Is Modern Christian Music Unoriginal?

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My wife shared an article with me that asks “Is Christian Music Today ‘Genreless’ and ‘Unoriginal’?” and asked my opinion on the subject.

As a musician this aspect of Christian music has bothered me for some time. But it does not bother me so much as some, because I don’t think all Christian music is bland and blah. At the various times in my life when I considered writing or composing, it has never occurred to me to publish it in a “Christian” venue. I’d rather write and play and sing songs that have truth than pigeon-hole my music into a particular demographic. Listen to a John Denver song and you’ll generally get the idea: he sings about strong and true things. A Christian will hear his lyrics and be prompted to examine their life and praise God. A non-Christian will also be edified as the aspects of their soul that resonate with the truth of the words will perk up and be strengthened. He would have gained nothing by selling his music as “Christian” music, and the world probably would have lost much.

So perhaps some of my lack of worry is because I never considered “Christian” music to be as distinct and separate as some would consider it, even when I held to the legalistic perspectives of my youth. But some protection from that cynicism has come from my seeking out musicians that aren’t endlessly derivative. In fact, rather than spend time trying to explain how there are nooks and corners of Christian music, and even some broad swaths, that are not “genreless” and “unoriginal”, far from it. There are some artists that are veritable fields of deep and spiritually healthful music calculated not to tickle the ears of the masses, but to speak to the soul words of truth.

Pandora introduced Dirt Poor Robins to me a few years ago when they played Masquerade by this husband/wife group. It’s clever use of a well-known nursery rhyme caught my attention, as did it’s musical genius. Then the words of Rise Up, meshing the words of God to Job and Isaiah, have served at many times to bolster my spirit in difficult times. But all these pale to I Shot A Man:

Rich Mullins’ music has attracted me since I first heard Creed, and the intro to Sing Your Praise To The Lord seems to me to have effectively pre-dated most of the Classical/Rock fusion now common in the songs of Evanescence and Within Temptation. That’s not derivative, that’s original.

While no one would claim that Steven Curtis Chapman or Michael W. Smith are in any way nearly as talented musically as either Dirt Poor Robins or Rich Mullins, I think these two illustrate a second aspect of how “genreless” and “unoriginal” are not the only standards by which Christian music can be measured, especially for Christians themselves.

No one can argue that Smith and Chapman more than make up for their lack of talent with a great depth of spirit and honesty in their Christian walk. I think recent events probably brings this more to the forefront in Chapman’s life, but I get the same feeling from Smith’s music as I do Chapman’s: they are both real men with real hearts of God who sing to the utmost of their ability praises to their Lord and Savior. Granted, these men play rather key roles in my own spiritual growth, proving to be catalysts in my breaking free from the legalism that captured much of my youth. Hearing This Was Her Time during a televised Billy Graham Crusade showed me irrefutably that contemporary styles of music were not devilish, and at my first (and only) concert, Chapman had the son of Nate Saint and Mincayani himself as guests on stage pushing an upcoming film on their stirring story. At that same time we’d been studying the story of Jim Elliot and Nate Saint at home and this coincidence confirmed to me further that God was being glorified through modern music as well as through the old.

But regardless of my own attachment to these two, they both use their derivative and unoriginal music to make joyful noises to the Lord, edifying and encouraging Christians who hear them in their own walks. That, to me, indicates music that is successfully Christian, regardless of it’s stylistic grade.

This brings me to a final point: more is gained when music is appreciated for what it is than criticized for what it’s not. Music that is good for Christians comes in two flavors: music designed to encourage praise of God in a corporate or private setting, and music designed to encourage good living. I listen to much more of the latter in my personal music library, and this latter category also contains much music not written for, or even by, Christians. The former category has certain inherent limitations imposed by it’s purpose: it must be singable, accessible, and “relevant”. In a word, it must be popular. It is generally mostly in the latter category that you’ll find music that is interesting, technically creative, stylistically challenging, in short, original and genred. Unfortunately, it is the former, singable, accessible, “relevant” music that you hear on KLOVE or whatever your local praise-fest station is, and it is this style that is mostly what is thought of when you hear some comment about how dull and stupid Christian music is.

The author of the article ended by saying that Christian music ought never have moved beyond hymns, stating that is the only “true” Christian music genre. I assume he’s forgetting that a hundred or more years ago when most of those hymns were written, they were in the style of the popular music of that culture. It has been as many in the church have gotten stuck in a 300-year-old music style that the church has grown old and stuffy and concerned about things like walking down the aisle, saying the “sinner’s prayer”, developing theologically questionable habits that are more about pew-warmer’s comfort and less about letting none perish. Not that these two trends are necessarily causal, but they certainly are correlated.

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