I had a discussion with a music student once about whether there was such a thing as an “African sound” — popular music with an identifiable sound produced in a number of African countries. This person had studied different forms of indigenous African music and argued that it would be impossible to pick out one “sound” for the continent.
A visit to the iTunes Store reveals how many “sounds” or musical genres are out there—African pop music falls under “World.” Christian music also has its own category along with hip-hop, classical and heavy metal.
Do we need a Christian category?
Does Christian music have its own “sound”? Isn’t all music somehow inspired? Don’t we serve God by writing about life without having to say Jesus’s name all the time? Do we risk ghetto-izing Christian music by creating this category? Isn’t the Christian category just a place for musicians who aren’t good enough for the real musical world?
The blogger at Bad Catholic Read or Die raised these questions in their recent post, Five Reasons to Kill Christian Music. While I think they’re right to say that some Christian music isn’t that great, I’d like to argue in favor of keeping the Christian category.
First of all, I assume the criticism was directed at contemporary Christian music and not the work of masters such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Mozart, Palestrina or King David of the Old Testament, all of whom wrote overtly God-centered music.
The biggest defense I would give for any self-identified Christian music is that it points us toward God and helps us become better Christians.
What we listen to matters
St. Paul gives us an idea of what music is best for our souls: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)
This doesn’t mean we should only listen to songs eligible for a Dove award but it does seem to exclude music that focuses on hook ups, break ups or anything else that draws us away from God. Of course there are quality artists writing morally meaningful songs on secular radio but often you have to sit through a lot of junk before you find something beneficial.
Music is a reflection of what’s in the heart of the musician. It can be beautiful but sometimes it’s not so good morally. In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Bl. John Paul II draws a distinction between an artist’s moral and artistic self:
“It is one thing for human beings to be the authors of their own acts, with responsibility for their moral value; it is another to be an artist, able, that is, to respond to the demands of art and faithfully to accept art’s specific dictates. This is what makes the artist capable of producing objects, but it says nothing as yet of his moral character.”
Can’t get regular air time?
Why is there a separate category for Christian music? Not because all the Christian musicians decided to go off into a corner to sing only to the “saved.” It’s because the secular world doesn’t have much tolerance for messages about God unless they’re critical or derogatory.
If you love someone, you want to talk about them. That’s why people write songs about God. Expressing their faith is real life for Christian artists. If we did away with the Christian category, musicians would have to write codes into their songs to express their faith. Maybe some are already doing that. Living under persecution, the early Christians communicated with codes; I hope it doesn’t come to that again.
It seems to me, the biggest reason the blogger thinks Christian music should be scrapped is that they think it’s bad. They apparently believe Christian musicians copy their “successful” secular counterparts to create insipid, formulaic songs about angelic praise, clouds and how “Jesus saves.” Some of it is like that but I would challenge anyone who thinks this to listen to Christian radio for more than five minutes and check out artists such as Matt Maher and For King and Country.
According to Bl. John Paul II, the Church does need music that explicitly expresses the faith:
“How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of the mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love, and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God.”