Major confession: Lately I’ve been listening to Christian music, pretty regularly. I even made the local Christian station a preset in my car.
For those of you who don’t know me, or don’t know me well, this is unremarkable. But I mentioned this to a friend recently and I think her jaw dropped slightly. Here’s the thing: like many of the people in my bubble, I left the clean acoustic worship music of my youth behind several years ago, in favor of musically complex and theologically sound hymns on Sundays, and “secular” music during the week. People who love things like art, liturgy, and…excellence…don’t do contemporary worship music. We scoff at it, and trade stories of how back in the day we loved Hillsong or whatever (“ugh it’s so embarrassing. I had their CD”).
But then, on Sundays, I found myself singing not only esteemed hymns, but also a selection of much more contemporary songs, most of which I really like. I also realized that it’s probably uncharitable and even unwise to totally write off a pretty significant facet of modern church culture. And, as a rule, I try not to totally hate things outright (except for maybe ISIS or something); this rule should probably extend to the many musicians who bear the same family name that I do.
Giving this genre another shot has been an interesting process. On one hand, I like that much of it is vaguely familiar, at least insofar as these folks are singing about things that I know and care about. And – and I know this sounds cliché and shallow – it feels kind of good knowing that I’ve put a significant dent in the amount of raunchy pop music that I consume. It’s probably good for my soul.
Unfortunately, I keep finding myself having to turn off the Christian station, the same way I turn off the pop station when they start singing disgusting things about women, or the alternative station when anything by Dave Matthews Band comes on. Because I think bad pop music is less damaging to my soul than bad theology (and the bitterness I feel as a result).
There are a lot of little and even subtle things going on here, but after processing it for a bit, I think it comes down to one big, central problem, which is basically a misunderstanding of the gospel.
The local Christian station tags itself as being “positive and encouraging.” The DJs sound like they haven’t stopped smiling since the 80’s. In between sets, they share squeaky clean snippets of scripture, and people call in with answered prayers and cheery stories (often to the effect of, “I was having a
shitty bad day, and then I said a prayer – and turned on this station – and everything is great now! Yay!”). But strangely enough, the stuff they sing about is weirdly depressing. There’s talk of blood, and sin, the cross, and death. They make mention of someday leaving earth. There’s a soundbite going around where an extremely famous artist claims that for him, it’s all about the cross, and the blood spilled, and that it all ends there. Bummer.
The breaking point for me was on the anniversary of 9/11, when a guy – who had been a first responder at the World Trade Center – called in to share some thoughts. This guy had witnessed one of the darkest moments in our nation’s history – senseless violence that we have gone to great lengths to rectify and further prevent.
“But I remind myself that it’s okay that all those people died,” said this presumably traumatized hero. “They’re in a better place now.”
No. No no no. That’s a heartwarming mantra reserved for people who don’t know Jesus. Christians know differently. If there’s one thing that Jesus makes clear, it’s that death is never okay – it’s the enemy, to be defeated. The good news of the gospel – the truth that gives us a reason to be “positive and encouraging” – is that the cross is not the end, the tomb is. And it’s empty.
So there’s that. I also don’t love all the smiles and positivity. I know that sounds weird and super subjective, but hear me out: When you look at the life of Christ, it’s pretty rare that he approaches brokenness, hypocrisy, and darkness with smiles, hugs, and trite remarks. He’s actually pretty badass sometimes, maybe even unpleasant to be around. At the very least, he’s incarnate. Jesus doesn’t whitewash sadness and suffering – he was literally birthed into it, and redeemed the darkness from within. And now, for us, the Christian life isn’t easy and cheery, because real life isn’t easy and cheery. Sometimes it sucks. Robust relationships can be messy and even discouraging. “Positive and encouraging” is just so inauthentic, and doesn’t do the gospel justice. Because Jesus is alive, our hope is surprising and our salvation is full. We can know brokenness, look it head-on, and experience it fully and authentically, because a time is coming where it will be just a memory.
Instead of “positive,” give me something good.
Instead of “encouraging,” give me something true.
This is all pretty harsh, I know. And I don’t want to totally reject all contemporary worship music, because that would be antithetical to the point of this post, and also unfair. There’s definitely good worship music out there. I just wish they’d play it on the radio.