours). So in 2000 I gave up listening to secular music.

After this I found that it was much harder to find quality music by Christian artists. I could not understand what the difference was. The instruments are the same, the chords have not changed, and the inspiration is higher and greater, so why was music by Christian artists so subpar? Ever since then I have had to really work for the music that I get my hands on. I have to seek out new artists which means scouring the internet at sites like Pure Volume and checking out the links sections of different artists’ websites. It can be tiresome but the benefit of discovering a diamond in the rough is worth the sweat. I have been able to discover artists who are Christians with a Christian worldview whose art puts to shame anything I have heard in the modern secular scene.

Now the more you learn about music written from the Christian worldview the more you begin to see a debate that seems only to exist within this realm. The label “Christian music” has come to be quite disdained by many Christian musicians. The rub seems to be that they feel that the label is limiting or that it puts them in a creative box. Now I can understand their plight to some extent. I believe that many Christian record labels and Christian radio at large have a misconception about what fans want…or would want if they knew what was out there. I have seen even the most cutting edge groups sign to a label like Forefront and by their third album they sound so overproduced and “popped out” and radio friendly that they are merely shells of the artists they started out as ( Third Day anyone?). Jars of Clay is perhaps the only veteran group I can name that has not succumbed to this phenomenon. They now release their music independently through their own Gray Matters label. This will help them continue to produce creative music free from the radio-friendly demands of a major record deal. PFR, though now defunct, is another group who throughout their career grew and matured as you would expect but they never sold out their sound or their style. Unfortunately all their dedication to excellent musicianship and hard work got them was minimal accolades and sparse radio airplay and most people have never heard of them. But they are one of the bands that I respect most.

Now I have heretofore been confused and even put off by artists who admit they are Christians but who avoid the Christian music moniker. I could not understand why they would want to deny who they are and, as artists, where they are coming from. A huge part of any kind of artform is self-expression. This has been the mantra of artists of every discipline time immemorial. Yet so many modern Christian artists do not want their music labeled as Christian music. This creates a problem for me because I am a Christ-follower first. And before being a guitarist, a pop songwriter, a rocker, or anything else I am a Christian. So it has been troubling to me when artists who are unabashed Christians will try so hard to shed the Christian label for their art. But now in a way I can understand the problem. The problem is actually on two fronts. First there is the secular world front. People who like The Wallflowers or Tom Petty would probably shy away from the likes of Andrew Osenga if he were to come out and say “hi guys I’m gonna play some Christian music for you,” despite the fact that a person who is fond of Petty and The Wallflowers would probably enjoy Osenga’s craft*, the Christian label may make them think “I am not a Christian therefore there is nothing in Osenga’s music I could possibly relate to.” However if you listen to the honesty and great storytelling that is in Andy Osenga’s songs you will see that just about anyone can relate to the things he’s discussing and he expresses himself within a Christian worldview without having to wear any preistly garments or get signed to Forefront Records.

The other front is that of the Christian music establishment. As I have mentioned before so many artists have had their creativity snuffed out for the sake of that next big radio hit or to perhaps make their songs more palatable to CCM Radio listeners. The truth is what is causing the Christian music industry in general and Christian radio in particular to have no impact on the world is the lack of diversity and no availability of diversity to the masses. I am a staunch capitalist. I believe in the division of labor and specialization. I also believe in a worldwide market because businesses are able to recruit the best and the brightest from across the globe thus causing higher quality output. Contemporary Christian radio always does one of two things: 1) it takes artists and only plays their songs which appeal to one demographic (middle-aged pop/adult contemporary fans) thus encouraging artists to write more songs like that so that they can get some exposure on Christian radio. This of course quells creativity. I actually heard a Mercy Me song (not that I am a fan) that used a raunchy electric guitar riff on the album, but the radio version of the song did not have the electric guitar part and the song was not the same. It was done for the sake of accessibility. And 2) CCM radio plays only artists which can easily fit into the category mentioned in #1. This marginalizes many artists that could have a wide appeal and impact if they were only given a place. Instead of pushing these artists aside, there should be Christian radio stations that give place to hard rock music by Christian artists. What if secular stations were like CCM stations? Every station on the dial would only play a handful of artists and they would all sound basically the same (I swear I can not tell the difference between Mercy Me and Big Daddy Weave). So if any of you out there plan on starting a radio station, remember…diversity is your friend. We already have plenty of stations that play Steven Curtis Chapman once every hour and Avalon on the half-hour.

It’s amazing how music affects people. Have you ever noticed how you can look at a slideshow and it may be impressive, but you add the right music and it totally changes how you feel about what you are seeing. That’s the impact music by Christian artists should have—we can look at the world and perhaps get a certain feeling about it (maybe even a bad one), but the right music, the right message can change how you feel about what you are seeing. I do not think I am overstating the point. I believe this is why poetry and music are used so much in scripture. It causes us to stop and ponder things longer and may even cause us to behave differently than we might otherwise have. I can not explain it but I know it happens. Music affects opinions, thoughts, culture, attitudes, you name it. On a Wikipedia entry about Jars of Clay I found an interesting statement declaring “In a 2002 interview with NPR’s Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday, responding to a question about the relatively subtle religious content of their music, [Dan] Haseltine [vocalist for Jars of Clay] said, ‘our songs … [are] not really there to explain our faith,’ but are ‘written about our life that is affected by our faith.’ Haseltine explained the decision to ‘shy away from … traditional religious language’ is a conscious one, in part to make their music more accessible to those ‘put off by religion’, and to ‘love people in a way that isn’t exclusive to simply people that understand the language of Christianity.’ Haseltine also stated that art can ‘make people feel what’s true rather than telling them (NPR Weekend Edition Saturday interview).'”

Josh H.

*I realize that such comparisons of artists are not always fair or accurate. My statement was meant to express only that I see all three artists, Osenga, Petty and The Wallflowers, as being in a category I would call roots rock/modern folk, and is not meant to say that they all sound exactly alike or that any one is trying to sound like either of the other two.


6 Responses to ““Christian” Music, “Christian” Artists…We Should All Be “Christians””

  1. 1 Matt
    March 6, 2008 at 11:36 am

    Just wanted to respond to one comment made in your post. You said “What if secular stations were like CCM stations? Every station on the dial would only play a handful of artists and they would all sound basically the same”…..I would argue that is the case…..radion in general has taken the same shove-it-down-there-throats-until-they-don’t-realize-they-don’t-like-it mentality, playing “artists” (there has to be a better term) like Fergie and Akon whose repulsive “music” (again, a lose term) can be heard at most any point during the day. So I agree with your assesment of the Christian music industry whole-heartedly…but I think the problem plagues all radion and “popular” music!

  2. March 6, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Well, the problem as I see it (and I borrow a lot of my ideas about Christian music from a book called At The Crossroads by Charlie Peacock) is that the word Christian was never supposed to describe a genre. The word Christian is supposed to describe a person who follows Christ. In an ideal world, I think that instead of having Christian music, you would have a Christian who plays adult contemporary music, or a Christian who plays rock music etc etc. But since Christian is now a word that describes a genre of music, it fails to encompass the whole diversity of styles that Christians can play and sing. That’s why Christian radio is so limiting, it not only describes the content that people want to listen to, but also kind of creates a genre that people who want to have a Christian message and get played on the radio have to fit in. (I hope that sentence made sense.) Anyway, it’s something that I don’t know how to solve, except to not have Christian music labels and for Christians just to have to make their music in the regular market. But Josh, I have been listening to a podcast called the Bored Again Christian, which I’ve found to be fun. It’s just like an hour long block of radio of Christian music that isn’t on a major label. I don’t always like the music that they play on it, but I always like a few songs on each show, and it’s introduced me to some good Christian artists that I would not have ever heard of otherwise.

  3. March 6, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    @Matt Stout: I am a huge fan of the bored again christian. It was on that very podcast that I discovered Andrew Osenga. In fact I wrote a blog post about it (search for bored again christian in my Search box and you should find it).

    @Matt Evans: You are so right. The same problem does indeed plague regular radio.

  4. March 6, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    Peacock’s views as mentioned by Matt remind me of what I was telling Josh a few days ago. “Christian” shouldn’t be thought of as a musical genre but rather as a lyrical genre. Some diehard CCM critics may deny even that, but although not all lyrics written with even explicit allusions to Christianity should be deemed as Christian in genre, it can’t be denied that there are some artists who are not supposed to sing anything but explicitly Christian lyrics.

    Unfortunately, the label “Christian” is thought of by believers and non-believers to denote the unfortunate musical genre that comes prepackaged with “positive, encouraging” words ripped from off your refrigerator door. That’s why so many believing artists who do not intend to be covert Christians shy away from the label: saying “it’s Christian music” sounds about as appealing to their target audience as saying, “it sounds like an unholy alliance between Michael Bolton, Bob Carlisle, and Pat Boone”.

  5. March 6, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    Oops. Reading your blog is definitely what made me start listening to bored again christian in the first place, and then I forgot and turned around and recommended it right back to you. That is embarrassing.

  6. 6 kev
    March 10, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    “(I)t sounds like an unholy alliance between Michael Bolton, Bob Carlisle, and Pat Boone.” – Steve

    That is absolutely frightening…

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