Wednesday, February 10, 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? Does being artistically free excuse one from being theologically careful? 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.

11 comments:

Bill Faris said...

First of all, I'm a CCM Dinosaur and I don't listen to any of the CCM stations and have no idea what is going on with the music these days. It never got better, in my view, than Randy Stonehill singing:
"We are all like foolish puppets, who - desiring to be kings - no lie pitifully crippled after cutting our own strings" and that was 1970-something.

However, to criticize a band for singling out faith and singing about "it" is nitpicky, in my view. Do you have a problem with the first couple chapters of Proverbs where the same thing is done (poetically) with wisdom "crying out in the streets"?

I didn't think so. Still, I am still trying to forgive Phil Keaggy for writing the lyric: "Now you're nobody's Playgirl now..." (I'm not kidding). Yet, I'm also still trying to forgive Andrew for hating my Chuck Girard albums so much, too.

Why should the devil have all the bad music?

Bill Faris said...

Oops. It's "NOW lie pitifully crippled". And while I'm at it, check out this oldie-but-goodie:

"The world is sleeping in the dark, which the church just can't fight, 'cause it's asleep in the light". Yep. (the late) Keith Green.

scrapiron said...

I never was a fan of CCM, mainly because you cant differentiate it from worldly music. It's a big, big, money making thing. The artists become idols with their showy album covers, their concerts, where the 'fans' glorify the artists as pop culture glorify's their idols.
The advertisers tell you the that the music is great worship music? Get the message out to the world. Really. Exactly what is the message? Invariably it is not the Gospel. And even those that are doctrinally sound, should they profit from the Gospel? I think its all about ego's and pride.
You cant go wrong if you sing the Psalms.

Jared said...

Bill,

I think you slightly missed my point about the Kutless song. It wasn't that they sang about faith and referred to it as "it" (as I just did), my problem was that they never singled out the grounding of our faith. In fact, anyone who has faith in any god or religion could listen to that song and say "right on!". The song could be taken as saying "it doesn't matter who or what your faith is in, as long as you have faith".

Again, this is where the context of their album comes into play, which certainly singles out the object of the faith they are speaking of, but CCM pulls that song out of that context.

My bigger question is, to what standard do we hold our Christian musicians for good theology? Giving every CCM artist and songwriter the benefit of the doubt, they are probably not expecting to do the work (or endure the scrutiny) of a theologian proper. But when they are dealing with theology in what is arguably a more powerful medium than the printed word, that is perhaps a heavier burden than they are considering.

Steve Dawson said...

Many hymns are not theologically sound either. I suspect that the process of writing lyrics may not always lend itself to the best of theology. Not to mention that song writers may not be theologians.

Andrew Faris said...

Steve,

I don't think your critique is very helpful. First, that's true that many hymns are theologically bad. That's why we should be thinking about what we're singing, which is exactly Jared's point. Don't turn off your mind when you listen to Christian radio.

Second, I don't think Jared is looking for every songwriter to be Charles Wesley. Consider his example: he wants Kutless to make it clear that faith doesn't save- faith in God saves. So aside from the facts that Christian musicians like Kutless should recognize their theological responsibility since they know ahead of time that thousands if not millions of people will listen to their songs, and that every Christian is a theologian, do you really think that "your faith needs to be in God" is too difficult of a theological concept for Christian bands to master?

We need to teach people to think to the glory of God and to love God with our minds. Considering how massive music's role is in teaching us (how much Scripture do you have memorized compared to how many Christian songs you have memorized?), and considering how remarkably devoid of theological thoughtfulness much of CCM is, I'm with Jared: let's raise the bar, folks.

Andrew

Johnnie said...

Nothing wrong with raising the bar--here, there, and everywhere. But I'm in agreement with Bill that there is still a distinction to be made between "bad" theology and "good" theology-that-doesn't-spell-it-all-out. I don't think Kutless' theology is bad, and I think the band can be excused for presuming that those who choose to listen to that song (by buying the album, downloading the single, hearing it on CCM--whose listeners comprise a niche market of, well, yes, Christian folk) would understand that the "faith" in the song refers to faith in the Christian God.

I suppose one could argue that one purpose of Christian rock is to convert non-Christians, and so the audience Kutless should consider is not those Christians who choose to listen to the song but those non-Christians who run across it on the radio when they are channel-hopping or shopping in a store playing it as background, etc etc...and who might say "hey this song is for me and my faith in (fill in the blank for not-God). But I don't think so. I think they can write and sing a song for the believers out there who want to hear them and not worry about collateral listeners.

Bad theology is something else--and yes, indeed, there is plenty of that to go around.

I actually thought that Jered was going to go somewhere else when he began with his anger at hearing the caller say she listens to the CCM station because then she doesn't have to worry about what she hears. To me, the upsetting part of that is the I'm-going-to-pull-the covers-over-my-head attitude about "worldly" pop culture.

Bill Faris said...

Years ago, when I was doing some work for Maranatha! Music, they were in the midst of an interesting experiment whereby they would pull together some very good Bible teacher / theologians and some of their songwriters and have them marinate in a particular theme which would become the theme of the recording.

After a few days of this, the teachers would leave and the writers would write songs that reflected what they had gained in their study time together.

I can't remember what they called this series of releases but, if you have ever heard the song: "I Will Be With You" - it came from one of these sessions. Maybe it's time for some more summits between songwriters and biblical scholars, no?

Rich said...

BINGO!

You've hit the nail on the head. I can hardly put it in words that don't make me sound like an Anti-Christian Music Nazi. I've dealt with this topic on my blog in two parts: Why I Love and Hate Christian Radio. I'll link them below. I hope that it adds to the conversation.

Part 1: http://sounddoxology.blogspot.com/2009/06/why-i-love-and-hate-christian-radio.html

Part 2 (this deals with more of the topic on hand): http://sounddoxology.blogspot.com/2009/06/why-i-love-and-hate-christian-radio_22.html

Jared said...

Johnnie, I do appreciate the angle you thought I was going to take, and that certainly is an element there (I made a brief nod to that idea). It is a false and ignorant dichotomy if Christians think that everything is "safe" and true about God that we will hear from Christian radio, and dangerous and false on mainstream radio. Indeed, I would assert that there is much that is good and beautiful and true in mainstream music just as in all the other arts.

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 challenged 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.

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.

Alli Rogers said...

Hi Jared- I'm a little late to this discussion but was catching up with another blog (http://takeyourvitaminz.blogspot.com) and saw a link to this post and was compelled to jump in.

I'm an indie artist and songwriter in Nashville who writes with and for some of the artists who you hear on Christian radio. First of all, this topic and ones similar to it are things that I wrestle with on a constant basis.

I agree completely with your thesis, but I don’t think you’re getting to the heart of the issue.

I don’t know if you would have a problem with Brandon’s song if you heard it on secular radio. the problem is the marketing, not the songs. American christians have been led to regard things as either “christian” or “secular” which has crippled us, in my opinion. This is God’s creation, and nothing is “secular”!

BTW: David Dark has great things to say about this is his books, here is an old interview (there are several I found online worth reading) that you might like: http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/cms_content/149187505?page=619876

CCM is made up of sinful songwriters, sinful artists, sinful record executives, sinful radio DJ’s, etc. It is foolish for a listener to think they can shut off their brains when listening to christian radio, just as it is foolish to walk in to a church and do the same.

personally, I wonder if the title of “christian” music should be reserved for music that is written to be sung in church, in a congregational setting. If this was the case, then yes, I would expect theological clarity in every song- to the best of our ability. (It is my understanding that church music used to be written by pastors and theologians).

I don’t know the solution but I do know a lot of the people who directly influence what you hear on CCM radio and many of them are seeking God in this. It’s a big machine with lots of jobs and lives at stake, so this is going to take some time, but I’m trying and I know many people who are trying, to be good stewards of the gifts God has given us. We have and will continue to fail, but the Holy Spirit is good and will be strong in our weakness.

Phillipians 1:9-11
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.