I think the last time I blogged about anything, I banged out some lyrics to songs that had come up in my playlist, but I only referenced one song – Derek Minor’s Change The World (with guest Hollyn). Here’s the song with lyrics for the uninitiated. (I’m not typing it out.)
It came up again tonight (I swear my playlist isn’t that short), and it had me thinking about a critique I’d heard from several different quarters lately – people I respect a great deal (as well as some others). The problems with contemporary Christian music (or CCM) are two-fold: the musical theory is too simplistic, and the theology is, too.
We all have gateways to the transcendent, and for each of us they’re different. For many, being in nature can help you feel a super-rational connection to the divine; for some it’s being in a holy shrine or place of worship. For some, it’s reading; for others, it’s writing. For some, it’s classical music; for others, it’s ocean waves.
Contemporary praise and worship music is such a gateway for me. (I must not be alone, or else it would be a non-genre.) I will be the first to admit that I’m not a musician and definitely not a music theorist. I can sing, loudly if not well. I can often carry a tune, although not with great range or sophistication. If a million chimps with a million typewriters would eventually bang out a Shakespearean sonnet, I can probably beat them to the punch of playing the melody line of a song on a piano. Musically, I am happily mediocre.
I could not care a whit about music theory. I’m attracted to voices and sounds for reasons I can’t explain. I seem to like them uncultured and unpolished: I’ll take David Crowder or NeedToBreathe over Josh Groban. (I used to have secular pop references, but I honestly haven’t listened to secular pop music in two decades or more, except for the occasional stadium rock (Seven Nation Army, say) or oldie (Brown Eyed Girl).)
So if the critique of CCM is that it’s musically simplistic, well, I can’t fight you. That’s like telling me my Italian sounds more like it’s Venetian than Neapolitan: I will just have to take your word for it and be grateful that I’m in the game at all.
But the theology, there we can talk. The critique of most CCM is that it espouses a too-cheery theology. It’s like anti-country music; everything works out in the end. I understand that this is often so, (though not always), and I understand why that is problematic in our complex world. I have struggled in these electronic pages with the problems that a too-easy theology leads us to. I understand that the ending, in this world, is not always happy for the Christian, and in fact, if we are truly following Jesus in standing with the marginalized, we are likely to end up much closer to the original apostles (all martyred) than Joel Osteen (decidedly not martyred).
So why do I listen to such theologically stunted lyrics? Let me spin out a couple points on this:
- We’re not the first to go down this road. I was part of a group that, as part of it’s reflection, read Psalm 1 this week. One of the self-proclaimed least formed Christians hit the heart of things quickly: “It says the evil are like chaff that are lost in the wind. But when you think about the shooter in Las Vegas…” The cheery “everything works out in the end” theology of CCM isn’t very different from that of the psalmists. If I need to add some context, it’s that this is a theology of hope, not current observation. The meek are gonna get what’s coming to them by and by, not that there is any evidence to support that. If you think the evil are going to amount to nothing, it’s based on an understanding of what true and eternal happiness is that isn’t reflected in what you see on TV. That’s for sure.
- My soul needs the balance. This has been a week, although truthfully, every week is like this if you pay attention. On Monday I read about older people trapped in a Kafkaesque hell by predatory professional guardians, and I also read about the increasing likelihood that you will die alone. On Tuesday I read about a sexual predator who was lauded by our culture’s powers-that-be and unhindered in his devastation for decades, a company that runs camps for juvenile offenders that led to multiple deaths, a system of juvenile justice in a major US metro that systematically victimized those it was charged to restore to wholeness. On Wednesday, I read about natural disasters that killed a couple married 75 years and are slowly jeopardizing the lives of an island of 3+ million people. On Thursday, I read about the genocide of a people by Buddhists, for gosh sake, including the testimony of a 20-year old whose 18-month old was torn from her hands and thrown into a fire, then dragged off to be gang-raped while her parents and siblings were killed in the same place. Usually, God’s prophets bring a message of warning, like Jonah or John the Baptist: repent or else. But sometimes, things suck so bad that God’s messenger has to say: it sucks now, but I swear you aren’t forgotten. Read the news these days, and you need that prophet to appear.
If you’re prone to agnosticism, or even the mildest of skepticism, this sounds pretty dang fishy. So you’re saying your God is tough when you’re strong enough to take it, but mushy when you’re in a bad way. Uh-huh.
But, look, is that not what Love does? When my wife or daughter or friend is confidently wrong, I can nudge them back toward the path. But when they are lost and broken-hearted? I have to encourage first.
I get that music can be a vehicle for both movements of the human and divine spirit. If you think I’m a musical simpleton for soaking in God’s goodness through music in uncomplicated tunes, I’ll plead guilty. The complexity of the world is enough right now, and I pray in hope of the day when it’s music that challenges me instead of the news.