I’m all bent out of shape, as per usual.
I’m going to quote some things that I don’t fully understand and of which I don’t wholly know the context, so I’ll be leaving out some names and places. A guy I met through a syndicated radio show/podcast who I like to think is becoming a friend of mine was at some variety of songwriter/Christian music conference today. He was tweeting quotes from the event presenters. A few were good profound stuff; some less so. One caught my eye in particular and just didn’t sit well:
“It’s OK to write hooky pop songs out of a loving desire to serve soccer moms and CCM listeners.”
I responded to that tweet, expressing the slight twist of stomach that I’d felt upon reading it. My friend explained the statement (I don’t know if his response was from his own thoughts or from the words of the speaker), suggesting that perhaps the main point behind the original statement was the biblical model of reaching people in their indigenous tongue. Something about overcoming judgment of a audience and serving them. Setting aside the over-the-top comparison of CCM to Pentecost, I still balk.
I do appreciate the sentiment of reaching someone in a familiar voice, for the purpose of furthering the kingdom. If it’s done authentically. Even more so if it can be done naturally, indigenous person to indigenous person, the model followed by the missionary organization Gospel For Asia. But when you enter the world of the arts, I get all jumpy when people start identifying their audience as a defense of their product. I would like to think that art, particularly art that derives inspiration of God or is created to honor God would begin with the unique voice/imagination of the artist and if that art found an audience, so be it. With gratitude.
Here’s a difference in tone. I played a show last spring opening for a worship band from Knoxville at a youth event at a local church here in Chattanooga. They were a praise & worship band to the hilt, complete with engaging banter and silly hand movements–the lot. I sat at our merch table after our set, quietly dismissing them in my mind. But after the show, the singer and I were talking and he said something interesting: “Yeah man, I dig what you guys were doing. I actually prefer the singer/songwriter thing, myself. But sometimes God calls you to sing to 7th graders, know what I mean?” It slapped my perspective in the face. Here was a singer/songwriter with a unique voice that was tailoring that voice to a distinct call.
So what’s the difference?
The guy from last spring was living his life in pursuit of a call, grateful for an outlet for artistic expression. The guy I heard today sounded like he had identified a consumer demographic with a proven track record of purchasing a certain type of music, of which he would happily supply them. The appeal to indigenous voices didn’t sit well with me either; the biblical purpose of reaching out in indigenous voices was to engage, deepen, and move to new understanding of God, primarily to those unfamiliar with God. Targeting soccer moms (generally comfortable, middle-class) CCM listeners (not often a hotbed of those clamoring for new theological or spiritual concepts) seems to begin with the end in order to determine the means. And then declare it “OK.” As in, “That was OK, good and faithful servant.”
I’m not trying to jump down this guy’s throat. Promise. I just think that his approach is indicative of the larger problem in Christian music in general: artists trying to make the next best use of what’s already determined to be popular or at least acceptable to mainstream Christianity. Which creates a sad sea of what already is for the voices of what might be to drown in. Every now and then there are whispers of what could be. My friend’s radio program is one of those whispers. Mark Mathis is one of those whispers. Darkwood Brew is whispering well, acknowledging “You might not like this,” in its promotional material. I wish there were more.
I recently stumbled upon another such whisper in the form of an artist collective called The Opiate Mass out of Seattle. After downloading some of their music, available for free from their website, I received an email from the band leader–just making sure everything downloaded OK. We got into a bit of conversation about it. I thanked him deeply for creating music that clearly had commercial intent on the back burner. I happened to like most of what they’d created, but I’m always drawn to art created for art’s sake. He responded with gratitude, and summed up these last 800 words in a couple of sentences:
“Yes, there is a lot of shlock out there that’s aiming to serve a lot of different functions and markets. It’s a high artistic challenge to know when to care and not care about the audience’s perceived needs. You kinda have to give a sh*t, but not too much.”
My real beef, I suppose, stems as usual from what’s happened to the movement of worship. Popular music in worship calls off the search for local voices, which essentially discourages the local body from finding its own voice in worship. But the music that takes its place is popular, which means that God likes it. I mean that we like it. “We like it” established on Sunday, it’s a natural follow-through that a “we like it” Christian sub-culture should develop to sustain us through the rest of the week. So instead of engaging the culture around her in its indigenous language, our CCM-listening soccer mom waits for a hooky, pop song to talk to her in her language. Oh, there’s one now.
Last thought about local voices in worship: we’d have to learn to trade off radio-quality for genuine expression. It might not be good. But it would be real. Two weeks ago I challenged the youth in our church’s ministry to each generate a lyric that related a God that they couldn’t wholly comprehend to something that they could, with the promise to attempt to cobble them together into a song.
The lyrics weren’t great. “God protects me like a cop.” “Backs me up like a hard drive.” “God watches me like I watch TV.” But when I presented them with their completed work and taught them the tune I heard singing like I hadn’t heard in years. They were raising their voices in praise that they had created.
And you won’t be hearing that on the radio.