Last week I wrote an article about how Christian film is some of the worst cinema out there today which got quite a bit of feedback, most of which was people in full agreement and about just as many telling me I need to watch “The Chosen.” I hear you, and it’s now on my watch list for my evening viewing. I’ll report back once I’ve watched it with a review.
(READ: Christian Film is Garbage and We Have to Take a Different Approach)
One person left a comment that I should also talk about Christian music. My response was “gladly,” and here I am to keep my word with this…
Christian music sucks about as much, if not more than Christian cinema. What’s more, it’s detrimental to faith.
Let’s take a little trip back in time and visit a young Brandon in the ’90s at a Christian summer camp called T-Bar-M deep in the heart of Texas, eating a salad that was more ranch dressing, croutons, and cheese than it was lettuce. The camp counselors were blaring the latest in Christian music over the loudspeakers while we ate…and it was good stuff. Jars of Clay’s first album was unconquerable, DC Talk had just released “Jesus Freak,” and the Newsboys song “Shine” was played every hour for good measure.
It was the golden age of Christian music. It had taken influences from all the right places and implemented these in a way that wasn’t try-hard. The lyrics were often subtle and metaphoric, felt honest and relatable, and what’s more, they were fun to listen to. To this day, Jars of Clay’s first album ranks as one of the greatest albums of all time, even outside of the Christian music category.
Then something happened, and I’m not entirely sure where the exact moment it began going downhill was, but I remember turning on a Christian radio station as I often did to hear the latest music, and ended up turning it off soon after. It has become stale and sterile. Talking about God in honest, personal, and relatable ways had been replaced with on-the-nose corniness about faith and worship. I wouldn’t revisit the Christian music scene until 2007 when a friend handed me Hillsong United’s “All of the Above.”
For a moment, I was reinvested, but even that dissipated as the songs began to wear out their welcome after a handful of listens.
But while I had abandoned the group, Hillsong had left a mark on the Christian music industry, and worse, it had affected church culture. Soon, every church was adopting Hillsong’s style. Every band looked slightly boho and played sounds ripped clean off of a U2 album, and often sloppily. Every song had an on-the-nose verse about how awesome God is and how much we need Him, followed by at least three to six repeats of the bridge and chorus. I would sit in church congregations wanting to enjoy it, but it just felt fake and try-hard. I couldn’t relate to it and it just seemed hollow and performative.
I was bored. Like Henry Cavill’s “Geralt of Rivia” told Jaskier the bard in an episode of “The Witcher” when asked about the bard’s singing, today’s Christian music was “like ordering a pie and finding it has no filling.”
Music is one of the greatest things man creates. A single song can define a generation, influence billions, establish worldviews, activate emotions, and create unforgettable memories. It’s one of the most powerful forces on Earth and one of the biggest things we have in common with angels in terms of activities.
Christian artists should be very attentive to what kind of effect their music is having, but if I had to guess, many were seeing two things; cheering and energetic kids dancing and singing their songs, and their bank accounts filling up. Many pushed forward believing they were on the right track, most with good intentions.
As I said earlier, music has a powerful impact on those who hear it. People took in the Hillsong-esque lyrics about how “nothing compares to your embrace” and “your love is relentless” with all the lights and sounds and performances, and then…felt nothing later. These aren’t songs that you can necessarily carry into your daily life. The display plays well at the moment, but it’s hard to lean on them when you’re facing down the darkness.
In a moment when you’re down low, today’s Christian music has no “Flood” songs to empathize with you and speak to your pain. Instead, you have a woman wearing a sundress, sun hat, and also a scarf for some reason, repeating the words “you’re the air I breath” ad nauseum.
It’s a recipe for disillusionment, and the results speak for themselves. The youth are walking away from the church in droves. To be clear, I don’t want to give the impression that today’s Christian music is the sole reason the church is bleeding followers, but I can’t help but think it played a large role in generating a culture that made that possible.
Today’s Christian music isn’t just bad, it’s dangerous.
Christians have very few real, emotionally driven artists that actually make music that pertains to our everyday lives, and is actually good to boot. If it’s not warmed-over Hillsong nonsense then it’s lazily crafted cliches that feel like it belongs in the early-aughts with 3 Doors Down or perhaps acoustic cookie-cutter coffee shop poetry.
To give you an example of where it is being done right, Josh Garrels stands out apart from them. He takes just as much care crafting his lyrics as he does his sound. You can see his meticulousness in everything from his instrument selection to his word choice. His album “Love & War & the Sea In Between” is a demonstration of Christian music perfection.
You walk away from listening to his album feeling something deeper. There’s a spiritual charge that comes with it as if he accurately interpreted both your emotions and God’s feelings on the matter. It doesn’t feel fake or hollow. You feel as if Garrels is in it with you, and between the two of you gathered together, asking questions and trying to figure it out, is God. You’re not being pressured to lift your hands up in worship, or sing or dance, or fake some kind of energy or joy. It’s spiritual contemplation and motivation. It’s just real.
And that brings me to say about Christian music what I similarly said about Christian cinema.
Nobody wants to be real here. The mainstream Christian entertainment industry is too busy playing it safe to produce anything that might damage its status quo, and what’s more, anger a Christian establishment too unwilling (read afraid) to allow people to ask very real questions about faith, darkness, and the wars we have to fight on a daily basis against a world trying to strip us of our reliance on God.
Unless the lyrics sound something like “God you’re the bestest ever and there’s nothing like worshiping you, cross, Jesus, love, lift hands, shout name, every day, Jesus, love, Jesus, love, Bible word” then it’s out.
And that’s horrible, because God is important to both the individual and society, and we need to understand our emotions about Him and our place with Him, and good music will be able to talk to us about that over and over again in ways our mind and souls can understand. If we, and especially the youth, are constantly served substanceless Christian music, then the impression it will give is that Christianity has no substance.
I know differently. The relationship I’ve had with God and Christ has been a grounding force in my life. I’ve been through the highs and the lows with faith, and I’ve been fortunate to encounter what I have in the arts to help me ground myself there. The thing is, I can’t help but wonder what my faith would look like if I was subjected to the church culture of today with all its lights and sounds and performances that seem more made to make money than make a difference, tell a story, or resonate with emotion.
The church is likely going to beat this dead horse for a while and people will continue to leave the church and lose faith. At some point, something has to break and a change has to happen.
Christians can survive without good Christian cinema, but it absolutely needs good Christian music. The sooner this collapse of the modern Christian trend happens, the better.