Mediocrity, Haters, and Christian Music

It's blogalectic day, and Masha and Mr. Pond and I have not yet had time to regroup after the holidays. So I'm going to throw a wrench in the works: Rod Dreher's piece on haters, aesthetics and mediocrity.
And yet, thank goodness for aesthetic snobs. The alternative is mediocrity, is ugliness. You want Palestrina, or you want Marty Haugen?
Pause right there, sir. That's one point made in full.

No offense to Mr. Haugen, whose Mass of Creation isn't all that bad (it's "Gather Us In" that I find unbearable.) But in my opinion, nobody since Palestrina has created music more innovative and beautiful all at once. Certainly nobody in the last hundred years, and abso-freaking-definitely nobody in recent Christian music history.

I sparked this blogalectic by complaining about the artistic elitism that fails to recognize literary value in a book like Little Women. When it comes to literature, I tend to see the glory in the simple and innocent as well as in the complex and masterful, and I defend those works correspondingly.

But make the switch to music, particularly church music, and out comes a different perspective.

Now, I half-promised Laura a post about this subject, so forgive me if I wax tangential. I'll make it back around to the main point, I promise.

I have three very big problems with the bulk of modern church music: #1 is the "sheen" that Michael Gungor mentioned. Which seems due in part to an undefined and mistaken notion that being a Christian makes your life easier. Also, it owes to problem #2, likewise noted by Mr. Gungor: the failure of many Christian recording artists to realize that music itself actually means something, not just the lyrics. Most rock music means sex, anger or rebellious exodus, none of which translate well to attempts at worship.

My third problem with the generality of works written under almost any definition of Christian music in the past century is this: at its best it shows the immanence and love and nearness of God very well, but it fails with reverence. It shows the Great Love of God, and that's as close as it dares get. This owes as much to intimate, soulful vocals and instrumentation as to lyrics, if not more, which takes us back to problem #2. I don't think I've ever heard a song from the Christian record labels that expressed the fear of God convincingly.

No, I'm not talking about an "oh, God'll send me to hell 'cause I thought something mean about my sister last week" fear of God; I'm thinking more along the lines of "'Course He isn't safe. But He's good."

I've felt that good fear, that joyful solemnity, in my bones listening to Gregorian chant—or Palestrina (particularly, since we're talking art, in the acoustic spaces such works were designed for). And lest anyone think I'm praising the Catholics at the expense of the Protestants (a touchy subject for a Catholic who used to be an evangelical), the current Catholic state is worse than the Protestant one by far. Lucky Catholics with popular sensibilities get Protestant praise anthems. Anyone with traditional tastes goes begging for hymns by Luther and Wesley; chant is unloved and polyphony forgotten. Instead, our hymnals contain some of the worst schlock I've ever caught posing as music: lyrics that would make a cheap Hallmark card blush, syncopation that no one but Vince Guaraldi could pull off, and sentimental attempts at poetic expression that basically mean nothing or are bad theology.

There—look at me hating. I try not to do that. Most of the time.

So I'll give Masha and Mr. Pond this much: there is, in fact, a place in my heart that despises mediocrity. Most of it happens to be aimed at myself and my own work (at least, when I'm not taking potshots at Christian music). I'm not usually much of what Dreher calls a hater, and I hope I never will be. But despite my defense of the literary status of a handful of books written in unimposing prose, my ultimate convictions are in favor of refined art. When it comes to my own writing, however often I fail, I can't imagine striving for anything less.

EDIT: Thanks to a mild oh-really from Mr. Pond, I've corrected my haphazard claim that no one has since made "music as innovative and beautiful" as Palestrina's to say "music more innovative and beautiful." This sort of mistake always happens when I write sleepy. But perhaps I may be forgiven for being hyperbolic about Palestrina when I say that the song in the above video may be my favorite single work of art in existence.


  1. Well said. As a protestant happily married to a catholic and attending both churches, it's sad to see such a vast wealth of beautiful music in the Church's history available yet largely ignored. A personal favorite is Haydn's Kleine Orgelmesse.

    There's an interesting book out there called "Why Men Hate Going to Church" talking about recent church attendance trends, and linking them, in part, to the music styles chosen in both Catholic and Protestant churches these days - the songs we've nicknamed "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs. Statistically (and unsurprisingly), most men aren't eager to coo love songs to another guy, but will happily listen to Gregorian chant or belt out "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name."

  2. Yes, YES, YESSSSSS!!!

    Which is to say, I'm pretty firmly in agreement with you.

    And ditto to what Sarah said too.

    That's all I'll pretty much say because as a pastor I could rant on this for days. ;)

  3. Ah, and as a 21st-century composer / church musician, I too could rant on this for days. :-)

    Although, I take a somewhat contrarian view. What's known as Sturgeon's Law is more or less accurate: "90% of everything is crud." But no less an authority than Erik Routley contended that the 20th century saw the greatest outpouring of high-quality serious sacred music in history, including the 16th century. At the moment, the good stuff is often hard to find amidst the 90% (which will inevitably fail the test of time). But: Olivier Messiaen. Ralph Vaughan Williams. Gustav Holst. Morten Lauridsen. Timothy Dudley-Smith. Fred Pratt Green. Rachmaninoff's Vespers. Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. And those are just some of the well-known examples. There are treasures for those willing to dig.

    As for Christian rock music-- I think it could theoretically be done well, but in practice, Sturgeon's Law seems overly optimistic. Offhand, I can think of exactly two examples of Christian rock succeeding completely in achieving the transcendently and exuberantly reverent: God of this City by Bluetree (not the Chris Tomlin cover, thank you very much), and Gloria by my friends Milano. If those examples are the vanguard rather than flukes, however, we may be in for something really remarkable as the genre comes of age.

  4. Sarah, thanks! I'm going to look up that Haydn piece. And while I haven't read Why Men Hate Going to Church, I'm in strong sympathy with some of those ideas. I particularly dislike the "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs. :)

    George, I'm not surprised you agree, but I'm glad you do. :D And yeah, being a pastor would give you the wherewithal to rant for days. Or maybe weeks. I've been a worship leader; I know how it goes.

    Eric, first--just so you know--I worried a little bit about you including yourself in this critique. Because I didn't; I aimed primarily at radio and church service music that held popularity from the 60s through this last decade. I like your music--and Carrie's--very much, and some of the choir music you've written has been some of the best (and most reverent) Christian music I've come across. And if you ever decide to write Mass parts, LET ME KNOW because the ones we're doing now are too sugary for my taste. :P

    But to respond to your comment, you're right about there being some good music if one goes digging. I have a bad habit of forgetting Messaien, for instance, and apparently need to work on my music history because I forgot Holst was so recent. And I love Rachmaninoff's Vespers. I'll have to look into the others.

    I'm more skeptical about Christian rock, at least as worship music, but I will admit that it has improved in the last ten to fifteen years.

  5. Jenna, no worries. I've certainly written and spoken my share of "All Christian music is awful!" tirades even with other Christian musicians in the room. And, weirdest part, they all tend to agree. There seems to be some sort of "present company excepted" clause tacitly implied in this sort of thing. ;-) I just like to stick up for my man Messiaen, is all.

    Actually, I think I tend to think Holst is more recent than he was, though he was quite forward-looking. I'm currently in the midst of a treatise by Erik Routley from the 1960s on the subject (Vaughan Williams figures prominently), so most of the pop-rock stuff was mercifully absent. Though the "Hymn Explosion" would also follow. Among living composers, Morten Lauridsen, John Tavener, and Paul Halley are doing some marvelous things.

    If that's a commission you're offering there, I'm all ears! :-) I've done some settings of liturgical texts from time to time (though not much of the Mass itself-- Gloria Patri and such) and I'd be rather keen to give it a proper go.

  6. Eric, I guess I ought to write these names down for study and future video linkage. :)

    Haha... OK, were I to come across a good way to recommend you for a commission, I would be delighted to. Not sure how to go about it at the moment--it's bad timing on a local level because the Mass was just retranslated, which means everybody who writes Masses has just done one and all the parishes have just bought the music for several. I'm also not sure if such things are typically handled on a diocesan level or through the USCCB (bishops' conference).

    With that said, I suppose I could always ask your rates. You know, just in case. :)

  7. Jenna -- See your email for some particulars.

    Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna moved me to tears the first time I heard it. Tavener has an abundance of sacred works; probably the best known are the Song for Athene and Lamentations and Praises. For Halley, start with "Jesu, the Very Thought of Thee" (he has some tremendously fun concert music as well). And I can't believe I forgot Faure's requiem.

  8. Thanks, Eric!

    Faure! I can't believe I forgot Faure. The Requiem is one of my favorites in every way.

    I'll note down those other titles and look them up. Thanks for the recommendations. :)

  9. Jenna,
    I LOVED this post. And I REALLY want to post a good response, but I just drove 24 hours on no sleep and..yeah, so either tomorrow or Friday my response will be up.


  10. Yay, Masha! I'm excited for your response. But you can sleep first, of course. :D

  11. Jenna, great post per usual. Thank you so much for linking those two essays from Rod Dreher and Mark Gungor. The former was fascinating and hilarious; the second took some long-winded digressions but still made some great points. And it introduced me to Mark & Lisa Gungor's music - I just listened to the previews, but their music sounds like something worth buying!

    Ugh, Jesus Is My Boyfriend: what an apt description. Jeremy Riddle is one of the worst offenders; I'm thinking of "Sweetly Broken". His voice is so breathy and sensual - almost sexual - that I was instantly repulsed the first time I heard it, and have never been able to listen to it without the same reaction.

    Mainstream Christian pop music is mostly bad or mediocre at best, but I feel the same way about it as Rod Dreher feels about the sweetish fruitbomb wines that he started out on. I haven't quite graduated to loving Bordeaux, but I have found I've come to appreciate the dryer wines a little more and the fruitbombs a little less. Even so, the fruitbombs and the mainstream Christian pop music were there when I needed them, and without them I might not have ever made the next step.

    I do agree with you that there IS good Christian pop music out there, though the vast majority of it is very cardboard and overly processed with flavor enhancers. The food manufacturing industry is probably the best analogy I can think of here. Instead of making good food (which requires quality ingredients, time, and skill, and doesn't lend itself to being mass-produced, shipped, or stored for long periods of time), they use various combinations of chemicals to simulate flavor. MSG, autolyzed yeast extract, and hydrolized vegetable proteins are three of the most common "short-cut" chemicals that food manufacturers use to simulate the real flavors that come from fresh, homemade food. These chemicals literally trick the brain into believing that the body is receiving wholesome, nutritious food.

    A good friend of mine who works in the food industry and has a degree in food science told me that natural ingredients are very difficult to deal with on a large scale because they don't have the same, unvarying chemical composition. One truckload of potatoes may have a very different composition from another. So the food industry uses these chemical additives as shortcuts to make things easier to control and to make it easier to produce the same product that tastes the exact same every time. I could buy a bag of Doritos in the U.S. and one in Britain, and they would taste the exact same. I could buy a bag of Doritos a year from now and they would taste the exact same as the ones Frito Lay churned out yesterday. The result of this process is that the consumer gets something predictable and proven to have mass appeal, and Frito Lay doesn't have to put any thought into making the product. They just use the same chemical combination they've always used. From time to time they issue new products, but they all use the same basic chemical combinations. I suppose this analogy fits most pop music in general, not just Christian pop music.

  12. That said, there are Christian musicians who are actual artists, who put time and thought into their craft rather than just pulling a different combination out of a grab-bag of the same 20 cliches. The band whose music helped me the most was Switchfoot, in particular, their first three albums. (Their later stuff did not seem as good to me.) The style itself exactly conveyed the brokenness I felt at the time, and their music often moved me to prayer. The lyrics were no small part of that.

    I can't help but wonder if screamo has a place in Christian music, too, however small. Maybe I am not using the term correctly, but I am thinking of Sanctus Real's "I'm Not All Right". I'm not a huge SR fan because their lyrics aren't especially original for the most part, but when I first heard that song I was in a place where it resonated with me. It's a very harsh sounding song - emo, I guess - but it resonated with me because it sounded like the darkness I was experiencing at the time, and it was cathartic for me to listen to it. But I guess I'm not familiar enough with the term "screamo" to know if that song would be considered as such.

    Time to feed the baby his breakfast. Thanks for letting me think this through on paper (err, webpage).

  13. Maria, glad you liked the posts! As someone who can't help loving cheap Rieslings (and Pringles), I can't make too many comments about Bad Taste. But I like your food analogy very much. Mr. Gungor's mention of Nashville compression styles, etc. struck me as interesting; compression is a technique used to even out dynamic extremes and force the song into uniformity. Like a Dorito. :) It's used, I think, very heavily on country and Christian music, consistently in rock and pop, and little or not at all on classical, where every shade of dynamic is valued and emphasized (and where you can still be startled out of your skin by a sudden loud chord.) The heavy-handed use of that effect has a tendency to make Christian and country and Nashville rock all sound very much alike, much in the way that Autotune leaves a mechanical distortion on the voice and hides some of its natural sensibilities.

    I've never heard Jeremy Riddle, but then I haven't listened to Christian pop radio in a few years. There have always been a handful of artists I've liked, though; Keith Green, for instance, who never sounded anything less than wholehearted. Third Day, who could make meaningful lyrics and music to match. Jennifer Knapp, whose singer/songwriter style expressed very personal thoughts and emotions. Twila Paris, who is not the greatest lyricist on the planet, but who means every word she says. And Switchfoot. I loved Switchfoot, at least back in the days of "On Fire" and "Dare You to Move" and "Only Hope" (though my favorite version of the latter was done by Mandy Moore.) And the Smalltown Poets, whose "Beautiful, Scandalous Night" and "Trust" always got at my heart.

    I don't have a problem with rock, emo, screamo, disco, etc. in Christian music as long as they're singing a well-written lyric and an emotion that matches their music. Which is not usually going to be an expression of God's dangerous greatness. I'm not familiar at all with Sanctus Real, but a song called "I'm Not All Right" sounds perfectly appropriate for the genre. Likewise, an old acquaintance of mine, John van Deusen (now lead singer of The Lonely Forest), does good, sometimes screamy alt-rock, and his lyrics are what might be called Christian-informed. I never had a problem with him screaming this song:

    "You're so damn lovely
    Don't give your innocence away
    Do you know who you are..."

    Still gives me chills.

    All of that to say: The best of Christian mainstream pop/rock isn't too far removed from secular mainstream pop/rock in quality and artistic sincerity. In fact, give me any of the artists I've just praised over Lady Gaga (and I love techno--there's no reason for me not to like her music except that the lyrics appall me and I can't imagine a woman singing some of them sincerely) or Pink, whose attitude is nails on a chalkboard to me.

    Thanks again for your thoughts. I think your note that "without them I might never have made the next step" is an excellent point. Most of us need, in some realm or other, something simple to help give us a taste for the greater and more complex. There's not a thing in the world wrong with that. :)

  14. Mmmmmmmm, Doritos!!

    That being said, in a sense there's a sameness to the historic liturgy which most Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, & Eastern Orthodox share. But it's a beautiful & comforting kind of sameness. And there's also a sense of rhythm and change as one goes through the church year & the propers of the week.

    A liturgy that isn't a slave to worldly relevance & the tyranny of what's happening at the moment but which gradually over the stream of time incorporates that which is beneficial & reverent into the ongoing song of the church

  15. Yes, George; I absolutely agree with you. Great point about sameness. Uniformity isn't a bad thing in and of itself; what matters, perhaps, is to what purpose that uniformity is created, and whether it is made up of wholesome and quality ingredients.

    I love liturgy. It may look like dull sameness from the outside, or to people who grew up in it and for whatever reason developed an apathy toward it, but the "sense of rhythm and change", as you describe it, is inexpressibly beautiful and comforting to me. :)

  16. On the subject of Christian music, which usually means pop music, there's perhaps nothing really wrong with it, although it usually tends to be of dubious quality both musically & theologically (which is why I don't listen to it).

    Now, whether it should be incorporated into worship is another matter. One, it's primarily entertainment/performance driven. It drives the service & the music to become primarily about us rather than about what God is doing for us. Plus, it tends to take over the focus of the service, that is, it becomes more about what the praise band is doing rather than anything else as opposed to a good choir which supports & enhances the congregation in their worship.

    Two, it usually apes the culture & becomes indistinguishable from what you would hear anywhere else. (Which plays into what I said on another post about making our sacred spaces & times into nothing different than our secular spaces & times)

    Three, it's usually freighted with a generic American Evangelical Protestant one size fits all theology & which at best, says nothing much & at worst is chock full of false doctrine.

    I could go on, but I said I wouldn't be commenting further other than to agree with Jenna. ;)

  17. Very much right, George.

    And here's where I wish I'd had time and energy to pull off a three thousand word essay on the subject, in which I talk about Mircea Eliade's thesis that entertainments serve a religious function in a secular culture, and in which I call into question whether we can correctly create worship by imitating those entertainments, when for centuries and centuries, worship in the Christian sense has been getting on two knees before the Eucharist and saying Holy, Holy, Holy... and what it does to us when we switch from that physical posture to the rock-concert version where we're lifting our hands, bodies swaying in time to the one-two-THREE-four rhythm, repeating a line that says God is great without saying why...

  18. Jenna, that is absolutely fascinating!! (Mircea Eliade's thesis). I'm not familiar with some of the other singers/bands you mentioned, but Jennifer Knapp is one of my favorites. Also, that lyric you quoted from John van Deusen is beautiful. I must have missed the bit in Gungor's post about compression -- thanks for elucidating that. That explains a TON. Super interesting (in a depressing sort of way)! And yes, I too have a weakness for cheap Rieslings and Pringles.

    George, excellent points on all counts. Regarding whether Christian pop music is beautiful enough to be incorporated into the divine liturgy, I go back and forth on that. It does not seem sacred to me, it does not seem "set apart", and it does not seem beautiful enough to merit being included in the Mass. But when I first really began to experience a personal conversion and ownership of the faith given to me by my parents, I was attending a vibrant Catholic university where "praise & worship" music was used at most of the liturgies. At that time, that kind of music really helped me to pray and enter into the liturgy. Eventually, however, I began to yearn for something more substantial.

    I wonder if this is not a "milk first, then meat" issue. During my stint as a high school religious ed teacher, I saw very hardened, broken kids enter into and truly experience Mass as a foretaste of heaven for the first time when they attended a liturgy with music they were accustomed to. It was the kind of music they were familiar with. It was music from their culture. How did the missionaries do it? For some reason I think they wouldn't have expected the Native Americans or Africans to appreciate chant or polyphony right off the bat -- I think they would have written songs in the style that would have been familiar to the people they were trying to reach. I have no idea whether that is actually true, but that is what makes sense to me.

    Regarding the issue of the band taking center stage, yes, that is a problem. Time to bring back that all holy institution, The Choir Loft. Cantors, choirs, and bands singing up near the altar or anywhere in view of the congregation is a massive pet-peeve for me. It's so totally distracting!

    I once attended a Switchfoot concert (at the time, my favorite Christian band, whose music I had often used to aid me in prayer). The experience was incredibly weird. I remember feeling at sea because I didn't know where to look or what to focus on. There was a huge crucifix hanging over the stage, but I couldn't concentrate and I couldn't pray. It ended up being a huge disappointment because the reason I liked their music was that it helped me to pray and feel nearer to God, and the concert did neither.


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