A friend recently shared a piece on Facebook by Michael Gungor of the band Gungor that explored issues in the Christian Music Industry. Anytime the words “Christian” and “industry” are used in the same phrase is a sign there’s a problem. But the main question Michael Gungor addressed was, why is CCM (contemporary Christian music) so dreadful? I’m just going to assume that we’re in agreement that CCM IS dreadful. We’re not talking about the great musical works of the Christian tradition throughout the centuries, we’re talking about the vast majority of “Christian” music made in the last 60 years and the CCM genre in particular. There are obviously many Christian artists that are worthwhile and worth listening to. I’m not speaking about individual artists, but the industry in general.
Gungor’s take on the matter is interesting since his band is technically part of the industry. He writes, “I don’t hate all Christian music. There are a few artists that I know in the Christian industry that are really trying to transcend the inherent limitations and zombying effect of the industry. But the industry as a whole is broken, friends. We call it Christian, but it’s certainly not based in Christianity. It is based on marketing…The point is that the industry that labels things as Christian and sells them to you has far more to do with marketing than Christianity. They are marketing to the mixed bag of values that has created the Evangelical Christian subculture. It’s a mix of some historically Christian values, some American values, and a whole lot of cultural boundary markers that set ‘us’ apart from ‘them.’”
Gungor’s right. It’s a marketing issue first and foremost. What makes someone a “Christian recording artist”? It’s as simple as this: they’re being marketed to the Christian subculture. To do this, their music typically must explicitly mention God and should elicit a devotional emotional response. And from Christian radio, it seems that the music should also be “uplifting” or “edifying.” Another facet of CCM is that it’s often marketed as a squeaky-clean alternative to secular music. Anyone else remember those CCM catalogs that would say, “Do you like Dr. Dre? You’ll LOVE DC Talk!” etc.
So what does that have to do with the sad state of “Christian music”? Well, the requirements for a song to qualify as “Christian” are creatively limiting. They narrow the themes an artist can address and how they can address them. As a Catholic, my faith of course should saturate my life. However, that doesn’t mean that anything I write is explicitly related to Catholic doctrine or my relationship with God. We should certainly see the world in light of our faith, but art can (and should?) be more nuanced than what can be easily marketed because it mentions Jesus a certain number of times.
As for CCM as a secular alternative, if you begin with popular secular music that isn’t good in the first place and then try to imitate it, adding a veneer of Christian lyrics, all you have is inferior music. “Like Katy Perry? Try out this new dreadful Christian recording artist who is JUST like her, except she wears more clothes and uses the word “God” instead of “babe”….or whatever the kids are calling their significant others these days….”
It’s actually very odd which artists are and aren’t included in the “Christian” category. Take Johnny Cash, for instance. No one refers to him as “Christian recording artist, Johnny Cash.” He’s just a fantastic musician. And yet, his later albums explicitly address Christian themes in more depth than your average CCM artist. Maybe he just doesn’t fit into the box that CCM marketing requires.
But it’s more complicated than problems with labels and marketing. Christian art is historically incredible. The cathedrals of Europe? Dante’s Divine Comedy? Handel’s Messiah? These aren’t just important pieces of art but the crowning achievement of western Christian civilization. So why aren’t works like these being produced anymore? The products at Lifeway stores targeted to the American evangelical Christian subculture aren’t impressing anyone. And let’s not get snobby, Catholics. The past 70 years hasn’t been an impressive time for Catholic art, either. Just take a stroll around your local Catholic bookstore (which usually is more of a gift shop, am I right?) It definitely helps one understand the rigidity of the Eastern Orthodox view on art–their icons are still amazing, especially compared to the visual art and hymns from the past few decades (yikes). And if you’re not convinced, visit my parish next Sunday. Worst architecture and stained glass you’ve ever seen. And we always sing the same hymns written between 1955 and 1975, and they are nothing to write home about, lemme tell ya. (Don’t get me wrong, I love my dear parish with all my heart. It is a blessing to me each day. But if we’re talking about aesthetics….it’s not a frontrunner.)
Last night I attended the annual Messiah sing-along. We bring our music scores of Handel’s Messiah to a local church, we sit in the pews by section, and we sing it. No rehearsal. Just lots of voices singing the most glorious piece of music you’ll ever hear. Yes, it was written by a Christian. Yes, the libretto is straight Scripture. So, sure, it’s Christian music. But did Handel sit down one day and decide, “I’m going to write some Christian music.” Or he did think, “I’m going to write something GLORIOUS.” The people singing in the pews last night weren’t there because they were Christians (many weren’t.) They were singing because it’s a beautiful piece of music. It’s music brimming with the joy and sorrow of God’s love for humanity. And it’s so glorious that no one could hear it and not be moved by its grandeur, no matter their faith.
Now, I’m curious if anyone outside of Christian subculture listens to the Christian radio station. I honestly can’t imagine that they do.
But is it really fair to compare “contemporary Christian musicians” to the greats of Christian art? Hardly. Dante and Handel and Caravaggio were creating art in a Christian culture that shared a common language of Christian theology and cultural symbolism. When Dante used certain images and symbols in the Divine Comedy that pointed to theological truths, his audience would have picked up on them. When a painter during the Renaissance added a little dog to a scene, the viewer knew it was speaking about fidelity and helped the viewer “read” the image. We’ve lost most of that shared language of art. Creating nuanced Christian art in a culture that doesn’t share an artistic language is monstrously difficult and most artists can only communicate Christian ideas in a very explicit manner to get their message across. But these difficulties often relegate “Christian art” to the Christian subculture since it speaks to no one else.
It’s not hopeless, though. The past century has seen some incredible Catholic art amidst all the dreadful stuff. But it’s been created by artists who are Catholic and seek to honor God by creating incredible art, not to create “Catholic art.” Take writer Flannery O’Connor who said, “I write the way I do because I am a Catholic.” And yet, she had no desire to be marketed and labeled as a “Catholic writer.” She wrote incredible books, she was a Catholic, and her Catholic faith informed and saturated her work.
So I think we need to carefully consider the problematic nature of Christian marketing and how it limits and dumbs down art. I think we need to question whether we are making Christian art or whether we are Christians making good art.
Flannery O’Connor said “When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.”
The modern artist has a difficult task. With no shared artistic language, we can dumb things down, or we can rescue the imagery of the past and/or create a new cultural language for art. What would that look like? I don’t pretend to have the answer, but it’s worth thinking about.
Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.”
If this is so, can we afford to be less than artists?
“Beauty will save the world.”-Dostoevsky
I know you and I agree on this one–there’s a huge problem whenever differing opinions are unacceptable. When it’s unacceptable to write, say, sing, create something different than whatever fits inside a box, everyone is missing out.
I’ve been bemoaning the same issues but with Catholic literature. *Christian* literature has had lots of mega hits (just consider the Left Behind series) but in spite of publishing houses that are explicitly Catholic, the Catholic novel is not doing well.
I just read a fantastic piece on exactly that issue by Dana Gioia (who is amazing) for First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/12/the-catholic-writer-today
It’s long, but worth taking the time to read and ponder!
I just wrote a paper about this–but from a writing and designing perspective! I even mentioned the great Flannery, too. (Because, if you’re going to talk about excellence in writing and a Christian mindset, Flannery is where you go.)
Also adored the note to “not get snobby, Catholics” since it’s easy for ANY denomination to think it’s “the others'” fault.
Can I read that paper?
Mary Susan says
Have you read this article about the band Switchfoot singing/not singing “Christian” songs? I liked it a lot.
I also agree with you 100%. I listen to our Christian radio station sometimes when I just really don’t want to hear the negativity from other radio stations. But, man, that music is trite, forced, and pandering at best. There are a few good songs, but as a whole, the industry is definitely forcing a particular product, which is a shame.
Interesting piece from Switchfoot. Thanks for sharing, Mary Susan! (Little known fact, Daniel and I met at a Switchfoot concert when I was 15…he doesn’t remember meeting me, though. He thinks we met at the grocery store.)
I could not agree more. And the majority of music on our local Christian station is dreadful, trite, nonsense that has nothing to do with authentic Christian life. And yet some of my favorite songs with Christian themes are never played there. No Audrey Assad (my son and I had an awesome conversation about carrying our crosses when her song coincided with our priest’s homily one saturday evening) and no Mumford and Sons. I also really appreciate Derek Webb, a presbyterian? artist who was kicked out of the Christian music scene because he tackles tough themes and his music focuses more on theological truths vs a squeaky clean image. He’s not Catholic of course so of course his theology doesn’t totally jive with mine but there’s plenty of crossover and I appreciate a) his sheer talent and musical style and b) the openness and honesty in his music.
I do enjoy Mumford, and I remember when that Derek Webb stuff went down. Everybody’s raving about Audrey Assad, so I guess I should check her out? I read a good article by her the other day.
WHAAAAT?!! You don’t know Audrey Assad?!
I know! Kaitlin just went to her concert and tells me I must start listening.
This is great. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in my opinions of Christian music. I am often frustrated by the Christian music industry but, of course, I have no solutions. I just choose to partake of art based on it’s beauty and inspiration.
Jen @ Conversion Diary says
LOVE this post. I spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about this. A big moment for me was when I read a few Michelangelo biographies (one in particular that I recommend is Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling — great read). As I read, I kept trying to figure out what made that time and place in history such an epicenter for great Christian art. The three things I noticed were:
1. MONEY: Artists had trouble paying the bills back then just as they do now, and having wealthy benefactors like Lorenzo de Medici who supported them while they learned allowed them to become great at what they did. If it weren’t for those financial backers, Michelangelo would have had to stop creating art and get a job.
2. APPRENTICESHIPS: These Catholic artists learned from the best artists in the world — not necessarily the best Catholic artists, just the best, period.
3. A WIDESPREAD UNDERSTANDING THAT BEAUTY GLORIFIES GOD: There was widespread acceptance of the truth that all good art glorifies God, whether or not it’s overtly religious.
I think that if we could get these three things in place in the modern Church, we’d see Christian artists becoming leaders in the arts once again.
Thanks for a great post!
Daniel was saying the same thing the other night about patronage! I had a paragraph about it in my rough draft for this post, but there was so much to say, that I took it out because it was getting too long and there wasn’t time to develop it. But I think that’s huge! If the Church doesn’t make beauty a priority by supporting it financially, how can artists afford to create? I hadn’t considered apprenticeship’s effects on art. Very insightful!
I posted this in a comment above, but this article by Dana Gioia is sooooo good: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/12/the-catholic-writer-today
Goodness, I cringe every time I hear that song by Jamie Grace, “Hold Me,” which has been overplayed, OVERPLAYED for YEARS–she said she wrote it about a snuggie and then changed the lyrics to fit Christian pop.
I just. I can’t.
I do enjoy a lot of artists that are considered Christian but some of it, oh you said it all. I still listen, but most of all, I listen to stations like WayFM for Wally. He is irreverent and hilarious. Other DJs… eh. They fit the christian DJ stereotype.
Crap shoot. 😉
This summer, when I wrote about how unfortunate all the “songs of the summer” happened to be, some commenters asked why I don’t listen to the Christian Music Station instead. And I thought, um, mostly because I don’t want to have to jab hot pokers in my ears over the same-ness and mundane-ness and utter predictibilty of all of it. But I SAID something nicer than that.
Have you checked out Audrey Assad? She is advertised as a Christian artist and is awesome (despite the label?). Her last album in particular, released earlier this year, is my retaliation to Christian radio. It is very Catholic, very Mass-y and filled with plenty of nice piano bits which is always a good thing in my book. 🙂
I haven’t, but I need to!
Love this, Haley. Everything is so true. We’ve dumbed down our eyes and ears to try to be “relevant” and end up just looking corny. You’re probably aware of the Love Good Music campaign, right? Basically a large-scale kickstarter program based on this very premise and a way that us non-creative non-artist types can help change things. We need one for visual art, too!
That sounds neat, Mary!
All so true! Marc Barnes had a great piece about this a while ago too: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2013/02/killchristianmusi.html
And Audrey Assad is moving away from CCM and into making church music. Interesting stuff. http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/2692/the_fortunate_faith_of_audrey_assad.aspx#.UqcJaHi9LCQ
Maybe if this continues our kids will have something decent to listen to!
Enjoyed the Audrey Assad article! Thanks for sharing!
I keep trying to like Assad’s music. I really, really want to. She does sing beautifully but it’s just a little too – I don’t know – sincere for me. Which probably means I have a cold, black heart. ;). Give me Johnny Cash any day.
I love Sarah Hart and have for many years. She is Catholic and a wonderful musician!
I remember when P.O.D. came on the rock scene. They went on Ozzfest, etc. They were CCM rejects because they refused to be in a box. But when MTV did their old Cribs show at the house of one member, he proudly showed off his middle-class-looking suburban home, family pictures on the living room wall, Veggie Tales kids’ Bible in his baby’s room, and the BBQ grill where they all were gathering for a family cookout that weekend. And when I caught a song on the rock station a few months ago and heard a few lines, I thought, “This is a Christian band; I can tell by how they describe things.” Used Shazzam and BINGO. POD.
Christianity is a bit subversive when it’s at it’s best, no? 😉
Christie @ Everything to Someone says
Peter Kreeft has said he knows at least two people who were converted to Catholicism from nonbelief by listening to Mozart.
Yes, yes, yes! Particularly the bits about why the Orthodox have rigid standards for icons and the challenge of making art without a common cultural, theological, or aesthetic language. Very insightful.
About a common language: O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners is interesting when it discusses writing about the South. Why her attraction to the South? Cultural coherence, a unique “voice”, particular customs and folkways that make a story something other than an abstraction. Maybe that applies to readers, too: one who gets the language gets the story with greater depth. As those folkways disappear, so do the story’s depth. Rather, we end up with an “Ideas novel” expounding banalities about The Human Condition that could be set anywhere at any time.
My point: mass market, pan-evangelical, WalMart, CCM cannot help but be banal. It trades in platitudes rather than the grit of particular lives and traditions. Lowest common denominator art isn’t just dumbed down, it’s also boring.
Very insightful, Cameron. I think when we lose our sense of “place” the art we create becomes very boring. I’ve already shared this article twice in the comments above, but Dana Gioia says something similar here: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/12/the-catholic-writer-today
How ironic that I JUST attended my first Christian Concert last Friday, and was JUST about to sit down and write about the beautiful experience…and then I read THIS.
Now I am not so sure I should write that post!
I undertand the point being made. I honestly do. It’s just not something I sat and considered. And as a writer…who used to blog for profit…then went through a life changing tragedy almost one year ago….and has now decided to write with only one purpose in mind: to spread the Word of God…I can see both sides. It’s tricky to be a Catholic artist, and I have to ask myself repeatedly “Ok, are you writing this to get blog traffic? Are you submitting this because of your love of God or because you need to pay rent?” One of my favorite singers/story tellers, is a Baptist guy named Steve Bell. He too talks about the dangers of the Christian music industry “agenda”. And his response is that he doesn’t write and sing Christian music with an agenda in mind, but rather, because who is IS a Christian, and so it just makes sense.” As a singer, artist, writer, mother, and wife, I know from personal experience, that the reason we NEED to create art, is because we are so filled up with the goodness of God, that it absolutely must spill over and be shared. I suppose this is the only view I have had in regards to the music I listen to. The profit or agenda behind it, if I am being honest, was never a concern.
Maybe I am just not that bright, and slightly naive…because when I listen to Christian music on Pandora, for me personally, it becomes prayer. (which actually, is the only way I have come to know Christian music. I do not listen on the radio ever, I just plug in my favorite artist and go with that genre. Maybe if I listened to a radio station I would have a better handle on what you are presenting) My life is so busy, and finding quiet to be still and listen is not always an option. So I put on my music, and I sing, and I am immediately focused on God. I have always used music as a way to pray, connect and focus on the truth.
Jamie Grace’s hits may not be for everyone, and as I said, I have never given much thought to the industry behind all of it. I just know that I much prefer to hear my teenage daughter singing “love the way you hold me” as opposed to Pink’s “its just you and your hand tonight.” Because that happened. In the car. It was awesome. And by awesome, I mean really uncomfortable.
Have you read any of Heather Kings books, or her blog, shirt of flame? You would love her. She has a post up now that talks about the Catholic writing industry. Like you, she is an intelligent woman with a beautiful ability to speak from the heart.
Thanks for this post…I appreciate new ways of looking at things…and although I will still post about my positive Christian music experience, and continue to enjoy my Pandora selections, I hear what you’re saying. And as always, you say it so well.
Have a blessed Advent!
You should definitely write your post! As I said in the post, there are certainly Christian artist worth listening to. And if you’ve found musicians you enjoy listening to, great! But you don’t have to choose between Pink and CCM. There is an abundance of beautiful music to listen to. The options certainly aren’t just Christian radio or pop radio!
This very topic has been on my mind so much lately. The religious education program in our parish uses A TON of CCM and it really irks me. I am no music critic, but something in me is just repulsed by it. Also, I bring my kids to the religious ed. program to experience something different than what they experience in popular culture. When they go to church and have to sit through a program that is exactly like what they can get on tv or the radio then going to church becomes just another entertainment. And not even good entertainment. It certainly isn’t sacred and most definitely imparts no sense of wonder. I am curious about why we are so easily seduced by these catchy tunes. The women who coordinate our religious ed. program are passionate, energetic and knowledgeable about the faith. I am always amazed that they are so excited to offer up something that gives so little to the soul.
I’m with you, Michelle. We once attended a Protestant church for a couple of weeks that felt like a mediocre rock concert. I don’t go to church to watch music videos and listen to a band play in the dark, I can go to a GOOD concert anytime I want. I go to church for something entirely different and there’s no reason to use inferior music to appear “relevant.”
This is fantastic, Haley! I grew up listening to CCM and I have to say you nailed the various issues right on the head. There really is a need for more beautiful art in the Christian world.
Oh my goodness, AMEN AMEN AMEN!!! This is SO true and such a needed message to get out: if you’re an artist and Christian, just make Good Art and God will use it to speak his truth to those who engage with it, it doesn’t have to be a pasty white picture of a blandly smiling, melancholy Jesus with a soft halo. Just think of El Greco! As an artist, “Christian Art” has always been an incredibly sore spot to me. I would love to see a list of Christian artists whose work you love, Haley. So far, Flannery O’Connor is one of the only modern Christian artists whose work is pure brilliance that I can find… the list of inspiring visual artists is even shorter. Help, please!
Oh, interesting, Megan. That would be a fun post!
When we talk about Catholic music we must learn to distinguish between devotional (pretty much ALL CCM music, Catholic or otherwise) and liturgical music. They really must be looked at as two different genres.
Aside from the commercial/entertainment/devotion inherent in CCM music, liturgical music needs to support our specific, corporate (praying as one body) pray first. That is its function. It is entirely right (and just?) that it speak a different language.
Christian art has become the victim of reverse snobbery. The music that has ‘pride of place’ according to Church documents, is Gregorian Chant. That, by many Catholics, has come to be seen as a luxury…too high-brow for average folk in the pews.
The irony here is that chant was designed around the human voice. It does not require instrumentation to be done. Once you get the hang of it (and it doesn’t take long), nothing could be simpler to do. In an age where lip-service is often given to the need to step back from commercialism, nothing could be more natural than chant.
But how many of us know anything about it? Instead we suffer through music built around instruments that bend and stretch voices in directions designed for guitars and pianos. And THIS is appropriate music?
Yes! Sometimes the hymns from the 70s are just IMPOSSIBLE to sing (so counterintuitive and a terrible range!) and Daniel and I have a hard time keeping straight faces. And we’re good singers! Chant is so beautiful. yes, yes yes.
I started listening to CCM about six months ago, about the same time I started reading your blog along with other Catholic blogs. For me, it is just such a better option than turning on mainstream radio, especially when I have my kids in the car. Its clean lyrics, with a positive message, and gets my kids thinking and singing about God. I don’t see any negatives with that. Sure, some of it is corny, but most of it is catch and fun to sing along to. It helps keep my focus on better messages during my day, rather than something Miley Cyrus or worse has to sing to me on the radio. For my kids, I see no better option than to have CCM on in the car. That or kids music, which, is hard to find that is not completely batty. Listening to mainstream music just opens too many cans of worms as far as Im concerned. Raunchy videos, destructive lifestyles, things I dont want my kids hearing/seeing/inquiring about. Id rather have them bopping in the backseat to TobyMac than asking me what “twerking” is.
Hey, if you can enjoy, there’s no reason not to play it. But Megan, I think what I disagree with here is the idea that you have only two options: inappropriate pop music or (in your words) “corny” Christian radio. Isn’t there a classical music station? Aren’t there musicians with lyrics that aren’t raunchy or destructive with really excellent music you all can enjoy? Do you have to listen to the radio at all? The alternative to CCM doesn’t have to be Miley Cyrus. It could be Handel’s Messiah. If that’s what you listen to, your kids will listen, too 🙂
I totally see where Megan is coming from. Some people (and I think this includes you, Haley) are more “in the know” about different kinds of music. And some people really like classical music. I do not. Telling me to listen to Handel’s Messiah is just not a good alternative. So for some people it really is either top 40 (Miley Cyrus) or the local Christian music station. And if I like pop music someone telling me to listen to classical music isn’t going to help me.
I know you were commenting more on the industry and I agree with what you wrote. But I also want to say that in the larger debate over how good/bad Christian music is some of this just comes down to personal taste and, occasionally even, people being snobs. I do not think you did this here, Haley, but sometimes this topic is written of in a way that people who genuinely enjoy Christian music feel insulted by the snarky, belittling things that are said about it. That leaves me seething.
But there’s far more out there than just classical as an alternative! What about The Head and the Heart? What about Sufjan Stevens or all the other great music out there? I’m certainly not saying that people who like CCM need to stop listening to it or that no good can come of it. But why should top 40 or classical be the only alternatives?
Oh I totally get what you’re saying but most people have never heard of The Head and the Heart of Sufjan. For a lot of people they only know of those 2 options or maybe a 3rd being country music. Do you see what I mean? Underground musicians – those who are Christians and those who are not – are underground. So how do we fix that? How do we introduce people to more music, to give them more options?
I don’t want to sound like I am being a “snobby Catholic” (especially since I am not even a Catholic, yet), but-
From my experience, the idea that “all beauty glorifies God” is lost in protestantism. I did not grow up in a religious home at all, but I would say that even for secular America, Puritanical Protest ideas subconsciously inform a worldview, and one that is woefully lacking.
The dichotomy between “of the flesh” and not and the “total depravity” idea, lead to the belief that all things of this world are inherently evil, inherently lacking.
Of course, that is a huge generalization and there are probably many examples of protestanism that prove all of what I said false, and probably Catholic examples that fit the description well- but I think there is something to be said about our culture that is missing that connection.
All things of beauty glorify God, each person’s unique creativity is a gift from God, that when shared also glorifies God, even it is isn’t doing so explicitly.
For me, that truth is something that I was missing before starting this journey to becoming Catholic.
Daniel and I were talking about this the other night. There are probably MANY factors, but I think iconoclasm and white washing the churches, taking all the art out, is a facet of Protestantism that really negatively affects modern art (and has, sadly, seeped into American Catholicism, as well). I also wonder about the separation of the physical and the spiritual in Protestantism. If the physical isn’t as important as the spiritual…then what does the physical space of a church matter? Does it matter if it’s beautiful or not? Only if the sacred and the physical intersect.
The separation of the spiritual from the physical leads to a disconnection of the spiritual from reality.
And when your spirituality is no longer connected to reality, well, you get CCM.
I would like to say the neo-iconoclasm in the Catholic Church is an American problem, but it happened in Europe too. It’s just less noticeable because fewer Churches were being built in that era. From my understanding, it came about because of the fashions of the time (there were many similar secular architectural crimes in that era) and because of an emphasis on liturgy and community, which, unfortunately came at the expense of the idea of sacred space.
Hi Haley, I don’t usually comment on blogs, but I felt the need to say that I grew up in a Protestant (Lutheran) home with a highly sacramental worldview, an emphasis on incarnation, a rich appreciation for beauty, and an atmosphere that nurtured creativity. I majored in art (and philosophy) at a school with a rigorous traditional program and have worked professionally as a graphic designer and a photographer. I think it’s unfortunate and inaccurate to so widely equate Protestantism with a division between the physical and the spiritual. Although this may be a problem in mainstream American evangelicalism, Catholicism isn’t the only other option. You don’t have to be Catholic to value sacrament, art, or beauty, and there are non-Catholic churches with sacramental theology, traditional liturgy, poetic hymns, and rich histories.
I wanted to mention Makoto Fujimura—he’s a widely respected Christian in the contemporary art world. You should check out his website—there’s a particularly interesting video on his Four Holy Gospels Bible project:
Also, have you heard of Josh Garrels? You might enjoy his music. I actually had some of his songs on my birth playlist.
I’d also like to recommend this episode (The Inner Landscape of Beauty) of the On Being podcast. It’s definitely worth a listen:
Thanks for your post—this is a great topic you’ve brought up!
“You don’t have to be Catholic to value sacrament, art, or beauty, and there are non-Catholic churches with sacramental theology, traditional liturgy, poetic hymns, and rich histories.” True. Very true, “Anonymous.”
But while obviously every Protestant doesn’t fall into this heresy, the disconnect between the spiritual and the physical is nonetheless a feature of Protestantism. I think it really comes down to ideas of the Eucharist (Lutherans, for instance, would have a higher view than most other denominations. Luther himself believed in transubstantiation.) If, however, the bread and wine are MERELY a symbol or “memorial” rather than the Body and Blood of Our Lord, it’s a different story.
I love Fuijimura. Isn’t he wonderful?
Haven’t heard of Josh Garrels or the On Being podcast, but I’m looking forward to checking them out!
Thanks for your comment!
If you want to see some beautiful Catholic art, check out this website:
I knew Jason’s family growing up in my childhood parish and he is a very talented artist. I own two of his prints, Madonna and Child and The Visitation.
Samantha @ Refined By Simple Love says
Yes! Yes! Yes!
Thank you so much for putting into words what I have been feeling for so, so long. Even in my evangelical days, I used to lament at how trite the music seemed to be. It has not improved, and in some cases has gotten worse. Not to mention, that all music on Christian radio is way, WAY overplayed. The sad thing is that it then gets stuck in my head (whoa, marketing) and then I have all these “songs” stuck in my head that just make me angry, rather than meditating on the beauty and goodness of our Lord.
I almost gave up hope for music as a means to evangelize until I heard of Mike Mangione. I met him awhile back and he is friends with several friends of mine. His music has very Catholic, very Christian undertones (he toured with Christopher West and many of his songs are about Theology of the Body), but really does not explicitly come out and say it. I even heard his music played on our independent radio here in MKE. Plus, the music is beautiful. Check him out: http://mikemangione.com/
Then there is Audrey Assad, Luke Spehar, Matt Maher and Ike Ndolo. 🙂
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Haley!
Thanks for these suggestions, Samantha! I will check them out 🙂
Haley, are you familiar with Madeleine L’Engle? She’s most well-known for writing A Wrinkle In Time, but everything I’ve read of hers has been so good. She talked about the concept of “Christian art” in some of her non-fiction books, specifically her book Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. I would definitely recommend reading it sometime! Some of the things you touched on in this post reminded me of things Ms. L’Engle wrote about. Anywho, thank you for sharing your thoughts on “Christian Art” – such a frustrating topic sometimes, and you approach it in a way that is clear and thought-provoking. 🙂
I’ve read ton of her fiction (devoured them when I was about 11) but I haven’t read Walking on Water. Thanks so much for the suggestion! And thank you for your encouragement. 🙂
I’ve read several pieces lately that turn CCM into something of a punching bag and I’m not sure why so much abuse is being leveled on the industry. First and foremost, if you’re listening to any sort of mainstream, pop music you don’t have much room to complain about anything being trite, banal or offensive. All pop music (even the bulk of the stuff labeled independent and/or alternative) is simply a homogenized commodity dumbed down until it appeals to the lowest common denominator. If you don’t like all the soundalike artists on the top 40 station, change over to the rock or country station so you can listen to another flavor of soundalikes.
That being said, CCM at least offers a faith-based, non-vulgar alternative to the secular stations. Similar to what Megan said, I’d rather hear my kids singing along to Matt Maher or watching him perform in front of Pope Francis than hear them singing the latest Kesha lyrics or watch Miley Cyrus’ tongue. Is a lot of what you hear on the Christian stations repetitive, generic songs that just happen to have God thrown in? Sure, but there’s some that’s worth listening to, and for a parent at least it’s all preferable, at least to some degree, than what you’re likely to hear. And some of it truly does rise above the rest, including Audrey Assad, Sarah Hart and Matt Maher.
Thanks for sharing your insights, Scott. As I said in the post and repeated in the comments, I am not saying there are no “Christian” artists worth listening to. There are some that I think are wonderful. The industry as a whole is incredibly problematic and (as we’ve seen throughout history) Christian art can be so much more than is being marketed to us. And as I said in multiple responses to comments, there are not two options: bad pop or bad CCM. The options for beautiful music abound! 🙂 I’m not saying that we shouldn’t prefer Matt Maher to Kesha (I haven’t listened to his music but many friends attended his concert last weekend and I’ve heard wonderful things about him, so I will be checking him out). But an argument that even inferior CCM is better than terrible pop is like saying that Twilight is better than 50 Shades of Grey. There are not only two options and we can do better that the vast majority of what the industry is trying to feed us!
I agree with all above. I thought I’d let you know a few bands I have found in addition to Gungor that I feel are not your typical cheesy CCM.
All Sons and Daughters, The Rend Collective and Band of Horses.
The major Christian radio station where I am (which I’m sure has affiliates or copycats all over the nation) incessantly advertises itself as “safe for the whole family.” By “safe,” I am guessing they mean “Don’t worry, we play the same 40ish songs pop-type songs over and over and over and over and OVER again until all mentions of Jesus are associated with fuzzy warm mental numbness.” This station one time was doing a fundraiser for some sort of charity and the morning DJ said, in a very concerned voice, “What I’m about to say may seem like it goes against our family friendly policy, so if you have kids in the car, you may want to turn it off for the next two minutes or so.” Of course, I was intrigued. It turned out that they were talking about raising money for a charity that helped victims of human trafficking. That is a worthy cause, but almost wasn’t mentioned for fear of not being “safe for the whole family.” Sin isn’t safe, and neither is grace. The other thing that bugs me is that this radio station plays tons of commercials for things I would not consider “safe for the whole family,” like a local liposuction/cosmetic surgery clinic advertising “a whole new you.” Nothing particularly scandalous about liposuction per se, but I’d rather not have my kids listen to Johnny Diaz sing about how God finds you beautiful just the way you are and then hear an ad for how to change your externals to be more beautiful. Seems conflicting, somehow.
I second the motion for Derek Webb (although truth by told I like his older stuff (2002-2006) more than his newer stuff musically-speaking). Also, Sara Groves is awesome. Only part of one of her songs ever gets airtime on any Christian radio station I ever hear, but her music is melodious, raw, intimate, and just wonderful. I also really like Lecrae, even though I am not usually someone who is a rap/crunk fan. His lyrics are as jampacked with theology as a lot of the old hymns (which are also awesome and should be sung more…a beef I have with the hip, slick, and cool Protestant worship services where I go to church). Five Iron Frenzy’s old stuff is alternately goofy and thought-provoking, especially good if you’re a ska fan. Also, I have to give some recognition to a friend of mine from church growing up, whose music is so soulful and worshipful without being trite or overly familiar: Emily Roig, and her website is http://www.emilyroig.com/. Give it a listen!
Thanks for this article. Since becoming Catholic, I have had to reckon with a little bit of baggage regarding the manipulative side of much religious music. The fakeness cannot be pinned on Protestant or Catholic congregations/artists/hymnody.
There is good and sincere stuff out there.
There is complicated stuff out there.
There is art that is both.
However in this day and age, it is not marketed well
Can we leave Mozart in his place in history? Can we say Bach had his day? Or will “classical” make a comeback in music and in art and in literature?
And another important question- are we going to be held accountable for crass or crappy art?
Sarah @ Catholic History Nerd says
The youth room in my childhood parish had a whole poster chart explaining which hit artist different Christian bands sounded like. I wish I could remember who was the CCM Vanilla Ice.
Katy Perry’s Pentecostal upbringing fascinates me. If you look up her early Christian album as Katy Hudson on You Tube, it sounds like all the other overproduced CCM music from the late 90s. Despite her negative messages, I think her creative vision now is much more original and thus more memorable.
And now I need to go re-read JPII’s Letter to Artists
Mandi @ Messy Wife, Blessed Life says
So, I heard Barbara Nicolosi speak on this topic earlier this year and I can’t stop thinking about it. One thing she said that really got me thinking was about how the Church supported artists…financially. And our churches now can barely pay the bills and the bare bones necessary staff. Catholic churches also receive much less in donations per member than Protestant churches… so, I don’t know what the solution is, but churches has more money, they could fund artistic endeavors, even offer training for aspiring artists in the various fields. And in turn, people would donate to the Church knowing that they were donating to the artistic culture as well… but how you get that cycle started? I don’t know if we’ve come so far from that that we can’t recover.
Also, I think Christians need to take a stand and instead of praising crap movies (or music, or whatever) with good messages, we need to demand better. Be honest with ourselves. And praise those movies with good messages and good acting and good dialogue EVEN IF there are not explicitly Christian – even if they just represent Good and Virtue and Beauty without mentioning Christ.
Totally didn’t say that as eloquently as I wanted to, but I’ll admit that I’m not an amazing Catholic writer that will produce the next classic 🙂
Thanks for such a thoughtful post! I wanted to share this website called ArtWay: http://www.artway.eu/artway.php?lang=en
They have (for the most part) wonderful meditations every Sunday on different art pieces. Usually a professor writes an accompanying essay (Dr. Jeffrey writes for them occasionally.)
Also, there’s this a group called Cardiphonia that crowd sources liturgical music. It’s vaguely Sufjan-esque http://cardiphonia.bandcamp.com/music
I really wish that we had more Christian Art (particularly Catholic Christian), music, literature that found a way to speak of God’s gifts without beating us over the head with it. I grew up with “Shout to the Lord” as the go to CCM and boy did that get old fast. I much prefer something tells us to do that same shouting, to the same deity while glorifying the gifts He gave us.
A good Christian artists does not need to be explicit in his faith for it shine through her work.
I greatly prefer an artist who can speak subtly and beautifully on the subjects of grace, forgiveness and love than the one that needs a ridiculous faith-hyperbole to get his point across.
p.s. The best CCM I’ve come across lately is a CD of music inspired by the works of C.S. Lewis =)
Wanted to point something out. You reach a time in parenting where kids don’t necessarily want to listen to what you like. So yes, I’ll take the poppy christian music over One Direction or worse and hope that the previous 11 years of good music will eventually prevail. We home school and some would consider our kids very sheltered and it still happened. I choose to take turns with them because I like that they have their own tastes even if I don’t like those tastes.
I absolutely agree with you, 100%. My husband and I have been having this conversation for years and wondering why there can’t be a station with NPR-esque production values and news readers. Why must it be this bubble gummy, I’m so happy, hand waving pabulum they push down our throats? I occasionally put it on in the car but even my kids complain so we usually end up listening to classical music instead.
Caitlin Mallery says
Great thoughts Haley! My husband and I often lament the fact that Christians let themselves be mediocre in the name of Christianity. We feel that Christians should be putting out the best art, the best music, the best movies that the world cannot match. Should any of our children pursue the arts, we want to encourage them to do their absolute best, not slide by on the title and character of “Christian”. Christianity is about living every detail of life to the best we can, with what gifts, time, and work God has given to us!
Well said, Hailey. In reading through comments, it seems that some people are overlooking so many other types of music. Comments are about CCM and pop vs. Classical. We also enjoy folk, show tunes, shape note, opera, jazz, world. Sunday morning is hymns with texts and tunes from across the ages.
As you plan your Christmas playlist checkout the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge. I think you would like it. Minnesota Public Radio streams it live on Christmas Eve morning at 9:00 a.m. local time – probably 10 for you.
I think it is rebroadcast at other times too. We have one year on CD. There is also an Advent version.
General fun classical music with younger kids can include Peter and the Wolf or the Carnival of the Animals. Not particularly lofty or inaccessible – just fun. We used to listen to an audio version of Arabian Nights and then play a separate recording of Shaherazade. What kid can resist dancing to The Nutcracker? (Check out Jim Weiss and Great Hall production for wonderful story telling.)
Marc Barnes at Bad Catholic just did a post with many of the same themes! Loved it.
Stacey D says
This reminds me of my favorite CS Lewis quote: “We don’t need more Christian writers. We need more great writers who are Christian.”
I think this applies to most art. My hubs and I generally try to seek that out.
This is thoughtful, and I could not agree more!
During my senior year at the University of Chicago, I took a course entitled “From Eden Eliot, J.C. to Jay-Z: The Bible in Western Culture,” which I think you’d appreciate and is certainly relevant to this conversation. Each week centered around a theme, such as “Sin and Punishment,” or “Wisdom and Suffering,” and we’d have two days of discussion, and one evening with a film screening. On Tuesdays, we focused on relevant Biblical passages and reception pieces from the Western canon (Dante, Augustine, Luther, Galileo, Hobbes, and so on); on Thursdays, our focus shifted to recent history and the more modern era (The Brothers Karamazov, Moby Dick, Infinite Jest, Flannery O’Connor, Fear and Trembling, Harry Potter, speeches by MLK, poems by Eliot, and yes, Jay-Z’s book ). We watched the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, Lars von Trier’s Dogville, and clips from The West Wing, among other films and television clips. And the conclusion to be drawn from my ten-week experience in which I wrote papers about original sin and the Hold Steady’s fantastic album “Separation Sunday,” conversion and Sufjan Stevens’ magnificent album “Seven Swans,” and Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life as it relates to the Book of Job is that reinterpretation can be found in some extraordinary places, and to claim that only what’s marketed as Christian is Christian is absurd. The Bible and Christianity do not and cannot exist within some boundary arbitrarily created by marketers!
Certainly, I’m not advocating that we listen to Jay-Z or Kanye West for a spiritual experience, but both artists do routinely deploy religious symbols for effect, and it’s interesting to assess what exactly that means (or at least for me, as a fan of hip hop and rap). Does the protagonist Holly from the Hold Steady’s songs give us an example for how to be a better Christian? Of course not, , but we can see lyricist and vocalist Craig Finn portraying the internal struggle of one individual (and interestingly, Finn himself was raised Catholic and ends up talking about Catholicism in just about every interview). Though one would never classify the Arcade Fire’s first album “Funeral” or any of Terrence Malick’s films or the television Friday Night Lights as Christian, they most certainly are, in the broader sense!
Anyway, that’s my take, just wanted to leave a few thoughts here! I found your blog a few months ago, and I just love it! I’m a Floridian who lives in Chicago now, and I’m a huge Flannery O’Connor fan as well. Have you picked up the recently published prayer journal of hers yet? It’s fascinating!
Thank you so much! And how do you survive in Chicago winters?! One of my best friends from high school lives there now so I know it IS possible for a Florida girl but…yikes! I haven’t read Flannery’s prayer journal, yet, but I’m intrigued!
Another artist everyone should check out is Alana Marie-Boudreau. Her music appeals more to the indie crowd. Her music is not labeled Christian contemporary. She is a graduate of stuebenville.
I know I’m awfully late to this party, but I wanted to share an article I just read on the topic of Christian fiction from the NY Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/books/review/has-fiction-lost-its-faith.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0
I think Paul Elie’s perspective is interesting here. Though he doesn’t address the ‘Christian art’ industry directly, it seems that the acceptance of bad art in the Christian subculture and the resulting the ghettoization of anything religious is part and parcel of his complaint. He, also, laments the loss of great works of art (in his case, fiction) which take faith as its subject matter.
I came across the article above through this article, in which Greggory Wolfe (of Image magazine) challenges some of Elie’s ideas: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/goodletters/2014/01/the-contemporary-novel-of-belief-part-1/. This article also sites Gioia’s piece, so I thought it was an intersection you might find interesting.
1.) New reader of your blog. LOVE it!
2.) last commenter mentioned Paul Elie & his book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (about Flannery, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day) is amazing & speaks a lot to this issue of catholic art. It is a long book & I couldn’t put it down.
3.) Madeline L’Engle has a short (I read it one Sunday afternoon) book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art. A lot of amazing thoughts & quotes about this, but she agrees that the artist must always seek to portray truth & beauty. The gospel will always shine through good art whether or not it was intended to carry that message. Even if the author was not Christian themselves.
While its always particularly wonderful to find art that is good AND Catholic, I have learned more and more to be able to appreciate art for its own quality rather than the religion or theology of the writer behind it. (I’ll admit I’m not a cool kid & am not so hip on the music scene, so I don’t have a lot of recommendations – but I love Sufjan, Mumford, and Handel’s Messiah).
Graham Greene, while Catholic, was fighting his demons, unfaithful to his wife, etc. but his books are breathtakingly honest about faith & doubt.
And as for something very recent: Breaking Bad. It has ruined all other TV for me, it was that good. I have friends who have theories of a hidden gospel message in the series. I am willing to grant the themes are there (that’s why I love it so much!), but I doubt they were intended that way. Instead, the writers set out to create great art. They succeeded. And it is strangely beautiful. (But it is also very violent and heart-breaking).
Love this conversation! So glad I found your blog!
1.) Aw, thanks, Marcy!
2.) That sounds like a great book and I am literally writing it down in my “to-read” list right now.
3.)I keep hearing about that one and I’ve always loved L’Engle’s fiction.
I just read my first Greene last summer: The Power and the Glory and I loved it. And my husband LOVED Breaking Bad and says he will watch it with me if I want to start it up and I need to. You should check out the blog Through a Glass Brightly because she has a great post on Breaking Bad.
Thanks for introducing yourself! I’m so glad you’re here 🙂
Steven Allen says
A fairly well known musician, who happens to be Christian, once said to me that he didn’t believe in Christian art or secular art, there was just art. Good art or bad art; what the artist produces is a reflection of who they are, Christian or not.
Aw, Haley, why did CCM start in the first place? You said “the last 60 years”. What do you point to as the beginning? Your article would place that as 1963. Kennedy was assassinated that year. CCM was only some “beat” bands in the UK singing about God and some churches trying to have “pop” services there to reach youth. The Gospel Music Association is older than that. Are they to blame? What Christian art came before that? Have you heard of Arizona Dranes, Blind Willie Johnson, Washington Phillips, or Sister Rosetta Tharp? Is or was their music art, Christian art, or CCM? What were their motivations? I agree with you, but what’s maybe worse now is that worship music has gotten mixed in with this CCM because the CCM industry died as people shifted to liking the life that happened out of so-called Charismatic worship. Now most CCM is what is sung on Sundays as so-called contemporary worship. There is a path to the heart of God, however, and this will germinate the best art. It always has.
Oops. 1953. Kennedy would be 50 years. The term “chstismatic” would not be used until 1956. The end of the Korean war then?