How Could A “Good” God Allow Bad Christian Music?

The Pietà by Michelangelo

“The confusion comes about because much so-called religious art is in fact bad art, and therefore bad religion.”
         — Madeleine L’Engle

I have a friend who will only listen to Christian music. By that she means music that only uses explicitly Christian lyrics – Jesus, God, Bible verses – all mingled throughout.

However, she would also contend that her musical tastes aren’t marked so much by lyrics contained within the songs, as the words that are kept out of them. No swear words ever darken the doors of her iPhone or Spotify account. Profanities of any kind are all blocked by an unassailable wall of Christian censorship.

Her favorite band is a group called Apologetix. They make their living by taking popular songs that everyone likes on the radio and making the lyrics palatable to those within the evangelical/fundamentalist subculture.

A number of years ago a group named Smashmouth came out with a song called “All-Star.” Unless you’re Amish, you’ve obviously heard it. The song begins:

Somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me
I ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed
She was looking kind of dumb with her finger and her thumb
In the shape of an “L” on her forehead

Apologetix took that song, re-wrote the lyrics for Christians and re-titled it “Pray Now.” Here’s how the spiritually revised tune starts out:

Somebody once told me the Lord is not your roadie
You ain’t the star so do it yourself
I said look it’s kind of dumb if there’s things I need done
It’s a shame not to call on the Lord’s help

When I first listened to Apologetix’s re-make I immediately prayed, “Dear Jesus, please make my head explode.”

It was embarrassing. Not because I don’t have the ability to recognize a parody when I hear it, but because Christians feel the need to replace good music with this crap (and/or create a uniquely Christian music subculture) because of their fundamentalist leanings.

Expunging profanity and vulgarity from a song or a poem does not necessarily make what replaces it art. And it most definitely does not make it Christian art.

The Sistine Chapel. Mozart. Paradise Lost. Wendell Berry novels. The Pieta. These are examples of great Christian art.

Juxtapose those pieces with 85% of the music on the Christian radio station, the fifty kagillion Thomas Kinkade paintings in evangelical homes everywhere, or most of the poorly written books sagging Christian bookstore shelves across the country.

Just because something is labeled Christian, doesn’t make it so.

To me something is “Christian art” if…

  1. It is done with excellence.
  2. It is done with beauty.
  3. It creatively captures some piece of the human experience.
  4. It points to something greater than the artist who created it.

Art doesn’t become “Christian” simply because someone throws in evangelical buzzwords, and it certainly doesn’t happen when someone high-jacks someone else’s body of work and makes it palatable to a certain audience.

Art becomes “Christian” when those who view it, read it, or listen to it swear to themselves that they can see fingerprints left from another world.

What’s your take?

Brian loves helping Christians live thoughtful, courageous lives. He's a popular blogger, author, and pastor at Christ's Church of the Valley in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

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  • Larry Marshall

    Bob Briner’s book Roaring Lambs addressed this well I thought. He mentioned going to a museum and asking to see their Christian art. The curator kind of chuckled and said, “Isn’t that an oxymoron? Christians don’t do art…they are just opposed to most of it.” Book was sort of a beacon call for Christians to reclaim the place we once held in music, literature, etc. and encouragement for churches to give folks a platform. Folks gotta eat…so, it may not be all that complex or artsy if it makes KLove, but what little money is in the industry is there it seems. There are bright spots for me – groups like Gungor are pretty innovative and out of the mainstream, but they are an acquired taste and thus have small but passionate followings. A question I have is: how can the church help nurture the artists in our midst and give them room to evolve?

  • Andrew Jones

     Totally concur. When we have tried to go the “Christian industry” route with artists I have worked with people have been hesitant to dig into a lyric. If it’s not offered as the world’s most obvious easily digestible Christian truth, it’s not viewed by much of the industry as Christian enough.

  • Thadd Harrington

    Personally, I hate classifying a work of art as “Christian” or “non-Christian,” as per the old cliche, “Christian is a good noun, but a lousy adjective.” However, if we’re going to insist on doing it, which, almost everyone does, I think you should add one more requirement to your list: A Christian work of art should be passionate. I think that’s, honestly, what we struggle with most of the time, most Christian art is just so lazy. Lazily written, lazily performed, and, frequently, lazily promoted because they know they have a built-in audience.

    The first (and worst) example to my mind is the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t check it out because it’s a disgrace. A shallow, barely-developed plot, characters that are so interchangeable they were probably made on an assembly line, sudden, inexplicable shifts in a character’s actions, and over it all, a pervading sense of self-satisfaction, that none of these obvious flaws mattered, because the book delivered a “positive message.” And the worst part is that Sheldon could have been a good writer, if he had been willing to push himself, and he just wasn’t.

    There are few things that can doom a work of art as quickly as self-satisfaction. Unfortunately, that’s begun running rampant through the world of Christian art as a whole.

  • larry_mcfarland

    I never did like it when people change the lyrics of rock or country songs to sing in church. As a musician, to me it shows a lack of talent, passion and vision. Not to mention, just plain laziness. If you’re going to write for Jesus, let it be inspired…completely. If you can write lyrics but not music or visa versa, get a writing partner. After all, God is worth much more than the worlds leftovers. Just my two cents. Rub them together and you still just have two cents. God Bless.

  • Ed Taylor

    This reminds me of the story about the woman who found a Butterball turkey in the bottom of her chest freezer that she had forgotten was there. She called the company and asked about the turkey to see if it would still be good to eat. There was apparently some way they could identify how old it was and they told her it should be fine to eat, but it would probably be dryer than usual and might have lost much of its flavor. So she said, “OK, well maybe I’ll donate it to the church.”

  • James Aldridge

    Aww, C’mon Brian. I like Apologetix! Our church has hosted them in San Antonio two times and I think they are great. The young people enjoy their music, I like how they re-arrange the lyrics and they put on a great show. And plus the audience gets to hear some really awesome testimonies from band members. Ah well, to each his own sir! :)

  • David Knoecklein

    Cezanne the father of modernism ,an oil painter, never missed mass. Never. Michelangelo was atrue believer. Ruebens and Van Dyke were believers. Delacroix was a believer. Rembrandt was a believer. Most of these guys had few friends.

  • Brian Jones

    Scott, that’s a great point. I never thought about it from your perspective as an artist.

  • Scott Riggan

    I have to agree. But it’s important to realize that this is a case of the consumer demanding a mediocre product. I’m a songwriter, and I wrote for a publishing company in Nashville for several years. I was continually pressured to write shallow, simple, derivative songs because that’s what the market demanded. “Too much theology” was the criticism I heard most. I was told that the target audience is a Christian soccer mom who wants music that is harmless and affirming. In the end I chose to be an independent artist so I could have more control.

  • Seth Caddell

    I’ve given up hope on Christian music. Most of it just plain sucks. There are a few bands out there who aren’t terrible, and they happen to be Christians, as well as the countless amount of great “secular” music.

    As for Christian novels, I had all but given up on them until I bumped into a couple specific authors who changed my mind. Guys like Rob Stennet and Ted Dekker are doing awesome things for Christian fiction, though most Christian book stores are filled with the 99.9% of the other crap that really isn’t very good.

  • bill (cycleguy)

    I go along with that hat comment Brian. It should be a Pirate or Steeler hat. :) Now for your post: How can I say this kindly? I AGREEEEEE!!! Not only is most Christian music not all that good, it is a chore to get to it. i.e. too many commercials. I listen to very little “Christian” music frankly. I know there is some benefit to (some of) it, but some of it is so bad that I have trouble finding it. So I still listen to my CD player almost exclusively. The same goes for worship music. Some of it is good but the endless repetition sometimes grates on me. And in all honesty, I still listen to a lot of my “secular” music.

  • Brian Jones

    You’re critiquing Christians while you’re wearing that unChristian Tennessee Volunteers hat? :)

  • LarryTheDeuce

    I don’t actually listen to much “Christian”Blog music at all because I don’t think that we have to have an alternative to every thing in the world. I would much rather Christians invade the world and make music or any other art with a worldview derived from their faith. I think your points are why most Christian movies are crap. And I rarely have seen a Christian novel that I want on my shelf.