Alright so this is a theme I return to periodically, and as always I’m objectively under-qualified to talk in depth about the actual, you know, music side of things. I’m basically just talking about lyrics, almost treating them as an offshoot of poetry. Not unprecedented, but worth noting.
The second thing to note is that I’m not talking about the perceived value or non-value of a song’s theological content. That value can be wildly variable depending on your religious convictions anyway. For instance, some people think it’s important to have songs where you can really think about the words, and where there’s lots of good doctrines or whatever crammed in. For instance, in ‘How Great Is Our God’, there’s a line that goes ‘The Godhead, three in one; Father, Spirit, Son.” That’s a basic formulation of the Trinity. It’s good doctrine. On the other hand, you’ve got people who think that good worship is basically a rave. There’s not really any stunning doctrinal significance to the lyric from Planetshakers’ ‘Jump Around’, “Everybody jump around in the house of God.” It’s clearly trying to do something different. It has a different theological function as a piece of worship music.
So I’m totally disregarding any of those theological concerns here. It’s a rabbit warren, and it’s not relevant right now. My main concern is with songs that are Christian, but specifically not church worship songs. We might think of it as Christian entertainment – it’s typically a bit more performative, and it’s definitely more of a product being sold to a market. We can also take much more of an aesthetic approach to it. With church music, the aesthetics aren’t always really a priority. You’re not there to appreciate the music – it’s just there to help facilitate worship for the congregation. In that sense, even music that isn’t very aesthetically pleasing can still serve a theological function. A shit organist doesn’t necessarily stop us from worshipping. But with commercial Christian music, the idea is that you’re meant to listen to it and enjoy it ‘as music’ without having to worry about those ungodly heathen messages.
So given all of that context, I’d like to deploy my periodic reminder that Christian music is basically pretty shit. Not all of it, yada yada, but yeah, it’s shit. And I’m wondering if one of the reasons why it’s shit is because it doesn’t understand aesthetics. I wonder whether Christian musicians have spent too much time in the sphere of church worship, and subsequently mistake theological statements for aesthetic depth. Let me give you an example.
The band Citizens & Saints, previously just Citizens, have a song called ‘You Brought Me Back To Life’. It came up on my Spotify the other day because I don’t have premium, so I get random garbage music instead of the thing I’m trying to listen to. It’s not really the fault of this band, but it hacked me off and now I’m going to put them on blast for a bit to make a point. So here’s the opening lines of the song:
“I wandered through the darkness, wasting away,
My soul was cold and hopeless, dead in the grave.”
Let’s just start with the basic literal meaning. In its crudest most basic form, this lyric means ‘I used to be a sinner.’ And by golly did these guys choose an exciting way of expressing that sentiment. Wandering through darkness as a metaphor for sin – quality stuff. Riveting. My soul was dead in the grave – as opposed to dead and not in the grave, I assume. Thanks for clarifying that your soul is both dead and in the grave – I really would have been wondering where you’d stored it if you hadn’t explained.
So the imagery is trite and boring. It only gets worse from here – in the chorus, God is described as being like a river in a desert, and sight restored to a blind person. Both images draw on a Biblical heritage, whether the living water of John 4 or Christ restoring the sight of the blind as in Matthew 9 and, uh, everywhere else in the Gospels too. This is really my point about the difference between making theological references and making good art. If you’re singing this song in church, maybe it doesn’t matter that it’s trite and boring. It’s the songwriting equivalent of a shitty organist: it’s allowed to be boring, because it’s still true enough to facilitate worship and reflection on God’s character. But when you’re outside that context, your work has to have some aesthetic value. It’s not good enough to just say something true. It also has to be aesthetic. In fact, being so blunt and obvious often undermines the integrity of the point. Really easy example: in Brooke Fraser’s ‘Ice on Her Lashes’, there’s a bit where an old guy is standing at a train station, and it’s the premise for a reflection on the inevitability of death: “As he thinks to himself, ‘We’re all waiting for our train to come.'” If you just come out and say ‘Death is inevitable,’ it loses all of the artistry. In the same way, it’s not artistically interesting to rehash metaphors about God that you found in the Bible. It’s hack work.
Another consequence of this rehashing is a certain glibness around the topics being discussed. Repeating doctrine and rehashing biblical metaphors has an aesthetic, and that aesthetic is borderline inhuman. Think about the opening lines, how generic and abstract they are. They could just about apply to any human being on the face of the earth – making them less relatable, rather than more. We don’t know anything about the artist from these lines. There’s no accessible human being at the core of the song. There’s nothing intimate or individual. The lights are on, but nobody’s home. Again, I think, this is one of the problems with writing music that just repeats a bunch of theological statements. Might be fine for church, but it doesn’t make good art.
By way of contrast, consider something like Switchfoot, who are usually presented as like the one good Christian band. In the title track of Vice Verses, there’s a series of doubts articulated:
“Where is God in the night sky?
Where is God in the city light?
Where is God in the earthquake?
Where is God in the genocide?”
There’s a fucking human being in there. It’s relatable, it’s personable, it creates a sense of the singer as an individual. It’s an expression of doubt in a really vulnerable and human way. It’s not some dickhead singing ‘Oh I got sum doubts that will be resolved by the end of the song.’ It allows doubt to stand as a valid emotion. It doesn’t feel the pathological need to solve every human emotion by quoting a Bible verse. We can compare ‘Vice Verses’ positively here with something like ‘Zion’, the song with ‘fuck’ in it that I’ve talked about before. That song is interesting purely because it says fuck – on an aesthetic level, it expresses anguish in a way that’s not sanctioned by the powers that be, indicating a transgressive depth of feeling, a lack of control expressed through a deviance from the social norms of Christian culture. That’s an interesting aesthetic decision. Of course, what I didn’t mention in my last piece is that the song ends by repositioning itself within the dull box that it almost broke out of. At the end of the song, Jesus gets a verse and says everything will be fine and dandy and the emotion and pain of a dead child is solved. It was almost not shit though, for a moment.