Friday, February 6, 2009

Christian Cultural Identity, part one

Rachel Gardner is a literary agent whose blog I read regularly. This morning, she posted about an e-mail she recently received, where someone who had come across her blog asked why she self-identified as a “Christian” on her blog about being a literary agent. She responded, but also invited others to comment. I’d like to offer my thoughts here.

The question-- and the answer(s)-- are a symptom of a problem that the Kingdom of God has had for some time now: is it good and right to have a “Christian” writer, musician, literary agent, artist, etc.? Why not simply have a literary agent? A musician? An artist?

Over the last several hundred years, a cultural shift took place that cemented our current environment with the above problem as a definitive element. Christians, perhaps offended at the moral/ethical degradation of society as reflected in such cultural artifacts as music, literature, art, and so on, slowly concluded that the best solution would be to offer a niche in each of these arenas that was intentionally and overtly “Christian” in its content. Thus, the industries of Christian sub-culture were born, and now we have Christian publishing houses, Christian music labels, Christian television networks, Christian movie studios...

[An aside: what is ironic is that, in the last several decades, most of these companies have been purchased by larger companies that are
not distinctively identified with a particular faith or religious group, but are-- shhh-- “secular” companies! Oh no!]

Now, everyone who has ever set out to defend this sub-culture to me has appealed to one of several angles:
  • It offers a good opportunity for evangelism of the lost
  • It provides a “healthy” alternative to secular media for Christians
  • It fulfills biblical concepts of work, creativity, etc.

I would put it to you, however, that, if it does any of those, it does not necessarily do them well. Rather, it may be the case that this sub-culture often does NONE of those things!

Let me offer an example: when I was in college, a good friend of mine had come to faith recently enough that her tastes in music were still largely untouched by her perceptions of how to practice her faith. I recall overhearing a conversation that she had with an older student who, at the time, worked for a Christian bookstore. He was counseling her about what music to listen to, and encouraged her to “try this band, they sound like
X, and this band sounds like Y...

At one point I asked her: why don’t you keep listening to the bands you like? She said, “listening to them makes me angry.” So I suggested, could it be the form of their music-- the sound, style, pace, etc.-- that affects her mood, at least as much as the content (lyrics)? She confessed that she didn’t actually pay that much attention to the lyrics. Why, then, would she want to find a “Christian” version of the same anger?

The problem with my friend wasn’t that she was seeking change to better live out her faith. It was that the change she was seeking wasn’t
enough. She was interested in keeping just enough of the “old self” (Eph. 4:22-24) to be comfortable, but just enough of the “new self” to make appearances. She wanted change, but not too much change.

Is this sort of music a tool for evangelism? Perhaps in a weak, bait-and-switch way, since you’ll surreptitiously slip “good” content (in the lyrics) in using familiar styles of music-- assuming the two don’t contradict each other, or that the listener pays close enough attention to the lyrics (and that they are well-written enough!) to actually get the message. But I doubt it is “healthy” for a Christian, as I suggested above. (I’ll address the biblical concepts of creativity and work at a later point.)

[Another aside: I’m not at all endorsing a perspective that certain kinds of music are inherently bad or evil. If that is true, I don’t think we can consider ourselves to be fair and objective measures of it. Rather, let me highlight that music is a highly emotive art form, and it evokes real and distinct responses from people; if the music you listen to causes you to stumble into a sinful attitude toward others, simply changing the lyrics is unlikely to help-- unless, of course, you’re listening to hymns that are full of bad theology and sinning in that way...]

Of course, the alternative in the Christian sub-culture is no better. In contrast to the “sound-alike” artists and bands, a good bit of what is marketed as “CCM” (=Contemporary Christian Music) is musically and lyrically poor, something like a mix of Muzak with bubblegum pop and a dash of lounge act thrown in. This may actually be the preferred style/genre for some, but I haven’t met them. Rather, most people I have known who listen to this style of CCM do so out of a sense of obligation. Certainly, it fails in terms of any evangelistic effort-- non-believers won’t subject themselves to it! But it also fails in terms of offering a “healthy” alternative, as it is something like the spiritual equivalent to diet pills: they taste bad, and while you will lose weight, you’ll also mess up your system while denying yourself the right enjoyment of creative and well-prepared meals.

In other words, in the search for change through “Christian” music one typically either finds too much change (where the actual inherent quality of the music suffers as a result) or not enough change (where there is too much latent worldliness and unholiness to accomplish the goal of holiness and sanctification). You rarely find a winning combination there.

This is why Michael Horton once said, “When people become Christians, they throw out all of their secular music; when they become [theologically] Reformed, they throw out all of the Christian music!” He affirmed in that statement that the sub-culture approach to music offers little help to the thoughtful, intentional Christian.

But what of the many musicians who are Christians, writing excellent music and lyrics and recording good songs about real life-- but who don’t feel the need to distinguish themselves as overtly “Christian,” either in their identity as musicians or through their musical content? Not that they hide their faith, or put on pretense; rather, their perspective is that if their music is good, they are fulfilling their calling as musicians and as Christians. (Now we’re beginning to dip into the biblical mandate for work and creativity...)

In my next post on this subject, I’ll take that topic up.

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