Will we ever stop labeling bands Christian?

Did you know that the members of U2 are Christians and that they frequently explore issues of faith in their songs? Shocking, right? I know!

A recent BuzzFeed piece got way too many views with the irritating title “11 Bands You Might Not Realize Are Christian.” Author Matthew Perpetua seems to be trying to “out” people of faith in the music world by making over-reaching assumptions about the members’ beliefs based on lyric snippets and his own editorializations. For Perpetua, it seems the inclusion of any kind of Biblical imagery is reason enough to identify a band as “Christian.” In addition to listing U2 in the No. 1 spot, he includes Black Sabbath, Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers, Evanescence, Belle and Sebastian, Lenny Kravitz, Kings of Leon, Sufjan Stevens, The Civil Wars and the incredible Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who just released an excellent new album, Spectre at the Feast, and successfully rocked Nashville this month.

Back in 2009, I wrote a piece for Christianity Today that suggested that all music was spiritual. Sure, some of it gets used for ignominious purposes, but the thing that makes music so powerful is the spiritual essence of it. It may be good or bad, true or false, but it’s all spiritual. Bono once said that the best music is either written about people running toward or away from God. T-Bone Burnett, who inspired me as a kid, once said that he could either write songs about the light or about what he sees as a result of the light. Glenn Kaiser rocked my world when he used blistering hard rock to simultaneously share the Gospel with the lost and to challenge the found to engage their pilgrimage with intensity and integrity. Reducing this wide spectrum of expressions down to a bucket labeled “Christian” is a way of dismissing it from the general culture on one hand, or uncritically endorsing it to a sub-culture on the other.

There are several specifically “Christian” uses of music, and I am a fan of them all when done properly. Music can be used sacramentally, as in worship. It can be used prophetically, as a challenge to the church or the world to change its ways. It can be used educationally, to help train people to memorize Scriptures or stories that will enhance their understanding of their faith and its implications. Sometimes music is used well in these purposes. Often it is not. It seems to me the lame/great ratio is about the same in the Christian world as it is in the Top 40.

But when songwriters who happen to be Christians participate in the larger cultural discussion with songs that address love, lust, fear, war, politics or the beach, must it be called “Christian music” and be sold in separate stores and played on separate radio stations? The prevailing desire to label and categorize that kind of music seems to be the result of two things: Christians who would rather be spoon-fed “safe” music than engage in critical thought or discernment of their own; and snarky pop-culture critics who were exposed to too many Carman videos as children and want to make sure their cool friends know what some artists secretly believe

I get that there is too much useless music in the world and that some adventurous and open-minded Christians may wish to discover new artists who are particularly thoughtful when it comes to wrangling with the implications of a life lived under the gaze of God. I supposed they might turn to certain articles, like BuzzFeed’s, in that pursuit. But if the discussion is designed to create an alternative to personal discernment and critical thought, or to endorse bad art because it is about Jesus, we have a problem.

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“or to endorse bad art because it is about Jesus”
Man, you couldn’t be more right. A lot of ‘Christian’ artists would never get a recording contract in the mainstream outlets.
As a parent I find myself fighting this idea. I grew up with only ‘Christian’ music, but my husband was allowed to choose from the masses.
Totally sharing this by the way! :-)


I once had a kid in Bible study tell me how he liked some Christian music, especially The Grateful Dead. We had an interesting discussion after that.

This article seems too negative to me, possibly because it is trying to say a lot in a very short space.

It is all very well to want music to be judged on its own merits, and I can see there being a problem if/when people like or dislike music primarily because of the label. But if you go in the other direction and have no indication of where artists are coming from, this has at least two problems that I can see:-1, Christians may miss great music, which could be challenging and inspiring; and, 2, Christian artists could be feeling more and more separated from the rest of the church.
What we need to work towards is both a Christian music industry that is willing to take risks; and a church that is more open to creativity, that will welcome artists at any stage of their journey with God. At the moment, the situation seems to wanting to separate the two-you can either be ‘creative’ or ‘Christian’. And whichever side of the line an artist places themselves, they rarely seem to cross it. Not every artist has to, of course, but the artists who feel that God wants them to use their gifts to communicate Him to a broken, hurting world somehow have to do that. It’s not much use saying there is a solution to people’s pain if you stop short of telling people Who that solution is.
It is not easy, but kind of hiding your allegiances won’t help the situation change. For example, P.O.D. are well known among whose who like metal for being Christian, and generally accepted as being a great band. The more often bands and artisits do this, the less this issue will matter.

Really good points, Tim. I do think my piece reads as more negative than I intended - especially because I think most people are not reading the Buzzfeed article that I was responding to. Let me clarify a few things.

1) I believe that there is a lot of great CHRISTIAN music - meaning music that is made specifically for Christian purposes. I mentioned the main areas that I see Christian music being useful: worship, challenging the church and education / edification. I am glad that we have new songs to sing at church. I love that my youngest son can listen to Christian radio and hear good, sound, Scriptural music. I have absolutely no problem with that. Heck - I work in Christian music and always have! My beef here was with someone looking at mainstream music and feeling the need to brand it as “Christian” because he detected some faith-oriented content- and then also Christians who will dismiss any music not branded as “Christian” or played on Christian radio. But if folks don’t read that piece I can see why mine seems harsh.

2. I really do believe that there is amazing music being made by Christians right now - and there has been for a long time. I think it’s arrogant for me to lay my musical tastes - which have always leaned toward the obscure - over the current faith-fueled music world and then cry foul. My tastes are MY tastes, not God’s. Most people like very mainstream music - be it Kelly Clarkson or Justin Timberlake or even Mumford - most people like simple, catchy, commercial music. That Christian radio plays very mainstream kinds of music makes perfect sense. Most people don’t like the stuff I like. That’s OK. I have Spotify, interesting friends, some blog feeds and very cool kids. I hear plenty of “cool” music.

I find it interesting that so many comments (not as many here but TONS on my Facebook wall) were from Christians grabbing at the chance to bash CCM music. That was certainly not my intent. There is enough room for all different kinds of music expressing faith. My point was to say that lumping everything from T-Bone, BRMC, TobyMac and Chris Tomlin into one oversimplified bucket called “Christian” didn’t make sense.

And anyone that thinks all speciofically “Christian” music is lame needs to check out John Mark McMillan, Gungor, Leeland, Matt Maher, Audrey Assad, Wayfarer, The Followers amd loads more like them. I’d also dare some Christian cynic to show me where Matt Redmon’s “10,000 Reasons” is shallow or tepid. That’s Scripture! It’s a great song too - and happens to be one of the biggest Christian radio songs of the last year. I do wish mainstream radio would play TobyMac’s stuff. He’s certainly good enough. But I’m glad my son doesn’t have to listen to mainstream pop radio to hear a Toby song once in awhile.

No, I love that Christians make great music - I just wish the labels were more honest, more nuanced - more helpful.

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