Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Non-Sequitur of "Christian Music"

Disclaimer: I am a music snob. I admit it. I’m one of those people who “knows” that my own taste is intimately linked to some objective standard by which music ought to be evaluated. I often argue with some of my friends about whose aesthetic taste is more developed in this area. And of course, the answer is “mine.” I’m convinced of this. So much so that if at some point in my relationship with someone I find that that person is really into some band or musician that I deem “unworthy” of such devotion, it is often legitimately difficult for me to resist the temptation to then question this person’s position on matters totally unrelated to music. I realize this is not good. I’m working on it. Sort-of.

That said, there is something about the way evangelical Christians in our culture have approached this particular art for some time that strikes me as counter-productive and, frankly, a little offensive. Strong language, right? Hopefully what follows will show clearly what I mean.

The issue I have in mind has bothered myself and many other like-minded “snobs” for a long time, and it has created no end of tension within the evangelical community. Many otherwise level-headed members of this community—a community I proudly claim, mind you—have for years judged one another to varying degrees over this issue. Some call others “compromisers” for listening to music that is deemed too “secular,” while others label their brothers and sisters “legalists” for attempting to restrict the freedom of the believer. Rarely, however, have I seen anyone offer (much less defend) a clear explication of his or her reasons for holding such a position. My hope is that by taking both sides seriously, we might approach a perspective that is informed biblically and in keeping with the Spirit of Jesus.

I want to make the rather strong claim that the “Christian/secular” distinction in music is a false one, and further that the term “Christian music” is actually a non-sequitur. If you’re not familiar with the term, it is Latin for “does not follow.” It’s used to refer to ideas, arguments, etc., which begin with a set of assumptions and then derive from those a conclusion that does not follow logically. More generally, it refers to ideas which are paired together as though they belong that way, but which actually have nothing to do with one another. So what I’m saying is that the assumptions which lead to the Christian/secular divide do not in fact entail any such thing, and that the term “Christian music” is a pairing of mutually irrelevant ideas.

I was once at a concert and heard an artist generally thought of as being on the “Christian” side of the divide say something like this (paraphrasing): “I don’t make Christian music. There’s no such thing as Christian music. There’s good music and there’s bad music. I try to make good music.”

While I can’t speak for that artist’s intentions, what he said intrigued me and I’ve thought about it a lot since. What I suspect he meant is that what separates good and bad music is not whether it mentions Jesus. Rather, it is what virtually every non-Christian—and every Christian when they’re not wearing their religious hat—knows it is immediately: talent, originality, depth of feeling, honesty, soul, an ability to express what is common to humanity in a way that takes seriously our condition…in short, whether or not it’s art. Whether or not it talks about Jesus or even makes you feel good (for somehow, the latter has almost become sufficient for the label “Christian”) is just irrelevant.

It seems to me that we have taken the term “Christian,” redefined it, and then applied the new, watered-down version to our music. By “Christian,” we mean that the lyrics are “clean,” and that they speak of some aspect of a theistic worldview, though not much emphasis is placed on which aspect of this worldview—the basics generally suffice. By “clean,” we (apparently) mean that it avoids cussing and anything sexual, though some take it even further to mean that it must be in some sense “encouraging” or “uplifting.” In this way, even bands whose members in no way profess a Christian faith publicly, or who live lives any different from your average moderately successful musician, get radio play on “Christian” stations.

Conversely, any music which does not qualify for the new definition of Christian is labeled “secular,” which as far as I can tell is roughly synonymous with “immoral,” “wicked,” “carnal,” or even “liberal.” Whatever it means, it is strongly implied that the real Christian has no business listening to it, and that if they should be caught with Radiohead on their iPod, it’s reason to question their commitment.

I was once myself a victim of this misunderstanding. Like many others I know, I had the legalistic phase during which I got rid of the majority of my music library. My criteria for keeping something was roughly whether or not it was “Christian” in the above sense. Needless to say, I later regretted many of those decisions.

But of course, this definition has nothing to do with historic Christianity. There is nothing in the Christian message that is opposed to strong language or honest talk about sexuality and suffering. There’s also nothing that implies that the themes of our art must be limited to the specific revelations of our faith. Rather, the term “Christian,” as with so many things, actually refers to something much deeper, much less rigid, and much more profound. It refers to the rather astonishing claim that at the center of everything—our world, our values, our existence, our life, our death, our sex, our happiness, our pain, our meaning, the very universe itself—is the God-man Jesus Christ. And this is so whether or not we acknowledge or recognize His place there. Further, it is the claim that in creating us, God put into us something of Himself and His own creative capacity. It is His intention and His pleasure that we utilize this ability to its fullest extent. We are restricted only by the bounds of love itself, which is of course no restriction at all, but freedom.

Because we are made by Him to be like Him and in relationship with Him, when we encounter Him in our lives (whether or not we realize it’s Him), it resonates in us deeply. This is what happens when we experience true art, true creative expression. It literally feeds our soul, and speaks to us—if we will hear—of Him.

But what we have done in creating this Christian/secular distinction is limit the areas over which He has influence. We have, to quote another blog I read recently,1 made our music about the message rather than the art. But this is to misunderstand both the gospel itself and the nature of reality: the art is the message. Or at least part of it. To offer Jesus to the world wrapped in three chords, a hook, and a style borrowed from whatever “secular” musicians happen to be making money at the moment, is a bit like handing out tracts to hungry people. They’ll never grasp the message until they are fed. When we take the central truths of the Christian faith and dress them in cheap clich├ęs, overproduced pop music, and vague sentimentality, the result is anything but Christian. It’s just bad music.

In his essay “Christian Apologetics” in God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis says, “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects--with their Christianity latent.” His point here is that the Christian apologist will make much more progress if she can get the non-believer to discover through the sciences and literature that God may in fact be at the center of everything, than she will by writing a book on apologetics. He continues, “…it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble [the materialist]. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.” I think that the same goes for the arts. If the best music on the radio or iTunes is being made by committed Christians, then that will go a whole lot farther toward advancing the Kingdom than bad music that preaches.

But of course there’s a flip-side to all this as well. There is a great deal of music—even some that might qualify as art—that the follower of Jesus has no business listening to. Music that glorifies violence, substance abuse, or unhealthy sexual activity. Music that objectifies women, or reinforces their status as second-class citizens. Music that encourages harmful stereotypes or destructive behavior. In short, music that is not compatible with a life ruled by love. In this sense, there are several bands that I never regretted giving up during my ‘phase.’ But it’s important to note, I think, that this list should not only be off-limits to Christians. The thoughtful non-Christian has no business filling her mind with such junk either.2

And all this hints at a deeper problem within popular Christianity, which makes it especially relevant for me and for this blog. The attitude that many well-meaning Christians take to this issue typifies a more general attitude that I’m afraid still pervades much of the church. Put simply, it is a contentment with a shallow and largely impotent Christianity. One that replaces genuine transformation with pop psychology and pseudo-scholarship. The culture’s distinctions and definitions are accepted and Jesus is thrown into the mix. The result is a list of do’s and don’ts (mostly don’ts), with little room left for any real depth of spiritual fulfillment or the life of the mind.

So the next time you turn on your radio or buy a CD, be critical of what you hear. Ask yourself, not if it’s “clean” or “encouraging,” but if it’s in tune with the creative Voice at the base of all things. Does it feed your soul?

That should be your new standard. That is Christian music.

1 See this insightful post by one of the musicians that I take to be transcending this false dichotomy.

2 Though, she will have a very difficult time explaining why this is the case. For more on this, see my posts on the moral argument for God here.

The Argument from Special Revelation: Jesus Christ (Part 7)

Note: see parts one, two, three, four, five, and six.

Finally, how does the Christian account stack up against the naturalistic explanations of the resurrection, when evaluated by the criteria for assessing historical explanation? We have reviewed what I take to be the four strongest naturalistic candidates and found them all wanting. But does the Christian claim fare any better?

Remember, the facts that are being explained are 1. the empty tomb, 2. the appearances of Jesus after His death, and 3. the belief of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The Christian explanation of these facts is that God in fact raised Jesus from the dead, and that He subsequently appeared to many of his disciples.

Like all the rest, the Christian account easily satisfies the first criteria. Regarding the second, explanatory scope, we see easily that it is broad: it is intended as an explanation of all of our facts, and it applies easily to all of them. As for explanatory power (3), this hypothesis works rather well. It provides a simple and effective explanation of all three of our facts. The tomb was empty because Jesus actually left it; no body need be accounted for. The appearances of Jesus after His death are explained because they actually happened. No appeal to conspiracy or hallucination is needed. Finally, the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection is explained, because this is what their collective experience told them was the case. Indeed, nothing other than this could have put the idea of an individual, bodily, pre-eschatological, resurrection into their minds. What they experienced violated all of their former categories. So they made a new one.

Criteria (4), plausibility, is where this explanation has the most trouble. Here it must respond to the critiques of the miraculous by folks like Hume, who maintain that miracle (e.g. resurrection) is inherently implausible. In fact, given the sum of our experience, it is the most implausible sort of thing there is.

A full treatment of such a view is far outside the scope of this post, but I’ll just say here that in order for this to be an adequate critique, one must begin with the assumption that theism is false, which is of course to beg the question. For if theism is true, then it isn’t much of a step to assume that God could intervene in His creation in a very direct way if He wanted. Also, even if something is prima facie implausible, that does not mean that one is never warranted in believing it. If sufficient evidence were provided to tip the scales toward belief, then no matter how implausible it might seem on the face of it, one might very rationally accept the truth of such a proposition. Here, that evidence comes in the form of our minimal facts, coupled with the insurmountable failure of every non-miraculous explanation. So, unless one assumes from the get-go that the Christian claim can’t be plausible, we have no reason to assume that this explanation fails the fourth criteria.

The hypothesis is not ad hoc (5), since it begins by taking seriously the claims of the historical writers. Nothing outside of their own claim is added to explain our facts. Also, the hypothesis is not disconfirmed by any accepted beliefs (6), since nothing in our intellectual history since has shown conclusively the impossibility of resurrection. Science has not done this, nor has technology or accumulated experience. On the contrary, such an explanation is strongly suggested by our increased knowledge of first century Jewish categories of thought, our better grasp of human psychology, as well as by our improved understanding of medicine and the possibility of a human surviving what Jesus endured.

Finally, the Christian hypothesis fulfills criteria (1) through (6) far better than any of its naturalistic rivals. Therefore, it is only rational to conclude that it is far and away the most likely explanation of our facts.

Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that that fact changes everything. And we have good reason.

* I owe much of the structure and content of this series to work by William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, N.T. Wright, and Greg Boyd, especially Craig's discussion in his Reasonable Faith.