Over the last couple of years, I have thought and written a lot about Christian music. One of the most important realisations I have come to over this period is Christian music has to be good music. I know. This is not exactly a shocking revelation. However, when you begin to think about the overall quality of contemporary Christian music, there isn’t really much quality control going on.
Christian music today is generally not good music. This is not to say secular music is absolutely fantastic. Many cultural commentators and music critics have remarked on just how formulaic, unoriginal and simply disposable modern popular music is. The sad thing is the Christian music industry largely just imitates the uninspired commercial pop sound. Christians often do it badly too, creating cheap knockoffs of pop hits, sanitised for a Christian audience. Sometimes the style of modern Christian music is just outdated and lacks any contemporary appeal.
Now there are many examples of Christians making good, solid, modern music. Unfortunately, since music has now become a mass-market consumer product, the gems are few and far between. The Christian music industry has fed us with such a steady diet of musical mediocrity over the last couple of decades that we’ve sort of forgotten Christian music has to actually be good.
Christian art, including music, painting and sculpture, used to be the pinnacle of art. To this day, those artistic works from centuries ago remain unsurpassed. Because of significant cultural and technological changes, that golden era of Christian art is unlikely to ever return. Yet this does not mean we should not aspire to make good, even great, music, especially in an era where it has never been easier for ordinary people to learn how to make and produce music. A renaissance is certainly possible!
For Christian music and art in general to be great again, it once again has to be judged like any other art by the same criteria of artistic and technical quality. We should not give it a pass just because it is Christian. In the case of music, it actually has to sound good. For this to happen it should have a contemporary sound. Now by contemporary I don’t necessarily mean we should copy the latest hottest trend. Music, like any other art form, changes and develops over time. The sound of the 80s is very different from the 00s. If our music is going to be appealing, it must broadly fit the musical sensibilities of the time. Even if the aim is a retro or throwback sound, it can be updated for contemporary ears when done properly. Now this means our music ought to be artfully composed and arranged.
Apart from the sound, the lyrics have to be good. The lyrical content is perhaps the worst aspect of modern Christian music. I have written a lot about this already so I won’t rehash it all here. Contemporary Christian music is shockingly theologically thin. What I have argued in the past is our lyrics should reflect good biblical theology, taking theological cues from the kind of songs we find in the Bible. Sticking with the theme “Christian music has to be good music”, what I want to focus on is not the theology but the poetry of the lyrics.
While the quality of the theological content of Christian music obviously matters, we have to recognise good song lyrics are good poetry first. The most common form of poetry after all is song lyrics. Popular Christian music today is largely not good poetry. Now it is very hard to successfully innovate musically or be at the cutting edge of production. The one place where it is much easier to be creative and original is with the words of a song. That’s why it is so disappointing that Christian pop music is so lyrically bland and predictable, especially when you consider the lofty subjects and themes we supposedly address.
Poetry does something no other verbal art form can do. With few words, it uses creative, evocative language to convey deep meaning that allows a person to perceive the world, even mundane things, with a new perspective. Poetic language not only stimulates our imaginations, it uniquely stirs our hearts. New Testament scholar Matthew Gordley notes how important the affective language of poetry was in New Testament hymns for the worship experience. (My favourite example is Philippians 2:5-11)
Now with songs the tune, melody and performance are all integral to how emotion is conveyed. However, with great songs the emotional core is the lyrics, which means they are able to stand alone as good poetry. This is often not the case with Christian pop lyrics, where the words do not bear much weight. This is why we are very obsessed with the “worship experience.” When you pay attention, you realise it is mainly the performance that carries all the emotional weight of the song. The lyrics should be at the centre and everything else should complement and elevate them. I’m not saying every Christian songwriter has to be a Shelley or a Keats. However, we need to aspire to make the best art that we can, to have true poetry in our lyrics. If what we are doing is expressing our worship, then we have to offer the one whom we worship our best.