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"Christian" music

Is it just me or does it seem that the best songs about God and spirituality are the ones played on secular stations? Is it the cheesed-out triumphalism, the one (or ten)-step behind cultural “coolness” or the dripping inauthenticity that seemingly accompanies much mainstream Christian music?

Some might counter, “How can you say that? You don’t know them.”

You’re right. I don’t. I don’t need to. Their music tells me everything I need to know. It tells me that, for many, it’s about income more than artistry, about “catchiness” more than sound theology, about how it makes you feel more than how it makes you think. Sorry I’m painting with such a broad stroke. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, there are those who’s artistry and theology aren’t compromised by selling a few CD’s. Yes, you can sing a song that both moves you and makes you think. The only problem is that these guys (and girls) are exceptions to the rule – square pegs in a world full of round holes. Sadly, I find much more authenticity in the music of those who either don’t affirm Jesus or at least don’t do so as “Christian musicians in the Christian music industry”. What they offer is much more substantive and engaging than the overwhelming pablum sold in the music section of Christian bookstores.

Who are some people that fall into either category? I’m not giving any names. That’s your job to find out. Plug in Philippians 4:8 (ESV), “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things,” to a keen sense of discernment and you’ll do just fine.

Here’s an example. Take clips from these two songs about heaven. One from Christian band Audio Adrenaline, the other from Ray LaMontagne. First AA…

Its a big big house
With lots and lots a room
A big big table
With lots and lots of food
A big big yard
Where we can play football
A big big house
Its my fathers house

Ibidibidee bop bop bow whew! yeah!

Now it’s Ray’s turn…

All my heroes have gone to heaven
Where all them saints wear flaming shoes
The junkies and the whores are behind them pearly doors
I guess I’m going to go to heaven too

Now all my heroes have gone to Heaven
Let all them “Righteous Joes” take to shoveling coal
The killers and the cons
The pushers and the pawns
With halos, wings just hovering over paths of gold

So mama don’t you cry
When I’m dead and gone
‘Cause Jesus loves his sinners
And Heaven is a honky tonk

Now all my heroes have gone to heaven
The liars and the gamblers and the fools
The drunkards and the thieves
All wearing silk upon their sleeves
And every gal is like a silver pearl in bloom

So mama don’t you cry
When I’m dead and gone
‘Cause Jesus loves his sinners
And Heaven is a honky tonk

Now from what you know of the Bible and the Person of Jesus, which of these songs scream CHEESE and which has some weight to it? It’s not hard. At least it shouldn’t be. This is a pitch right down the middle. If you don’t know, find a solid church, get in a sound small group and have someone disciple you in the way of Jesus!

Of the two, AA’s makes me feel like I’m at that bad part of a church camp when the kids aren’t pumped up enough so the camp musician/rock star pulls out this oldie-but-goodie. The trivialization and me-centeredness of the song only reminds me of the syrupy, dishonest, shallow, consumer-driven music that makes up most of what I hear on Christian radio stations. I don’t think it passes the Phil. 4:8 test. I bet there are a few campers out there who’s best move would have been to gather up their “christian” music and toss it in the campfire!

LaMontagne’s song on the other hand makes me question how I see the mission of God in my life. It forces me to ask: Who did Jesus run after in his ministry? Prostitutes followed him, tax collectors dined with him, and he was known as a “friend of sinners” (cf., Mt. 11:19, Lk. 7:34)…people that you might find more at a “Honky Tonk” than a country club. Jesus was quite clear in Luke 5:31, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” What’s even more ironic about this song is that one of the ways you’ll ever hear it is probably going to a honky tonk. RL stands well outside the camp of the Christian industry. I don’t know if he is a follower of Jesus or not, but his music and the circles he runs in are very “secular”.

Isn’t it ironic that the more Christian song is sung by the non-Christian, secular artist?

I would hope that AA’s song was just an exception of their musical output rather than the rule. I wouldn’t know. But I can tell you this, this isn’t an isolated incident. Just turn on the radio to your local Christian station and apply the Phil. 4:8 test yourself. I think you’ll be surprised (appalled, ticked, angry, sad) as well. As for me, I’ll be looking for and listening to the square pegs in the Christian music scene as well as enjoying music outside that circle which reminds me of what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellence, and worthy of praise.

Ibidibidee bop bop bow whew! yeah!

P.S. – Ray sang this song on Austin City Limits and it’s definitely worth the watch!

Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

3 thoughts on “"Christian" music”

  1. Yancey, I realize I’m risking your wrath with this response. I want you to know I greatly respect you and find myself in awe of your intellect. I just don’t agree with your take on those two songs you posted. I do, however, agree with your premise, and whole-heartedly at that.

    Simply put, I can find way more fault with the Ray LaMontagne song than with the Audio Adrenaline song, if both are taken at face value and with the limited information I have about who the authors are and where they were coming from. While I agree the facts of Ray’s song are correct and the sentiment may be pure and noble, to me it glorifies living outside of God’s will. I know this may feel like a simplistic interpretation to you, but I would think the average Joe would get the same message.

    AA’s song may be way less sophisticated, but to classify it as me-centered is harsh in my opinion, especially when compared to Ray’s song. I’ve always sung the AA song with a feeling of celebration and invitation, of an impending party with those of us who are singing the song together. I would argue that a song shouldn’t be classified as unworthy based on only a few of the criteria that would qualify it as music. It should all depend on why you are singing the song.

    This is so uncomfortable to me to admit, now that I know how you feel, but I have led the AA song on a number of occasions at CCCC and it is one of my favorites. I know for a fact that it’s one of the student’s favorites. I just don’t think it’s necessary to throw out every song because it’s old. There are many songs out there that are more than 200 years old that still bring me to a place, like few modern songs can, where I am praising God and thinking of no other gods.

    I personally think you are way off when you say that the majority of Christian artists are compromising. I think most of these Christian artists are genuine lovers of God. They may not be great poets, or great musicians, but lack of talent or inspiration doesn’t mean that someone is giving less than all they have to give. It really means that they are more like the masses of believers who are, after all, the ones who are buying all of the Christian CD’s and listening to Christian radio. It seems to me you’ve given more of an indictment of the average Christian than of the average Christian musician.

    Man, I just read what I wrote and it’s so heavy. I’d love to be able to post this and feel like you’d take it as I intended it. i hope you understand I just wanted to shed light on a side I didn’t think you covered.

  2. Gucci Little Piggy

    What? Who is this mere mortal disagreeing with the incomparable wisdom of Gucci Little Piggy??!!! How dare you Scoopstew!

    Hold on one second and let me turn the voice enhancer and smoke machines off…

    Ah well, that’s better. Wouldn’t it be my luck that the first guy that offers a different slant on my stance happens to be one of our most solid (and beloved) volunteers who’s probably played “Big House” more than any other person at my church? God has a great sense of humor.

    First, you must know there’s no “wrath” here. The beauty of blogging is I get to say what I’ve got in my head and heart and everyone who can read can bring their opinions, beliefs and convictions to the table as well. Believe me, there’s enough room under the tent for disagreement on this non-essential issue.

    Just know that in the end I’m always right. 😉

    Secondly, my issue hopefully isn’t on the age of the music or how likeable it is – both are poor reasons to sing songs at church in my humble opinion. As a matter of fact I think having likeability as the driving force behind why music is done (see pop[ular] music) runs the risk of watering it down. I know that probably sounds musically elitist but I think it’s more true than not.

    While I acknowledge painting the CCM industry broadly, I don’t think it’s unfair. Unfortunately, I think the market-driven, secular corporation-owned “industry” has pushed many a great artist to the edges for some that give us less than the best. Let it be known that I hope my initial posting doesn’t question anyone’s hearts…only music. I also don’t buy the less talented, less inspired route. If it’s for God then it should be the best. J.S. Bach had it right when he posted Soli Deo Gloria on of his works.

    Maybe that’s why songs like “Big House” irk me so. It’s not that people don’t like it or that leaders can’t sing it with good hearts (they do). It’s just that it’s not our best. I humbly submit that it’s not even our good. When it comes to the Holy, what we say matters a lot because we’re dealing with revealed truth…truth that God wants us to know and love…whether that be for 5 year olds or 85 year olds. And songs that treat that which is holy in a glib, trite or inaccurate manner isn’t fit to be sung in church. That also probably sounds elitist (I’m getting good at that) but it really is just a quest to “rightfully handle the word of truth.” Frankly, we’ve got far better brushes and paints to describe who God is and the kingdom he brings.

    While I wish I was simply a Chicken Little whose “sky-is-falling” cry is only illusory, unfortunately the lamentable condition of mainstream Christian music is real. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Dan Haseltine of the oft-celebrated Jars of Clay, “Don’t be surprised by the contemporary Christian music industry…They have created a monster and now they do not know how to kill it gracefully. And even though it is a monster, most times its motives are to become a very good monster.” (Christian Retailing, May 2005)

    Okay, I’m done. Scoopstew you’re the best! I’m more than happy that you’ve voiced a different (and very welcome) view. Thanks for running the race with me, even if that means you’re jammin’ to AA and I’ve got some obscure guy pluckin’ a string or two on my Ipod. I couldn’t see CCCC doing it without ya!

    If time passes and these words written are wrong then I redirect you to the disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog may or may not be endorsed by GLP. What’s right he endorses, what’s wrong he doesn’t.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I must push the play button on my cassette recorder and air guitar to the rest of Stryper’s “To Hell with the Devil”…

  3. It’s funny how some songs can set us off. This really isn’t related to our current converstaion but something you said made me think about this. I remember a certain song that we sang back a few years at the church we grew up in that had originally been done by Nichole Nordeman. At the end of this song, on Nichole Nordeman’s version, she vamps and flows a lot, and it’s seems really spontaneous and genuine. I loved this song! Problem is, we had a female worship leader who insisted on singing the song, vamps and all, exactly like the radio version, and nothing I could do could disuade her. It was so robotic, it was distracting to no end. It absolutely ruined the song for me. It went from being one of my favorite songs to one that now makes me dislocate my shoulder trying to change the radio station as fast as I can. Mel says I need to get over it.

    Back to the main idea…I think I have an idea about where you’re coming from with the Christian music industry problem. Mel and I stopped listening to KSBJ for the last three or so years because it was driving us crazy. We’ve recently strated listening again, because we’ve noticed that they’ve started playing more worship music and less 20 year-old pop music. I just love driving home from work on my 45-minute commute singing at the top of my lungs.

    Obviously, this problem is not just relegated to the Christian music industry, as we see by the multi-million dollar lawsuit recently won against most of the major media companies. It’s been going on in radio since, well, forever. You would hope saner minds would prevail in Christian music, but i guess they’re all human, too.

    My own little piece of personally being affected by this industry compromise happened a few years back. I went to see the OU vs. Alabama football game in Tuscaloosa with a couple of friends, and before the game at the tailgate party (100,000 people, bands, food, ESPN gameday, Bear Bryant Memorial, etc.) I caught this band, Still Naive, out of Florida as they began to start their set on the main stage. There’s about 150 people watching and 1000 or so milling around not really paying attention. I stop, because I can’t help myself, as soon as they begin to play. These guys were incredible! Polished, creative, edgy, good looking. Before they were through they had at least a thousand people jamming the stage doing that thing with the one hand in the air that teenagers do, and jumping up and down. As soon as they were finished I scrambled over to their little folding table where someone’s mom and best friend were selling their CD’s. These looked like homemade jobs and I quickly snatched one up for $10 (it only had 5 songs on it). I was so excited! I couldn’t wait to get home and share it with Coop and Lil’Coop.

    When the boys heard it they loved it, and everybody I’ve ever shared it with has loved it. But this band never went anywhere. I was sure they were going to be famous. I found out it wasn’t for lack of trying, though, as I investigated their progress in the internet and found they had a Myspace site. They have rabid fans down in Florida and southern Georgia and Alabama, but they never made it past being a regional band. They broke up about a year ago to pursue new directions. How sad. They just couldn’t get anyone to play their music on the radio.

    My understanding is that this isn’t uncommon. Excellent bands and individual artists are out there that are only known in their hometown. It doesn’t automatically mean their music is sub-standard. It certainly means fewer people get to experience it. And I agree with you that we shouldn’t settle for less when there is so much good, even great, out there, especially when we are in leadership.

    On a related subject, I just wanted to give you guys some props. While it has been hard for me at times, coming from a Presbyterian background, to submit to our particular style of church leadership, you guys get it right almost all of the time. There’s so many decisions to be made, and so many things that can distract us all from what we percieve our mission is for our church in this community and the world. I have been so impressed with our team of elders and so happy these last 6 years to have you guys lead us. I truly thank you all for being so interested in the details and dedicated to the essential things that make carrying out our mission doable.

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