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Redeemer Church

Redeemer Church
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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Smoking CCM Radio Unfiltered

I should stop listening to Christian radio (the music, not the talk). I tune in to sing to some familiar music or maybe even find a good worship song to use in church that I haven't heard before, and instead I wind up getting mad. If I'm alone in the car, I am literally yelling at the radio. I'm fairly certain, if people have seen me as they drive by, they consider calling the authorities (or the white wagon with the bars on the windows).

Now this is a partial exaggeration (though I am embarrassed at the portion that is not). But I have, on more than one occasion, come home from work to rant to my wife about what I heard on the radio. At this point, if anyone is a diehard CCM fan, you may want to stop reading before I challenge one of your sacred cows.

It all started when, during a promo between songs, a chipper, female voice said "I like listening to K____ because I don't have to worry about what I'm going to hear". Now I try to give "Christian culture" the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the motives behind our entertainment and marketing, but I could not get this line out of my head. I try to give the benefit of the doubt, but all I hear is "When I turn this station on, I turn my brain off and just set to automatic intake". This flies in the face of the model we have in the Bereans who were commended in the book of Acts for "examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so".

I am making such a big stink for this reason (hear thesis statement): I would suggest that listening to mainstream radio with your guard up and your worldview filter on is safer than listening to Christian radio with your guard down. Subtle, bad theology is more dangerous to unsuspecting Christians than is blatant bad theology.

I don't walk into a Christian bookstore assuming that everything that I read therein will be biblically faithful and theologically true. Yet my impression is (and the radio spot would further suggest) that many people turn on the radio assuming that very thing. Let me give you just two examples of the subtle bad theology I'm talking about by citing two songs currently getting lots of play on the radio.

Brandon Heath has a song ready-made for the lighting of the unity candle at your next wedding in "Love Never Fails", borrowing heavily from 1 Corinthians 13. My gripe however, is that the song never mentions God or Jesus and contains the line "Love is the way, the truth, the life". Now I know, being generous in artistic freedom and theology, one could make an argument for that lyric. However we live in a culture where people already make the one to one assumption that "God is love" is equal to "love is God". This lyric, in my estimation, is at best a shaky artistic blending of theological ideas and at worst more fodder for the fires of "all we need is love, love is all we need". Far too many people already believe that love is the way, the truth, the life. Just watch any romantic comedy in the theaters today, love is their functional savior.

I have a similar complaint of my second example. Kutless is owning the airwaves with their song "What Faith Can Do", but the song never once answers "Faith in whom?" Indeed, at multiple points where they could have given the object of the faith, they seem to make faith itself or even the person with the faith as the key component:

"You think it's more than you can take, but you're stronger than you know"

"You will find your way, if you keep believing"

"When the world says you can't, it'll tell you that you can"

I want to give these artists and songwriters the benefit of the doubt, I really do. Kutless and other bands like them carried me through my teenage years and played a vital role in my brief musical career after college. I confess that I am probably overly critical and more than a little biased being a songwriter myself. I know that scrutinizing every line of these songs as I am doing comes across as bitter jealousy from one who failed to "make it" in a Christian rock band. One will say that, in the artists' defense, these songs should be heard in the context of the entire album. The problem is that CCM radio pulls them out of that context.

Where's the line between artistic freedom and good theology? The line between being faithful to a rhyming pattern and being faithful to the Bible? The line between writing a song that is catchy and subversive enough that it might just influence mainstream culture and writing a song that's just a spiritual sell-out? And would the Bereans ever say we "don't have to worry about what I'm going to hear"? I don't have the answers to any of these questions, but they do reflect my concerns.

For those with itching fingers, gear your responses towards these two issues: the theology in Christian music and our seemingly unfiltered intake of it.

I know this is coming across as more critical than I intend. I still love Christian music, still partially make my living at it, and will definitely not stop listening to the radio any time soon. I know I am holding most CCM artists and writers to a higher theological standard than they are intending (when they write and record) or expecting (when we listen). I am not making judgments about their hearts, in fact I have the highest of respect for many in the industry. I believe Christian music stands to make a bigger impact in many lives than any book or preacher ever will. This is precisely why my concern for the theology in the music remains.


Anonymous said...

Isn't this akin to saying a Christian painter must find a way to deliberately and literally put Christ into every work of art? Subtly paint his face into a few shadows, or scrawl a verse across the sky. Since when does an artist have to explain their work, or submit it to other's standards and scrutiny? "Just in case you wondering, I"m talking about Jesus. Here I'll make it easy for you, and just say His name in every song, in case you aren't bright enough to figure it out." Or, "I'll just only paint scenes from the Gospels, how's that?"

I'm not coming to the defense of shady theology and in fact, I despise and loathe all things "CCM" including those new "worship" songs you're flipping through the channels trying to find. My point is, rather, that this all seems to stem from some presupposition that the whole goal of the songwriter is to make it clear that they are Christians. When did art become about evangelism? Why must it be so utilitarian rather than a celebration of the God-given ability (and biblically speaking, IMPERATIVE) to create? And do you really think the non-Christian listener who haplessly stumbles upon a CCM station is really so stupid that if you sneak Jesus into a song that mimics one of their favorite bands, they'll somehow become more susceptible to the Gospel? Insulting.

Perhaps I misunderstood your point, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but I came away from this with the sense that songs are a utilitarian means to present "biblical theology" and nothing else. Perhaps you should just stick with talk radio.

Anonymous said...

Bare with me Jared, I'm a little confused. Is you're beef with the radio station programers that decide what gets played or with the musicians themselves? Or both?

Jared said...

I agree with you more than you know. I am not suggesting that Christian music must be one dimensional (all about evangelism). In fact, when I was in a Christian rock band, we were writing things that were intentionally vague and "artistic" to gain a wider audience and be challenge with something more than just straight forward theology.

My issue comes with songs like the ones cited where they use blatant theological references and ideas that are so vague or artsy in one specific area ("love is the way, the truth, the life") that it lends itself as much to heresy as to anything else.

I will be the first to advocate Christians writing songs with strong, blatant theology, and other Christians writing subtle, artsy songs that may subvert the culture. But when a song decides to be of the blatant theology sort, the decision should also be made to be precise in ones theology.

And Anonymous2, I don't want to come across as having a beef with anyone, and perhaps it's my fault I came across too strong. I believe that every Christian should exercise the due care and precision proportionate with the intended or understood level and depth of theology. This applies to every programmer, songwriter, artist, and consumer.

So while I am not saying that we should compromise Christian art for mere Gospel proclamation, neither should we compromise theology for artistry's sake when theology is our subject matter.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous2 here again. I see what you're saying and here are a few secular examples of the very thing that "I think" you are talking about. Look at MTV (music television) when was the last time you turned it on and saw any kind of music whatsoever? Also, take country music what is being played today sounds more like Bon Jovi than Hank Williams. So why would the Christian format be any different? I think people lose their way while attempting to streamline and perfect.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying Jared. But now, I must say, I'm puzzled. This talk of "subverting the culture," is strange to me. Do Christian songwriters really try to attempt this? When you were in a Christian band did you really try to do things intentionally to fly under the radar, as it were, and hope to blindside some unsuspecting listeners? Did you look around the musical landscape and say to yourselves, "Hey, that band is pretty hot right now, let's write a song like that, toss some vague but precise theology in there, and hope that they'll say to themselves, 'Those guys sound like my favorite band!' and thus, become more open to the Gospel"? If this is the case, that is completely absurd to me. And if this is not the case, what exactly do you mean by subverting the culture?

Jared said...

The idea of subversion is dealt with in some detail by Brian Godawa in "Word Pictures". A great book I would recommend to anyone.

By his definition, subversion is what Paul was doing in Athens with the Greeks and all the gods he saw them worshiping in the market place (Acts 17). He took ideas and concepts that they were familiar with and redefined them present his own worldview. It is similar to the idea of contextualization.

Let me say, that scenario is absurd. I hope every Christian artist is out to make original art, not rip off another band. And my band didn't try to blindside anyone, but we did try to present our worldview in a way that would come across without cramming it down someone's throat. But that being said, I hope every Christian artist is aware that music is a powerful medium and the Gospel is one of the highest callings we have.

There are some Christian musicians gifted at Gospel proclamation, others at making beautiful art simply for art's sake, and every point in between. All are necessary and good if they "do it all for the glory of God".