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