I gave a talk last Thursday called, “The Problem With Christian Music – And a Proposed Solution”. Here’s the general outline.
I write as a Christian musician. I’ve played in Christian bands. I have released Christian albums. I’ve had a Christian number one hit (in the Faroes, granted, but still!). I’ve performed on many stages, both Christian and otherwise, as a Christian musician. I’ve been on TV and on the radio as a Christian musician. I’ve toured the United States and played in all the Scandinavian countries as a Christian musician. One of my proudest moments as a musician was opening for Petra when they visited the Faroes in 2005. It’s been a while since I did anything noteworthy (growing up sucks!), but I used to be a Christian rocker.
I also write as a fan of Christian music. When I was only 8 or 9, I made mix tapes from CDs a friend of the family had of Stryper, Petra, Bloodgood and other classic Christian rock bands. My first CD was Deliverance’s River Disturbance. In my early teens I even put together a zine, interviewing and reviewing Christian metal bands. It only lasted one issue, but it was cool. I was a DJ on Christian radio a couple of years back. As I grew up and my parents’ influence on what I listened to and not waned, I started introducing more of Satan into my album collection, but I’ve remained a fan and follower of Christian music, especially metal.
Which is to say, I am a fan of Christian music. I love Christian music. But over the years, as I’ve thought more and more about this thing called Christian music, I’ve grown more and more dissatisfied with it. As a phenomenon, there’s just something off about it. Yet, I remain a fan. So this is not a critique from the outside. Rather it’s a plea, coming from the inside, from someone who’s fundamentally for Christian music. I think it could be better, not because I think it’s bad, per se, but because I recognise its potential and see how partially it is being realised (generally).
In his excellent book, The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight offers a very perceptive and fruitful analysis – or diagnosis – of Evangelical theology. He argues that Evangelicals have gotten the answer wrong to the question of what the Gospel is. Ask random Evangelical that question and the odds are he or she will tell you about salvation. The Gospel is the fact that if we believe in Jesus, we go to heaven when we die. Or the long version, “Human being fell into sin in the garden of Eden and God, righteous judge that he is, had to punish us in Hell. Yet God is also a loving father and to save us from such a punishment he sent Jesus, his son, to become human and die and be judged in their place. If you believe this, you get to go to heaven, rather than hell, when you die.” The Gospel, right? No, says McKnight.
Building on Paul’s own definition of the Gospel in 1st Corinthians 15, arguably the clearest such statement in the New Testament, McKnight reminds the reader that the Gospel is the story of Jesus. In particular, it’s the story of Jesus completing the story of Israel. Look at the speeches of the apostles in Acts, the earliest examples of “gospelling” we have – they too tell the story of Jesus. And what else are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John if not the story of Jesus?
And the story of Jesus is more than simply the story of the establishment of some sort of soul-saving mechanism or sin-management solution. The story of Jesus is the story of how God establishes his kingdom on earth, with Jesus as king. The king Jesus Gospel. The Gospel is the good news proclaimed about this concrete socio-religious reality, the kingdom of God, which in a significant sense coincides with the church, even though the church doesn’t encompass it.
Salvation is an incredibly important part of the Gospel and McKnight has no problem affirming an Evangelical understanding of salvation. It’s how people gain entry into the kingdom of God. Yet, salvation is not the Gospel and the Gospel is more than salvation. Mistaking salvation for the Gospel is a serious mistake which skews the proper understanding of the Gospel, with devastating results.
It’s in this context that McKnight coins the very helpful term, “soterian”. A soterian is someone who makes the mistake of thinking salvation is the Gospel. “Soteria” is the Greek word for salvation. To a large degree, modern Evangelicals, says McKnight, are not Evangelicals, but soterians.
To return to the issue of music, I think the problem with Christian music is the problem of Evangelical theology in general: It’s too soterian and not Evangelical enough.
Soterian music has two problems, mainly, one which relates to lyrics and one which relates to music.
Lyrically, soterian bands can only justify singing about salvation. You can sing about salvation before the fact, essentially evangelising: Telling listeners that they really should be saved, trying to convince them that they need to be saved, explaining how nice it is to be saved and outlining how to go about getting saved. And you can sing about salvation after the fact, essentially worshipping: Telling Jesus how great it is to be saved, how great He is as a saviour, and reminding Christian to do the same.
That’s basically it. Things get awkward if you stray beyond the borders of topics approved for soterians. Fans might forgive you if you sing a song about your wife as long as you have an acceptable rate of Jesuses-per-minute otherwise. But more than that, you are in danger of crossing the line for when you can properly call yourself a Christian band according to a soterian understanding. And soterian bands can’t become too poetic. “You can’t expect people to be saved if they can’t understand what you’re talking about!”
Musically, there are two problems. Soterian music is utilitarian music. The music is there merely to facilitate the lyrics, which is what is of primary importance according to the soterian understanding. The most efficient thing a soterian band can do musically is to copy whatever music is most popular out there, because that’s what will attract the attention of the highest number of listeners. This is simple logic and is very easy to find in the Christian music market. The problem with this is that people are instinctively turned off by fake music. Music only becomes good when it is real, authentic and honest. And music is only real, authentic and honest when it’s allowed to exist for and as itself. Music as tool or utility is not good music.
But according to the soterian understanding of music, the music not only isn’t particularly good, but it can’t be too good. If the music becomes too good, it threatens to divert attention from the lyrics. Making genuinely good music would be self-defeating for a soterian band, because it would undermine the fundamental logic of soterian music.
There is both internal and external pressure to conform to the soterian standard, both in terms of lyrics and music.
My proposed solution to this problems is the same as McKnight’s: Become less soterian and more properly Evangelical. A biblical understanding of the Gospel is holistic, not fragmentary. It doesn’t just focus on the soul, but also focuses on the body. Not just heaven, but also earth. Not just the future, but also now. Not just spirituality, but all the faculties and dimensions of human existence and experience. Music, like all of human existence, is for the truly Evangelical person one more thing over which Jesus is king. Being excellent at music, then, is a goal in and of itself, because it brings glory to the king. So there’s no topic or experience that Christian lyricists cannot explore poetically. And there’s not only no problem with Christian musicians diving headlong into the task of creating and performing the best music they possibly can – there’s a direct incentive to do so.
(Any misrepresentation of McKnight’s views are my own fault. His book is excellent. One of the best I’ve read in a long time. You should really check it out.)