The Challenges of Critiquing Subjective Experiences
I think most Christians can agree, it’s a love/hate relationship with Christian music.
Some may remember the CD burning parties in the mid-90s. Spurred on by well-intentioned youth leaders, junior high students would gather to purge their music collection of every artist and album that wasn’t explicitly Christian.
It inevitably led to some awkward scenarios. Many may have played out like those depicted on the short-lived cult classic TV show Arrested Development.
Michael: “I mean, have you settled on an artist’s work to burn?”
George Michael: “Well, I was thinking Eminem for awhile.”
George Michael: “But, you know, everyone’s gonna be burning Eminem, so, you know. Then I got this Pat Boone album, but the guy’s Christian. But, you know, I don’t know, somebody’s gotta burn, right?”
While I wouldn’t buy my daughter an Eminem album, (or nowadays condone her streaming it) there is something lost when we deconstruct art into black and white categories.
Certainly there is a powerful, emotional, and especially spiritual affect of music, and one not to be taken lightly.
Playing praise and worship in the background while I work, I can feel our home office awash in something of a sanctified space.
But as someone who views media critically and tries to convey those musings to others in hopes of informing them of a work’s value or alignment to their particular taste, it becomes exceedingly tricky when wading into the Christian music scene.
What is uplifting and spiritually stirring for one person, can be trite and filled with meaningless platitudes for another.
No critic is worth the electricity to power a word document if they believe they can put a value on someone’s spiritual experience with God. Praise comes from the heart, and only God truly sees the heart.
Hopefully, all a critic can humbly provide is, not a standard necessarily, but a definition of richness in art and music, then measure a work based on the earnestness and thoughtfulness of the creator.
Instead of “does this song feature references to Jesus Y/N?”, perhaps a more accurate guide to our critique can be adapted from Archbishop Joseph Raya’s view of art.
“Those who produce beauty, alleviate suffering, organize parades, provide rest to the weary, inspire thankfulness, compose music, and create art are the hands of God. For God made creation and the human person to share in His own delight in living.”
I find Raya’s quote a useful rubric for critiquing music: is it beautiful? Does it provide rest to the weariness that creeps into our minds and hearts? Does the album inspire thankfulness, or delight in living?
Unfortunately, the reality I’ve noticed and reflected on the last number of years is not all Christian music is created equal. Some months I struggle to find the words to meter out a critique of Christian art.
The last year or so especially, I’ve noticed Christian music pulled by the insatiable gravity of generic pop and positive self-talk. In this time, I have noticed some troubling trends in the Christian music scene as a whole.
Like an invisible black hole pulling everything to its center, band after band is softening their sound to be more palatable to as many ears as possible. Shiny, synth sounds replace the grungy rock guitars. Maybe it’s the natural progression of time and taste, but my fear is more and more everyone is moving towards sameness.
I think of one of my favourite bands The Afters.
They were a refreshing alt-rock outfit with delicious guitar hooks but unconventional in their timing and melody, an almost off-kilter rhythm at times, but kept their sound from becoming predictable.
Like so many others, they too recently traded their raw rock for polished pop/electronic sheen. I could provide example after example of similar stories; I need only look through my music review archives.
It’s not to say CCM is getting worse—if anything, the sounds many bands enjoy are becoming more refined, more sophisticated digitally, but nonetheless they’re all seemingly climbing the same mountain, only to arrive at the same peak, indistinguishable in look and sound.
However, there are absolute bright spots as well. David Crowder, for example, continues to blaze a bold path that incorporates the new digital landscapes that today’s technology provides, while keeping a beating heart in his music.
There’s a false solemness or seriousness that pervades so much Christian music, one that is catered more to seeming spiritual, almost enviably spiritual, to other Christians rather than, you know, just being a person responding to a big romantic God.
Crowder’s music, especially the album Neon Steeple and his latest, American Prodigal, are great examples of albums that can be called Christian music, but are also just fantastically crafted tracks that reveal a genuine faith that is in turns desperate, fun, and vulnerable to doubt as a result of living in a big scary world.
I would love to see more bands worry less about smoothing out any edges or lyrics that might not fit with the broadest audience possible, and instead accept the associated risks of being different. I would love to see more CCM artists let their doubts guide the searching hearts, and bring those real questions to the feet of Christ in their music, and wrestle.
But this, I find, is the part that keeps me up at night. It’s not easy to justify grading religious art, especially as people have different but real spiritual experiences with a lyric or melody others could find shallow.
I’ve had real spiritual experience with a lyric or melody I later realized was poorly articulated or juvenile. The uncomfortable truth is this: sometimes God uses crap art to move us. Just look at your favourite music from junior high. And that’s ok.
But hopefully we don’t stay there. I like to think our relationship with music and art matures, just as our faith does. After a time we hunger for more. The proof is in the fruit. Does your favourite music make you look at the world in a new light? Does it resonate with your faith as well as your doubts? Is it true to your most vulnerable experiences, does it make you say, “yes, I felt that way, I didn’t know others did as well.”
Or, does the music or entertainment you feed on keep you placated, or reinforce everything you already believe? Does it push out of your mind everything that makes you feel uncomfortable, replacing it with a safe, unchallenging space, but ultimately a worldview that doesn’t take reality into account?
In other words, is it comfort food?
This doesn’t give anyone the right to judge a piece of art or music as worthless to everyone if it didn’t resonate to one person at that exact time in their thought life.
What we listen to in junior high has meaning and resonance to us at the time. Hopefully as we get older we find new music that reflects the complexities of the life we’re entering into.
All critics can do is point to art that is drilling closer to the core of human experience. In the case of religious art, or music written from a Christian person, whether as a means of evangelizing or expressing the impulse to create as an offspring of The Creator, we can say “this piece of art” has come from a more matured, searching heart and soul.
And yes, I believe we can also scale that offering on beauty and artistry.
Critics are servants, for some pointing to a piece of art that took more dedication and perseverance to ascertain its deep meaning. Christian music is no different, as it balances praise, beauty and searching.
Thinking back to those high school days, our well-meaning leaders were so eager to draw a line between the secular and the sacred. Richard Rohr describes this endeavour as a false dichotomy. Instead, he says there is no secular or sacred—only the sacred and the desecrated.
And desecration is accomplished by our own lack of fascination, humility, curiosity and awe. Throwing away my Limp Bizkit album was probably a blessing in disguise, but trading it for a Creed album wasn’t necessarily the answer.
I still listen to a lot of what would traditionally be called “Christian music.” It’s good to fill your soul with “positive praise” but the danger with platitudes is eventually, knowing they don’t always reflect the reality we live in, feel-good music can push us to become disenfranchised over time.
The power and artistry of music, and perhaps all art itself, is to make old things surprise us where we thought no new facet lurked.
Anything less than that might be fit for the burn pile.