Thursday, October 1, 2009

Christianity as a ministry, not an industry

I think any music nerd worth his or her weight in pop knowledge, good humor and/or weakness for cute love stories should see That Thing You Do! For those who have not seen the film, it tells the story of a fictional 1960s band called The Wonders. One of their songs, "That Thing You Do," starts out as a lovelorn, Everly Brothers-style ballad but the drummer, Guy Patterson, unexpectedly ups the tempo when they debut it live, forcing the rest of the band to play it as a jangly, ultra-catchy singalong in the Beatles/Byrds vein. One thing leads to another and this upbeat version of "That Thing You Do" eventually becomes a #1 pop hit. But when it comes time to produce another single, The Wonders' manager, Mr. White -- played by Tom Hanks, who also directed the film -- says that he wants none of the "lover's lament" dirges the group's primary songwriter, Jimmy Mattingly, seems to specialize in. Mr. White wants something happy, peppy and snappy to bring in more dough from fickle listeners seeking an instant hit fix.

I think this attitude could apply all too well to our brilliantly asinine contemporary Christian music industry. Much like Mr. White, these CCM suits are not interested in bands trying new things and developing artistically. They can't take that kind of business risk -- and trust me, the way they market these "music ministers" has little, if anything, to do with ministry and much more to do with making money. Just like the most shameless movers and shakers within the secular music ministry, they simply want to take the kinds of songs that have proven to be commercially successful in the past and reproduce them over and over and over again for returns that are unlikely to diminish (that is, until consumers move onto something else). There are quite a few CCM songs of the past decade that qualify as happy, peppy and snappy -- if not that, at least songs you can kind of dance to. But the CCM industry actually banks on the "lover's lament" material Mr. White so staunchly loathes -- the kind of lethargic, contemplative and anthemic music that sounds bearable and maybe even likable upon first listen but has folks like me nodding off and/or pulling my hair out by the 50th. I listen to this music and I can practically feel my brain fighting to retain all my vocabulary words besides "Jesus," "God," "holy," "praise" and "hallelujah." The Jesus Jam were never this boring.

I don't think the industry's higher-ups are entirely to blame for the sameness of most contemporary Christian music -- some fault must go to the artists themselves that produce this kind of stuff with the same guaranteed-hit expectations. But I don't think a lot of people realize that the Christian music industry has a disturbingly firm grasp on what counts as "real" Christian music and what doesn't. These industry standards have largely squelched the efforts of many Christian musicians who have tried to avoid cliche and craft work with honesty and nuance (including myself) to be heard by a larger audience. If you don't fit the mold, you are none of the CCM business' business.

In the book I cannot stop raving about, Body Piercing Saved My Life, Andrew Beaujohn writes about the Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, aka the Christian Grammys. He writes about the fact jangly pop-rockers Sixpence None the Richer were one of the prides and joys of CCM until they scored a mainstream hit with "Kiss Me." The song -- which appeared on the soundtrack to She's All That and made it to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 (!) -- is a very innocent request for a smooch under the "silver moon sparkling," and really contains nothing that would be considered morally offensive to most Christians. However, its commercial success and secular subject matter were enough for the GMAs to turn their backs. The group had officially gone to the dark side as far as these suits were concerned, and the song was deemed ineligible for a Dove nomination according to some then-newly written rules.

But paradoxically, in the Dove Awards ceremony Beaujohn attended (I believe in 2004), grunge-lite quartet Switchfoot were nominated for numerous awards. Like Sixpence None the Richer, Switchfoot made their name in the Christian music scene and then unexpectedly scored two Top 20 hits with "Dare You to Move" and "Meant to Live," rousing, lighter-raising anthems about overcoming life's sometimes crippling obstacles. I've admittedly only heard a handful of Switchfoot songs, but in that little nugget of their repertoire I don't recall a single mention of the words "God" or "Jesus." But their lyrics speak about love, forgiveness, generosity, unity, strength, peace and hope in the face of a discouraging, terrifying and hateful world -- a message that is consummately uplifting and only implicitly Christian. Through their music, Switchfoot don't tell you about how great Awesome God's rockin' tunes are; they simply play the tunes for you, and you are free to interpret them however you please.

Switchfoot won several of the awards they were nominated for that year, but failed to show up to accept them. The band has said numerous times in interviews that though they were on a Christian record label and don't shy away from playing Christian festivals, they prefer to think of themselves as "Christians by faith, not by genre." Artist or otherwise, I think this is a perfectly admirable way of conducting one's career as a Christian. The sad truth is most of society tends to tune out once they learn you're a Christian; all of a sudden, your opportunities for evangelism are very limited. But I think some of history's most effective evangelists are the ones who took a more subtle approach to performing "The Word" -- you have to really listen carefully to recognize the symphony's meaningful nuances, but the piece is still enjoyable to casual listeners who may not know who wrote it. Many obsessive readers get wrapped up in the fantastical details of The Lord of the Rings series without realizing its very Christian lessons on greed, perseverance and friendship, courtesy of Roman Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien. Numerous children and adults alike are delighted by the winsome songs and magical characters of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood without recognizing its appropriation of Jesus' command to love our neighbors as ourselves, courtesy of Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers (still the best televangelist of all time). A whole bunch of agnostic and atheist indie kids sang along with refrains like "He is the Lord!" simply because they enjoyed the stripped-down yet ornate beauty of Seven Swans, an album courtesy of Episcopalian folksinger Sufjan Stevens.

Still, I found it rather disappointing to read that Stevens now refuses to do interviews unless questions about his Christian faith are avoided. I understand where he is coming from -- as I said before, making your beliefs obvious can sometimes put off people who would otherwise give you a chance -- but I think there's a difference between tact and pandering. I can't help but wonder if artists like Stevens or Switchfoot play subtler variants of "The Word" because they seek mainstream or indie acceptance, rather than sincerely wanting to show intelligent, open-minded people what Christianity is really all about without alienating them. I think any Christian worth their weight in gold (and frankincense and myrrh ... sorry, I had to) must harness his or her calling as a disciple and apply that mission to everything they do in life, whether it be subtly or obviously. This is a ministry, after all, and music is certainly no exception to that rule.

When it comes to the idea of Christianity as a ministry instead of an industry, I don't think anyone epitomized that mission better than Keith Green. If Larry Norman was the father of Christian rock, Green was its first superstar. But that certainly isn't to say Green is responsible for this shallow mess we call the contemporary Christian music industry -- far from it, actually. Like Norman, Green followed his God-given calling to make disciples of all nations, and he did so with some pretty awesome music. Green's style was alternately boisterous and stately piano rock in the vein of Billy Joel, Elton John and Randy Newman (or Ben Folds, the logical conclusion of all three), and over it he sang unabashedly about what being a Christian is and what it isn't. He used Moses as an example for people who feel unworthy of performing "The Word," and Noah as an example for those who are criticized for wanting to join the symphony at all. He expressed gratitude to the Lord for giving him a second chance at life after recovering from drug abuse. He told jokes in between and sometimes during songs, amusing audiences by comparing Christians whose reverence to God doesn't extend beyond Sunday mornings (and Wednesday evenings) to people who visit a friend in prison once a week. And on that note, Green importantly and distinctively criticized those who fail to take their faith seriously, or lack any faith at all. Take this line from "To Obey is Better Than Sacrifice": "If you can't come to Me every day/Then don't bother coming at all." Pretty harsh words, but isn't that sentiment really what being a child of God through Christ is all about? It's OK and perfectly natural to go through rough spots, but His promise for eternal life is entirely dependent upon our devotion to and passion for Him. We are either diehard fans of Awesome God or we aren't, and Green never cared if he offended anybody by saying so. The Jesus Jam got ran out of town, so to speak, for performing what would eventually be acknowledged as the best concert of all time, so in the long run, why should we be afraid of other people's booing and hissing? Sadly, Green died in a plane crash in 1982, at the age of 28, but I'm sure Awesome God gave him a permanent slot on heaven's main stage. I hope to see him perform there one day.

I think much of Green's sense of ministry died along with him. All that most Christian musicians have now is a suffocating industry. It's an industry where Christian radio stations can play Christian bands' covers of U2 songs but not actual U2 songs since the Irish alt-rock group's faith apparently isn't obvious enough. (They have an unbelieving bassist -- HERESY!!!!) It's an industry where Derek Webb, former singer/songwriter for Caedmon's Call, has serious issues with his record label over the use of a single curse word on one of his albums. It's an industry where I don't think I can say I've ever seen a female singer who wasn't a pinup-style "babe," while conventionally unattractive male singers like Bart Millard from MercyMe and David Crowder can seemingly succeed without a hitch. And outside of music, it's an industry where Christians can be pumped with all kinds of harmless bookstore garbage, whether it's fluffy devotional packets, "WWJD?" stickers or Testamints. (Really, do we need Scripture on breath mints!!?!?)

To sum up this post (and really, the last couple of posts about my thoughts on contemporary Christian music), WAKE UP, PEOPLE. This is just another niche market that has little, if anything, to actually do with God. I don't think God has a favorite style of music; if He does, I would hope it isn't the blandly epic folk-pop that has all but consumed any other style being played on Christian radio stations or in numerous churches. And the idea that the "realness" of Christian music can be measured is absolutely absurd. Any version of "The Word" is real Christian music, regardless of tempo, mood, melody, skin color, technical skill, overtness or covertness. The only universal standard by which a performance of "The Word" should be measured is whether or not it inspires someone to join the symphony who would have never picked up an instrument otherwise.

In the aforementioned scene of That Thing You Do!, immediately after Mr. White demands another hit, Mattingly promptly steps up to the studio microphone, adopts an all-too-eager grin, snaps his fingers in a swingin' rhythm and intersperses giggling with a single sung-spoken phrase: "I quit ... I quit ... I quit."

For all who consume the many vacuous, Mr. White-approved elements of Christian culture, I urge you to quit. But don't ever give up on the holy essence of our Awesome God. If your performance is sincere, your unique version of "The Word" will be rewarded.

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