Here’s a complicated issue, because I find myself straddling a line that clearly exists. First, a little background. I listen to a podcast called The Bad Christian Podcast, starring Toby Morrell and Matt Carter of the band Emery and their pastor friend Joey Svendsen, who focus on what they believe to be the realities of the world around them with the slant of Christianity. A lot of the podcast is the three hosts discussing various issues of the day, often with guests, as a means of understanding and opening up dialogue. The goal, I’d say, is to avoid people looking at them as “typical” Christian people, instead hoping that listeners see them as more open-minded and thoughtful than the stereotypes.
I find myself agreeing with them more often than not, especially in their views on the church–although maybe not as far-reaching as they are willing to go in the physical church disappearing completely–but I do recognize that the church should be doing more, especially when the world around it is calamitous and needy. The complicated issue at hand is that of the idea of worship music. Toby and Matt both have history as worship leaders, so they would know a little bit, but the essence of their argument is this: the church was once at the cutting edge of arts, and now is simply following what the secular world is doing, something they see as backwards, since the main goal of church-created art should be as a form of worship. What does it say about God, Toby often wonders, if Christian artists are willing to phone in their work more often than not? The bar seems to be low. Recreate secular sounds and add words that sound vaguely Christian, throwing in a few “God” and “Jesus” references (or, in the case of an especially appropriate example of what Toby is talking about, Danny Gokey’s “The Comeback,” which features ZERO references to either), and you’ve got yourself a Christian hit.
Toby, an excellent songwriter in his own right, took this as a challenge on an episode of the podcast, and a few weeks later, brought a few “church” songs he’d written, trying to follow the “rules” he noticed in most Christian radio songs. Weeks later, Toby recorded one of the songs–cheekily titled “Forever Rain”– and released it on iTunes in the Christian & Gospel genre; and before too long, the song was climbing up the iTunes sales charts, likely boosted mostly by podcast listeners who were in on the joke of it and were willing to spend $0.99 to push Toby’s song as high as it would go (it peaked in the top 20).
The song itself is noticeably hokey. It sounds a little like Toby stopped listening to Christian music in the ’90’s, because the sonic space it occupies resembles church music in the latter part of that decade more than most of the current hits. And yet the lyrics match the often vague nature of many of CCM’s most-loved songs (although it should be clear that there does exist many a songwriter that better understands how to connect the truth of the Bible with lyrical content), and the dynamics of the song feel accurate in relation to typical Sunday morning worship songs. The trouble is, because Toby’s listeners–both to the podcast and of his bands Emery and Matt & Toby–it is difficult to tell if “typical” consumers of Christian music are buying the song, and as of yet, Christian radio doesn’t seem to have paid attention to it at all. So maybe the joke is noted from the outside more than the creators of the song believe.
Like I said, I find myself straddling the line here. I lead worship at my church every Sunday, and so part of what I have to do is pay attention to the worship landscape in order to not continually play the same songs every week year after year. That said, I do agree with Matt and Toby (and David Crowder, who was once a guest on the podcast and said essentially the same things) that music, and all other art, made for and about God should be the best art available. Indeed, most of the best Christian art is on the fringe, and therefore isn’t generally accepted within Christianity as a whole; I, for one, believe this is pretty messed up, and this is the point that Toby, Matt and Crowder (and others like them) are making. If something is good but not easy to understand at first listen or interaction but still serves a form of worship, shouldn’t this be the type of art we want as Christians?
Part of the problem is that most art–mainstream or otherwise–is pretty lowest common denominator anyway. Crappy mainstream movies are often the biggest hits at the box office, derivative music tops the Billboard charts all the time and poorly written, but page-turner books are the best sellers in every avenue books are sold. Most of the greatest artistic expressions are independent, underground or completely unseen or unheard, and so this muddies the argument in the first place. It is pretty clear, though, that almost more than any other niche of art, Christians settle for mediocrity. To me, this is the issue, and the point at which I can fully get on board with the argument at hand.
Do I think that Christians need their own art in the first place? Absolutely. Music, movies, books and all that for Christians are necessary in the same way that these arts probably exist for other sections of society, because those people who belong to these groups deal with the world in their own way and see it through a varied lens. So to box everyone’s experiences into a single form of art would be wrong, that much is clear. The problem is that we’ve made “worship” a genre for all these things, and that forces the music, movies and books to become a copy of a copy of a copy, and so on.
Obviously as a worship leader, I see that there are certain songs that work better for corporate singing, and that we want to use songs in that setting that are Biblically truthful. But I don’t think that the rest of Christian music needs to succumb to falling into the trap of mediocrity. I should be able to worship my God in whatever musical genre I want to or in whatever form I feel is best. As an artist, and as a man of faith, this feels like the right thing to do and the most honest expression of my faith.