catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 3 :: 2005.02.11 — 2005.02.24


Unsound rock

Every few years, it happens?contemporary Christian music takes center stage in the mainstream media. The most recent CCM flare-up happened this fall, a direct result of George W. Bush?s victory in the presidential election. Evangelical Christians, went the media buzz, were largely responsible for electing the incumbent. Religious Red Staters suddenly found themselves under the microscope for their alleged influence, and it didn?t take long for the press to start rehashing clich?s about the ?seismic shift? in the cultural landscape, as evidenced by the rising popularity of overtly Christian music on mainstream charts.

This coverage came to a head with a 60 Minutes television special that positioned God-rockers Third Day on the avant-garde of CCM. A wave of d?j? vu washed over me as I watched. Hadn?t we been through this ?seismic shift??same band, same triumphalist crossover message?back in 1997? And then again circa 2002? My d?j? vu was quickly replaced by a familiar sense of dread: did this mean I was going to have to write another commentary about the shortcomings of the Christian music ghetto and the artistic poverty of its inhabitants?

Such kvetchfests are the predictable counterparts of the rah-rah reporting that surrounds any mainstream coverage of contemporary Christian music. (Take, for instance, an excellent feature story about the Creation Festival in this January?s GQ, in which writer John Jeremiah Sullivan pens a nuanced litany of CCM aggravations with the insight of the true believer?and Petra fan?he once was.) I know these rants, because I have written a bunch of them. In fact, I spent most of college trying to convince people of CCM?s failure via a now-defunct Internet magazine called Bandoppler Radio.

Since the last time I published one of these little ditties, though, a few elements in the subcultural climate have shifted. For one thing, a magazine called Relevant

has gained popularity among young evangelicals who are as committed to being cool and culturally savvy as they are to Christian discipleship. I would wager a guess that most of Relevant?s readership has inappropriately moshed at a dcTalk concert, prayed for sexual purity with Rebecca St. James at a Christian festival, or sported a Supertones t-shirt (remember the one that spoofed the Sunkist logo? I bet evangelical memoirist Patton Dodd does).

Now, as young adults, these former CCM fans are finding walls going up around them in a different kind of ghetto. This new subculture encourages them to reminisce fondly about the music of their youth while skewering current CCM acts, all the time hailing Christian bands with enough of a cool quotient to achieve mainstream success. CCM is largely seen as lame and derivative, but its cardinal sin is that it?s ?irrelevant??so hopelessly bad, so lyrically and artistically clueless, that the mainstream couldn?t possibly take it seriously, thus dismissing its message.

You can?t really blame this crowd for mocking CCM. It is quite worthy of the derision it receives. And the industry only becomes more pathetic as it clings desperately to an audience that is no longer forced to darken the doorstep of a Christian bookstore to purchase albums by upbeat crossover success stories like Stacie Orrico and Switchfoot.

But what happens when the fact that CCM is ?lame? and ?irrelevant? becomes the sole reason Christians don?t listen to it? We snark and we smirk about it in an effort to neutralize the embarrassment the industry has been (and continues to be) to evangelical Christians. This behavior distances hip, young Christians from being too closely associated with it, but fails to address the deeper, theological issues with contemporary Christian music.

Perhaps you think I?m overstating the situation, here. After all, it?s just a musical genre, right? Who cares. But I think it?s a mistake to dismiss CCM as innocuous. Not because CCM is horrifyingly inartistic (although it is that) and not because it gives Christians a bad name (which it does), but because it?s theologically dangerous. CCM?s perspective on evil translates into an assumption that sin is escapable rather than pervasive, that it is ?out there? rather than something that inhabits and plagues all of us, that choosing one?s music based on the record label that releases it is a sure-fire way to fill your mind with things that are lovely and pure, while automatically filtering out that which offends God. By positioning itself as a ?safe zone,? CCM does not take the insidious nature of evil seriously enough. My colleague Ken Heffner puts it this way: ?CCM is hurting us, because it lies to people. It tells them that the cost of discipleship is changing the slogans that come out of your mouth, not losing your life. It tells them that if you want to be safe in this world, all you have to do is buy our stuff.?

But the assumptions that made this approach possible are crumbling. A few major media conglomerates have purchased smaller companies, meaning that even CCM is owned and distributed by mainstream labels. This destroys the myth that ?godly? music can be defined according to whether its artists reside with particular, sanctioned record companies; there is no longer any safe zone to appeal to. Meanwhile, the CCM ghetto is not only experiencing a massive hemorrhage of its stars to a more accepting mainstream?but would-be stars are never showing up in the first place. GQ writer Sullivan points out in his article that ?[The] question that must be asked is whether a hard-core Christian who turns 19 and finds he or she can write first-rate songs? would ever have anything whatsoever to do with Christian rock.? He concludes they wouldn?t, and he is right. Many young, born-again artists today simply bypass the wading pool of CCM and go off the deep end into a mainstream record deal.

In spite of these factors, I do not expect CCM to die a natural death. There is too much at stake for its investors, many of whom truly believe in what they?re doing. Despite its sluggishness in setting cultural trends, CCM has the eerie ability to reconfigure itself in order to survive. We need a better solution than ?let?s pretend it doesn?t exist and maybe it will go away.?

I don?t imagine, however, that it will take a full-scale, all-out culture war. The most promising ideas I?ve seen are interpersonal, guerrilla tactics, some of them originating with my friend and colleague, James Stewart. A writer, web programmer, and cultural gadfly, James discovered contemporary Christian music via the Greenbelt festival as a teenager in the U.K. Because of Greenbelt?s influence, his understanding of faith-informed music was always an integrated one, and over time, he?s developed a sustained and insightful critique of the industry that aims to change it. When I asked him why he continues to care about an industry that seems completely incorrigible in its wrong-headed theology, he replied that it?s bigger than that: ?If more Christians were involved in the pursuit of art, perhaps the tone of debate around all areas of life in Christ would rise.?

James? own recent efforts to improve ?the tone of debate? have taken place in the blogosphere; he pointed out the theological shortcomings inherent to a new venture called Christian Music Makeover and ended up having a lively debate with the show?s producer, Brian Mayes. As the conversation emerged, James contacted various CCM websites to let them know that concerns were being raised about the show?s methods and intent because, as he said, ?the same lack of critique, retreat from debate, and genuflecting to a set of assumptions that allows people to buy this dross, gently supports an uncritical acceptance that God takes partisan sides.? Is it any surprise that this theological problem affects more than just CCM?

In an attempt to move from rhetorical critique to action, James and some of his friends are working to create an alternative event that will run concurrent with Gospel Music Association (GMA) week, the annual Nashvegas gala whose capstone is the Dove Awards. The ?GMA fringe? will be based out of a local Presbyterian church and, in addition to critiquing the underlying assumptions of GMA, it will feature a program of events that stand on their own merit as excellent creative acts. ?We decided that the best approach is to produce something with a value that stands outside of the critique it presents,? James says. ?I think that will allow us to demonstrate both the critical and constructive power of this thing called art.?

If the worldview assumptions that make CCM possible continue to crumble, and people like James continue hacking at it in a creative way, we may just see the walls of the ghetto come tumbling down. Sometimes it takes tearing down the old before you start building something new. And when that happens for Christian music, you?ll never have to read another commentary like this again.

Visit Kate’s blog to read the full conversation with James Stewart.

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