Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Your Favorite Christian Rock Band--More Dysfunctional Religious Music

If my recent story about a Christian rock radio promoter made you chuckle or shake your head, I have a related story for you.

During practice for contemporary worship[1] one night somehow we got onto the topic of favorite bands.  One of the older members of the team claimed Christian rock band, Skillet, was his favorite.  To my knowledge, Skillet has never had a member who wasn't years younger than me, and the guy claiming they were his favorite band was at least fifteen years older than me.  Add to that the fact that he'd never expressed any interest in more current sounds and maybe I can be excused for blurting out "No, they aren't!"

It was rude, and I shouldn't have said it.  Older people can enjoy youth oriented music.  It doesn't make you creepy or a poser.  Not automatically, anyway.

The real problem is his response to my blurt.  "Well, they have a really great ministry."  

Has anybody, ever, claimed that Handel was the greatest composer of his time because of anything he said? Has anyone ever said that about Handel because of the words of any of his compositions?  OK, let's move away from critical claims to "he's my favorite."  Is Messiah anybody's favorite choral work because they think it has spurred more religious conversions than some other cantata?  

I'm not saying that proselytism is either bad or unimportant.  I am saying it doesn't make music better.  I am also saying it isn't a reason to call a band you can't relate to in any other regard your "favorite band."  Well, I guess if that's all that is important to you I guess it is a good reason, but then it might as well be some other sort of outreach ministry or a conventional evangelist.  If that's the focus, does the music matter at all?  Are they your favorite band, or are they your favorite musical evangelistic ministry?

I went to grad school with John M. Streck.  At the time he had just finished a research project that would eventually lead to co-authoring one of the first scholarly books on CCM.  I was at the height of my devotion to the idea of Christian music and was taken aback when he said to me that many "Christian rock bands" should not be thought of as bands, because bands have an independent existence.  Bands that hold alter calls at their concerts and refer the people (mostly teenagers) who respond to local churches or who perform other youth ministry functions are arms of the evangelical church.  They can't function without their relationship to churches and other ministries.

These types of bands are sometimes called "ministry bands."  This distinguishes them from bands or artists that have some religious angle but don't sell blocks of tickets to churches, do little or no preaching from the stage and promote themselves based on the merits of their performances and recordings.  On occasion a band will moved from one category to the other, but they may need to change their name.

I don't remember whether it was Bob Hartman or one of the other members of Petra, but one of them, in an old interview in CCM Magazine said "If you aren't providing answers you don't belong in Christian music."  This reflects a view of the role of music that, to me, is completely incompatible with passionately pursuing any kind of creative work.  If it is all about ministry and "providing answers" it isn't about you, it isn't about the music, it isn't about honesty, it isn't about creativity...it isn't even about the truth...unless you already know the truth, in it's entirety, and it's just a matter of repeating it, over and over.

And that would be really, really boring.

One more outrage, and then I'll let this go for the time being.  I was talking to a Christian radio DJ.  Amy Grant had just put out a new record and, predictably, it wasn't Christian enough for some people, including this guy.[2]  I stuck up for her in this conversation, saying she had different things to say on this record.  She didn't need to keep making the same record over and over, saying the same things.  His response was, "Is everybody saved?  Nobody still needs to hear the gospel?  What else does she need to say that is so much more important?"

That, friends, is the final word.  That is the evangelical angle on the role of music.  If you aren't Billy Graham with a beat, you are wasting everybody's time.  No wonder so much Christian music is absolutely terrible and insultingly stupid.  The artists are only allowed to say one thing[3].  Over and over.

[1] That's all this church had--contemporary music.
[2] Although her name is synonymous in many minds with CCM (and therefore it's failings) I actually think very highly of her.  She has way more talent and integrity than a lot of people give her credit for, and she's paid for that in dwindling popularity over the decades.  I don't love her music, but I think she is smart, talented and knows exactly what she is doing, and always has.
[3]  Actually, Christian artists break this rule all the time, but it is one of the attitudes they face from the church.  They are constantly pressured to justify what they do and a strong evangelistic message opens a lot of doors with church leaders and Christian media.  If you don't have obvious "ministry value" you may be in the position of doing a lot of explaining about what makes your music Christian or what your ministry actually is.

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