I don’t normally dedicate my articles to specific people, but this is for Emily Shiflit. Emily and I were having a discussion about music when we first met each other. She mentioned that some of the songs I brought up seemed short on hope. She wanted to know why I liked songs that seemed hopeless. She shared some of the songs she liked. The lyrics were great, but the music grated on me. Why? What is it that I look for in music? Is the music I enjoy hopeless? If so, why do I like it? Is it all subjective? Lots of thoughts and too big of a discussion to fit in a Facebook message or text, hence a blog post.
Self-examination can be very revealing, encouraging, saddening, or just interesting. I’m normally a happy and upbeat person. I often see the silver-lining, so to speak. But I love things that are sad, gray, and melancholy. I like the rain that falls from the silver-lined cloud. I also feel, or have an angry passionate streak, which tends to come out in my love of heavy metal and Irish Punk music. Then, there’s the nostalgia side of me that loves Christmas and folk music. Like most of you, I’m an odd person.
But what is it about contemporary Christian music that generally just grates on me? Why is it that I turn on the Christian radio station and instantly start gagging? Why is my ‘Lord’s Day’ playlist so short?
The focus is only on the silver-lining. The music, for much of contemporary Christian songs, is…mambsy pambsy. This was a term which me and my siblings invented, or stole from a book, which communicates someone being weak in a refusal-to-get-their-hands-dirty-and-get-the-work-done sort of way. It’s weak, wimpy, and almost a waste of space. This is how I view the music of most contemporary Christian artists. I’m not talking about the lyrics, just the notes they use to communicate truth. Music should match the truth being communicated. Their music is soft, inoffensive, mild, and annoying. There is no brokenness communicated in the music. There is little longing, little anger, little sadness, and thus little truth, little hope, and little salvation. The smaller you make God, the smaller you make salvation. The smaller you make the offense, the smaller you make grace.
When I was a child, I listened to a lot of Christian music. When I was a child, happy music was my fare. But when the rain came, when my faith was tested, when the trials of life crowded in around me, and the depth of my own depravity came to light, I found praise songs and most contemporary Christian music lacked depth. They were fine for the spring of life when all is green and bright, but they quickly burned away when the hot summer sun glared down upon them full of damnation and driving away every cool shadow. The Christ in those songs couldn’t have endured the cross. The Christ in those songs didn’t love me anymore than my boyfriend did. The praise didn’t include standing on the very cusp of the pit of hell and being rescued when you deserved to die. They didn’t include sin. They didn’t include my worthlessness. They were happy and thus weak. They failed to understand that to have a silver-lining you must have a very dark storm cloud blocking the sun.
Seeing the silver-lining should never deny the thunder cloud hiding the sun.
It is truth that makes the silver-lining shine. Remember, hope is a light in the midst of great darkness. That means you have to pass through that darkness to reach your hope. So, why do I love Mumford and Sons even though the hope in their songs is often hidden behind sad, and somewhat angry folk music? Because that’s real life. Hope is often hidden deep beneath darkness.
Why do I love Metallica’s Master of Puppets? Because we are enslaved to our sin and it is damning. That comes through in the song in a far more real and visceral way than most contemporary Christian music.
The Bible teaches us that Christ did not come to save the righteous, but sinners. Christ didn’t come to make us perfect and give us perfect lives. He came to make us like Him. Not only should the lyrics communicate this struggle, this war, this perpetual battle between flesh and spirit, but so should the music. Our modern ‘worship’ is all about feeling good, but go back and listen to some old hymns. Listen to the sober tone to their music. Listen to how the music swells and grows, drops and dives, as the sinfulness of our own hearts is exposed by the light of God’s grace.
I don’t hold to separating out Christian and Secular, since God gifts both saint and sinner with artistic talent. I think lessons and truths (small truth, big Truth only comes from the word of God) can be gleaned from both. I also know that our emotional reaction to art has much to do with what we bring to the table. A song that speaks to you may seem insignificant to me, while a song that makes me weep may annoy you. Isn’t art an amazing thing? Isn’t it amazing that God saw fit to include it in our lives?
Emily, I hope this helps explain why I love the songs I love. Thanks for sparking the conversation that lead to this article! And please, don’t take this as me thinking my songs are better than anyone else’s favorite songs, this is more an exploration of self. I’m sure there are plenty of counter arguments to what I have said in justifying my own song choice. One of the interesting parts about getting older is how I have returned to the roots of contemporary Christian music with a renewed love of old hymns. The truth set to sober, serious, heavy, music feeds my soul when I sink down in the pit. They help me more easily remember the truths of scripture and sometimes memorize scripture themselves. For me, it’s a returning after years of avoiding “Christian” music almost all together. God is always good. He does not give us only sunny days, but provides us a song in the rain.