My wife and I have a road trip game called “Jesus Jargon.” Here’s how it works. First, find a Christian music station. They’re usually somewhere in the 80’s on the FM dial, and they’re easy to identify by that clean, dull, generic Christian music sound.
When a song starts, everyone says what word they expect to hear in the song lyrics. Whoever hears their word first wins the round. This might sound kind of boring, but if you choose the right kind of word you’re almost guaranteed to hear it before the song ends. Here are a few good ones: eternal, faith, father, forgiveness, glory, god, heart, heaven, holy, immanuel, jesus, king, life, light, lord, love, mighty, praise, righteous, risen, salvation, savior, shepherd, sin, soul, worship, worthy… you get the idea.
Usually after only a few minutes we’ve already played best 3 out of 5, then we get sick of listening to Christian music and change the station. Although we could probably play a similar game with a pop station using words like “baby” or “dance”, the game works best with Christian music. But why?
Because Christian music is the only genre of music defined not by the style and instrumentation, but by the content of the lyrics. It doesn’t matter if it’s country, pop, rap, or rock. As long as the lyrics reflect Christian tenets in a positive way, it’s “Christian music.”
Why I Threw Away My CD’s
Back when I was in high school–in the days before MP3s and Spotify–I had a huge collection of CDs: Aerosmith, Foo Fighters, Guns n’ Roses, Korn, Marilyn Manson, Metallica, Nirvana, Pantera… pretty much all the most popular grunge, hard rock, and heavy metal bands.
After I rededicated my life to Christ, I decided all my secular music CDs were an insult to God. So I gathered them up and threw them into the trash. I only wanted to listen to music that was “honoring to God.” Unfortunately, this didn’t leave me with very many options.
The day after I threw my CDs away, I went to the Christian book store to see what I could find. In the music section there was a helpful guide that showed the Christian equivalents of secular bands. For example, it said that if you like Aerosmith you might also like Petra, if you like Foo Fighters you might also like Switchfoot, if you like Guns n’ Roses you might also like Guardian, and so forth.
Of course, these bands were mere carbon copies of their secular counterparts (if that), but since secular music was off the table, I had to make do. Somehow I learned to like several Christian rock bands. My favorites included Audio Adrenaline, Caedmon’s Call, DC Talk, Jars of Clay, Newsboys, Plumb, and Third Day.
Looking back on it now, it’s hard to believe I listened to that music. Don’t get me wrong, those bands have some good songs. But the overall quality pales in comparison to what I listened to in high school. I think I got used to that music the same way people get used to eating health food and even learn to love it. Then when they have a piece of candy for the first time in months, they’re amazed at how sweet it is.
Back to the Dark Side
A couple years later I was driving home from work and thought, “I wonder what they’re playing rock stations these days?” I literally hadn’t heard a secular rock song in almost 2 years. What new songs had come out? Were there any popular new rock bands?
I reached for the dial–then I hesitated. What if Satan was tempting me? What would Jesus do? I laughed. Surely it wasn’t a sin to listen to a few minutes of secular radio. I was only curious. So I tuned to a local rock station…
And then I heard it. A dark, heavy, rising guitar riff accompanied by deep bass and loud drums and a singer that sounded pissed. He sang, “Do like I told you, stay away from me! Never misunderstand me, keep away from me!” The song was Keep Away by Godsmack.
It’s hard to describe the feeling I had. It was like I had been living in a foreign country and just heard my native language for the first time in years. I understood this song. It touched on the kind of dark feelings we’ve all had: anger, frustration, hatred. It didn’t make me feel those things–it just made understand those feelings again. It made me feel strong and in control of those feelings. And it was so. Damn. Good. This song wasn’t just candy–it was an ice cream sundae!
The Language of Emotions
I believe the main reason we listen to music is empathy. When we hear a song–whether it’s fun or beautiful or sad–we relate to that feeling and are able to connect with the person who wrote it. Music is the language of emotions. But in contemporary Christian music, there aren’t many negative emotions. You have to be happy all the time, like you supposedly will be in Heaven. After all, there won’t be angry or sad music in Heaven, right? So for those of us who experience negative emotions–guilt, grief, hatred, etc.–there are very few outlets in Christian music.
It’s as if Christian artists intentionally scrub away all the deep, dark sounds in their music until all that’s left is pale and squeaky clean. They take out all the interesting flavors and textures until the final product is pure and disgustingly bland.
It’s a shame, really. Outside the Christian bubble there’s a whole world filled with other ideas and feelings, but most fundamentalists want nothing to do with that world. If all you listen to is Christian music, you’re like someone who only watches Pixar movies. Sure, some of them are pretty good, but you’re missing out! Every now and then you need a good action or horror movie for a change.
Sure, there are some Christian bands that are really heavy. There’s even such a thing as Christian death metal, believe it or not. For example, Scorned by the band, Broken Flesh. But even in this case, the lyrics are still Christian. In fact, this particular song is about an atheist burning in Hell and wishing he hadn’t denied God. Nice, huh? If you could understand the singer, it would be a good song for the Jesus Jargon game since the lyrics include the words eternal, god, sin, and soul.
Even the heaviest Christian bands seem obligated to only write lyrics that have something to do with their religion. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be “Christian music.” But why do so many musicians who happen to be Christians have to be “Christian musicians?” If you’re a Christian and a teacher, do you have to be a “Christian teacher” and only work at private schools? If you’re a Christian and a baker, do you have to be a “Christian baker” and put crosses or Bible verses on every cake? Why can’t Christian musicians write songs that aren’t about their faith?
The day-to-day lives of Christians and non-Christians aren’t that different. They eat breakfast, they go to work, they pay their bills, they watch TV, and they have the same sorts of problems. So why can’t they write about those problems? Most people have doubts about their relationships, doubts about themselves, doubts about their future, and so forth. But Christian musicians usually avoid these subjects. Instead they act like everything his hunky dory.
Again, I think part of this comes from their idea of Heaven. They imagine a place where they will be perfectly happy forever and ever. And what kind of music would there be in a place like that? Certainly not music that deals with all the dark feelings people face down here on Earth. So most Christian musicians only write music that would be allowed in Heaven.
Imagine how much wasted potential is in the Christian music industry.
Where’s the Creativity?
If Christians are really communicating with the Holy Spirit, the source of all love, wisdom, and creativity, then why does most of their music suck? Why isn’t he guiding these singers and songwriters and helping them to produce music that is creative and brilliant, and not so boring and predictable? You’d think they’d be cranking out new hits all the time.
Christians often teach that if you use your talents wisely, God will bless you with more. So why isn’t there more talent? Where are all the catchy melodies and mind-blowing guitar riffs? The Christian music industry should be overflowing with talented artists, but instead we get this crap.
Wouldn’t god want to make sure Christian music is good? If he could inspire people to write the Bible, why can’t he inspire people to write better songs? Wouldn’t better music be a great way of reaching more people? Because I don’t see many people converting to Christianity because of bands like Skillet.
Like I said, there are some good Christian songs. Lighthouse by Audio Adrenaline, Lost The Plot by Newsboys, In The Light by DC Talk (I was going to link to that video, too, but the audio was muted because of a copyright claim. So much for Christian music being all about the message.) But these songs are good, not because of divine inspiration, but because of the luck of the draw.
So what do I listen to today? Whatever the fuck I want. I no longer think certain bands or radio stations are off limits. Why should I? I’m an adult. I think I can handle a little Marilyn Manson without freaking out and going on a killing spree.
Music is a very important part of my life. You might not think so if you met me, but I’m a very emotional person, and music helps me deal with those emotions. The good and the bad.
The day I listened to a secular rock station for the first time in two years, I started rediscovering who I really was. I’d been pretending to be this perfect, happy little Christian. But the truth is that I hated all my flaws and constantly asked Jesus to help me get rid of them.
Now that I’ve learned to accept myself for who I am, flaws and all, I’m a lot happier. I think all the Christian musicians out there would be more successful if they did the same.