Culture

It's Time For Christian Music Artists To Step Up Their Creative Game

Billy Corgan

I grew up in a Christian home, deeply immersed in my faith. We were a churchgoing family – and still are, even though all us kids are grown. Part of my Christian upbringing involved listening to a lot of Christian music. Most of it was derivative, predictable and artistically sub-par, though I recall a few exceptions – artists like Amy Grant bringing themes of everyday life into her music, DC Talk offering up an eclectic take on hip-hop, Third Day tearing up the stage with meaty Southern rock and a heck of a stage show, and Charlie Peacock mixing alternative, funk, and world beat into an intriguing stew.

These days I can’t turn on Christian radio without turning it off almost as quickly. Christian radio fills the airwaves with cliche after cliche – vapid Jesus cheer leading and bland scripture reading put to poor quality music. Again, we can find a few exceptions, but for the most part, the Christian music industry produces substandard art.

A few weeks ago, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins gave an interview with CNN. In it, the he discusses his belief that God is the future of music:

“There’s a long-established concept that gets bandied about, which is misery makes for great art,” Corgan said during the Aug. 23 interview. “If you were asking a Shinto monk, I think they would laugh at this idea. You’re basically saying suffering is good for business, and I don’t think suffering is good for business. Crazy’s good for business, suffering isn’t.”

When asked what he was now exploring in his music, Corgan, 46, said bluntly, “God.”

The Illinois native said he believes God is the future of rock and roll, although that concept might not be readily welcomed.

“You’re not supposed to talk about God, even though most of the world believes in God. It’s sort of like ‘don’t go there,'” Corgan said, relating a comment he made to a magazine that failed to print his remarks. “I think God is the most unexplored territory in rock and roll music.”

The interviewer asks him, “Well what would you say to Christian rockers, then?” His reply:

“Make better music,” he said. “Personally, I think Jesus would like better bands.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERKt4nXAASA

Of course, Corgan and the interviewer (who goes unnamed in the YouTube clip) laugh at his answer, but he makes a valid point. Too much poor quality art comes out of the Christian community simply because the product is “safe for the family” and/or meets a litmus test of spiritual content.

I wrote about this very subject a few years back on my own website. Back then, I said:

It seems like there’s a lot of mediocre art of all kinds out there with the “Christian” label on it. Why do we believers let that happen? Why do we let so much make the cut that wouldn’t make it anywhere else? Why should we as Christians sacrifice excellence for content?

I’ve said it many times before…and it’s not a thought that originated with me…that we who are believers in Jesus Christ ought to create the most compelling, beautiful, and interesting art. If we serve and love such a creative God, we should be creative people. Christians who are artists should realize that all of their lives belong to God and that they honor Him through excellence, not through how many times His name is mentioned or how many scriptural truths are shown or quoted. I believe that art that purports to bear the name of Jesus Christ but is mediocre is no art at all and that anything a believer does that is less than excellent does Him a disservice.

Singer-songwriter Melanie Penn weaves her message of faith in Jesus into beautiful art-pop songs.

Singer-songwriter Melanie Penn weaves her message of faith in Jesus into beautiful art-pop songs.

Over at one of my favorite pop culture sites, Acculturated.com, R.J. Moeller expands on this idea:

It is no longer enough for churches and Christian entertainment companies to put their thumbs up in the air and try to gauge which ways the cultural winds are blowing. By the time this strategy has put together the “Christian version of…”, consumers of pop-culture have already seen or listened to the cooler versions of it. To make matters worse, well-intentioned Christian parents arrive even later on the scene and start buying the young people in their lives these already-dated and inferior copies of the stuff the rest of the country has recently finished chewing up and spitting out.

Ultimately, however, the burden falls on the shoulders of those who create the art. Parents who are busy running businesses, working long hours, and raising kids in an increasingly hostile-to-traditional-values society can’t be faulted for trying their best to connect their children to edifying entertainment. It is a harrowing tight-rope for parents to walk. They don’t want to raise culturally-illiterate kids, but they know how powerful and persuasive secular pop-culture can be.

In a free market of ideas, there is plenty of room for openly and decidedly Christian entertainment. But Corgan is right – if Christians have any interest in being taken seriously in an industry like rock music, we’re going to have to create better art. Stamping “Jesus Freak” on sub-par music doesn’t make it listenable.

You can find believers in Christ who make beautiful art outside the limiting walls of the Christian marketplace. My friend Bill Mallonee has made faith the center of his music both before and after his tenure with seminal college rock band Vigilantes of Love. New Zealand’s Brooke Fraser tackles an eclectic variety of subjects in her music – all through a Christian worldview. Husband and wife duo Over the Rhine have been making faith-based, artistically challenging music for the general market for over 20 years. Melanie Penn weaves her Christian beliefs into gorgeous art-pop songs. These artists are a few exceptions to the rule.

It’s high time for Christian artists to up the ante on creativity, and it’s time for Christians to demand creativity from musicians. After all, serving the Creator Himself should inspire us to want to create our best for Him.