Friday, September 25, 2009

Redefining mediocrity

The last post I made drew much praise from my friends and family, for which I am very thankful -- it is nice to know I am not alone in wanting to fill the God-shaped hole in a lot of contemporary worship music with something other than countless mentions of Jesus' name, as if churchgoers perpetually forget where Christianity originated. (If you haven't seen the South Park episode that lampoons this particular cliche, weep under your bed in shame for an hour and then watch it.) Nevertheless, as I had somewhat expected, my opinionated essay did draw the ire of one of my buddies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

This particular friend of mine called me a music snob, and I would be lying if I said I didn't smirk a little (OK, a lot) on the inside. She doesn't see anything wrong with David Crowder, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin or Hillsong United, and explained very rationally that music is merely supposed to enhance the worship experience, not stun you with its musicianship and/or originality. I can totally understand where she's coming from -- I'm also of the opinion that a church service is nothing without a powerful, nourishing, Scripturally sound message. But since when does the transforming Christian message have to be relayed in the context of terrible music? I still don't understand why artistic creativity and Biblical tradition have to mutually exclusive, which I think is the unfortunate message being sent by most contemporary Christian music of the past decade.

But we can't just blame it on the Chris Tomlins and Hillsong Uniteds of the world. For as long as I can remember being at least aware of the Christian music scene -- from roughly 1995 on -- I have detected an utter lack of discernment among many of its listeners. There wasn't really much of a difference between the people who listened to Jars of Clay's lite alternative rock and those who listened to Five Iron Frenzy's ska-punk. The people who blissed out to Michael W. Smith's lengthy, sobering worship performances tended to also mosh at 30-minute Beanbag concerts. There is certainly nothing wrong with musically diverse tastes, but that diversity tends to stop at a certain point; I don't know a lot of people who listen to the jazzy a cappella group Take 6 and also listen to the jangly pop of Sixpence None the Richer, which is actually heartbreaking evidence of Christian music industry's interminable racial divide. (Again, another post for another time ... )

But disregarding stylistic diversity, the thing that still baffles me is that so many Christians can't seem to tell the difference between high and low musical or lyrical quality -- something I don't think you necessarily need to enter seminary or take a music appreciation course to learn. There is an overwhelming tolerance for mediocrity among Christians. If it's about Jesus, they're into it, whether it's as amazingly profound and passionate as Larry Norman and Andrae Crouch or as irredeemably awful as Creed. (Yuck, I need a shower after typing that.) This seems to be an indirect application of God's unconditional love toward music, which I will applaud for its good intentions. But when God through Christ commanded us to love another, I don't think he was giving us an excuse to create or experience poor art. Like any influential band, I'm sure the Jesus Jam would be embarrassed to know their music inspired some terrible musicians that completely torpedoed the point of their music. (Case in point: Pearl Jam > Creed -- yeesh, I need to stop typing that!!!) And I'm sure they would also be horrified to learn certain fans weren't getting the point either, much like Nirvana's completely unintentional appeal to jocks and rapists.

If anything, I think the Bible indicates that putting time and effort behind one's art is quite pleasing in the sight of the Lord. Take this rule for Christian living from Colossians 3:23: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men ... " Or this saying of the wise from Proverbs 22:29: "Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men." Perhaps that latter quote could be facetiously interpreted as a diss on the indie scene about two to three millennia early, since that whole subculture is all about obscure men (and women). But then again, it could be taken as a promise for the afterlife, as many unabashedly Christian artists who languish in obscurity on this frighteningly secularized Earth will be named among the kingdom of heaven's rock stars.

Either way, the point is clear: However you serve God -- through art, preaching, mission work, science or otherwise -- you are called as a disciple to give it your all. The Jesus Jam were asked by Awesome God to do plenty of research on how "The Word" was written, and how to make the tune's very best sections count like no one did before them. All of this so that when they performed that brilliant concert as reviewed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it didn't just come across as a band playing another passionless tour date on one of their off nights. This concert was raucous, sweaty, uplifting, energizing and unforgettable. Everyone who got the Jesus Jam knew they had performed the best concert of all time.

With all this talk about fighting against mediocrity, I feel I should offer my own definition of the term: Mediocrity has nothing to do with technical skill and everything to do with creativity. There have been plenty of very good musicians who created utterly bland music -- heck, as much as I hate Creed (UUUUGHHH!!!!!! I'm going to claw my eyes out ... ), I can still acknowledge their guitarist is quite skilled at his instrument. But a bad song played well is still a bad song. On the other side of the spectrum, there have been numerous musicians who could barely sing or play their instruments but made some great music out of sheer enthusiasm and ingenuity. All one needs to do is listen to the best early rock & roll, punk rock, hip-hop or experimental music to discover this truth. These artists redefined the idea of what constitutes good musicianship. There may be nothing new under the sun, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't explore some of the shady spots.

For this reason, I like working with musicians who may be relatively inexperienced but have the creative drive to worship God with all their heart, soul and mind. I have drawn some criticism for adopting this approach from people who adhere to the more traditional definition of musical mediocrity as technical ineptitude. These people want their worship experience to be a big, tight, clean, pitch-perfect production -- in other words, they want it to sound like all the other Chris Tomlin and Hillsong United soundalikes. I understand that some Christians want that out of their church services and I respect their preferences, but I don't plan to conform to that trend anytime soon. Personally, I equate the desire for super-polished Christian music as a quest of sorts to equate the perfection of God when an essential and inevitable part of our existence is our imperfect, sinful, perpetually broken nature. I'm not saying we as performers of "The Word" shouldn't fine-tune our skills, but we also shouldn't fine-tune them to the point of sounding like every other popular performer. We are a cluster of varied yet complementary notes, not just a series of drones.

On that note, I would like to end by saying thank you to all the musicians at Esperanza Lutheran Church for remaining patient with my busy schedule and occasional disorganization, and more importantly for continuing to offer their numerous talents and ideas to our 10:30 a.m. versions of "The Word" and beyond. And I would also like to extend that gesture of thanks to any Christian who has ever strived to be different in the face of conformity while staying true to their core beliefs. It can be a hard balance to achieve, but you give me hope that someday we shall overcome this crippling blanket of artistic and theological mediocrity. God deserves way better than what He's been getting lately.


  1. Music in the church is always on a pendulum. It swings back and forth between the extremes of presenting the singer dense theological text with bland supporting music to stimulate the mind, and simple repetitive text with aurally pleasing music to encourage a trance-like stimulation of the emotions. I think the best music is created during the short times when the pendulum is in the middle, but there is usable music being created at all points, as long as it is used appropriately.

    On the topic of accepting musical mediocrity, I would point out that this is more of a cultural issue than one confined exclusively to Christians. The music industry as a whole has very little quality control and people grow up being told that musical quality (along with everything else in life) is entirely subjective. The "God-inspired" attitude of music in the church simply compounds the issue (not to mention the whole "make a joyful noise" directive).
    When this topic comes up I'm always reminded of this passage from "The Philippian Fragment" by Calvin Miller: "I remember a sister who read the poems of Ovid and felt that she herself was a great Christian poet. In her zeal she would read selection after selection of her work in the assembly and after each reading, she would demurely say, 'The Holy Spirit gave me this poem; I take no credit for it of myself.' There was a widespread belief in the fellowship that the Holy Spirit didn't want the credit for it either."
    Really, the only way to drag people out of the mediocrity is to gradually present music that is good and subtly point out what elements make it good. Then people will start to notice the lack of the good elements when present with mediocre music.
    Finally, whenever the state of church music gets me down, I always think of the ways it could be worse. Some denominations don't believe in music in the church. Or worse, I read an article from a theologian who said that music in the church should be written to be entirely unlikeable so it would provide a contrast with the rest of the musical culture around it. Yeah, no thanks.

  2. I totally agree that changes in musical style within a church (hopefully to perpetually better music) should be gradual. If you unleash a ton of unfamiliar material to a congregation, all you'll do is alienate them. But if you present new styles gradually over time, they will warm up to it eventually.

    I'm of the opinion many music ministers underestimate the intelligence of their congregations and therefore stay within safe, inoffensive and very repetitive boundaries. But I agree that it probably could be worse -- the idea that Christian music SHOULD be unlikeable by any other musical standard is just stupid, and I can't imagine worshiping God without the vital element of music. A lot of people seem to take that element of worship for granted, but songs of praise have always been essential to the preservation, spread and sheer power of nearly every religion I can think of.