Archives For Contemporary Christian Music

Jack-WhiteI’ve been listening to Jack White’s new album, Lazaretto, incessantly over the last two weeks.

Running, reading, driving.

Cooking.

In case you’re one of those cretans who only listen to pop music or, worse, are still listening to the same 11 Steve Miller Band songs you did in high school, Jack White is the auteur garage rocker behind the White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather.

In the early aughts Jack White took a plastic guitar and a 2-man garage band and made blues relevant again. As White truthfully said in Rolling Stone last month (and got crap for it), without him there would be no audience for popular bands like the Black Keys.

As the world gets more pop, an article recently described him, ‘the more rock Jack White strives to be.’ White’s music consistently goes against the grain of what we’re told people want in today’s culture, but as with any good gift- or should we say grace- White’s music points out wants we didn’t know we had prior to the gift.

I often describe Jack White as ‘music you can run to without blushing.’

Nor is he boring. For his last album’s tour, White traveled with two completely different bands, one all-male and the other all-female. Neither band knew which one was performing on a given night until just before showtime. Rather than varying up the same set list of 20 songs as most bands do, White insists the audience shout out requests spontaneously. His new record has hidden tracks and alternate beginnings.

He’s not so eager to please that he’s cringe-inducing lame. Neither is he boring.

And running, reading and driving to him these past two weeks, I’ve been thinking that on those two counts at least Jack White has something to teach the Church. Because on those counts, in particular, we’re frequently guilty as so often charged.

His bands and albums are all a little different, but in each iteration Jack White simply takes an old, supposedly antiquated medium- 12 bar blues- and has fun with it. He happily accepts the constraints of his small, outdated canvas and plays with it.

And by playing with it, he makes the antiquated relevant.

Through sheer fun, the familiar seems fresh again.

This is no small lesson as the Church presently wrings its hands over the trends showing the meteoric rise of ‘the Nones’ who report they want nothing to do with traditional Christianity. Jack White, however, shows that to give up on the tradition would be every bit the mistake it would be to go chasing after whatever the culture tells us they want.

How could they possibly know what they (don’t) want if they’ve not yet experienced it?

Rather our trust in the tradition should be strong enough such that we have the confidence to play and experiment with it. The dichotomy between ancient and contemporary misses the point.

The power is in the play- and so is the engagement.

While this may be a helpful lesson to the Church, it’s not an easy one, for such play is inherently a personal, intimate experience. It’s no surprise then that White writes all his own songs, plays all his own instruments (even makes some of them) and produces all his own records.

Playfulness with a tradition requires the authenticity of

direct engagement with the material.

Christians and congregations, White’s music would suggest, need to be hands-on involved in experimenting with the small, antiquated canvases the saints have given us.

The Church of Jack White is the opposite of passive pew-sitting and pre-packaged messages and praise lyrics that speak to no one so desperate are they to speak to everyone. The Church of Jack White doesn’t want worship songs made to sound like Coldplay but neither does it un-ironically sing antebellum hymns exactly as our forebears sang them.

In odd dress, old sound and against the grain posture Jack White intentionally presents himself as the last true rock musician in a culture that wants ‘None’ of that anymore.

Counterintuitively- or maybe not counterintuitively at all- his very popular appeal is in the promise that he can offer you what everyone else has forgotten.

Therein lies a lesson if we the Church have ears to hear.

Plus, he’s not boring.

 

Skeptical BelieverI know ‘apophatic’ is a mouth full.

Also called the ‘negative way,’ apophatic theology asserts that God (because God is transcendence itself) is essentially and absolutely unknowable. In addition, because we’re finite sinners we’re constantly prone to cast our projections, assumptions and images upon God, rendering God in our image rather than vice versa.

For this reason, apophatic theology is an attempt to strip away our anthropomorphizing of God by confessing what God is NOT rather than assuming what God is.

 

So rather than saying ‘God is mighty’ we profess that ‘God is not hate.’

Instead of calling God Father we first confess that ‘God is not male.’

Rather than praise ‘Our God is an awesome God’ we sing ‘God is not evil.’

While the apophatic tradition is prominent in all the theistic religions of the world, particularly Islam for what should be obvious reasons, Maximus the Confessor and the Pseudo Dionysius are its most noteworthy Christian practitioners.

I mentioned apophatic theology recently in a worship planning meeting, in anticipation of our Skeptical Believer sermon series. In fact, I commented/observed how apophatic theology flies in the face of most over-confident, anthropomorphized evangelicalism and thus is nearly 100% absent from the airwaves of contemporary Christian music.

Andreas Barrett, our resident bard, took my off the cuff remarks on a Mystical, Medieval tradition and wrote up a song that might’ve made Maximus the Confessor smile (doubtful actually, I mean…you can’t have a very good sense of humor if your name ends in Confessor).

295024_10151240304491769_259193053_nAnyway, here’s the song. The lyrics at least. The music’s an upbeat, fiddle-led country tune:

Heaven’s Knot  ♦  Words and music by Andreas Barrett

I don’t know what you are, but do I need to know? 

I may have once upon a time, but I forgot. 

Now your ways are unknown, but I’ll always be your own, 

All the while I’ll be untangling heaven’s knot

Heaven’s not a place to cry, 

Heaven’s not the stars and sky, 

Heaven’s not a place just past the pearly gates.

I don’t know what you are and though it may appear bizarre, 

I will follow where your mystery awaits.

I don’t know what you are and I may never know; 

Sometimes just a clue would hit the spot. 

But when the truth is unseen, I will still know what it means; 

All the while I’ll be untangling heaven’s knot.

Heaven’s not a place to hate, 

You can’t put that on heaven’s plate. 

Heaven’s no eternal isolation zone.

I don’t know what you’ll be, but it’s pretty clear to me: 

Heaven’s not a place for us to feel alone.

Heaven’s not a place to cry, 

Heaven’s not the stars and sky, 

Heaven’s not a place just past the pearly gates.

I don’t know what you are and though it may appear bizarre, 

I will follow where your mystery awaits. 

I will follow where your mystery awaits.

 

keith-and-kristynWhenever I watch a movie and the opening credits roll and I see that the screenplay was written by 4,5 + people, I instinctively know the film’s a turd.

Likewise, I’m regularly astounded that an entire corral of people are regularly credited with writing a single contemporary Christian song, even when the song has less than dozen words in it. In fact, some contemporary praise songs boast more authors than they do words or ideas.

That said, Taize chants are rarely more than a biblical phrase or a sentence. They’re spare and beautiful and no one critiques them the way they do contemporary Christian music.

I think the dichotomy between contemporary and traditional Christian music is a false one. Yes, Charles Wesley’s lyrical theology makes Chris Tomlin seem like he’s writing his songs in crayon, but it’s a mistake to suppose that all old hymns are superior by dint of being old.

If you’re a churchgoer, then you know that ‘Up from the Grave’ is as gooey bad as anything on Christian radio today while ‘How Great Thou Art’ (a ubiquitous favorite) has Hallmark theology and moves at the pace of a tugboat.

Art is art and crappy music is crappy music and both distinctions apply to all genres of music.

Yet, the NPR piece below does get at something important: the role of music in not just offering praise to God or inducing inspiration among the congregation but in teaching the faith.

There was a time when hymns were used primarily to drive home the message that came from the pulpit. But then came the praise songs.

Matt Redman’s song “Our God” is the most popular piece of music in Christian churches today. That’s according to charts that track congregational singing — yes, there is such a thing. But approaching the Top 10 is a retro hymn: “In Christ Alone,” co-written by Keith Getty.

Keith’s wife, Kristyn, sings the hymn, while he plays the piano in their home near Nashville’s Music Row. The couple came to town to write songs not for individual artists, but for what Keith Getty calls “the congregation.”

“Our goal is to write songs that teach the faith, where the congregation is the main thing, and everybody accompanies that,” he says.

There’s no definition for what’s a hymn and not a praise song. But Keith Getty says it should be singable without a band and easy for anyone sitting in the pews to pick up. And it should say something bold.

“I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth,” he says. “[It] is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.”

Kristyn Getty says that some of the most popular music doesn’t show God the proper reverence.

“There is an unhelpful, casual sense that comes with some of the more contemporary music,” she says. “It’s not how I would talk to God.”

This old-school approach has made the Gettys stars with the country’s largest Protestant denomination: Southern Baptists. Mike Harland, who is with LifeWay Christian Resources, which publishes the Southern Baptist hymnal, flips through the index, counting how many Getty hymns made the latest edition — there are 12 in total. That’s more than just about any other living songwriter.

Harland says the Gettys have set a new bar. He’s been pushing LifeWay’s own staff of songwriters to go deeper.

“We would say, you know what, this is pretty, and this is nice, but it doesn’t really say much,” Harland says.

While modern hymns are finding an audience, those songs that may not say a whole lot still remain the most popular. Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” is a refrain sung in megachurches worldwide. Nashville producer Ed Cash collaborated on the song and says he laughed out loud the first time he heard a rough draft.

“I remember thinking, you know, that’s exactly the simple kind of brainless praise-chorus things that drive me crazy,” Cash says. But Cash has had a conversion to the praise chorus. He now says you shouldn’t complicate the message.

“You know, for some people, singing a simple, seven-word, simple chorus, draws them into the presence of God,” he says. “And to me, ultimately, what is the goal of worship music? It’s to exalt God.”

In the past few decades, some church leaders have called the tension between contemporary and traditional styles a “worship war,” and it hasn’t exactly let up. But the hymn is getting more love from modern worship leaders, even if it’s just tagging a new praise song with a classic chorus.

I got this question recently from a friend with a sharp mind and wit:

The other day at church they played ‘Lover of the Light’ and I promptly freaked out. Something tells me if you could choose worship music it would be heavy on Mumford and Sons. Just curious, what are your thoughts on turning secular music spiritual?

Before I answer, I wonder what all you think about turning the secular into sacred?

Most of you could probably predict my gut reaction but here goes anyway:

First, reworking popular secular music for a worship gathering, to me at least, reeks of precisely the kind of eager to be relevant desperation that I think non-Christians find cloying and repellent. It strikes me as the musical equivalent of my grandfather saying ‘cool man.’

Second, I think it trades in the kind of sacred vs secular dichotomy that is Platonic, leads to overly spiritualized Christianity and is unbiblical. While secular music may not be appropriate for worship that doesn’t mean the artist who created was not inspired by God’s Spirit nor does it mean that music cannot be a means of grace to people.

Here’s the real- moral- problem I have using secular music for worship: It’s using art in a way that is contrary to how the artist intended it to be received. This seems to me to be the opposite of worshipping a non-violent Lord. It’s a sort of violence to disregard an artist’s intent and use it for other ends. I mean, it’s certainly the case that ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or ‘Tears in Heaven’ are better art than any Chris Tomlin garbage, yet Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton didn’t write their songs for the sanctuary. And if Christians are people who respect others, we should respect that.

And write better songs.