Pop Christianity

In large part, when Christians attempt to do pop-culture it fails miserably.  For one thing, I personally feel cheap thriller movies and boring worship rock songs inevitably fall short of achieving a truly holy or sacred nature.  Christians would do well to stick to deeper, less overt means of discussing their faith, or perhaps just avoid the trap of “pop culture” altogether.  Some of the best examples of mainstream Christian thought, rather than pop-Christianity, are the writings of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien or even Thomas Merton.  These are writers whose work transcends the Christian community and is read widely by non-believers and members of other faiths. 

Now, this may be just a matter of taste.  I’m not sure.  One of the holiest services I ever attended was a mass done entirely in chant; the church was lit only by candlelight.  It all felt very peaceful, very sacred.  I’m sure not everyone would really enjoy this sort of service, but for me it gathered up all the centuries of Christianity together into that cathedral and just the age of it all, the ancientness of it resonated throughout the room.

Christianity in America has been weaved into pop culture much to the detriment of that religion.  The co-opting of pop culture to try to make Christianity seem more “hip” to the times has backfired.  Simply countering every Nirvana or Green Day with a Christian version of the same will not make teenage boys prefer the latter to the former.  When cool becomes more important than sacred than we’ve got a problem.  The fact of the matter is that secular movie makers will always be able to make more edgy films, and secular musicians will always be able to make cooler music, and the reason for this is they’re just trying to make movies and music – they’re not trying to make explicitly Christian movies and music.  (I think the same thing has been applied to the difference between liberal and conservative media as well.)  When cool is manufactured, or foisted upon our youth by their parents and preachers it immediately loses its cool.  It then becomes cool to rebel against it.  Another problem with “cool” is it relies heavily on trends, and trends these days last at most five years.

Couple all this with the politicization of Christianity by the religious right in recent decades and you start to see a broader reason why more and more Americans are leaving their faith.  Why stick around when the entire experience is not only plasticized but also inextricably bound to corrupt politicians and their failed policies?  Why remain a member of a community that seems to spend more time judging others than  it does getting its own house in order?  The problem is, to some degree, a problem with “branding” or “image” but the answer is not in finding new and better ways to market Buddy Christ.  I’d say far from helping with Christianity’s image problem, pop-faith misses the point altogether.

Oh, and Andrew is dead wrong about this trailer.  No matter what you think about Mel Gibson, the man’s a damn fine filmmaker.  He would never make a movie about a cancer-patient-dancer being chased by the devil.  And if he did, it wouldn’t look like this at all…

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39 thoughts on “Pop Christianity

  1. Part of the problem is that Christianity is on the cusp of another reformation and the next iteration appears to be post-theist.

    When the death of God goes mainstream, we'll see whether Nietzsche was right about the need of a vigorous morality to replace Christianity.

    Then again, people have been saying this since well before Nietzsche.

    Then again, we're due.

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  2. I always meant to get around to reading Daniel Radosh's Rapture Ready, a whole book on just this topic… but I never did. Radosh, who identifies as a secular Jew, researched his book by going to way more Christian book fairs, music festivals, and megachurches than I could stand. Here's an old blog post collecting some reactions to the book. While my main reason for slowly abandoning Evangelical pop culture was a dawning perception of what I took to be its widespread aggressive mediocrity, I can testify to plenty of diamonds in the rough. Rich Mullins didn't have a great cheese detector, but he's still one of my very favorite songwriters.

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  3. No way were Beethoven's String Quartets secular. ;)

    I think that's the point, though. Pop/secular music and so forth goes in and out of style as quick as can be. It's defined by fads. Christianity cannot survive if it's defined by fads.

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  4. E.D., thanks for this post.

    I want to bring to your attention to a book reviewed in the NYT today. "God Is Back" by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. If you have a few minutes to read the review I think you will find that it neatly ties into your post.

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  5. I checked out the review—it sounds like the kind of book I would hate, for all the reasons cited by the reviewer, and for the further reason that I'm not sanguine about the alliance between free markets and theology.

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  6. E.D. and W.B., the book sounds silly start to finish. I thought of E.D. as I read it. Not because E.D. is silly, far far from it. I just know from lots of exchanges that he would dislike the Christianity touted as bringing "God Back." Then finding his post, well it defines serendipity.

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  7. The issue that gets me with Christian rock and other forms of Christian pop culture is that it's not that Christian — it's so one-dimensional. Every damn time my car radio happens to stop on a Christian-rock station, I know within four seconds, because someone is singing about praising Him and all the joy it's going to lead to.

    Which is not the case, or not all of it, anyway. I mean, yes, as a Christian I believe we should praise God and that it will bring us joy. But religion is hard, too, and to talk about it in a real-world context today means talking about uncomfortable issues like drug use and mental illness and suicide and homosexuality and sex and more. And while I'm sure there are indeed diamonds in the rough out there, too much of the Christian pop culture I've been exposed glosses over all the difficult aspects of faith in favor of candy-coated feel-goodery.

    And it drives me nuts. We're talking about a religion founded on someone voluntarily giving up his life in one of the most painful ways conceivable, after all. There are reason so many thoughtful people have opted out of Christianity, and to me, this is a big one: Too much of its PR makes it sound like a ticket to a life free from worry and sadness, and most of us know there's no such life.

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    • I'm having trouble with this, "…voluntarily giving up his life…." I thought the whole passion, death, resurrection thing was, for lack of a better word, determined. No choice involved. I know the Bible describes Jesus praying for the "cup to be removed" or something along those lines. But he was asking that as a man, not the Son of God. My theology is weak, but…..

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    • Point taken about the easy and unfounded optimism evident in so many of these songs, but I can't figure out what we're comparing Christian radio to. Clear Channel rock and pop formatting is just as crappy and one-dimensional, except it gets quality points for playing hits from a time before radio was quite so bad. Does anyone listen to commercial radio in hopes of hearing great art? Isn't candy-coated feel-goodery the point of like seven-eighths of our pop culture already? Are we singling Christians out because they're more inept at lying about how great the world is than the rest of the entertainment industry?

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      • Well, that's a good point, but I'd say even Top 40 bubblegum has a wider range of themes than what admittedly little Christian pop-rock I've heard. The themes I hear in Christian music seem to be:

        – God is awesome.
        – Praising God is awesome.
        – If you're feeling bad, how about turning to God? He's awesome.

        Whereas at least half the love songs on mainstream commercial radio are about how much love can blow.

        Too, it's not fair for me just to single out the lyrics, because I also know I'm listening to Christian radio immediately because of the shimmery keyboards and amped-up major-key guitar lines — there's a sound there that Christian pop musicians have staked out as their own, and I get why it sounds "Christian" to them, but it rings about as true to me as a heaven actually full of harp-strumming cherubs. Mainstream pop may suck, but at least it sucks in so many different ways.

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        • I've got this very ambivalent relationship to Christian pop music. I grew up on the stuff but I don't listen to it anymore. The stuff that succeeds on Christian radio fails by nearly all of my aesthetic standards, especially in terms of arrangement and production, to the point where I haven't deliberately listened to Christian radio in about a decade. But at the same time, I think much of it just aspires to be music you can listen to in the minivan with your kids. Christian pop is way closer to modern country music than it is to what gets played on pop and rock stations. Despite this, some of the singers and songwriters are able to embrace songcraft, though it usually gets buried in production—just like in country music.

          Steven Curtis Chapman is my favorite example. Most of his albums have one or two songs with melodies that are just jaw-dropping. And I've already mentioned Rich Mullins, who, in my opinion, occupies a plateau of his own in terms of quality as a songwriter. Yes, I'd put Rich up there with most anybody.

          And then there's a fringe of very honest songwriters who do try to grapple with the deeper issues of faith. They often operate way outside the entertainment-centric Nashville industry. But they're there, and I don't think they should be forgotten in this discussion. Consider Tooth & Nail in the late 90s. Consider the folk-rock scene of the same period (e.g. Waterdeep and Caedmon's Call). Vigilantes of Love had a great run in the 90s. Consider early Pedro the Lion. I really like Anathallo. mewithoutYou has a ton of fans. And, I think, best of all: Sufjan Stevens' Seven Swans album. Do these guys not count?

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    • I believe the same, most Christian music sounds commercially fake. I mean, how much is anyone gonna learn about Christ from a 3 minute pop song? It’s made mainly for a record label that makes money off the song. This is my problem. I am a musician and a Christian and I just cringe when I hear my Christianity turned into pop music, “money maker” yuck.
      You feel me?

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  8. But religion is hard, too, and to talk about it in a real-world context today means talking about uncomfortable issues like drug use and mental illness and suicide and homosexuality and sex and more.

    Yes, exactly! And quite frankly when secular culture is tackling these issues, and Christian culture seems to either gloss them over or deny them or play the blame game (etc. etc.) it really is a self-destructive act.

    Really my best advice to Christian musicians would be to just sing about anything other than "praising Him" because that's really not at all what it's about – it's about living in the world, being a part of it. And the world, like you said, is about a whole lot more than "candy-coated feel-goodery."

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  9. But Christian theology (generally) leaves everything up to choice. It's the whole dichotomy between prophecy and free will – the notion of self-fulfilling prophecies etc. Jesus may have been pre-determined to die but it was nevertheless his choice in the end. (Of course, since Jesus and God are one and the same, it was really God's choice)…

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    • Yeah, I see it as Christ the man having the ability to walk away from the death that had been planned for him, but exercising the will (i.e., making the choice) to stick with the plan. As I was discussing with someone else recently, though, the whole question of how many parts God and how many parts human Jesus was is tricky, to say the least.

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  10. But again, William, the point I'm making is that Christian music, when it attempts to emulate crappy secular radio isn't doing itself a favor. Obviously yeah, mainstream radio is pretty bad, too. Then again, I don't hear much in the Christian rock canon that's even comparable to say, Bob Dylan (well, except during his Christian phase) or the Beatles or Pearl Jam.

    It's just foolish to play that game. I mean, generally good, well-respected music doesn't simplify its lyrics and tone to "feel-goodery" and there's just as much disdain for poppy secular music that does that as well. I guess something as mysterious and ancient as Christian faith shouldn't be packaged in a two minute "praise him" ditty.

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  11. I'm not buying it guys. If Christ had walked would that not have knocked much of the Old Testament into a cocked-hat? Or would it just show that Christ was not the Messiah and we would had an end of him, or really no beginning of him since he failed to save mankind? To even remotely try to keep the story rational it seems necessary for Christ to die. Wheels within wheels.

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  12. If you mean "count" as in "Are they Christian artists?" I'd say for sure. But they're not who I'm thinking of when I flip past the Christian radio station.

    I certainly don't think there isn't good Christian music out there — as my blog makes annoyingly clear, I'm an unrepentant fan of what I consider the most Christian mainstream band alive. (Pop, as far as I'm concerned, is the greatest Christian-rock album ever made.) I just think most of it either isn't called Christian music, or is operating pretty far below the radar. Like you say, it's a fringe.

    I totally get your point. I guess it's just that mainstream Christian pop's aspiration to be not much more than minivan music seems reflective of much of what I think is wrong with mainstream Christianity these days. Like E.D.'s post more or less says, the concern seems to be more about marketing than grappling with the tough issues. I think it's totally legitimate for me to expect more from my fellow Christians, even if I know how likely it actually is that my expectations will be met.

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    • That the plan, as it were, worked out. But I see your point; like I said, this is a tricky issue. I'll revise: We're talking about a religion whose founder warned that following him would mean great tribulation and a far from easy road.

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  13. "Some of the best examples of mainstream Christian thought, rather than pop-Christianity, are the writings of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien or even Thomas Merton."

    What about when good Christian goes pop-Christian? I'm thinking specifically about The (Disneyfied) Chronicles of Narnia. Adaptations can rarely be perfect, but, seriously, Regina Spektor singing the song at the end of Prince Caspian, as Susan and Caspian lament a love the never could be, one not only not in Lewis but hardly possible in the book, given the ages of the children in the book, as opposed to their more mature states in the movie?

    Thank you, Hollywood pop-Christians.

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    • Nathan – indeed, and to a lesser extent the bastardization of the LOTR novels by insisting on constant romance scenes not present in those books either. I actually liked film version of Caspian though I had to say to myself during and after "That was a good movie, but it wasn't the book." So it required detachment from the original work, unfortunately. I'm plenty sick and tired of perfectly good books being changed unnecessarily for their film adaptations.

      And seriously – Regina Spektor? What – is there a dearth of good score-writers in LA all of a sudden? Please, instrumental or period music for fantasy movies.

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  14. I think the comparison with contemporary Pop/Rock is unfair; CCM is a very targeted niche product in the music industry: it's aimed at parents who want to listen to tolerable(ish) music with their kids and for pre-teens/early teenagers. Neither of these groups is looking for angst/nuance/subtlety. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that, per se. While I can't stand listening to it now, I liked it fine when I was 15, and I'd rather my kids listened to that for now (2, 4) than Nirvana (one of my favorites, but not something I want my kids listening to right now).

    Also, I'd agree Waterdeep or Rich Mullins have written some great, honest music For that matter, Jon Foreman's (Switchfoot) recent solo stuff has some great moments, and he's hardly marginal within the CCM world.

    CCM is basically a niche product. I think often it's terrible art, and sometimes it seems to me that it would hard to be a CCM artist because writing options are so constrained. It's like being a children's musician (a la Dan Zane) or a country singer (although country permits a wider range of expression than CCM). But I don't think Pop/Rock is really the relevant comparison: CCM artists generally don't have the freedom to explore tough issues because there isn't a market for it.

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    • Well, that’s the problem, when what you say is controlled by what kind of money it generates, it goes against the spiritual grain of Christianity. This music, in the large record label arena, is only designed to make money. If it doesn’t, they find someone else to make another Christian pop record.
      That’s not Christianity, no punk teen can teach me anything through loud guitars and loud drums about the bible I don’t already know. Besides, I was a Christian before these little ones were born.
      I’m not dogging all Christians with a pure desire to express Christianity through music, I’m just dogging all the commercial plastic ones.

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  15. I sing in the choir at my Catholic church. We are actually somewhat of an oasis, in that we are a congregation that cares deeply about historical Catholic music (no guitars! no tamborines!), and as such we have sung masses, chant, polyphony, etc. This music just shines forth in its holiness, and it's such a joy, on so many levels, to sing.

    But here's the sad thing: our church is also the host of the catholic student center at a nearby college. (Ok, it's not just any college: it's Harvard) And the college students have their own mass, which is celebrated on Sunday evening in the lower church – and while I've never seen a tamborine, the use the same sort of folk-lite music that is standard in Catolic churches these days, because that's what they grew up on. Despair is a sin, I know, but sometimes I am tempted…

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  16. Looking at the article you linked to: it seems significant to me that it's the mainline denominations that are seeing the most decline, and the "generic Christians" (which probably reflects the big nondenominational megachurchs) that are basically holding steady. It's the mainline churches that have generally rejected pop-Christian culture and the nondenominational ones that have embraced it. What does this mean for your analysis?

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  17. Essentially I think that ties into the idea of "corporate – style" Christianity. The megachurches are good at marketing, flush with cash, and provide an easy, comfortable "Rick Warren" style faith for their flock. I think this can be termed the "megachurch bubble." I am predicting a burst within the decade.

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