"To be or NOT to be ('Christian', that is): The Dilemma of a Christian Artist

If you could only choose one...

Last week I wrote two posts on "Christian" music:
Why I Cringe Every Time Someone Says "I hate Christian Music" and
Yes, There is Such a Thing as "Christian Music": A Response to Derek Webb

This week I have two more articles on the same subject in response to two comments I received from readers. You can read the first article here: 'Christian music is like beer': An insight from a reader."

Today I am responding to Heather Peterson, keyboardist, singer, and songwriter in the band Hello Industry. You can go here to listen to an interview I did with her husband Nathan last year when their album Matter came out. I think Heather's position on whether or not to call oneself and one's art "Christian" is important. She is a working musician (she's also a piano teacher!) and actually has to exist out in the big bad world. As artists Hello Industry has gone back and forth for years playing in Christian environments (churches, youth camps, ministry conferences) and then just trying to play "normal" shows wherever they can. Their faith is embedded in every aspect of their art and yet I can tell they really feel a tension in how they label themselves and how they communicate their faith.

I've divided up Heather's comments into individual quotes (which are in italics and bolded), with my responses coming afterward.
My current thought: As a musician who is a Christian I prefer not to label the songs we are writing as "Christian" because it feels so limiting. It lumps our art in alongside some music that wasn't very artfully written (musically or poetically)  but instead may have been intended to promote the current trending Church group-think culture (Which is a big discussion on its own). Not saying that's true for all Christian music... But a ton of it...

Heather, this is really interesting to me, this whole idea that labeling something (anything, really) limits that something. You're not the only artist I have ever heard discuss how putting a label or a name to a work of art limits the work itself and them as an artist. The hip-hop artist Lecrae just had an interview come out this week addressing these very topics.

Let me first try to explain something about where I'm coming from in all this. Being someone who was trained in literature, music (a lot of history and some theory), theology, and history, I lovelovelove categorizing subjects, ideas, and human achievements such as works of art. When it comes to art I love "isms", as they say, such as Impressionism and Cubism and Romanticism. I love discerning between the different periods of music, trying to figure out if something is Baroque or Classical or Romantic. In literature I love trying to come up with different interpretations of a text, how, for instance, the same work can be viewed from a feminist, a Marxist, a Post-Colonial, a Christian, or whatever perspective. But I don't only love categorizing; I also love it when I encounter a work of art or artist that defies categorizing, that challenges what I think I know. Doing so always means we're on the cusp of discovering a new art form or a new way of viewing the world. I think about how revolutionary Cubism was for the art world or atonal music was for the music world and it excites me that people might be creating new kinds of art NOW, in our day and age. 

Eventually we end up categorizing those new movements as well, and that might be sad to some people but to me it's not. To start with, I think naming is inherent to who we are, a God-given tendency as the Bible articulates it. We are always aiming to describe the world before us and in our describing we are attempting to make sense of our world, to find and attach meaning to it and within it. On top of this, to me categorizing/labeling/naming a work of art or person doesn't limit it, instead it is merely an attempt to describe what it in fact is. I see words as rooms to walk in to and explore meaning rather than chains used in an attempt to lock meaning down. Certainly there are restrictions to a room but you can also walk around and survey every corner and crack from floor to ceiling.

So, to me labeling a work of art "Christian" is simply a way to describe what it is and what it does as a work of art. I'm not trying to prescribe a meaning onto it from the outside, but to describe a meaning from what already is there. And then, once a label has been given, part of the fun for me is to go on and on talking about what that label means. Here's a real-world example: when Wilco was becoming more and more popular it was really tough to put them into a single genre of music. They were country and folk and rock and baroque-pop all at the same time. I didn't have a single conversation about that band where we weren't confused about what Wilco was doing musically and that was the most exciting thing about them. To me, calling them "Country" wasn't limiting because they weren't only country; they were a bunch of things at once and "Country" as a term was merely one jumping off point.

But here is what I realized in reading your comment: I'm being way too deep about the whole thing! As an artist who is Christian your concern is that by calling/labeling your work "Christian" you are going to severely limit how your music is perceived and received. You're saying "Hey, I don't want to be relegated to the "Christian" section of Walmart or Amazon! I want my music to be judged alongside everybody else. I don't want someone to not listen to us or not take us seriously simply because someone thought it was best to categorize our music and put a Christian sticker on it." I can completely understand not wanting to be pinned down by that label and I don't think it's right having music relegated to a cultural-ghetto based on it's content and the belief system of the artist. I'm glad they don't have "Democrat Music" and "Republican Music" sections in stores or online! There's a ridiculousness to it on top of being unfair to you as artists.

Here, I think, is one of the great dilemmas for people like yourself, where a single label quarantines you and your work off from the rest of the world. And so in this sense I believe it is very much the best thing if we stop labeling our music as "Christian." This is exactly what Derek Webb was talking about in his article, where "Christian" is used solely as a marketing term. And so in this sense, yeah, let's stop doing it. It's just a very bad idea all around. To take an extreme example, can you imagine someone saying "Man, I never listen to Bach, that's just Christian music!"? 

However, I think in this sense it's kind of a damned if you do and damned if you don't circumstance, where both the secular and Christian industries want to put people in a box. I think of a band like Delirious, who had so much trouble just trying to get their music played on "normal" British radio stations. They were always fond of saying they were too Christian for the radio and not Christian enough for Christians. They kind of tried to please everybody and I don't know they exactly succeeded. As a result of such attempts to succeed in the general music world are bands such as yourselves who kind of feel like they need to go incognito and tread ground delicately in both the Christian and secular worlds. It's like you are doing some crazy high wire balancing act where your feet are on two different wires at the same time!

So, to sum up, as usual I really want to complicate this issue for everybody: on one hand hand we should definitely do away with the Christian label (for the reasons mentioned above and, I'm sure, more that you could come up with on your own!) but on the other hand there needs to be space to call what people such as yourselves in a band like Hello Industry do as "Christian", because if you're claiming and proclaiming Christ in significant ways through your art and you yourselves are Christians, well, then what you're doing is Christian, plain and simple. You are a Christians (a noun) and musicians (also a noun) and there are some Christian aspects to your art (an adjective). I think using the adjective is all I'm arguing for.

Have fun with that!!!
...Also I feel it is limiting (somehow) to see myself as a missionary who is a musician, instead of a musician who loves Jesus wherever and however that manifests itself in relationship. (This is a much-discussed topic in our home, and the difference is so subtle but means a lot to me)...

Let me just say I really feel this tension. So, in what I'm about to write I really want to walk into the tension and not really even try to resolve it.

I see this issue as a two-sided coin, a truly two-sided coin that many artists try to make only one-sided. Either an artist tries to be really clever about how they express their faith in and through their art, almost to the point where it seems non-existent or an artist wears their faith on their sleeve to the point that it puts off just about everyone, even other Christians. Succeeding at the balancing act between these two extremes is a nearly impossible feat, as usually one side of that coin suffers at the hands of the other side, and hardly any "Christian" artist succeeds in both the "secular" and "Christian" industries at the same time. Take Switchfoot and P.O.D., for instance. Lecrae might be an interesting example of someone doing both at the same time, but his story is still unfolding.

Since I mostly come down on the "it's OK to call a work of art 'Christian'" side of this issue, I'm going to be more for someone saying "Yeah, I'm a Christian musician" and then just acknowledge there's a "missionary" side to his or her work. Again, (relating to my section above), this is not to box in who someone is or how they do or do not express themselves through their work, instead it's to simply describe what they already are. What I mean to say is that a Christian who is an artist (or a politician or a housewife or an engineer, etc.) will (or should) naturally love "Jesus wherever and however that manifests itself in relationship" and thus in some ways all Christians are missionaries, or put another way, there is an inherent missional aspect to everything a Christian does. I think what I'm trying to say is that I don't understand how it's limiting to do (or to feel compelled to do) what is implied in the title of what you are (in this sense, a Christian who happens to be a musician). 

I think, in squirming against the title "Christian musician", you are probably reacting against two cultures: Church culture and non or anti-religious culture. As far as Church-culture goes, there is this expectation to "always be on" and always be super-spiritual and always try and get as many people saved as possible and never let anyone see your flaws. I am sure you have felt this weight on you over the years to be a certain kind of artist to the point where its this oppressive legalism enforced on you, your art, your ministry, and your relationships. And I get that. THEN, there is this general culture that has been emerging for the past few decades (or centuries, depending how you look at it) that is either really anti-religious due to all the horribly abusive and oppressive things "the Church" has done over the centuries (what about the Crusades, MAN!?) or is just kind of passively non-religious or agnostic (I don't know man, there's probably a god and stuff, but I just don't buy into all the religion. I kind of do my own thing...). This world of potential listeners will almost always be automatically turned off if they find out there are spiritual or faith aspects to your music.

So, I don't know, part of me wants to go along with the Scriptures that speak of us being blessed when we are persecuted and how those of us who follow Christ will always be these strange creatures no one knows what to do with (foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews); that we should all just carry the "Christian" label with us wherever we go because we're going to have to explain exactly what we mean by that label to everyone anyway. That is, you will find as many perspectives on Christianity as people to talk to: Oh, you're a Christian? Does that mean you _______? (fill in the blank with numerous positive, negative, and indifferent answers). It's the most basic and usable term we have and since we'll always be in the process of defining and re-defining the term, we should just go ahead and use it.

BUT, I also hear the other Scriptures speaking, those about being gentle as a dove and clever as a serpent, and to be all things to all people, verses encouraging us to be discerning in how we live out and talk about our faith and to meet people where they are at. This might mean not leading with all the Jesus stuff in conversations or song lyrics but to instead be more enticing, to invite people into something bigger than themselves and acknowledge that a lot of people carry a lot of baggage and hurt toward "the Church" and Christian people.

To recap, to me there is a real tension here, one that is hard to resolve. As artists, we have to move forward, making our art, proclaiming God's kingdom come, all the while calling ourselves something even while remaining a moving target in order to minister to people who are hurting and in need of God.
...Plus- I really really really love to celebrate people doing what they are created to do - especially when they are throwing off all hindrances to do so- even if they don't know Jesus. I feel like somehow that is "worship"- an animal doing what it was created to do, a human doing what he/she was created to do. So I celebrate that art whether it is a Christian making it or not, and can personally worship Creator-God and marvel at His creation when watching, say, Michael Jordan, Steve jobs, listening to Radiohead, being taught by a professor who teaches passionately and inspires, or maybe even a really obsessed barista... 

You should make sure to read my second article on Christian music and also do some research on the term "Common Grace". This concept encapsulates exactly what you are talking about.

I do think though that this is another similarly complicated subject. While I would never want to say a non-Christian's art is bad from the get go, I do want to find a way differentiate it from art that Christians make, not in order to be a judge on what is superior and inferior (according to my opinion) but to instead discern what the art is doing/saying. I think Radiohead, whom you mentioned, are a great example. They make beautifully sad and moving art with a lot of songs speaking of the great isolation and loneliness we feel in modernity as well as our self-destructive tendencies as humans. At the end of the day though I find their "message", as someone who's hope is in Christ, to be woefully lacking. I don't fault them for this or judge them, instead I use their music as a jumping off point for talking about Christ. And of course I use discernment in this, as I rarely, when talking to non-Christian friends about Radiohead, compare their lyrics to the Christian faith.

So, I would say that "non-Christian" art is usually lacking in some way, but I don't say this as a point of being judgmental (as in condemning), but to instead be discerning. I mean "Christian" art always lacks too, in one way or another, right? To me, the point is to figure out what art is the most beautiful, the most true, and the most good and to latch on to that art. And as a Christian it is no coincidence I am going to say the art that falls into that category the most will be "Christian" in nature.

Nathan and I got to chat with Derek Webb in person over coffee last month, and these topics all came up. I think there's something big brewing in the air - in many people's hearts - on the topics of church, music, industry and culture. Interesting!

Heather! You can't leave me hanging on this one! I would totally love to hear what you all discussed and I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in that conversation. Feel free to write your own blog post about it. Either that or you and Nathan should come in for another interview. :)

1 comment:

Taylor said...

I read some of your posts on this subject and I think it's an interesting subject / discussion. To me the "Christian music" label signals adult contemporary / light rock that is made solely for Christians to listen to, usually in a worship context. I definitely think it's smart for artists who want to be taken seriously or who don't fall neatly into that worship-y sound to stay far away from the "Christian music" label, since most serious listeners (including me) won't go anywhere near it.

That being said, much of my favorite music is made by Christians who have a diverse lyrical subject matter, of which spirituality is just one part. Sufjan Stevens is a perfect example, and is someone who hip Christians may know but is far more popular in the indie/alternative world. Belle & Sebastian, Sunny Day Real Estate, Danielson and Neutral Milk Hotel are favorites of mine, all very well known, even considered legendary in the alt/indie world, and all fronted by Christians. I even would put U2 (excluding some of the recent stuff) in that category and they're considered by many to be the biggest rock band in the world. I could name many more examples like this.

There's also a lot of artists who don't identify as Christian but explore spiritual themes in fascinating ways like The Mountain Goats, The Hold Steady, Iron & Wine, even Arcade Fire. As a Christian myself, I gravitate towards that. One of my favorite albums last year was Vampire Weekend's "Modern Vampires of the Weekend" which struggles with faith directly in really interesting ways (check out the song "Ya Hey"). And there's music like Sigur Ros that isn't lyrically spiritual at all but is very uplifting and fulfilling spiritually nonetheless.

So I guess my point is, there's endless amount of options for someone who is passionate about good music and faith. I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything by not listening to music explicitly labeled Christian, so the reason I don't is the same reason I don't listen to nu-metal or bro-country, I just don't like it.