Editors’ note: This is the first installment of “Angels with iPods” (apologies to Apple), a new column exploring the intersection of pop culture and Christian discipleship.
When I first heard Christian pop music, I had already come to think of Christians as people with very little sense. I was in the ninth grade, and I identified myself as a Pagan, studiously objecting to anything that smacked of conventional religion. I also liked to argue, which is how I’d managed to strike up a friendship with a self-described “born again Christian” kid in my history class. I spent most of that year trying to show him just how wrong he was about everything, and he obliged to do the same for me.
We agreed to trade tapes of each other’s favorite bands, each of us secretly hoping that our music would convert the other. I gave him a tape filled with Dr. Dre and Rage Against the Machine. He gave me Michael W. Smith. It was the most dreadful, boring music I’d ever heard. I remember thinking that if being a Christian meant that I had to listen to crap like this on a regular basis, then that was perhaps the best argument available for unbelief.
At various points during my high school and college years, well meaning friends exposed me to other Christian artists. While none of them ever achieved the epic level of mediocrity that I’d experienced with Michael W. Smith, they were all still pretty bad. The music was cheesy and repetitive. Most of the bands relied on instrumentation and chord progressions that made it clear that they hadn’t heard any new secular music since the mid 80s. Nothing was ever in a minor key. Each song had a kind of pasty sweetness to it that made it unbearable, like swallowing a gallon of saccharin.
The worst part was always the lyrics. They were incredibly simplistic (“When He rolls up His sleeves He ain’t just puttin’ on the ritz, our God is an awesome God! ”), but I could’ve gotten past that. After all, many secular pop songs are equally simplistic. What bothered me about the Christian songs’ lyrics was the way that they depicted Jesus. He was treated like a buddy or a boyfriend. The band dc Talk proclaimed, “My best friend was born in a manger,” and singer Rebecca St. James took it even further, singing: “I want to cover You with presents, / But my love is all I have / So take me, take me now …”
Christian singers seemed to display a kind of easy intimacy with Jesus that lacked reverence. Not that I was all that reverent myself. At the time I would’ve been the first one to crack a joke about Jesus doing something distasteful. But Christian rapper KJ-52 was apparently being serious when he appeared in the liner notes of his song “So In Love With You” dressed in a tuxedo and holding flowers and chocolates, presumably for wooing Jesus.
These artists were touting themselves as devoted Christians, yet their attitude towards Jesus seemed to be so casual. Jesus was the guy who gave good Christian kids a thumbs up. Jesus was an insignia of identity to which Christians could cling, the way hip hop kids clung to African medallions and hightops or metalheads clung to long hair and skulls. Jesus was not the son of God. Jesus was a prop.
Looking back now, I find it interesting just how strong my reaction to Christian music was. After all, I wasn’t a Christian then. Yet my response to the banality of Christian music was not indifference but disgust. It offended me because even though I had left the Church, I still had a sense of the authenticity of the Jesus story. Here was a man who had championed love in the face of oppression, who had voluntarily given everything he had including his own life for the sake of love. I didn’t have to believe in miracles or rigid dogma to realize that Jesus was a man who had embodied radical holiness. It was disturbing to see these people who claimed to be followers of this revolutionary spiritual figure treating him like a mascot for social conformity. Christian music domesticated Jesus. It made him safe, consumable, and very profitable.
The problem with Christian music is the problem that exists with all popular art in our modern consumer culture. Christian music sells. The more tame and sappy it becomes, the larger the market for it becomes. The music gets reduced to its lowest common denominator and Jesus gets neutered in the process. And the answer for Christian music is the same as the answer for all popular art. The key to revitalizing Christian music is to retreat to the margins of the industry.
In the last couple of years, this is exactly what has been happening. A healthy and vibrant Christian music underground has been developing. Like many secular artists, underground Christian artists have discovered that the Internet has changed the way the music industry works and has made a wider variety of music directly accessible to all. The result is that many Christian artists today feel freer to take risks that aren’t acceptable in the mainstream. The melodies and styles of Christian music have become edgier. Lyrics have become more sophisticated as Christian artists attempt to address a wider range of subjects in their songs. A great deal of crossover has taken place, with Christian artists like paramore and Mat Kearney making inroads in the secular music world. Other artists like Pigeon John, Jonezetta, and Andrew Peterson have produced albums with depth that present a robust, complicated picture of the Gospel.
In Pigeon John’s song “As We Know It,” he raps: “What up, Jesus? What up my mellow, my man / Can I ask you a couple questions about the whole dang plan? / Why the wars? Why the death? / Why the burning crucifix and the rest?” The song is filled with questions like these about the darkness and evil that is so prevalent in our world. In the last verse, Pigeon John finally encounters Jesus. Instead of giving him some sort of formulaic answer, Jesus simply stretches out his hand, shows Pigeon John his scars, and then pulls him and his friends into the sun where they all drink coffee together. It’s bizarre and creative and entirely in the spirit of the gospel narrative. It’s exactly the kind of thing that the pop Christian mainstream of a few years ago would have never supported.
A lot has changed in Christian music in the 13 years since I first heard it. I realize as I look back now that the problems I had with Christian music were representative of the problems I had with Christianity in general. Just as Christian music toned down Jesus for the mass market, so also did the Church seem to tone down Jesus for institutional gain. My impression of Christianity was that it was the last thing that Jesus would’ve wanted. The organizational structures of the Christian religion seemed as bad to me as the structures of the record industry. Both have a tendency to be self-serving. Both have treated Jesus as an opportunity rather than approaching him with awe and wonder.
But the funny thing is, recognizing this tendency towards selfishness eventually helped me to see my own need for Jesus. The music industry’s desire to capitalize off of a domesticated Jesus isn’t terribly different from my ninth grade need to make my friend see that I was right about everything. Both are rooted in the false notion that we are each in the center of our own universe. Both ultimately lead nowhere. What would I have really gained from convincing my friend he was wrong, anyway?
Somewhere along the line I grew tired of the endless pursuit of personal glory. What I found in Jesus was a figure who could pull me up out of myself and make me aware of a deeper meaning. Jesus ripped me out of my self-indulgence and showed me that life was not about what I saw in front of me — my wants, my ego — but about what was happening on the margins, in the places he had visited, in the people he had loved. I’m not saying that I’ve gotten rid of my selfishness. But when I get past my fears and actually rely on Jesus, my emptiness is transcended.
Selfishness is so mainstream. Give me the underground any day.