Realizing that most of radio is a vast auditory wasteland with surprisingly inappropriate lyrics for general audiences, wife decided to switch the radio in our minivan to a fate worse than getting down in the club.
Now, we are [ostensibly] Evangelical Christians; my graduate degree is in Christian Thought and I don’t shy away from my religious orientation. That having been said, Christian radio has been bad for about as long as I can remember. At least, rather than getting down in the club, it’s, um, something supposedly about Jesus.
The trend out of the bowels of Nash-Vegas for the past decade or so has been a decisive blow to any scant shreds of creativity within the realm of Christian music: rearrangement.
[EDITORIAL ASIDE: To be sure, there is no such thing as ‘Christian’ music, just as there is no such thing as a Christian book, Christian movie or a Christian coffee shop. These are nouns designed identify their target demographic; it’s not a description of what they are, rather of who they intend to legally extort. I digress.]
There was a time when the occasional rearrangement of an old hymn was a welcomed and interesting sight on any given Sunday in any given church. Now, it’s de rigueur. Few CCM artists perform original material anymore, deferring to ‘worship’ records. Sunday mornings in Evangelical churches are full of the same pap found on the radio, now in perfect synthetic harmony: the radio plays the rearrangements one would hear in church, one hears in church what she’d find on the radio. Never mind that most of what comprises ‘worship’ is either an exercise in miserliness, patently heretical or just plain narcissistic.
And these rearrangements are seldom creative or interesting: perhaps a different lick here, a worship chord bridge there, some cheap throwaway lines added in between verses, a slightly different tempo. Where Amazing Grace was a partnership between Newton and Cowper, an extension of theological perspectives shared with a local congregation–likely without music!!–later put to music–likely pulled from elsewhere!!!–and became a fixture in American Christianity in the Second Great Awakening.
The deeper issue isn’t that Christian musicians and ‘worship leaders’ [/barf] are redressing older songs and pretending it’s creative, but that in changing the tone, it lends itself to further detaching the content and intent from the performance, especially when, in the first place, we Christians already have significant performances issues.
Again, Evangelicals could benefit from not neglecting the work of Paul Tillich: faith is whatever is the object of one’s ultimate concern. The writers of Amazing Grace weren’t looking to write a song, they were drafting a theological statement. Those who perform Macbeth for the Royal Shakespearean Company do so out of passion, not obligation: they memorize to understand and translate to an audience. Can you imagine a droll recitation of Juliet’s balcony monologue?
Those who rearrange and perform do nothing with the content, excepting the insertion of a handful of trite phrases that act as derivative dog whistles. A performance does not lend itself to reflection upon the content. In fact, the fact that we even by and large sing songs imported from the radio–or a hymnal–says that we don’t have much consideration for content at all. Our ultimate concern isn’t a theological orientation but rather in performance: performance on stage, performance in the pews, which can only mean that life away from sacred space is merely performance as well.
We may rearrange our lives in a way that reflects some kind of religious orientation, we may change the key or chord and sprinkle some nice-sounding bumper sticker fodder into our daily conversations, but we still are doing nothing but performing. It’s an act, it might even be method acting, but it’s acting nonetheless.
Over the Christmas holiday, we visited wife’s home church on a Sunday morning. Aside from having one of the best, smoothest Americanos I’ve ever had in my life (no, seriously, professionally trained baristas and professional grade equipment), they led the service off with a song one of the musicians had written. Not only was it a good song, the musicians in that church are disgustingly talented, but refreshing. Here is the spirit of Newton and Cowper, a creation of beauty and a willingness for a solitary voice to boldly make an original theological statement to be reflected upon by the congregation.
Therein lies the difference between a truly Christian life and, well, what anybody else does. The difference between arrangement and rearrangement, between Christ and dead men’s bones.