If you’ve ever wondered why it is that Christian music sucks, I have a hypothesis.
But first, I just have to say — “The Sentient Song Fallacy” — doesn’t that sound like an episode of The Big Bang Theory? Get at me, Chuck Lorre! I’m a budding screenwriter, I do some stand-up, and I can even act a little bit. I promise I won’t go on any drunken tirades about tiger’s blood.
Anyway, here’s my definition:
The Sentient Song Fallacy is the erroneous idea that a song can be Christian.
What, you were expecting something longer?
We do a little bit of verbal sleight-of-hand whenever we use the term “Christian music.” When most of us use that term, what we generally mean is “music that communicates, affirms and/or expresses a Christ-centered worldview and/or belief system.” Because we don’t want to sound like lawyers in our spare time, we usually just call it “Christian music.”
But the problem is in the use of “Christian” as a descriptor. That word tends to morph into other things.
But first, it’s a problem because — fundamentally speaking — songs are not sentient. Songs cannot feel pain, or be overcome with wonder and amazement, or seethe in burning anger. People do those things, and we often use songs to express the emotions that we feel. But the songs themselves are inanimate. They are not filled with the breath of God and made in His image in the way that a human is. A song can no more be a Christian than a frisbee or a toaster oven. Legally speaking, songs are just melodies, sometimes set to words, sometimes not. Scientifically speaking, songs as musical recordings are just collections of modified frequencies.
So what we really mean when we say “Christian music,” if we don’t articulate our definition as precisely as the above lawyer-speak, is, “something that sounds like a Christian would say.”
Who decides what a Christian sounds like? These guys?
The answer is, well, we all do.
The term “Christian music” is a problem because in a lot of circles, people tend to conflate the idea of being a Christian with the idea of belonging to a specific culture and obeying its practices. You can tell that’s happening if you hear people say a lot of stuff like, “good Christians [do/wear/say/eat] [insert plural noun]” and “good Christians don’t [do/wear/eat/say] [insert plural noun].” It’s not that there are no characteristics that Christians should have to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the unbelieving world, but that those characteristics should not be so culturally-bound. When the term “good Christian” becomes an unofficial synonym for “someone in my area who thinks, dresses, talks, and eats like I do,” that’s a problem.
The Sentient Song Fallacy is a relic from the explosion of Jesus music in the late 20th century, during which there was a clear sense, as there still is today in certain circles, that all music can and should be neatly separated into two categories, “sacred” and “secular.”
But this is a false dichotomy.
For example, most of the songs that speak explicitly about sex are usually labeled as secular, and yet… Christians are instructed through a Biblical mandate to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, and there’s a whole book of the Bible (Song of Solomon) full of explicit sexual imagery. So what makes a song about sex, “Christian”? Does it have to be about the “missionary position”? Does it have to include explicit references to marriage, as defined as one man with one woman? And most importantly, who gets to decide this?
That’s just one example.
When people say that Christian music sucks, often what they mean is this: the music that is often performed by Christians and marketed toward other Christians has such a limited scope of style, subject matter and lyrical content, that it does not resonate with me in any kind of meaningful way.
Now, let me be clear — I don’t feel that way about all Christian music. I don’t even feel that way about most of the Christian music I listen to, but that’s only because I don’t let commercial radio or evangelical gatekeepers decide for me what music is worth listening to. I make those decisions on my own, seeking out artists with messages and stories and melodies and rhythms that appeal to me, that show me different pictures of faith, hope and love, that illustrate the fruit of the Holy Spirit in action, that show me what I believe is an authentic representation of the kingdom of God — diverse, messy, and beautiful. I listen to hip-hop, and jazz, and rock, and funk, and some bluegrass, and acoustic soul, and trap, dubstep, and other forms of EDM.
But if all I did was listen to whatever was played on my local Christian music station? Yeah, I’d think Christian music sucks, too.
Thankfully, this relic is becoming outdated. More and more artists who are believers in Christ (see how cumbersome that is? I wanted to say “Christian artists” so bad just then) are putting their music in the general market and finding measures of success.
As a matter of fact, I only have to go back to last night’s Super Bowl XLVIII telecast for an example. The hip-hop group WLAK (which stands for We Live As Kings) have a great tune called “King In Me” that was used during an American Idol promo. That’s just a small example, but it’s indicative of a larger trend.
“King In Me” is a tune that, if you pay attention to the lyrics, is clearly about men who are trying to walk with Christ in their attempts to reject the world’s system and achieve success on His terms rather than the world’s. But it’s also got an arresting chord structure and an iconoclastic refrain.
So yeah… things are changing. But for me, not fast enough.
So whenever you hear someone complaining about how [such&such song by noted Christian artist] isn’t “Christian” enough, feel free to use this post to document how and why they’re wrong.
Songs can’t be Christian, but people can.