The former lines of distinction between secular and Christian music are not as sharp. As with the internet ‘guess the lyrics’ game I played, many Christian songs are just pop music with some words swapped out for God, Jesus and other churchy lingo to make them ‘Christian.’ On the other hand there is a lot of popular music done by secular artists which have Christian themes and influences. Old timers like recent Nobel laureate Bob Dylan have been doing it for years. A more contemporary example is Chance the Rapper. His critically acclaimed 2016 mixtape Coloring Book, has the song How Great where the first part samples uninterrupted Chris Tomlin’s classic How Great Is Our God, sung by a gospel choir. On the other hand noted Christians artists are collaborating with secular acts. Kirk Franklin worked with Kanye West on the song Ultralight Beam (which also featured Chance the Rapper) of West’s latest album Life of Pablo which alludes to the conversion and missionary work of the great apostle Paul of Tarsus. Last weekend Andy Mineo, a multiple Dove Award winning rapper, opened for last year’s Billboard topper Fetty Wap. A similar thing is happening in Ghana as well with new afropop Christian artists like Nero X collaborating with mainstream secular acts. The hugely successful single Adonai by leading Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie featuring Castro, is virtually indistinguishable in terms of lyrical content from mainstream Gospel music and gained recognition among both church goers and nightclub regulars.
Not everyone is happy with the state of affairs where there is free exchange between formerly opposing camps. As far as I am aware the place where the debate is the sharpest is the Christian Hip Hop (CHH) community. Lecrae and his label Reach Records (the most successful CHH record label ever by the way) are frequently criticised by fans as “sell-outs” for favouring implicit Christian themes over explicit ones and their frequent collaborations with secular musicians. Lecrae’s mixtape Church Clothes 3 (2016) is arguably the best example of this new more subtle direction which starkly contrasts lyrically and stylistically with earlier work like After the Music Stops (2006). The 116 Clique (artists signed to Reach records) want to be known as artists and Christians not as Christian artists even though they have no problem with the latter. They argue since there are no such things as Christian plumbers or Christian they too should not be labelled as Christian artists since the standard is they are all professionals. This example is not fool proof since we do not have secular evangelists either but their agenda and motives are far more intricate. Part of the issue here harks back to the debate of what should be the source of inspiration for Christians doing music. Should it serve God and the church or the person and the world we inhabit?
In part one I traced my own musical development as well as professional artistic changes nationally and internationally to indicate the complexity of the matter. Ordinary fans like myself and artists alike wrestle with what music should be with many factors, like the ones I have highlighted, influencing the final product and how it is received. To grapple with the issues affecting Christian music (or music made by Christians) we have to recognise music for what it is, something as complicated as the people who create it.
Before we get to Christian music, however we define it, it must first be music, an art form which needs to be executed well. Musical content should be good and that means it must both have technical and entertainment value. It took me a very long time to recognise this because of the environment I grew up in. I do not play any instrument and I do not sing well so recognising more technical aspects of music does not come easy to me. For a while I listened almost exclusively to contemporary Christian music (CCM) or CHH. As I grew theologically I became disgruntled with the lyrical content of the music. I realised there wasn’t as wide a difference between it and secular music. I began to compare the quality of the different brands of music and on the whole secular music is better, or more interesting if you will, in terms of production. Christian artists, for whatever reasons, do not innovate new styles but they borrow from the secular world. This brought to my attention that ‘the beat’ is just as important as the words.
What I really struggled with is the importance of music having entertainment value, including Christian ones. Apart from the huge resources mainstream secular artists enjoy to make music, they are largely unencumbered of addressing serious issues. They can be fun just for the sake of it. More responsibility is expected from Christian music. Try throwing a party for Christians using Christian music and you’ll see how hard it is to have “holy fun.” Nevertheless I discovered the capacity to be entertained is something God given and it is an expression of worship when we take delight in the rich variegated world he has given us. (Go here for more on the theology of entertainment.) One of the most basic definitions of entertainment is something that holds your attention. Music that is bland or forgettable is not really good music. Not only is there a broad catalogue of Christian music to choose from, there is the technology to listen to what I want, when I want. When you have so much choice it is worthwhile being selective since not all that is on offer will meet the cut. Slapping the Christian label on something does not necessarily make it Christian or meaningful for that matter. The reverse is also true for secular music. Secular does not immediately indicate bad or unprofitable.
Having considered all these things, should Christian art be inspired by human experience or divine experience? The truth is these categories overlap and intersect with one another. This is in fact fundamental to the biblical worldview of history as the interaction between human and divine activity in the world. Human experience is very important in scripture therefore what proceeds or is inspired by what happens to people is a valid avenue for artistic discourse. It is therefore legitimate for a Christian to be an artist who does not exclusively produce explicitly Christian material. Even the Christian artist, in the usual sense of the word, can produce art that isn’t conspicuously Christian. I am not saying these things as if I am the one giving them permission. I don’t know of a Christian artist who does not have secular influences. People are already doing these things and as they always have. All I am saying is as far as the biblical worldview is concerned the believer does have genuine creative licence and freedom of expression. It is biblically permissible for these things to happen. Permissible, however, does not equal beneficial. Just because the Christian artist, however you define the term, has those options does not mean whatever creative work they bring out is good. All the other factors that make good art including the technical criteria for the evaluation of the art form in question as well as what is being communicated through the medium of art all need to be considered.
On account of the technology we possess there is so much art out there and a lot of music in particular. If the Christian wants to venture out professionally into the music business alongside secular artists, there is an overwhelming amount of competition. If you are going to walk that path you need to be prepared for a long hard slog. The Christian music industry is also not a bed of roses and has its challenges come to think of it. It too is a multimillion dollar industry and if we are considering the bucks alone, the labels Christian and secular are not that important. They simply describe a target demographic and not specific worldviews and beliefs.
Now the conversation about Christians and art does not end with what people are allowed to do. We must look to the Bible to discern a standard for our faith and praxis which I briefly explore in the final part.