I have a confession to make. I really dislike Christian music.

Now, Christian music is a very broad term, so I think some defining is in order. I don't mean music that is written expressly for use in the church for praise and worship. I'm talking about Christian music that does not exactly fit in church, but has an unmistakable Christian theme in its lyrics and content, what I think is commonly referred to as CCM, or Christian Contemporary Music. It tries to cleave to some of the lyrical and theological orthodoxy of worship music, but with the musical sensibilities of pop and rock (and sometimes even hip hop), and somehow manages to mangle both. I don't like this kind of Christian music, and I know I'm not alone.

I listen to it everyday on the radio, partially because I find the lyrical content that's broadcast on other stations repugnant ("Cuz your sex takes me to paradise, yeah your sex takes me to paradise..."), and partially because as a pastor, I feel somewhat guilty if I don't. But I regularly grit my teeth while listening to the local Christian radio station. My beef is that even though the music has such high production values and is performed by such high caliber musicians, it often lacks realness and authenticity. Amazingly, it manages to sound shallow even when talking about ideas of incredible depth. The lyrics are prosaic and affected, and the themes that it covers are shockingly narrow. There are the "I'm a bad person but you love me anyway" songs, the "Teach me to love like you songs", and the "Don't give up" songs. Aaaand, that's about it. Of course, I'm being facetious and stupid, which comes as no surprise to those of you who read this blog regularly.

But in mid-tooth grit this week, I realized something that made me have a lot more respect and compassion for people who are in the Christian music industry: they are in a ridiculously impossible position. Think for a moment of the opinions and influences that a Christian musician must cater to:

Being creative while striving to be orthodox isn't easy - in fact, the creative process usually flourishes in the opposite environment.

First, Christian music must be theologically orthodox. Even though Christianity is better understood as a relationship than a religion, it has obvious doctrines and beliefs associated with it. So that means that Christian musicians must write songs that are theologically consistent with the doctrines of Christianity. This is a constraint that no other songwriter is forced to adhere to. After all, Britney Spears doesn't write songs with a mind towards theological orthodoxy...actually, I don't even know if she can write songs at all. And being creative while striving to be orthodox isn't easy - in fact, the creative process usually flourishes in the opposite environment. But Christian musicians are forced to walk a difficult line: to be creative and expressive, while making sure that every word is consistent with a faith that is many thousands of years old. Not easy.

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Then, Christian music must also minister to people. Music of any kind makes a statement. But for Christians, they can't simply write a song without care of how it affects people, but make sure it is consistent with Christian values and purposes, and doesn't "stumble" people, as the phrase goes. And in order to accomplish this, many Christian artists hedge their bets and write songs that are of saccharine sweetness - not because they themselves are not familiar with suffering or have nothing deeper to say, but because they don't want to take the risk of writing a song that is so honest that it might negatively impact a person spiritually or emotionally. I can't really think of too many secular artists for whom such concerns are any kind of consideration. Maybe Chris Brown? Probably not.

Third, these unfortunate people must then think about all of the other more general considerations of musicianship: is the song catchy? Is it musically creative? Will it sell? Do I sing well? Am I out of tune? Is this the right kind of drum beat, or should I ask to compress that snare some more? Why can't I get along with my guitarist? How do I get my music out there? How do I set myself apart? How do I feed my family? Is law school totally out of the picture??

And lastly, Christian artists make music for some of the harshest critics in the world. As much as I hate to admit it, evangelicals are a touchy and judgmental bunch, given to vocally criticizing the smallest perceived infraction of their values, even when it comes to music. You think I'm making this up, but I'm not. For instance, the children's show VeggieTales once wrote an episode where the antagonist sings a song about how chocolate bunnies are awesome to eat. And there was an outcry about this song, parents writing in that they didn't think it was appropriate for their children to be singing a song about bad eating habits, even if it was sung by the antagonist! I guess they didn't trust their children to pick up on the fact that a song sung by the bad guy is not supposed to be prescriptive. Anyway, the outcry was hot enough to make the creators of the show re-write the song with more palatable lyrics!

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Unfettered non-Christian artists laugh and laugh as you labor under a sodden wet blanket of unrealistic expectations.

So imagine trying to write music that is theologically orthodox, positively uplifting, not to mention musically awesome...all for people whom you know might rip you to shreds if you mess any one of those up. If you are orthodox but lack coolness, younger Christians will mock you mercilessly for being out of touch. If you are cool but your lyrics are theologically not sharp enough, older Believers will lay into you. If you don't blend these dynamics to perfection, then hyper-critical people like me write stupid blog posts about it. And all the while, unfettered non-Christian artists laugh and laugh as you labor under a sodden wet blanket of unrealistic expectations.


When you consider all of these factors, it's no wonder that Christian music sounds like it does, trying for so many things, and falling short. And so, I've resolved not to be so critical of Christian artists anymore. In fact, I would take it a step further and say that I have to repent for my judgmentalism, and perhaps more than a few of us need to confess that we have been unduly critical of Christian music. Christian artists already find themselves in a difficult position, and it's a shame that their position should be made any harder by their own brothers and sisters in faith being overly-critical and mean-spirited, especially when I doubt that many of us could come even close to doing any better. So even though I don't really enjoy it, I will continue to listen to CCM in the car. I may not enjoy the songs, but I do appreciate what they are trying to achieve, and respect the artists who create them, and that's no small thing.

Plus, it's not like the music on the other stations is anything to write home about either. "Cuz baby you're a firework! Come on show 'em what you're worth..."

Third Culture
Third Culture looks at matters of faith from the multicultural and minority perspective.
Peter Chin
Peter W. Chin is the pastor of Rainier Avenue Church and author of Blindsided By God. His advocacy work for racial reconciliation has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, NPR, and the Washington Post.
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