Christian vs. secular music - a fair comparison?
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Date: 14 October, 2004
Lev Eakins wonders whether you should compare Christian and secular music or whether it should be classed as an art form in its own right
During this year's Greenbelt Christian arts and music festival, I repeatedly heard people ask questions about Christian art. What is Christian art? How does it differ to secular art? Is Christian art generally better or worse than secular art?
I sought to find answers among some of the musical artists at Greenbelt and back home in Manchester, and by doing so have surrendered my assumptions about this very human experience.
Before I begin I must confess I am an outsider to the art and music scene. Whilst I am soaked in a city of art and count many artists as my closest friends, I know and enjoy very little of this corner of our human soul.
Art has always been my blind spot, as demonstrated by my pathetic music collection, so my observations here have no starting point in the music scene.
Whether this is an advantage or not is up to you to judge, but please, if you are an artist, and after reading this want to throttle me for my ignorant ways, please remember this admission and not where I live!
The first question I posed centred on what defines Christian music. After much discussion with various musicians three broad streams of opinion emerged:
1. The purist position
The purist position is closely linked to an evangelical perspective of faith, having at its heart a radical vision of how music can be harnessed and used as a tool for spreading the gospel of Christ.
An acute example of this position comes from Steve Camp; an American Christian musician who runs a site called Audience One. On this site he calls for a Christ centred approach to music:
"Those of us who are privileged to represent our Lord Jesus Christ in the arts should be galvanised by mission, not by ambition; by mandate, not by accolades; by love for the Master, not by the allurements of this world. Is there justified concern that Contemporary Christian Music has abandoned its original calling from the Lord, left the Biblical standard for ministry and has failed to remain accountable to the local church? I believe it so."
Among Steve's aims are to make all Christian music biblically centred, musicians accountable to local churches, their art available at no cost (give what you want), and lyrics explicitly evangelical. Steve defines a Christian band where all members are Christian and signed to a Christian label.
Steve is perhaps a herald for this extremist position, and I dare suggest that many moderate purists would have problems following his lead, but his views do serve as an exaggerated symbol for this definition of Christian music. I failed to find any Christian artist at Greenbelt or Manchester who subscribed even to a moderate version of this definition.
2. The spiritually reflective position
Amongst the artists I interviewed at Greenbelt and in Manchester, this was perhaps the most common definition. Difficult to articulate, it is nevertheless rooted in both individual and collective reflections of the Christian experience.
The songs produced from this position originate from personal and intimate experiences of God's relationship with the artist. Sometimes dark and disturbing, sometimes abundant and thrilling, the lyrics offer a journey beyond emotional interaction with others, and tap into the core of human spirituality.
Having said this, artists would sometimes produce songs that have no anchor in anything vaguely spiritual, and instead create their art simply because they are artists and that's what they are compelled to do. What separates these artists from the incidental definition is that their own spirituality acts as the main (but not exclusive) engine for their work, fuelling their desire to continue expressing themselves.
3. The incidental position
Musicians who are part of a group or band, sometimes without any Christian members, have created music that can be described as owning a Christian message. This position moves further away from the spiritually reflective position and sits at an opposite end to the purists.
The music created is simply that, music. It is allied to no spiritual or Christian tradition and may form its inspiration from any source. Where as the purist of spiritually reflective positions have inspiration in God, any Christian music produced from the incidental position is precisely that, incidentally created.
Subconsciously, or even consciously, created, it is found at the fringe of their art, possibly because the lyrics (sometimes produced by Christians or spiritually people) were appreciated and used.
Two examples of songs that have been described as Christian in nature, but performed by artists not normally known as Christian musicians, are Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah (written by Leonard Cohen) and Blur's Tender (written by Graham Coxen, a member of Blur). Both these songs resonate with many of the Christian artists I interviewed.
The only difference I can see between the incidental position and secular music is that somehow the artist has happened to create a piece of music that resonates with Christians on a spiritual level.
We could look at this the other way round and describe any piece of secular music that rattles the cage of a Christian as a piece of incidental Christian music, although without widespread acknowledgement that the piece does describe or provoke a Christian experience it is difficult to categorise it as such.
I have a few songs in my small collection that I could describe as provoking a Christian reaction from me when I listen to them, but I would be hard pressed to describe it as Christian music because they may only show up on my own personal Christian radar.
Instead, I feel that the more obvious examples I gave above can safely be categorised in the Incidental position simply because they have such overt spiritual or Christian movement that can be acknowledged as such.
In summary, it is my opinion that the issue that separates Christian and secular music is whether the music contains explicit and overt Christian lyrics that Christians can recognise and respond to on mass.
Turning to the question of whether Christian music is generally better than secular music is much more difficult to answer. Most Christian musicians I asked responding quickly 'No!' But perhaps the question posed was a little unfair.
After all the question assumes that one has had a wide experience of both sets of music, has an understanding of the different positions of Christian music, and ignores personal bias and taste.
How can someone quantify the quality of art without being given specific examples to compare and the required standards to judge them against? It is far too simplistic to ask someone this question and expect a serious answer without qualifications.
For instance, compare the incidental position set of Christian music to secular music and I suspect the quality of the art is not at all that different. On the other hand compare the purist position that attempts to create evangelistic quality over and above popular quality and you would find that in purely artistic values it would be generally poorer, but that is conceded by the purist position in any case.
The tricky part comes when we compare the spiritually reflective position with standard secular music. Speaking as a Christian, I find this kind of music better than the charts, but that's because I'm biased, because I have a blind spot with art and I'm trying to find the message rather than appreciate the music itself.
If I was a Christian who appreciated art for what it is, and any reflective moment that resonates with me is a bonus, then I may have to trust the judgement of those who I interviewed and surrender the ground to secular music.
This saddens me, as it tends to suggest you can only compete with secular music if you abandon attempts to reflect a crucial part of your soul. But perhaps the comparison is unfair in the first place.
What I have been attempting to do is compare
artistic quality between one set of music that owns a set agenda
with one that is much more flexible. And if that is what I am doing
then it is like comparing a politician with a priest. One will sound
just the way you like it, the other will tell you how it is.