Marc Barnes on VirtuousPla.net has a few posts discussing the problem with Christian music on the radio. In the end, his biggest problem is that it lacks authenticity as many bands produce music in imitation of a pop form that is more designed for mass consumption (and thus profits) than it is for serious reflection on the awe of God, which would produce beauty.
Selling out is a problem for every art form, but I’m not sure it alone explains the current dreadful state of Christian music. While reading these posts, it occurred to me that there was a problem with Marc’s analysis. When we discuss Christian music on the radio, perhaps we need to start out by a critique not of the music aspect of it (which Marc does exceptionally well and far better than I could) but with a critique of the “Christian” part. It seems to me that when I listen to powerful. encouraging. KLOVE! I’m not getting a Catholic perspective. I’m not sure a Catholic perspective is even allowed. What I’m getting is at best “mere Christianity” but at times general evangelical Protestantism.
This seems to present a few problems for an achievement of real beauty. In regards to the absence of Catholicism, Catholics who wish to make it on radio suddenly find themselves stripped of a lot of their material. Mary, the Eucharist, the Saints, the Mass, the Sacraments etc. are all topics that can’t be used. While that still leaves plenty of material, there’s stilla problem: it’s natural for a Catholic to talk of Mary are the Eucharist when talking of the love of Jesus; by getting rid of that stuff it becomes more difficult for Catholics to talk about Christ’s love. The act of making something “merely Christian” always avoids the truth by avoiding those areas of the truth where there is disagreement among Christians. To diminish the truth is to diminish beauty and this is all the more true from the Catholic perspective.
But more troubling is that mere Christianity or evangelicalism has a tendency towards a trite emotionalism anyway. The focus of the evangelical is the act of salvation in which theologically a heap of dung is covered by the snow of grace. After this covering, the person is forever saved. While Protestants obvious think that grace is awesome (or amazing), that’s kind of underwhelming compared to the Catholic teaching whereby through the sacraments a heap of dung is converted not covered into real pure snow. That is, the transformation is considered greater in Catholicism, the power of God all the more awesome.
Think of Catholic literature here. The Mestizo & priest of Graham Green’s Power and the Glory, Gollum & Frodo of Lord of the Rings, the various characters of Flannery O’Conner and Walker Percy. There’s a lot of struggle there yet even despite that tremendous struggle we get heroes: the bad priest dies a matryr, Frodo destroys Sauron, etc. (though I would probably have a harder time finding heroes in O’Conner’s and Percy’s work). That transformation & victory over struggle is possible (or perhaps natural) only from a Catholic point of view.
Also worth noting is the Protestant tendency towards fideism. If you don’t see the world with both faith & reason you tend not to look in the universe with the same awe. Think of the difference between “wow, there’s a theology of the body such that my body works best when I act in accordance with the natural law and God’s teaching” and “I shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage b/c the Bible says so.” The first one can produce a good song; the second one not so much.
In short, the limitations of Protestantism (and “mere christianity”) are going to affect the ability of its musicians to express beauty in an authentic way. To be sure, there is beautiful Protestant art & music but it’s a lot harder to get there.
And this is BEFORE we decided that all Christian music has to be powerful and encouraging, defined as “the messaege is Jesus loves you.” This is probably more a critique of KLOVE than anything, but it seems like the songs I hear on the radio have two purposes: (1) to be played to hurt teenagers at retreats to try to inspire them to convert and/or (2) to be played as feel-good Jesus-loves-you booty-free music for moms and parents in the car. These are not bad objectives; helping kids know Jesus loves them or allowing people radio music that isn’t antithetical towards truth are good things. But this is hardly the full scope of Christian music.
I noticed in Marc’s piece there was discussion about how there is a tension between rock with started out as rebellion and Christian which emphasizes obedience. While that tension is there, how on earth is Christianity not rebellious, especially in this day and age? Almost every politician, every program, every piece of art, seems to be enticing us away from holiness and into prideful individualism and materialism. To be Christian today entails rebellion and non-conformity with the status quo. While I like Flyleaf and Firelight’s work as Christian rockers (generally not played on KLOVE), I’m also thinking of Danielle Rose’s “Crucify Him” where she identifies many of the areas of society where we continue to sin and crucify our Lord.
A lot of people need to know that Jesus loves them. But a lot of people also need to know that Jesus because he loves us is calling us to conversion, which is a nice way of saying you are a sinner, and you need to repent. As I mentioned earlier, this is something Catholic literature does especially well (namely, critiquing the absurdities of our secular society and the areas of needed conversion) but maybe for one or two songs it’s not a topic worthy of Christian radio.
I could probably go on, but the point is that the failure of Christian music is often tied with failures in Christianity. Pursuit of mainstream success is a part of that, but it’s our modern fear of saying anything really Christian lest we offend as well as the theological presumptions behind a merely Christian radio station that have prevented Christian musicians from producing the kind of beauty that their subject deserves.
P.S. I should state that simply because one is Catholic that does not mean that their music is better than a Protestant’s. Catholics have shown themselves quite capable of producing material that is trite and flat.
P.P.S. I leave unanswered the question of “If Protestantism is such a hinderance towards real beauty, then how can a Catholic musician find the success necessary to maintain a livelihood?” I’ve noted that a lot of bigger Catholic artists try not to advertise their Catholicism too much, presumably for fear of alienating the folks who buy Christian music and organize music festivals. I’m not quite sure Catholics are ready to have their own radio station but perhaps separation from KLOVE would not be an inadvisable goal.