10 Questions For Buzzfeed

After reading Buzzfeed’s “expose” on the evangelical teachings of the church that evangelicals Chip and Joanna Gaines attend, I have a few questions for Buzzfeed, Kate Aurthur (the writer of the piece), and for publications that do this kind of thing:


1. How many evangelical Christians do you personally know? How many evangelical Christians are employed by your company? If the answer to either of these questions is “None,” why do you believe that is?

2. Why, in your opinion, would your readers want to know what the pastor of the Gaines family preaches about sexuality? Based on what you know of your readership, how are your consumers likely to respond to a piece like this?

3.  As a journalist, what is your hope for this piece? Would you hope that it results in the Gaines losing their show? Publicly disowning their pastor? Receiving a public outcry? If none of these, what?

4. Which do you consider more journalistically noteworthy: The belief that all who do not worship Jesus Christ will eventually be in hell, or the belief that sex is meant only for a man and a woman in marriage? If the first, why is that not the story here? If the second, why is this teaching more significant than the first?

5. Do you believe that people who have the same religious convictions as Jim Seibert are capable of having genuine friendships with those who disagree with them?

6. As the piece notes, many people, including LGBT Americans , watch Fixer Upper. Why do you think this is?

7. Does this piece necessarily reflect an editorial position of Buzzfeed? If not, should HGTV feel like they are being represented by the religious beliefs of the Gaines?

8. Would Buzzfeed (or Cosmopolitan) be willing to publish a perspective on this story by a person such as Wesley Hill or Eve Tushnet? If not, why not?

9. Would Buzzfeed fire a staffer for expressing beliefs similar to Jim Seibert? Would Buzzfeed fire a staffer not for expressing such beliefs, but upon discovering the staffer attended a religious gathering that taught them? In your opinion, does being wrong on LGBT make one a bad person?

10. If Chip Gaines, Joanna Gaines, Jim Seibert, or another evangelical Christian asked you why they or their family and friends should trust what they read reported in Buzzfeed, what would you say?

The True Value of Halloween

A woman once wrote to C.S. Lewis in great distress. It appeared, she said, that England was becoming a very pagan nation. By “pagan”  the woman meant the culture of Britain was reverting back to pre-Christian belief systems of spiritism, idolatry, and nature-worship. She expressed this concern earnestly to professor Lewis to see what analysis or prescription he could give to the state of the nation.

Lewis’s reply was unexpected. “You fear England’s returning to paganism,” he wrote. “Oh that it would!” Lewis explained that, though paganism was false, it was truer than materialism and a much preferable place for a culture to be. A “pre-Christian” culture, Lewis argued, would at least entertain ideas about reality that allowed for the unseen, the metaphysical, and the supernatural. The militant, materialistic atheism of Lewis’s 20th century Oxford had no such upward view.

One of Lewis’s great gifts was pointing that which is so obvious that we probably missed it. Christians have a completely different definition of reality than the rest of the world, but nowhere is the difference more significant than with materialists and philosophical naturalists. The gospel cuts across every rival worldview, whether spiritualistic or agnostic, but for the person who believes that things like resurrections and advents cannot happen in this world, Christianity is totally unintelligible. Christianity doesn’t merely feature the supernatural and miraculous, it demands them. Christianity is an universe in which the otherwordly and metaphysical are not just occasional guests but permanent residents. The Gospel tells us that that the natural world is not the only world; in fact, the natural world isn’t the realest world.

I’m afraid that this fact isn’t just a stumbling block for atheists, but for many Christians as well. This time of year many Americans will be celebrating Halloween. Even as many evangelical Christians have deep concerns with the casual costuming of the demonic and the spiritually dark (and those concerns are valid!), it’s possible that we may have missed an obvious fact: Halloween is one of the few cultural institutions we as a country have left that invites contemplation on the realities beyond our immediate physical world, realities like death, spirits, and evil.

In a way, American thinking about Halloween is more Christian than its thinking about Christmas, a holiday that has been overwhelmingly loaded with secular symbols of youth and and wealth and Western self-satisfaction. What is Santa Claus but a secular savior, a perpetually positive grandfather who stops by once a year to tell you what a good life you are living?

Santa Claus, as a symbol, requires no serious thought about the permanent, the unseen, and the immortal. By contrast, the ghoulish symbols of Halloween may be less “family-friendly” than Santa, but they are grounded much more deeply in fundamental truths about good, evil, and death. There is no jolly old man waiting to give gifts to the good children, either in the North Pole or in heaven. Death, however, is real. Demons are real. Evil is real. In our contemporary society, it’s almost as if the doctrines of Christianity are much more evident in the ghastly images of Halloween than the comfortable, consumeristic images of Christmas.

That is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because, in truth, Christmas is not merely a contrast to Halloween but an answer to it. The deathly realities of October are no match for the advent realities of December. It’s true that evil and death are real, but they are not as real as Immanuel. In Halloween, death takes on flesh. At Christmas, life takes on flesh, as Jesus Christ enters the world to destroy the works of the prince of demons. To lose either of these realities is to filter the gospel through what is ultimately a materialistic, unbelieving lens.

I’m not at all saying that Christians must lose whatever reservations they have about Halloween. After all, if there are indeed spiritual realities in the symbols of Halloween, we must take how we treat such symbols more seriously, not less. There are good reasons to place practical boundaries on ourselves and on our children for how we engage the holiday. And the same is true of Christmas. It is no good to ban Halloween from our families and our churches on account of its darkness, and then celebrate the Christmas season just like our materialistic, legalistic culture. Both Christmas and Halloween have the potential to be nothing more in our lives than monuments to our worship of fun and food. But it doesn’t have to be that way, not if we know the gospel that gives weight and meaning and history and truth to these days.

I’m probably going to see some Christians on Facebook this weekend decry the ugly, offensive symbols of Halloween, and implore parents to remind their children that they must not associate with such things. I won’t protest that. But I do hope that, in an age where most young people grow up to ultimately believe not in ghosts, Holy or otherwise, but mostly in themselves and their own right to self-actualization, we do not despise every opportunity to remind ourselves that life and youth do not last forever.

 

The Phone and His Boy

Andrew Sullivan’s latest essay in New York Magazine is one of the essential pieces of reading I’ve come across so far this year. Partly, I suppose, because it is the essay that I’ve been trying and failing to write for the past year. The title according to the URL slug of the article is “How Technology Almost Killed Me,” and the headline chosen by the magazine to appear in social media shares is “My Distraction Sickness–And Yours.” But the headline I personally love is the one that appears directly on the page:

“I Used To Be a Human Being.”

This is the essence of Sullivan’s essay. What if our endlessly connected lives, empowered by mobile technology and sustained by an ever-demanding social media age, are actually making us less like the people we are created to be?

As Sullivan reminds us, he spent more than a decade professional enmeshed in the online world. At its height, Andrew’s blog was updated at least a dozen times per day, often with nothing more than links and summaries of what he and his team found around the web. It was lucrative business, but it came at a cost. Sullivan’s physical, mental, and emotional health eventually spiraled downward, culminating in his announcement two years ago that he was leaving the blogosphere for good.

All that to say: When a man whose online presence has earned him money and reputation tells you that digital addiction is a major threat, you should probably listen.

Here’s an excerpt, but I cannot urge you enough to read the entire piece:

…as I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves.

And what a constant diet of “shadows” does is spread our emotions and attention so thin over our lives that we lose the ability to connect deeply with the biggest moments, the most fundamental truths, and the most important relationships. Everything becomes digitized so that life itself is defined down. We are never fully here because we are never fully anywhere; our thoughts are continually spliced up between the earth and the ether.

I’ve seen this play out in my own life. My iPhone offers the security and comfort of never having a bored moment. Twitter means I’m never more than 140 characters away from letting peers know I still matter (virtue-signaling, anyone?). The constant, agonizing pull to grab my phone in any moment of stillness or quietude is a daily experience. The temptation to keep checking notifications or blog stats, sometimes doing nothing more than refreshing the page or switching between tabs for an hour, is a daily experience.

And I’ve felt the consequences: Reading is harder for me because I can only go a few pages without needing something newly stimulating, and writing is even worse. I’ve found it more difficult than ever to meditate on Scripture for more than a couple minutes, or to immerse in focused prayer. Several times over the past year I’ve come home and told Emily that, despite my “output,” I still feel like the day has been wasted–or rather, that the day has evaporated like steam, while my back was turned for a few minutes.

Should I dismiss this struggle as an unavoidable feature of life in the information economy? Should I chalk up my hitting the wall in prayer and meditation to a lack of spiritual delight? It’s possible, of course. But I don’t think so. I think it’s more likely that while many evangelicals have been running around proclaiming that technology is morally neutral–“it’s just how you use it”–the “neutral” technology has been shaping me and many others in ways that make it harder to pursue faithfulness.

One last thought: I’ve been seeing many people respond to Sullivan’s essay with frustration that he doesn’t seem aware of how closely tied many people’s jobs are with online connectivity. Some have criticized the piece for idealizing a sort of seamless transition from online life to disconnected solitude, when an increasing number of people in Western culture pay their bills through jobs centered around the internet.

As someone who has one of those jobs, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this critique. It’s true that many people have careers that wouldn’t tolerate a total retreat to online monkishness. I haven’t the foggiest idea how that truth is somehow incompatible with Sullivan’s warning sign. For every person who is online 24/7 to support themselves or their families, there are at least 50 others who are online that much and have no idea why. If you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without endangering yourself or loved ones, God has grace for your situation. If, on the other hand, you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without exposing yourself to the frictions and foibles of flesh-and-blood reality, let me encourage you: I think it’s worth it.

Quote of the Day

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is no such work. As other countless fans have pointed out, the writing of the work is mediocre, at best—full of clichés and halfhearted character development, with a plot that is absolutely riddled with holes. Many of the original characters (especially Hermione) are not true to their original selves, serving as two-dimensional copycats.

So what does the book do? Well, it keeps the Harry Potter series alive and in the limelight. It serves to inspire new fans to return to the original books. And it definitively makes money—lots of it. But that’s the extent of its virtues.

I caution you, because I think there’s a point at which truly excellent authors know how to say “enough.” Their fans can content themselves with the simplicity and beauty of a finite offering (be it one book or seven). Limiting the scope of a fictional creation enables it to stay mysterious, enchanting, and delightful. Limiting the scope of Harry Potter serves to inspire and foster the imagination of its fans more than coughing up another 20 volumes ever would.

-Gracy Olmstead, in an “open letter” to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling that also doubles as a disappointed review of the published play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Olmstead gets to something important here: Churning out low-quality work, merely for the sake of keeping a franchise in the news, is not just bad for the franchise, it’s bad for the reader. No matter how many superfans will wait in line at Barnes and Noble for your newest offering, there is something in this kind of hyper-nostalgic, never-say-die mentality that robs future generations of the literary richness that comes from having some of the story untold.

Did Gandalf Rescue Evangelicals?

Yesterday afternoon I was watching the live stream of the 2016 ERLC National Conference. Specifically, I tuned into a panel that discussed how evangelicals could engage with art in a gospel-centered way. In the course of the conversation, one of the panelists, Alissa Wilkinson (a film critic that you should read), remarked that, in her view, evangelical attitude toward art has notably improved over the last 10 years.

I agree with that. Having grown up in conservative evangelical culture my entire life, I absolutely have noticed a change in how many pastors, theologians, and those in Christian circles have talked about film, literature, TV, etc. There just seems to be a greater interest right now in talking about art from a Christian perspective than there was when, say, I was in junior high, and buying the “kids versions” of the Left Behind books and the albums of rock bands that were openly marketed as “mainstream alternatives.”

But Wilkinson’s comment got me thinking: What changed? What happened with evangelicals roughly 10 years ago that set these trends in motion? Here’s a theory: Peter Jackson happened. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is, I believe, the most influential factor in the renewal of American evangelicalism’s interest in art.

The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in December of 2001. The timing of that release is important, because just a few weeks before FOTR, the first film version of the Harry Potter novels also premiered. Up to this point, Harry Potter was the most significant literary event in the world, and evangelicals had spent most of their time and energy debating whether it was even permissible to read/watch. There was precious little “engagement” with the biggest book of the century; it just fell, like so many other things did, into trenches of evangelical “Do or Don’t” war.

But when Fellowship debuted, evangelicals were flummoxed. Here was a PG-13 adaptation of a novel written by a traditional Catholic in the latter half of the 20th century. I had never heard of J.R.R. Tolkien when I saw the movie in December 2001, and neither had most of my family or friends. But enough Christians knew about the books to herald the coming of the movies as a significant moment for believers and Hollywood.

There was, of course, an irony here. Many of the influential evangelical publications that had urged believers to avoid the wizardry of Harry Potter took a starkly different approach to Gandalf. The dissonance was unmistakeable. World Magazine, which had studiously criticized the Potter books, preemptively advertised Fellowship as a “family-friendly blockbuster” that Christians should be interested in (and so too with the next two Lord of the Rings movies). Plugged In (Focus on the Family’s media review publication) threw red flags all over Hogwarts, but saw Tolkien’s “Christian themes at work” in Jackson’s films. The difference was, of course, that Tolkien spoke openly about his Catholic faith, while in the evangelical world, you could occupy your day reading chain emails with conspiracy theories about J.K. Rowling’s intentions. Unlike the Potter phenomenon, a lot of believers saw in the Lord of the Rings movies an opportunity to see their “values” on the screen.

The effects were immediate. Lord of the Rings was an enormous financial success, of course, fomenting new trends in cinema and a wave of religiously tinged “prestige pictures.” But more than that, the movies started something in evangelicals. Suddenly it seemed that Reformed Christians everywhere were putting fantasy books on their favorite lists. Shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies my own Bible college made the books required reading. Even Hogwarts started to fare better, with later installments of the film series getting positive reviews in many evangelical outposts. It wasn’t that evangelicals’ convictions had changed, necessarily; it was that Jackson’s movies had broken down barriers between faith and imagination that many American evangelicals didn’t even realize had gone up.

Just a theory, but this does seem to match my own experience as far as when I noticed a new evangelical engagement with popular art. It’s just not possible for me to imagine a round of Christian think pieces on something like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” 15 years ago. Now, it seems so inevitable that it’s actually good parody. Something had to happen for that to be the case.

In my view, Gandalf happened.

Pandering to Millennials

My friend and Mere Orthodoxy editor Jake Meador linked to this blog post on Twitter, and the following couple of paragraphs are too good to not share:

The other day I read another of those articles that irritate me. The ones about how the church is failing millenials (sic) by being terribly outdated, and how it needs to modify it’s message to appeal to the younger, hipper crowd…

Look, I am a millenial, albeit on the side of that demographic in danger of being too old to count as the current “it” age group. And I can tell you exactly how to get millenials in your pews. You tell them that their moms and dads were horribly wrong and misguided, and that they are actually much better informed and more correct than their parents. Just like they’ve always suspected. And then you explain that, actually, Christianity is exactly what all the cool people they want to like them say it should be. And they will come, because that is a brand that sells. Who doesn’t want their youthful arrogance stroked and the social cost of their faith removed?

This is incredibly important. The author isn’t lobbing grenades at millennials, by the way; he’s criticizing instead the people who’ve industrialized a superiority complex, the same one that attends every generation, in order to gain members. Millennials are not the only young adults in history to want to hear how much smarter they are than their parents. But they very well may be the first generation to actually be pandered to in this way by institutional Christianity.

It’s true when we’re talking about church, and it’s doubly true when we’re talking about Christian culture. How much blog content in the evangelical world falls under the category of, “Personal Narrative of How I Realized That My Parents/Church/Mentors Were Wrong About _______”? Of course, many of these stories are true and helpful. But quite a few of them read as if the entire point of having these kind of discoveries isn’t to find truth, but to relish the joy of finding out the old fogies were in error.

When I think about my generation of Christians, the biggest concern I have is not that we will wholesale abandon orthodoxy or the local church. Jesus will build his body and not even the gates of social media can overcome that. No, my biggest concern is that the we millennials will construct the idea that ours is a “chosen generation,” that the saints who came before us are obstacles to be hurdled and those who come us after will look pretty much like we do. My fear is that even in all the gospel-centered gospel-centeredness, the impulse within American evangelicalism to pander to the generation that currently defines cool will relapse us into a cultural captivity, one that may not be as obvious as fundamentalism but may be deeper and darker.

Here’s an idea. For every article you read this week on why the older generation of evangelicals was totally wrong about X, read 3 things written 100+ years ago. For every TED Talk you listen to, listen to 2 more sermons by a preacher who probably doesn’t own a smartphone. Preach to yourself that what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” must be avoided at all costs. Immerse yourself in the timeless and be moderate with the contemporary.

Social Media Isn’t News

This is the kind of thing that drives me nuts.

Actor Bradley Cooper was just another celebrity face in the crowd at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, but many Republicans on social media took vocal exception to the “American Sniper” star’s attendance.

Shortly after Cooper was caught on camera sitting in the audience next to model girlfriend Irina Shayk, conservative Twitter and Facebook users began to flood the platforms with calls for his boycott.

“I have a list of celebrities that support Socialism I refuse to spend another $ on,” said one Twitter user. “Add this one. Boycott them all.”

“Bradley Cooper at DNC?!” exclaimed another. “Guess I’ve seen my last Bradley Cooper movie.”

The apparent reason for the ire directed at Cooper stems from his portrayal of decorated U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in the 2014 Clint Eastwood film “American Sniper.”

This is not news. It’s something that a handful of random people on the internet said.

I follow many conservatives on social media. I haven’t seen one of them complain about Bradley Cooper’s attending the DNC. I had no idea Cooper attended until this story. I actually had no idea that anyone assumed he was a Republican until this story. So what? A few random people online are unable to differentiate celebrities from the roles that they play. If journalists want to cover this, fine, but that doesn’t make it news.

Perhaps the entire point of articles like this one is to have evidence to say that group X is ridiculous and bad and you probably shouldn’t support them. Conservative websites do these exact kinds of stories too. “You won’t BELIEVE what Libs are DEMANDING now!” Click the link, and you’ll read tweets or see screenshots from 4 or 5 people you’ve never heard of, who have probably fewer than 1,000 followers combined.

It’s human nature to want to hear more examples, no matter how ridiculous, of why you’re right and They are wrong. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t hold journalism accountable a bit. It’s positively ridiculous to turn the stray tweets or Facebook posts of a few people into a national political story. It’s also more than a bit dishonest–if a reader who doesn’t have any social media reads daily pieces like this that supposedly document what “Republicans (or Democrats) on social media” are saying, then their instinctive reaction will be, “Well I don’t want any part of that.” When it turns out, 99% of other people don’t either.

Social media isn’t news.

 

Defining Decency Down

If a horrific act of murder happens somewhere in the world, but you don’t blog within minutes about it, or Tweet about What It All Means…do you still care?

In the week and a half since a young man (I won’t name him. It’s a scandal that we make celebrities out of terrorists and psychopaths) brutally murdered nearly 50 people in an Orlando nightclub, I and many of those close to me have had much to think about. The nightclub was a gay nightclub. The killer obviously targeted a specific community of human beings that particularly offended him, one that he wanted to terrorize. In the era of our media-soaked, clicks-oriented identity politics, the weight of that thought can be hard to feel. Not hard to understand, mind you; hard to feel, to truly have the horror and hatred and vulnerability of such an act reverberate in the soul.

The simple fact is that true empathy is not easy and it’s not instant. That’s an inconvenient truth, but it’s truth. Entering into the sorrow of another–what the Bible calls “bearing one another’s burdens”–is a moral, emotional, intellectual, and interpersonal discipline. It must be practiced. Christians are commanded to bear one another’s burdens because the default setting of the sinful human race is apathy and extreme self-absorption. To have the margins of one’s heart expand to include those with no earthly connection to you, whose well-being or tragedy will probably never intersect (in an economic or relational sense) with your life–that is something serious, and spiritual.

But in the age of Twitter, that kind of measured thinking doesn’t sell. Federal investigators were still among the bodies of victims inside the Pulse nightclub when online pundits started to eviscerate the “silence” of Christians and other religious traditionalists. From Twitter accounts across the country poured forth not just heartache but hellfire and damnation on all those who had failed to live-Tweet their sorrow or confess that they were partially to blame. In the hours and days after we knew what had happened to those people in Florida, the empathy and grief became inextricable from the bitterness and frustration with those who hadn’t grieved the right way, or hadn’t done it fast enough, or had “hid” behind words like “thoughts and prayers” instead of calling for new laws.

Does this sound healthy to you? Does it sound like the response of those who are grieving in a centered, emotionally mature way? Or does it sound more like what we would expect of a generation that doesn’t feel anything until its been siphoned through an online server and processed into pixels?

The danger of the internet has always been the temptation to live life through it, one orbit short of the uncomfortable, offensive, difficult realities of real, flesh-and-blood existence. Social media offers as convincing a replication of actual community as human brains have invented thus far. Many of us carry our community in our pocket, in a smart phone whose soft blue glow has rewired neural pathways and made us anxious and listless when we’re not logged in.

We seem to be at a point in American culture where a good many people seem to think that our online identities are crucial extensions of our moral selves–so crucial, in fact, that whether or not a person is compassionate or caring can be evaluated by a quick glance at their pages. Has this person acknowledged the story that’s on cable news right now in a timely fashion? Have they offered the kind of words that are acceptable for their online medium? If the answer to either of those questions is “No” (or “Unclear”), then they must be shamed. Those are the scales of online justice, and they are absolute and unyielding.

But the greater sadness in all this is not what happens to those who are actually praying or meditating or grief counseling, while others are Tweeting. The greatest sadness is what happens to compassion itself. Contorting social media to be an arbiter of decency doesn’t define social media up nearly as much as it defines decency down. It takes literally no authentic expression of oneself to click the particular combination of letters on a smartphone or keyboard that will garner endorsements (Retweets) or authentications (Likes). That kind of mastery of social media platforms is not a moral progress; it is a marketing skill, one that can be taught and learned and memorized and utilized to make enormous amounts of advertising dollars. Using social media “correctly” is not a character virtue; its a technological achievement.

The outrage directed at those who don’t grieve in the way the internet wants them to grieve does not foster compassion; it fosters hot-takes and the clicks that fund hot-takes. Those who genuinely believe that a Tweet or a Facebook post can be used to measure the rightness or the wrongness of a person’s capacity for love are thinking of love exactly the way that the advertising industry wants them to. Whether we are talking about the age of the billboard or the age of the meme, this idea of love is nothing more than Impulse –> Product –> Satisfaction. It makes for great car commercials and punchy online journalism. It makes for lousy human hearts.

Instead of defining decency down, perhaps more of us should consider adopting this kind of personal rule: When something happens (in the news, in my life, in my feed, etc.) that triggers in me a tremendous desire to express myself online, the time I should spend offline, in silent contemplation, should be directly proportional to the intensity of my desire to post. If I *can’t wait* to get my Tweet out there, I should spend quite a bit of time thinking before I put it out there. If I don’t feel quite alive until my Facebook post goes up, it shouldn’t go up right now. Only when I have a palpable sense of how small and ephemeral social media is, and how foolish I would be to think of it as some immanent layer of my humanity–only then should I share my thought with the online world.

This kind of principle might, just might, help us to keep in mind the difference between social media justice and cosmic justice, between the perfectly-edited compassion of the Good Blogger, and the dirty, costly, divisive compassion of the Good Samaritan.

 

How Christian Music Lost Its Sad Songs

worshipJournalist Leah Libresco discovers that contemporary Christian music always keeps on the sunny side. CCM lyrics, it turns out, are so excessively happy-go-lucky that they rarely even mention the darkness of sin or the pain of human suffering–themes that are pretty important to Christianity.

From Libresco’s piece:

I took a look at the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top 50 Christian songs to see whether Christian pop is unrelentingly cheerful. I looked at pairs of concepts across the entire collection of lyrics (life and death, grace and sin, etc.) and calculated the ratio of positive to negative words. For every pair I checked, positive words were far more common than negative ones.

There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.”

If you’ve listened to Christian pop/rock for any amount of time at all, this shouldn’t surprise you. Turn on your local Christian FM station and the odds are good that what you’ll hear will be a distinctly American mixture of therapeutic spirituality and Christianese self-actualization. In other words, there’s nary a difference between most Christian music and most Christian publishing.

Why is this, though? Why does contemporary Christian music fail so egregiously to capture the range of human–heck, Christian!–experience? As Libresco notes, this hasn’t always been true of Christian music. You don’t even have to go back as far as she does to find evidence of a more honest lyrical culture in Christian musicianship.

In 1995, two albums released on Christian record labels went platinum, an unheard-of feat at the time. dc Talk’s Jesus Freak was a grunge-tinged, hip-hop spiced rock record with brazenly vulnerable lyrics. Look at the words of one of the album’s biggest hits, “What If I Stumble?”

Father please forgive me
For I cannot compose
The fear that lives within me
Or the rate at which it grows

If struggle has a purpose
On the narrow road you’ve carved
Why do I dread my trespasses
Will leave a deadly scar?

Here’s another hit, “Colored People,” one of the most well-known CCM songs about race:

We’re colored people, and we live in a tainted place
We’re colored people, and they call us the human race
We’ve got a history so full of mistakes
And we are colored people who depend on a Holy Grace

Ignorance has wronged some races
And vengeance is the Lord’s
If we aspire to share this space
Repentance is the cure.

These songs weren’t just deep cuts that Christian retailers ignored and superfans enjoyed. Both of these songs are some of the most famous performances from the band. You could probably not find anyone who listened to contemporary Christian music in the 90s or early 2000s who didn’t know these choruses by heart.

 

The other album that went platinum in 1995 was the self-titled debut by Jars of Clay. In my opinion, this is one of the finest Christian albums ever made. One reason: The songwriting on Jars of Clay is poetic, introspective and often gut-wrenchingly honest. Is there anyone who can listen to “Worlds Apart” and not think that Dan Haseltine is speaking for them?

I am the only one to blame for this
Somehow it all ends up the same
Soaring on the wings of selfish pride
I flew too high and like Icarus I collide
With a world I try so hard to leave behind
To rid myself of all but love
to give and die.

If you’re an aspiring Christian band recording your first big-label album, a song about child abuse is probably not on your agent’s checklist. But that’s what Jars did with “He,” a painful and hopeful ballad that captures the emotions of abuse from a child’s point of view:

Daddy, don’t you love me?
Then why do you hit me?
And Momma don’t you love me
Then why do you hurt me?
Well I try to make you proud, but for crying out loud
Just give me a chance to hide away

Again, these aren’t artists and songs from the iron vault of Christian music lore. These are two of the most successful groups and albums in the genre’s history. Do these lyrics sound like they would get airplay on today’s “positive, encouraging, and safe for the whole family” airwaves? Or would they be rejected by record label execs and station managers because they don’t immediately affirm the listener’s comfort and pleasure?

So what changed? What’s the difference between the CCM of 1995 and today? I have 2 answers for this:

1) In the last 20 years, Christian music has become less about artists and more and more about the product. You would hard pressed to find people seriously knowledgable about Christian music who would argue that there is any sort of healthy artist culture in the industry right now. Instead, the industry’s goal is to ship music that can morph like an amoeba into any shape that buyers desire–background noise at youth camp, soundtrack to a PowerPoint presentation, etc etc. That’s why so much of CCM sounds alike right now. So much of what’s being created isn’t actually art–it’s musical copy, meant to be accessorized for the sake of maximum profit.

2) In the last 20 years, Christian music’s “least common denominator” theology has stagnated the music. Because contemporary Christian music seeks to serve an incredibly diverse American religious landscape with what amounts to a single industry, the thinking for a long time was that the best way to make the music accessible was to make sure it didn’t actually say anything. Vague generalities about “grace” and “love” could be received by Presbyterians, Methodists, Anabaptists, and 7th Day Adventists alike. The fear of alienating an audience led many Christian groups and labels to mute theology in their songs. Fortunately, this trend was being reconsidered in the early 2000s through a resurgence of hymns; artists like Jars and Caedmon’s Call released successful hymn projects. But much of CCM never turned from this notion, and that’s why groups like Jars still stand out so far from the rest of the industry.

The decline of CCM is something I grieve. I still have somewhere dozens and dozens of CDs from local Christian bookstores, CDs filled with music that I loved. At its best, CCM was a conduit for expressing the complexities of life in the world and yet not of it. Its artists could poignantly elevate audiences to think that Jesus Christ cared about all of life. Somewhere, though, CCM lost its way, and I have trouble believing that the same industry that gave us dc Talk and Jars of Clay can survive.

How to Save Christian Music

Let me tell you about a recent Christian concert I attended.

There were four bands performing. The first was the warm-up act, a young, shaggy-haired rock band out of Nashville, whose lead singer is, I’m told, the son of a famous contemporary Christian music artist. The boys in this band were talented and had good stage presence; they won over the audience quickly.. From what I could tell, most of their lyrics were either about relationships or the general angst of life (think Foster the People). These weren’t Sunday morning worship songs. I’m sure most people at the show had no idea who the singer’s father was, or even cared. The audience bought the band’s energy and musicianship.

The rest of the artists were the three co-headliners. There was a alt-folk singer who sang about wanting to live forever and sang about that like it was more than a fantasy. Then there was the heartthrob, lanky piano man, whose most powerful song is about depression and sadness; the audience sang loudly with him as he crooned, “You don’t need Jesus…until you’re here.” The final group, a Southern arena-rock band, exploded amplifiers and eardrums with anthems about being “washed in the water” and “singing hallelujah.” The man sitting five feet in front of me held his third or fourth beer in his right hand and made something like a fist pump with the other as the band shredded guitar solos to an impressive light show.

This was no pseudo church service or youth camp showcase. It was a rock show. But it was, obviously to anyone not inebriated, a Christian rock show.

There were no times of “testimonies,” no clear Gospel presentations, and no theological meanderings from the artists between songs. This wasn’t a “worship” time, it was rock and roll time. The only visible Christianity came from the audience; I saw more than one head-bobbing attendee wearing a t-shirt with a New Testament verse on it. More than once during the evening dozens of hands were lifted as someone who was clearly not a “worship leader” sang a song about needing forgiveness and healing.

All of this made an impression on me because  I realized, as a lifelong “insider” to contemporary Christian music, that Christian pop and rock can be, and often is, quite good. When I got home, I felt a new awareness come over me that it is indeed possible for artistic merit and Christian belief to intersect with one another, and sometimes in a way that brings the believer and the unbeliever together. There need not be a choice between “spiritual” and “entertaining.”

I cherish this feeling because it has not been commonplace for Christian music fans over the last several years. Far too many shelves in Christian bookstores have been stocked over the last few years with music that’s produced and promoted merely because it manages to appeal to a particular target demographic that some “Christian record label” executive is trying to slice into. When it comes to quality, the secular acts have a monopoly. The goal is so often not to produce something outstanding in its own right, but to  convincingly ape a superior artist, adding only watery, non-denominational jargon.

The simple fact is that contemporary Christian music has not been good for some time. Christian record labels have inundated the industry with so many copies of both successful secular acts and successful Christian ones (how many new Christian radio singles sound just like that Casting Crowns song you’ve heard 1,000 times?) that the question of what even constitutes a Christian song or a Christian band is a hopelessly self-referential discussion. Christian FM radio is banal; historic music festivals for Christian artists are going bankrupt.  Many of the Christian retailers who were formative in building the industry are now fighting for their own existence, and I would not hesitate to claim that part of that struggle stems from the evaporation of interest in the CCM industry.

But, as in the Gospel itself, there is hope. The artists that I heard at my concert came to their audience as entertainers, song writers and storytellers, rather than worship leaders or evangelists. Their Christian identity was not located in what label represented them a  or what retail chain sold their LP; rather, it was in the art itself. Completely absent from this concert were the trappings of the tragic “modern worship movement,” a fad that is as much to blame as anything else for the stagnation of the Christian music industry. No one came to the show for a sermon, they came for songs and for stories. They left with a little bit of all three.

I’m absolutely convinced that if there is any hope for a Christian music industry–by which I mean an viable marketplace for Christians to make art and entertain while keeping convictions intact–this is where it all has to go. In all my years of listening to Christian radio, I have never heard any of tonight’s artists on it (the final band excepted). Why not? Because the industry is so tied up into its airtight categories, buffered by retail strategies that don’t even work now. That simply will not keep Christian music alive.

If CCM is to survive, it needs more than performers. It needs artists. Real artists playing real songs, written to tell stories and delight all kinds of people from all walks of life. What a contrast this would be to the spectacle of half-talented guitarists strumming 4-chord “worship” choruses that could have been plagiarized from any middle-rate pop love ballad, with all feminine references simply swapped to more metaphysical ones. One of those sights has a future in an increasingly marginalized Christian culture. The other does not.