Yes, There is Such a Thing as "Christian" Music: A response to Derek Webb

I've just put Derek Webb into a very uncomfortable situation. 
In 2013 Derek Webb wrote an essay on his tumblr entitled "Safe For the Whole Family: The Marketing of Jesus", which is essentially his argument as to why we should not call works of art "Christian", and why there is really no such thing as "Christian" music. In light of a recent Christianity Today article called "Why I Stopped Hating Christian Music" and my own recent article relating to the same topic I decided to write a response to Webb's essay. It's something that has been festering in me for some time regarding the issue of "Christian Music" and I hope I have been able to fashion a legitimate argument. It is not that I think Webb's perspective is entirely wrong, but I do think it is lacking on some levels...(oh, and I should also say, I'm a long time Derek Webb fanboy! Apart from a few things here and there [some of the Caedmon's Call EP's and independent releases and the acoustic version of Control], I own basically everything he's put out.) My intentions are not to bring down Webb or be a troll or whatever but to instead further and deepen the conversation about what Christian music is and is not.

While I mostly agree with Webb that anytime you hear the word "Christian" attached to something it is a marketing term, that it is used to manipulate people, and even scare like-minded people into giving up their money for a product promised to assuage their fears, I would counter by saying that it does not have to be so and I would encourage us to start using the term "Christian" in more essential rather than accidental ways (more on that later), to go beyond the cynicism inherently involved in having to market everything. I would say we are in fact saying some very important things if we label or describe a product ready for purchase as "Christian" or "Trans-fat free" or "fair trade". Indeed, these are all marketing terms designed to appeal to certain kinds of consumers, but they are also terms that radically define what a product is. For instance, there are hardly any words more co-opted by the media, the market, or politicians as a manipulation device than "Democrat" or "Republican", and yet at the end of the day we still need to get down to what those words actually mean, even if their meaning is constantly shifting in our culture. That is to say, even as bewildering and corrupt and inefficient as our political process is and even as the parties themselves often don't seem to know what they stand for, their names still designate something real, concepts, ideologies, and actions that play out in our country.

Now, what if we were using the same terms about items that were not products to be purchased? What if I was a guest at someone's party and the coffee the host purchased was indeed "fair trade" and the cookies they made were indeed made without any trans-fats? Are these now just marketing terms or do they signify something of vital importance about them as objects? I would say they signify actual aspects of the product meant to protect both the people making it and the people consuming it. 

Webb also mentioned we should not use the term "Christian" for anything other than a person and I get his point. However, in a list of various "Christian" products he included "Christian" education. As someone who is a part of "Christian" education I know very well it is often used as a marketing term, but I also know very well it is a designator used in an attempt to define who we actually are as a school to our core. We as individuals and we as a school are Christians to our very essence and therefore the tag "Christian" is not a tag ascribed after the fact but is simply a descriptor of what we in fact are (at least that is how we see it). "Christian education" is not an adjective describing a noun, it is a noun through and through, or at least that is what we are striving to be by God's grace.

Thus to me, Derek Webb's use of language and the word "Christian" in particular is not nuanced enough. I would posit that we need to have a dual understanding of terms like "Christian", where it both designates what something in fact is (that is, describing something's essence, as in I am a Christian) and also designates something's characteristics (that is, describing something's accidental properties, as in that's a Christian book). This is both a grammatical and philosophical argument (if one buys into Aristotelian philosophy, of which I am a novice, at best). This does not mean "Christian" as a term ceases to be a slippery or murky, still causing much confusion and delusion among us, but then this is the fun in dialoguing back and forth, an exercise where we hash out meaning and action together. It is the same for any term with any importance where we have to continually define and re-define what we mean when we use it, words such as Democrat, Republican, religious, atheist, gay, straight, pro-life and on and on.

Actually, this is a good place to make a further distinction. I believe there are some words which reflect the essence of a thing and other words which can never reflect essence but only the accidental (honestly, if you haven't yet, please read this article on the Aristotelian concept of accident and essence. It's key to understanding my argument). So for instance, words like "Christian" and "gay" have come to be seen as words defining someone's identity, that is, who they are to their core. So to be a Christian or gay does not mean to simply do or believe Christian and gay things, it means to actually be gay or be a Christian, it is essential to their being. This could never be said about someone who labels themselves a Democrat or a vegetarian. These are designators ascribed after the fact. To bring it back to our discussion about art and the people who create art, I would want to point out to Webb that yes, only people are "Christians" if we are speaking of the essence of a person, but if we are talking about a descriptor ascribed after the fact (an accidental attribute) onto a work of art, then it is perfectly acceptable to speak of something as "Christian", in that we do so knowing we are not attempting to describe that work's essence but only a characteristic of it.

Continuing on with the article, a major problem with Webb's line a argument is the number of straw men he sets up as the basis for each point. For example, claiming his own work cannot be designated "Christian" because he has sin in his life and his work does not always reflect Christ perfectly is a straw man. By this logic even the Apostle Paul's writings could not be categorized as "Christian", Paul who himself admits his own sin (both past and present), even while recounting the life of Christ and managing to glorify his God through every sentence. And maybe none of us claiming Jesus as Lord are even Christians ourselves as sin still persists in our own lives. 

Instead of worrying about how a flawed humanity can possibly represent a perfect, all-powerful, all-wise divinity, I think I would want to keep my definition of a work of art being "Christian" to the simplest definition possible, which is that it projects the heart of Christ, his love, truth, power, grace, and the work he effected through his ministry, his death, resurrection, and ascension. And next I would say the work of art must represent the Christian religion in some way. And so, while Webb would say "just because you label something doesn't make it so," I would counter by saying that if something is labelled a certain way (in our case to be "Christian" which hopefully means it represents Christ in some manner) and turns out not to be representative of Christ, then it is simply NOT that way at all, and never was to begin with. It does not mean things can never contain Christ-like-ness, it just means this particular thing does not contain it. Again, trying to keep things simple, I would say Christians (a noun) do Christian (an adjective) things: they get baptized, they celebrate the Eucharist, they pray and seek God's face, they read Scripture (individually and communally), they serve the poor, they live in some kind of community with other Christians...the list goes on. Now, not all of these actions are specifically "Christian" but they are all rooted in an identity found in belonging to Christ. 

He creates another straw man (or false-dichotomy) in claiming that by labeling one work of art "Christian" and another "secular" we automatically designate the latter to be "bad, wrong, false, ugly". While I agree this is often what happens when Christian people try to differentiate their Christian-themed art from everything else, again I would say this does not have to be the case, and indeed, when people make such claims (as in, all non-Christian art is bad) it simply is not true. Christian tradition itself has made room for truth, beauty, and goodness being present in all manner of works, ideas, and even people, most notably in the concept of "Common Grace." So, to me, Webb has not even presented a real argument, but a false punching bag, a straw man to set on fire. 

So let me risk seeming really naive when I say I think it matters when an artist who claims Christ as the Lord and savior of our world, a person who regularly reads, meditates on, and is taught about Scripture, a person with a prayer life who prays to the Triune God, that it makes their art different, it comes from a different place, has different intentions, and is more readily used as a means of bringing about God's Kingdom on earth. To me this is not about excluding all other artists and the origins of their art, it is not about condemning their work outright for being "secular" and "devoid of God" (a phrase I would never use myself unless a work were so obviously intended to be anti-God or anti-religion). Instead, to make the designation of "Christian" is to simply describe where the work has come from, what the work is doing, and why it exists in essence even if its essence itself could never be considered "Christian".

Now, I realize the waters get murkier when it comes to something like "Christian" music, which is unequivocally attached to an industry that is still somehow linked to Christian faith communities, but I would argue that something fundamentally different is taking place in a song sung by a Christian person (someone who has been made new in Christ and is in fact Christ's and who sings both consciously and unconsciously out of this essential part of his or her being) and then a non-Christian person who sings a spiritual or thought provoking song out of their God-given talent. Both songs contain truth and beauty and goodness, but there is a different kind of truth, beauty, and goodness taking place in the work of someone of whom Jesus is Lord and in whom the Holy Spirit is working than in someone who is not. It is difficult to describe what this distinction is without sounding exclusive, so let me just admit I'm at the beginning of the process of figuring out how to articulate what I mean by this.
Christian Music gave Derek Webb a black eye.

But none of this discerning what is and is not "Christian" within music is easy, as a further murkiness occurs when artists who are Christians do not always contain overtly Christian themes in their lyrics—something which I am completely fine with but does make the descriptor "Christian" more difficult to ascribe to an artist or a song. In other words, if an artist who is undeniably a Christian releases a song about their love life that does not explicitly bring God into the scope of the lyrics, is that song still "Christian"? That is a difficult question to answer, at least according to the criteria I listed above, but ultimately I would probably say that music is "Christian" to some extent for the very reason of the person who wrote and performed it is a Christian. Perhaps it's not as Christian as some of their other songs though. Perhaps a Christian artist can have their "Christian" songs, their "love" songs, their "protest" songs, their "Christian protest" songs, their "satirical" songs, their "breakup" songs, their...Ah, can you see the wonderful game I'm playing? There are many categories we could come up with to decide what an artist is doing in their work. The case I'm trying to make is we need to leave room for "Christian" being one of those categories, simply as a means to describe something unique occurring within and through a work.

Despite the admitted murkiness let me give you two examples, both songs I love, songs I continue to find moving and thought provoking and that I think convey truth, beauty, and goodness but ultimately diverge in their abilities to do so

If you are a Christian and you are reading this and have listened to both those songs (and have even digested the lyrics a little [Mullins and Arcade Fire] can you see how the Rich Mullins song, coming from someone who is "in Christ" has a different understanding of our world, that it comes from a different place and points us in a different direction, even while still leaving us with some tension and some questions (as all good art should do). The message of the Arcade Fire song is almost just as powerful, but ultimately, for those of us who know Christ, despite all its thought provoking insights on the fallen state of humanity, it leaves something to be desired. 

So how do we differentiate between these types of music? Certainly one designating word can never sum up an entire ideology or way of life, but also certainly we need to be able to start somewhere as a jumping off point for describing what something is (a subject I go into more in this article). This is why we must move past the marketing schemes of labeling something "Christian" into the heart and depth and power of words to seek what something really means. We need these brief signifying words in order to help us take the necessary steps of getting to the deeper meaning of things. The signifiers are the tools that help us build the house.

I would never advocate leaving "your powers of discernment at the door" as calling something "Christian" so often leads us to do in an attempt to make us feel "safe" simply because it has been labelled "Christian", something Webb rightly calls out Christian radio stations and book stores for doing. Instead, I would continually encourage us to uncover and recover what words actually mean. This means we have to reject the (perceived) conservative Evangelical culture tendency to render "Christian" as meaning "family friendly" and reclaim it for the radical term that it is: which is to be someone who picks up their cross and follows Christ, someone who embodies the Beattitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, someone who repents of his sin, someone who commits to radically love their neighbor, someone who has given her life over to our creator and redeemer.  The main thing I would want to encourage Webb to do is to push past how the term has been co-opted by people selling "Christian" products and help us attempt to recover what we all know (or should know) the term really means.

A final straw man: even Webb himself, who has for a long time been a part of a kind of underground Christian music scene seems to only want use the term "Christian Music" in the most limited and pejorative sense, that of the mainstream CCM record and radio industry. Why limit the use of our collective word to such a small and notably deficient branch of music. In other words, why are we letting the jerks win? Let's take our word back!

So, I would say, a bit wryly, playing off of Webb's final paragraph in his essay, that yes, I wholeheartedly agree that we should not "give short answers to complex questions", as that is certainly not something I have done here. And I too believe in using the terms "good" and "bad" to describe art and that not all Christian art is good, nor is all secular art bad, and that across the world there will be many understandings of what good and bad art is. In fact, because there will be so many accountings for "good" and "bad" it is not enough to use these most general descriptors. Instead, in order to understand each other and attempt any kind of mutual agreement as to what is good and bad we have to continually complicate matters by bringing more and more descriptive terms to our. Eventually, at least for those of us within Christianity, we might even come agree that something once labelled "Christian" is not good, and therefore not even "Christian" at all.

As I said in my previous article, I am completely for coming up with a new and better vocabulary with words that better describes what is happening in our art and music, but I'm not even remotely convinced getting rid of the word "Christian" is part of the answer.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent article! I appreciate the points you've made here, and the way you made them. I agree with your thoughts on the "straw men" that Webb and others put up. Sometimes it feels like people try too hard to run away from the label of "Christian", when, as you said, it should merely be a descriptor, a way of indicating its content, or influence. The one thing that our culture needs is for Christians to unashamedly embrace who they are, not in a militant, "in your face" way, but in a way that lovingly proclaims truth in a world devoid of truth. People can see through the veneer of our attempts to be "Christ followers" but not "Christians". Let's reclaim these words and communicate what they really mean, and not just as marketing slogans!