Why "Christian" Music Is Often So Bad


If you know me at all, or even if you’ve just barely browsed this site, you know that I love music. Music of all kinds. Music from all places. Music for all faces.

And I am a Christian.

But, generally speaking, I do not love “Christian” music. I do not even like most “Christian” music. First of all, “Christian” is not a genre. Slapping a religious moniker in front of any word does not make the content any more religious, any more meaningful, or necessarily mean that it’s good.

Flip through the radio stations in just about any city in the US and you can immediately spot the “Christian” station even before the lyrics. You know it as soon as the music comes on. There’s just something about the sheen. It all seems to be produced in the same shiny music factory. But I’m already digressing and I’ve barely just begun.

But, many well-intentioned Christians just don’t seem to be too concerned with the quality of the music that bears their name. Or maybe they think it’s actually good. After all, they have their own awards shows, right? Who would give an award to something that’s not good, right?! But again I digress.

We could talk about the protectionism embedded in much of American Christianity. We are taught to fear the surrounding culture and withdraw by replacing things with their “Christian” equivalent. But, I think there are a couple of more immediate reasons why so I am disappointed by so much of what claims to be “Christian” music.

Point Of Purchase Discernment

One of the biggest reasons that so much “Christian” music is not that good is that many Christians are not good at discernment. By and large, in most American churches, we have not been trained in how to apply biblical wisdom to our own lives so that we become transformed by God’s grace. Much less do people feel comfortable examining an artist’s lyrics in detail to discern a worldview, because we’re not all that sure we can clarify ours other than believing people need to get saved. In short, many “American Christians” are simply not good at discernment.

As a result, the entire “discernment” process of supporting an art like music becomes outsourced. It becomes a “point of purchase” decision. Many people simply believe that if you buy something at a “Christian” store, that means that it’s good for your Christianity. For many, it doesn’t even matter if it is good or not, just that it’s “Christian.” That way, we know it supports our faith. And it’s a much easier approach than trying to process the worldview of a musician we don’t know. Why go through all that trouble when I can just go to the “Christian” store and buy something safe.

We just want to protect our kids from the evils of the “Secular World,” and we can’t listen to everything they do and analyze it and talk about it with them to help them develop their own discernment. It’s just safer (and easier) to buy them music approved by the “Christian” bookstore gatekeepers.

I’m not going to spend time debunking this point. If you don’t see the problem, then the rest of this post probably isn’t for you anyway.

Pragmatic/Utilitarian Understanding of Art

In addition, many American Christians have inadvertently adopted a Pragmatic/Utilitarian Understanding of Art in which something music is meant to serve a purpose. It’s not enough that something exist as art for art’s sake. It’s not enough that a musician wrote a moving piece of music because they themselves had been moved. What purpose does that serve? How does that accomplish the salvation of souls or the glorification of God?

Many well-intentioned Christians have come to believe that music exists for one of two primary purposes: to be evangelistic or praise and worship. Art, including music, is meant to serve one of these two purposes.

If evangelism is the primary driving consideration, then it’s the message that matters most, which is the lyrics, and then we have to find out the best way to get our message out, so let’s find out what the “other kids” are listening to, and then mimic the music, replace the lyrics and make sure they get our message?! In other words, we look to the “secular culture” to see what music is popular, we recreate it without the sincerity, replace the lyrics and then try to feed it back to the culture and can’t understand why no one likes our music. It must be persecution. And then there’s “praise and worship” music is fine since it’s already accepted our evangelism.

So, “Christian” bookstores stock themselves with bands that sound like popular bands but with a better message, or music already meant only for Christian use as praise and worship. Of course there are other factors here beyond a utilitarian understanding of art in general and music in particular. For example, many Christians believe that the “salvation of souls” trumps everything else, which only feeds the utilitarian approach. And, for some odd reason many well-intentioned Christians often believe that seeking pleasure for pleasure’s sake is somehow sinful. So of course art can’t exist just for art’s sake. Tie all of this in with corporations that exploit well-intentioned Christians for profit and here we find ourselves.

Believe it or not, there was once a time when Christians were at the vanguard of the arts. It’s time to regain that perspective and practice and demand more. Demand more not just of our artists but of ourselves. The breadth and depth of human experience is sure worth more than a comparison chart. Shouldn’t we be encouraging the greatest art because we have the least to lose?

Americans: Stop Confusing Your Personal Cultural Values With Christianity


America has often been less than clear about its relationship with Christianity. On one hand, we claim to be a “Christian” nation. Yet, on the other hand, American culture itself, with an emphasis on individualism, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and the pursuit of comfort, is often antithetical to Christianity.

It seems that the two are often at battle with one another and, as Alan Wolfe argues in The Transformation of American Religion, it’s not always clear that Christianity wins: “In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture - and American culture has triumphed.” And just in case he hasn’t been clear enough, he argues that: “the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.”

While America has certainly benefitted from Christians and claims to adopt general Judeo-Christian worldviews, it is sadly the case that Christianity in American often ends up looking more like America than making America resemble Christianity. What happens with many is that American Values/Patriotism become so enmeshed with their Christianity that they cannot tell the difference. We see this in such such silly things as states mandating schools emblazon “In God We Trust” across school walls. That is not Christianity, it’s authoritarian civic religion but frankly, many people can’t seem to tell the difference.

Many people have a certain set of cultural values that they confuse with Christianity. They engage in a culture war believing that they are fighting for Christianity when they are not. We’ve seen this most recently with Ted Cruz and others who argue that the Second Amendment is a “god-given right.” Ted Cruz and Alyssa Milano will soon be meeting to discuss this very idea (Shane Claiborne weighed in on Facebook). American culture is weird, man.

In 2018, “pastor” Robert Jeffress put this faulty understanding on display when he defended president Trump to NPR. Rachel Martin asks Jeffress to explain why/how Jeffress believes that Christians in America are actually persecuted. Read the exchange here:

JEFFRESS: Well, I think there are certainly ways in which they have been marginalized. And I mean, here's the question you have to ask yourself. I mean, why is it that, for the first 150 years of our nation's history, prayer in schools, reading the Bible, Nativity displays - all of those things were not only allowed but they were welcomed? But then suddenly, 70 years ago, the Supreme Court decides these things are unconstitutional. I ask liberals all the time, what changed suddenly?

MARTIN: It became more religiously diverse, the country.

JEFFRESS: What did - but did the Constitution change? No. The establishment clause of the First Amendment simply says Congress cannot establish a state religion. That's what it says. But somehow, that has been perverted and twisted into outlawing prayer and Bible-reading. That's what I'm talking about. That's the marginalization of Christianity. And I believe that's why evangelicals are rallying around this president who recognizes that marginalization.

Jeffress doesn’t specifically mention cashiers saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” or Starbucks cups, but he might as well. His explanation of why he believes that Christians are marginalized is that prayer and bible reading are not mandated in schools, and public Nativity scenes have been challenged. In other words, what Jeffress laments is not an attack on Christianity but on its preferred cultural position. Jeffress laments that Christianity is no longer the de facto cultural position of America. He doesn’t mention anything of substance and nothing he mentions is persecution or even marginalization. But he frames it in fear and as an attack on his beliefs.

He has confused his personal cultural preferences with Christianity. And he is not alone. Being a “Christian” country does not mean that we demand that everyone act the way we think and subscribe to what we call “traditional values.” Christians lay down their rights for the good of others. Yet, Cruz, Jeffress and their ilk do the exact opposite. They warn us that Muslims want to enforce Sharia Law while not seeing the log in their own eyes.

If these people really wanted people to think that America is a “Christian” nation, wouldn’t it be powerful if they were known for their love (John 13:35)? for clothing and feeding the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), for seeking to better our cities (Jeremiah 29), for bringing light and flavor to our communities (Matthew 5:13-16), for being Peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), who had no one remaining needy in the communities we built (Acts 4:34) and just generally tried to live at peace with everyone we could (Romans 12:18)?

In the meantime, we are facing vital times. If anything the tie of the Religious Right to Trumpism helps us understand who is pushing for Christianity and who just wants to keep a certain cultural position.