It's somewhat fitting that on the heels of Christian music's biggest showcase—GMA Week and the annual GMA Music Awards—we would post a commentary about the state of the industry. Radio personality and cultural analyst Dick Staub, in a recent blog on his website, recounted a recent panel discussion where he spoke with conviction in a rant against the Christian music business. But when he woke up the next day, he seemed to hear the voice of God, also speaking with conviction . . . in the truest sense of the word. Instead of asking, "What's wrong with CCM?", Staub found himself asking, "What's wrong with me?"
I recently participated in a panel at Seattle Pacific University on the subject of popular music, with a particular focus on contemporary Christian music (CCM).
I found myself particularly feisty in my negative comments about CCM and awoke the next morning asking myself why. Three words came to mind: cocooning, counterfeit, and commercialism.
CCM represents the "cocooning" I've spent most of my adult life trying to avoid. Anytime Christians set up a parallel universe to the "real world," we are operating counter to Jesus, who was sent into the world because of God's love, spent his everyday life "in the world" at parties and in the public square, and then commanded his disciples to Matthew 28:19-20go into the world.
CCM concerts and radio stations regularly advertise themselves as "safe" places, by which they mean only "nice" is spoken here; we will not offend you. Parents are urged to encourage their kids to listen to CCM because their kids will avoid the "nasty" music out there in the world—and yet, ironically, the format (at least with most Christian radio) is actually targeted at the 35-year-old housewife, not the kids!
The more cynical among us could read all this as code for happy, silly Christians smiling goofily as if on a Disneyland ride. But like all seduction, the cocooning model is a half-truth. There is bad stuff out there in "the world," and parents are supposed to protect their kids while preparing for them for the real world. There is inspiration in the gospel, but like all half-truths, when you eat the fruit that looks good, like Eve, you may be surprised at the consequences.
Counterfeit lyrical content and aesthetic is the byproduct of a musical format aimed at cocooning ourselves from the world instead of going into the world and preparing our kids to do the same. The one thing a true artist does is tell the truth, and the one thing CCM assiduously avoids is telling the full truth about life, the human condition, our fallen-ness.
When you aim for "safe," you arrive at a counterfeit gospel, for not only is the world not safe, neither is God. Remember C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Lucy asks Mrs. Beaver if Aslan the Lion (Christ) is safe. Mr. Beaver replies, "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."
For those who know real life, any endeavor claiming to be art and represent the gospel—yet aiming for "safe and inspirational"—is a poser and will not ring true. If we fail to tell the truth about our human condition, which requires nastiness and messiness and is not all that inspirational, we will be unable to explore the riches and depth of the gospel, which is about restoring all that unraveled in the Fall. That means Jesus wants to shine a light on every dirty, shameful little secret corner of your life and mine and then begin the process of dealing with it.
One thing "pagan" music is really good at is being honest about dirty, shameful secrets—weird how it rings truer than "inspirational pop," huh? Annie Dillard got it right when she described today's Christians as brainless tourists on a packaged trip to the "Absolute." In Teaching a Stone to Talk, she writes, "On the whole I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anybody have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may draw us out to where we can never return."
As if cocooning and being aesthetic and lyrical counterfeits aren't bad enough, there are actually people who have the gall to make a lot of money off this scam. The '90s saw the emergence of evangelicals as a political force, but when it comes to CCM what is really important is their emergence as a commercial force. Evangelicals, unencumbered by a radical gospel about sacrificially serving and loving others, and having replaced it with a gospel of personal, familial and professional success, have been freed to generate vast sums of money and then spend it on themselves and their kids; CCM is the beneficiary of this largesse. Busy working, unable to spend adequate time with their kids, parents want a safe place for their young ones, and CCM, with its wholesome artists, simulated rock concerts and bubbly, chirpy syrupy local DJs playing anesthetizingly harmless music. is just the place.
By now I hope you understand I've been describing a worse-case scenario for CCM. I know the other side of the story. Christians didn't initially choose this cocoon; artists like Keith Green and Larry Norman got "pushed out" of mainstream, and an alternative distribution stream was opened up for these legitimate artists who loved rock and roll and had just discovered Jesus. Artists who are Christian still have difficulty breaking into mainstream distribution channels. The music isn't all lyrically and aesthetically bankrupt. Not everybody in CCM is getting rich, and it is not totally driven by money, but it is a big business. And it is doing some good. Kids come to faith, grow in faith and are piloted through the life's turmoil by the artists and music produced in CCM.
A lot of people in the CCM industry would agree with every concern I've raised, and I raise them in the extreme, in part, to get the attention of Christians who aren't thinking about faith and culture and the relationship between the two.
God shows up
So I arose that morning after the panel armed with these three "C's" (cocooning, counterfeit and commercialism), smug and satisfied with my rationalization about why I was so feisty and negative about CCM the previous night.
And then God showed up.
That is where the fourth C showed up, and it wasn't about CCM. It was about me: Conviction.
What I realized that morning was how absolutely prideful it is for me to tell God what kind of tools can be used in shaping people. One of my fellow panelists that night, an artist, confessed that she had become a Christian through a "cheesy Christian novel," adding, "I hate those things." It reminded me of Lauren Winner who similarly was warmed to faith by a Jan Karon novel and bemoaned the fact that it wasn't Dostoevsky or something literarily substantial that wooed her to God. And one young man in the audience at our panel discussion professed to be uninterested in the aesthetic of the "artistic" groups being promoted as lyrically and musically valid, and instead came to Jesus through the praise-and-worship scene.
Here is what God wanted me to understand: The truly amazing thing is that he could use me. I am free to state my concerns about the spiritually and aesthetically bankrupt faith and culture around me, so long as I don't lose sight of the spiritual and aesthetic flaws within me. The truly amazing thing is not that God does not rise up and smite CCM. The truly amazing thing is that God does not rise up and smite me.
It is called God's grace, and understanding this makes a person humble. And not being humble is one thing I consistently do really well.
Which reminds me of G.K. Chesterton, who once responded to a newspaper's essay contest that asked what's most wrong with the world. Chesterton's award-winning response, just two words long, was true and applicable for me today. His answer to what's wrong with the world?
This essay originally appeared at DickStaub.com. Abridged and reprinted with the author's permission.
Dick Staub, an award-winning radio personality and the president of the Center for Faith and Culture, has just released a new book, Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters. The book is filled with anecdotes from the Star Wars films that serve as a launching pad into rediscovering authentic Christianity. It also contains quotes from revered "Jedi Christians" such as Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, the Apostle Paul, G. K. Chesterton, and other theologians, mystics, writers, and philosophers.
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