Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Some Thoughts on Christian Music

All right. Most people who know me already know this about me, but for those who don't and keep getting surprised when I say something about this, I wanted to write up something about my stance on this so when people ask, I have an easy place to point them to.

Here's the deal: I am a Christian, but I really dislike Christian music.

This tends to surprise (and occasionally dismay) my Christian friends, so I wanted to give a bit of an explanation here.

I used to like it. I didn't really get into music at all until middle school, and at that point wasn't allowed to listen to anything but Christian music, so I devoured all I could. I bought SO many Christian CDs, even artists I'd never heard of (but their cover art looked SO COOL) and listened to Christian radio all the time. As I got older and started listening to other stuff beyond just what the Christian music industry was making, I began realizing that a lot of the Christian stuff I liked... I didn't really like anymore. The sound wasn't as good as I remembered, the singing wasn't as good, and while the lyrics did technically state things I agreed with, almost none of them touched me emotionally.

I don't remember a specific point where I stopped liking Christian music. No big epiphany or anything. It just kind of came on gradually. I kept buying the WoW compilation albums and the new albums from my favorite artists, but after one or two listens I'd find nothing in any of the songs really meant much of anything to me. I have a whole bunch of Christian CDs sitting around somewhere that I have never finished listening to.

Let me quickly note that this had nothing to do with how my personal relationship with God was going. In fact, this all started happening right after high school, shortly after I recommitted my life to God. At first I felt like a bad Christian, recommitting to God and then finding that I didn't like any of the songs people were singing about him. Heh. And as I've continued to grow closer to God, I *still* don't like most of these songs (but I don't feel guilty about it anymore).

The main two reasons I feel spiritually disconnected from most Christian music (there are many, but then this blog would be forever long, so here are the biggies):

1. It doesn't tackle the tough stuff.
This is changing a little bit, and there have always been a few artists unafraid to deal with the melancholy (Jars of Clay and Nichole Nordeman come to mind), but for the most part, Christian music is incredibly upbeat. It rarely acknowledges feelings of doubt, anxiety, anger at God or unexplained distance from Him, all of which I have dealt with and still deal with today. I began to feel that either the musicians were being dishonest about feeling close to God all the time, or they honestly never (or seldom) had these feelings, which meant they had a relationship with God that I couldn't identify with at all.

I said to someone recently that sometimes the worst part of dealing with depression or severe melancholia is feeling that you're all alone in this, and the Christian music I listened to only enforced that feeling: that either I was the only Christian with these feelings, or my responsibility was to just shove them down and ignore them and then I wouldn't feel them anymore.

For a religious group that focuses so much on the idea of humans as flawed, sinful beings, we seem to be very afraid to actually deal with that in our music.

2. It's very impersonal.
Sometimes I hear a silly pop love ballad on the radio and think, "Well, that was clearly written with nobody specific in mind." There's no sense of who it's being sung to, as well as no real sense of how the other person actually makes the singer *feel*. It uses words like "love" and "beautiful" and phrases like "I can't live without you" that are so generic they are easily transferrable to anyone in any romantic situation, and couples everywhere whose stories have nothing whatsoever in common can claim, "This is our song."

This is the flip side of a positive intention in Christian music - the desire for it to be universal, the desire to make songs other people can relate to. This is especially true for worship music, which is meant to be sung by a large, diverse group of people - they want it to be something everyone can sing along to and mean it. It's a nice idea. It just doesn't work for me. At all.

One of my very favorite love songs is "Someone Else's Clothes" by Jason Robert Brown, which opens with these lyrics:

I started smiling.
It’s not my style,
But it’s been highly recommended that I smile,
So I’ve been grinning
And, sad to say,
I think I like it.

JRB's one of my favorite musicians because his lyrics are *so* personal and *so* specific. Those lyrics up there don't apply to just anybody - they're about him. They're about someone who's a little grumpy, a little melancholy, and finds himself being (almost begrudgingly) nudged along to a happier way of life by the person he loves. That may not describe everyone. It doesn't entirely describe me (although I do frequently connect to his lyrics). But you can feel his personality through the song, which creates a stronger connection to the song for those who have similar personalities, and paints a delightful picture for those whose personalities are different. He's not singing about an abstract love for someone abstractly beautiful and feeling abstract chills when they abstractly touch. He's singing about himself and someone else, and the song knows exactly who that someone else is.

Christian worship songs all kind of mush into one big pot of cliche stew, where none of the phrases have to mean anything specific, just evoke a vague idea. Sometimes it feels like some sort of fill-in-the-blank madlibs. I once did an experiment where I put all the lyrics of a certain worship band into a randomizer, shuffled them all up, and read the first 10 lines or so out loud. Apart from the fact that it didn't rhyme, my siblings and I all agreed it sounded exactly like any other song from the band. Their lyrics were so interchangeable that it didn't even matter which order they came in.

I don't want love songs with interchangeable lyrics. Those aren't personal or interesting or anything I can even hope to relate to.

In Conclusion...
So. That's the main deal. It's hard for me to find Christian songs or artists to connect with because of those reasons. I find myself feeling frustrated and alienated by most of them, like these people are living in a world I've never been to and having a relationship with God I've only experienced on the occasional missions trip.

Ending on a positive note, here are a few Christian songs that *do* connect to me and my relationship to God:
1. Brian & Jenn Johnson - A Little Longer. There's a story behind this one. I'll share it sometime.
2. Chris Rice - I Need a Hero. Can't find a good link, unfortunately.

And, as an added bonus, a few not-at-all-Christian songs that make me feel close to God:


  1. My own faith has waxed and waned over the years. When I was in high school, my mom got really into Christian music. I thought most of it was generic and lame then. I may have just been harsh, of course.

    My genre of choice is country. There have always been songs of faith in country music. It's gotten to be entirely bothersome since 9/11, with an endless parade of "I'm Christian and proud and I won't apologize for it" anthems that conflate Christianity with patriotism and all the other knee-jerk themes that have basically driven me out of mainstream country over the last several years.

    I think a big reason for my feelings on the music is that I'm generally very private about my faith. I don't think of it as membership in a club, but rather about my personal relationship with God. If a song isn't done just right, I'm very likely to just find it crass, tacky and self-serving.

    All that cynicism aside, though, when I encounter a sincere song about faith, I always feel it on a very personal level.

    Johnny Cash had a way with such material that made it seem the most authentic expression of devout faith that a human being could have. I loved Randy Travis's "Three Wooden Crosses" (his various Christian/gospel albums have all been quite well produced). Kris Kristofferson's "Why Me" is still one of the greatest songs I've ever heard about one's relationship with God.

  2. Although I'm not really a fan of country, I do appreciate how vulnerable a genre it is. The songs are very personal and have a very authentic feel to them, most of the time. I'm not surprised at all that there are some excellent spiritual songs in the genre. I will have to check out the ones you mentioned. (I have heard a few of Johnny Cash's gospel songs and was indeed impressed.)

    I like your point about being private about your faith. That's a big part of it for me - my faith is very much about my *personal* connection to God, so songs about God that aren't very personal tend to be lost on me. I think there is an aspect of Christianity that is communal (I think at its best, church worship is supposed to do that - bring people together to affirm their faiths as a whole) but right now Christian music is so focused on community and trying to appeal to everyone that it has very little to do with individuals and their personal relationships with God.

  3. Unpublished for no good reason I can see! Well written.

  4. Thank you, lacyndarella! Thanks for checking out the blog. :)

  5. This is fantastic! Great post Hannah!