Derek Webb & CT on “Christian” Music

Derek WebbReaders of this blog know that Derek Webb and I are not on the same page politically and sometimes theologically (previous posts). Nevertheless, in an interview with Relevant magazine Webb has some salient reflections on the so-called “Christian” music industry. Here are the money lines:

The whole secular/Christian thing…is a total fiction…

Don’t let your local Christian bookstore do your thinking for you and believe that everything they have there for sale is good and spiritually beneficial to you. If anything, we have proven that the Church unfortunately is identified with really poor art. The Church certainly does not have the market cornered on beauty. A lot of what we do is not very beautiful. The art we make is not very good. A lot of the songs I have heard on Christian radio are just outright misrepresentations of the character of God.

I think you have to learn to discern and look elsewhere and say, “I need to learn how to engage with a God everywhere I can find truth and beauty, regardless of the intention of the maker of that art.” I really believe that is a more biblical worldview. It also keeps us from being people who live in fear. There is no room for living in fear. There is no reason to be afraid. There is no reason to be fearful of secular music. We should learn how to chew on the meat, spit out the bones, to discern the truth and beauty, to commend that rather than to be just completely fearful and put all our security in these categories that don’t mean anything. It’s a dangerous way to live.

The Christian industry, ridiculous as its existence I believe is, is an industry that literally markets records based on the worldview of the artists, which no other industry does. The one thing they do really well is get resources to Christians. I thought this is something I want in the hands of fellow believers. I think that is the audience that this content would be relevant to and so that is the avenue that I took. Providentially, I landed with a label that I had no idea was really given the freedom to go beyond that. That is what I’m trying to do now. I’m not making records specifically and exclusively for the Church anymore (source).

Derek’s observations about the “Christian” music industry are largely on target. I wonder if he wishes that he had gone another route as a solo artist. I know that on his first album (“She Must and Shall Go Free”), Derek was addressing his songs to Christians and the Church, so signing with a “Christian” record label made sense. Now that it is clear that he is not exclusively aiming his music at Christians anymore, perhaps he would be open to signing with a secular label.

This question does not apply exclusively to Derek Webb. Christianity Today runs an article that addresses this topic with respect to Christian artists in general who are trying to cross-over into the mainstream “secular” market. In Rob Moll’s article “Rock Un-Solid: When Christian bands bite the hands that praised them,” he points to the Christian band Mute Math and their lawsuit against their “Christian” record label as a case in point.

The concept of Christian music is “in the middle of a quiet collapse” as a younger generation realizes that to be taken seriously outside the Christian scene, a band must stay far, far away from that scene . . .

I’m skeptical of bands that get a start in the Christian scene, but want their labels to help them cross over. Mute Math and others are stuck in a Christian music world that expects concerts to be revved-up worship services . . .

I find it hard to respect Christian acts that suddenly decide they want mainstream credibility, spurning the industry that gave them their start. If the Christian scene doesn’t fit, then find another label, other fans. There are secular artists—signed as secular acts to secular labels, such as Sufjan Stevens and Over the Rhine—who are open about their Christian faith.

The Christian music industry may promote a false dichotomy between sacred and secular art. But good artists don’t overcome that with marketing savvy or lawsuits. Mute Math should do what musicians do: Let its music do the talking (source).

Whatever you think about Derek Webb’s and Rob Moll’s reflections, one thing is for sure. All that calls itself “Christian” is not necessarily Christian. That goes for the music on sale in the Christian bookstore and for the companies that are marketing them. If we are going to be mature Christians, we will have to learn how to discern what is worth listening to and what isn’t. That’s a responsibility that we dare not shuffle off to the for-profit record companies.

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22 thoughts on “Derek Webb & CT on “Christian” Music”

  1. Excellent.

    I do find that D-Webb can be a tad pessimistic, while still being correct.

    The question I have is “How do we make Christian art something more ‘beautiful?'”

  2. Now Denny, you have a blog that I personally can relate to and intelligently discuss. I am actually teaching on this topic in a few months at a conference. Sort of passionate about it too, so sorry for the length.

    As a musician (cellist, pianist and vocalist), performer (of all genres of music from opera to art songs, country to pop, hymns to 7/11 worship choruses), worship leader, and instructor (piano and voice, as well as numerous other music classes and classes on worship and arts in the church) I abhor the fact that people (namely Christians) think they can give God leftovers.

    Therefore to answer the above question “How do we make Christian art something more ‘beautiful?’. Well, first we don’t put people down who are Christians in other markets other than “Christian”. We encourage music students who are Christians to follow God, not what others think they should do with their lives, but God. If this means go to New York and pursue Broadway, do it; Nashville, do it; Opera, do it; Worship leading,do it. We encourage them to not be lax in their practice in school. We take the bad conotation that the word PERFORMANCE has within the Christian community b/c after all God just asks us to ‘make a joyful noise’. BALONEY!!!!!

    In HIS word God specifically says “BE SKILLFUL”. Therefore, don’t think just b/c you ‘like’ to sing that you are skilled to sing and lead worship. Would we let someone who ‘likes’ to talk preach a sermon???? NOPE.

    Trust me I have had to start from scratch in churches, at schools, with groups in regards to the talent base I have, but you pray ’em in and you pray ’em out. And I am not just talking untalented folks. I would rather work with an ‘average’ musicians (vocalist or instrumentalists) as opposed to a diva/divo who thinks they are all that and a bag of chips. It is about heart to me with my team, be it a team leading worship, a team performing in a musical. Yes, the talent needs to be there, but I don’t do well with attitudes of superiority and unteachable spirits who are not team players.

    So first, we make sure they are skilled and that it is okay to take lessons. In fact you should take lessons. Heck I teach at a University and STILL take lessons, you never stop learning. I don’t get to practice as much as I used to as I have 3 jobs, 2 kids, 1 husband and 20 hours a week service at my church in the Worship and Arts ministry but still I try and find some time to make sure my cords are still there and not going to pot.

    Secondly, we let people know performance is not bad. Performance even at church is okay. It is a heart attitude that is of utmost importance. You have to plan, prepare, practice, pray, perform and present it ALL to God no matter what genre you are sining/playing or what locale (church, opera house, theatre, or other gig). And specifically realize that God gave you the talent, the gift, and you have to give it back to him, “work as working for the Lord” right?

    Also, I think re: Christian art, well, I just get irked by the whole Christian music industry at times. It is 7-11 choruses, 3 chords in the progression, and well, let’s face it they are there to make a living and sometimes we (read: consumers try to make all Christian artists into ministers of the gospel). Don’t get me wrong as Christians we are all called to minister, but we are not all called to vocational ministry i.e. not all musicians are called to have a ‘music minsitry’ not even the ones in Nashville or wherever the heck they are.

    If having a ‘secular’ record deal and being a light in the darkness is what God calls them to then guess what: we need to be praying for our brothers and sisters to stand strong, to sing about real love, not sexual lust; values; good lyrics. But it doesn’t have to be overtly ‘gospel’ or ‘Christian’ for them to be doing what they do for Christ, does that make sense?

    I got really messed up in college b/c so many people thought they knew what was best for my life and told me as much. I was too much of a people pleaser back then and in all honesty probably missed out on some amazing opportunities. Obviously we all make choices, but nonetheless, we need to stop putting people in a box, specifically artists who are Christians. Let them do their art wherever God calls them to do art. (obviously there are boundaries, etc. duh!!:):))

    I think honestly we need to let art be art. Christian or not. Truth is truth no matter where you find it. Now don’t throw eggs at me. What I am saying is this….

    My husband and I produced a concert at our church in WA state several years ago called the “Concert of Truth”. We had folks (non-Christians) who were in our life who we wanted to connect with on a deeper level. We had been ‘doing life’ with them, sharing our life (read: CHRIST) just being ourselves. We knew by inviting them to our church for a production it would open the door to other discussions, etc. So we put together a concert of sacred and secular tunes. Opened the show with Santana’s “Smooth” done instrumentally. Our friends recognized that song. This led into another secular tune, followed by a faith-story, drama sketches, Christian songs such as “Basics of Life (oldie but goodie), Mariah Carey’s “Make it Happen”, etc. But all of the songs, whether overtly written about Christ or not, wove the theme of TRUTH, and truth being CHRIST JESUS, point blank and how we need him in our lives. This concet opened the door for many discussion not just with us and our friends but with many others in our church and in the community at large. As well, it connected all types of Christian artists who were having to play gigs outside of the church b/c there type of music wasn’t ‘allowed’ in church. Know what I mean???

    So while many of these songs weren’t written specifically for Christians to ‘consume’ or for churches to sing, it is still great art and used to bring glory to God in a variety of ways, not just at this concert, but afterwards through conversation. And everyone involved in that production were bringing glory to God b/c we were earnestly using our talents for Him, being skilled, working for God, not resting on our laurels, not giving God leftovers, but using the talents he gave each and everyone of us to share Christ with others.

    So then my counter-question is this how is art Christian? And why do we get ‘mad’ at artists who are Chrisitans for wanting to put food on the table and if it isn’t happening in the ‘Christian’ market they try to let others hear it and buy their records in other markets/genres, etc.

    Not all doctors work in free clinics or Church-sponsored hospitals, not all teachers work in private Christian schools, so why do all musicians/artists who are Christians need to be in a Christian industry encouraging other Christians as opposed to reaching out and mkaing the most of the talents God has given them????

    I think many times we think it is okay to have excellence outside of the church but inside the church we should just ‘make a joyful noise’ and those who are actually ‘good’ at what they do we sneer them (has happened to me before) and say ‘You are a professional, you make us look bad. We are just singing at church after all.’. We have to change our mindset and realize all that we do needs to bring honor and glory to God. All that we do, where we do it, how we train for it, etc. It is not just about the ability, but it is about the availability. It is about attitude and realizing that it is not all about us.

    So what is worth listening to in regards to music and the last sentence of Denny’s post? To me as a musician, and a Christian, a project that has depth both musically, lyrically, production quality, etc. I don’t want 7-11 choruses, I don’t want three chord in a progression. I don’t want worship music mass produced b/c it is the ‘it genre’ of the moment. I want to hear someone who cares about what they do, who loves what they do, who is inspired, who is disciplined, who lives out their beliefs.

    So what does that all mean to me? It means, I probably don’t buy a lot of ‘Christian’ music just b/c it is Christian (or b/c I don’t think music can make a profession of faith and be a Christian) or rather labled Christian. It means that I care more about something that will make me a better musician, to where I can use my talents that God has given me in all the various places He leads me be it church, conferences, school, my private studio, gigs, or singing songs to my babies. It means that I will support my brothers and sisters in Christ who are in ‘Christian’ music as well as in other genres because they are following God’s leading in their lives,not just going with the flow. It means that I will challenge my students, my teams at church, and elsewhere to be the best they can be not b/c of ‘what’ they are sining, but b/c of who they are singing/performing for wherever they are performing.

    To me that is how we make ‘Christian Art’ more beautiful, by being Christians performing the best we can, with the talents we have been given, by our God, not isolating ourselves in a bubble and being satisfied with staus-quo or mediocrity, but striving for excellence, not perfection (because practice doesn’t make you perfect it makes you BETTER).

  3. Jada,

    You are on a roll! That’s some good stuff.

    Yes, I used to buy into the whole sacred/secular music false dichotomy too. Now I think it’s a farce–especially now that I know more than I want to know about the “Christian” music industry. Some music is “Christian” in name only.

    I rarely buy “Christian” music anymore, and almost never listen to “Christian” music on the radio. So much of it is just bad music that copies what’s going on in the “secular” market. Moreover, most of the lyrical content is pabulum.

    The criteria by which I choose to listen to some things and not others has nothing to do with what record label the music is coming from.

    I’m with you, I think Christian musicians need to strive for excellence in their art. If their music includes lyrical content, I would expect that it would reflect a robust Christian worldview, even though every song may not explicitly mention God. I think one mark of excellent lyrical content is that it would avoid the Christianese that contaminates “Christian” radio.

    Anywho, thanks for commenting, Jada. It’s good to hear from you. By the way, did you get my extended response on the gender question?

    Thanks,
    Denny

  4. I find some of the worst music comes from Christian artist. Honestly half of the people can’t sing or play an instrument correctly. The music is just not as good as some secular music. My big thing is I don’t particularly care what the artist is saying as I do about the beat of the song and the tone of the voice. So Derek Webb’s views on item X does not bother me because I probably never heard it in the first place.

  5. Groucho Marx asked a question of a guest on his “You Bet Your Life” TV program many years ago. The man was a popularizer or developer of the then-new invention, stereophonic sound records and record players. “What is the advantage of stereophonic sound,” asked Groucho, “over dead silence?” The audience responded with laughter, and the man responded about the advantage of stereo over monophonic sound, but the shared assumption then was that sound, maybe any kind of sound, was better than silence. I have listened to a lot of popular music, and lately including so-called Christian popular music, and the lameness of pop music generally, and Christian pop particularly, leaves Groucho’s question unanswered. I have heard some good new music at Church, written to be used in liturgical settings, but the the stuff written to sell records seems to be pretty thin gruel, and not worth talking about. [An assertion that sound is better than silence should be the subject for another debate, but not me, not now.] If by Christian art Luke Britt means art done by Christians for the glory of God, there is 2,000 years of outstanding Christian art to contemplate, listen to and look at, and for artists to try to do as well. If Mr. Webb thinks Christian art is bad, I recommend he look at the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, which has been under construction since 1885, and is splendid even in its unfinished state.

  6. Jack (in #5),

    I think when Derek Webb criticizes “Christian” art, he means “21st century North American Conservative Evangelical” art. I think we could all agree that “Christian” art is much broader phenomenon and heritage than what Webb is referring to.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  7. I’m with Jada. Also, Denny hit on an interesting point as well with “So much of it is just bad music that copies what’s going on in the “secular” market.”

    That’s the sad truth. These kids don’t know their music, and therefore, they can’t create beyond what they’re seeing in the now. And when what you’re seeing in the now is Third Day (shiver) in the Christian bookstore and A.F.I. (shiver and shudder), you will have no choice but to put out substandard music.

    Or, to put it this way. On the jazz scene (where I reside), if you didn’t know the work of Charlie Parker or Miles Davis simply because it was old, you would be laughed off of the bandstand, as well you should be. You have to know your roots in order to play something truly original (or as Bill Evans put it, “there is no freedom without discipline.”) So, when these kids just blatantly copy bad music to begin with, it just makes for a big never ending cycle of trash begetting trash.

    That said, this is why I prefer to try to seek out Christian messages or sentiments in secular music (and you find them all the time). At least then, you’re getting an honest product. Which is something that Contemporary Christian Music isn’t.

    Thanks for the article Denny,

    Paul

  8. Paul,

    You make a good point. I listen to a lot of secular music as well as the ‘good’ Christian music (I’ve developed an art from listening primarily to Christian cd’s growing up) and I constantly find good stuff in the “bad” stuff. It’s all about how you function when you partake in media. Do you take an “all or nothing” approach or are you able to use your Christian worldview to spit out the bones and chew on the meat, even sometimes fat of any message whether it be in film, music, poetry…?

  9. Denny your post and the comments are confusing my evangelical mind and secure habitat that I have been forming and living in from years of separating myself from the secular world.

    maybe you all should rethink your positions and get your field guide so the world can really tell who you are. 🙂

    http://www.larknews.com/guide/

  10. I was going to remain silent as some of my favorite music was bashed, but I decided against it. Perhaps I’m not as cultured or uninformed but I tend to enjoy what everyone seems to be trashing here today.

    Just a few lyrics from one of my favorite Third Day songs:

    Magnificent Holy Father
    I stand in awe of all I see
    Of all the things You have created
    But still You choose to think of me

    Who am I that You should suffer
    Your very life to set me free
    The only thing that I can give You
    Is the life You gave to me

    This is my offering, dear Lord
    This is my offering to You, God
    And I will give You my life
    For it’s all I have to give
    Because You gave Your life for me

    I stand before You at this alter
    So many have given You more
    I may not have much I can offer
    Yet what I have is truly Yours

  11. Jason,

    I wasn’t bashing Third Day. I’m thankful that there are groups producing worship music.

    Thanks,
    Denny

  12. Denny,

    I wasn’t really pointing that at you. I should have pointed that more directly at Paul in #7.

    Although I like a lot of other groups that are sold in Christian Bookstores as well. I guess I just don’t know which ones are the ones I should like and which ones I shouldn’t. I usually just judge based on what I like to hear. Maybe thats the wrong way to go about it.

    I do disagree with D-Webb in that some secular music is so far removed from God that there isn’t really any meat to be found. Unless his point was that in every genre there are artists
    to be found that contain the meat. If he is referring to within every song there is something to be consumed, then I completely disagree.

    Jason

  13. I used to have strong convictions regarding music: I wouldn’t listen to anything “Christian” because it usually sounds like poop. Artists like Derek Webb have begun to loosen me up a little.

  14. Denny,

    Where in the WORLD do you find this stuff–“Hooked on a Feeling”?

    Itis people like him that makes people like me mad….the music industry is not about talent, it is about marketability. Thank goodness for pitch ehancement software in the studio.

    And Jason #12, you should buy what you like to hear. Not all CCM is bad. I am speaking primarially from a musician/instructor perspective and having had friends/students who are extremely talented not be signed due to stupid reasons.

    I just think we need to be careful of totally plunging into the Christian sub-culture and living in a bubble thinking all is evil outside of it–because it is not.

    As well working at a Christian University now and mentoring students in Music Ministry it has become apparent that many want a ‘record’ deal, and have no clue waht Music Ministry is (Not that it only happens in a church).

    I think for me it comes down to desiring excellences as opposed to the Almighty Dollar. Perhaps I am jaded, or cynical.

    I think many times it comes down to preference–the word I ‘speak out’ against in regards to Worship within the church as it is my personal belief that worshipping God corporately has nothing to do with our musical tastes. But we SHOULD be able to and are commanded to Worship God no matter what style of music is playing or even in silence. At my current church, we don’t call ourselves Contemporary or Traditional but RELEVANT (even before I knew of the magazine). Primarially b/c all we do artistically is specifically to point back to or direct people to exactly what the Senior Pastor or other Teaching Pastor is preaching on, not selected to make people happy or such nonesense (in my honest opinion).

    However when it comes down to what I pay money for for my personal musical library I am a bit more critical and picky, okay snobbish (just like I am about coffee–but don’t get me started on that).

    There is a wealthy of music out there in many genres, markets, etc. As well there are many personal tastes, preferences, I program (our our Creative Arts Team) music in our services that I might not personally buy for myself, but it totally goes along with what our Pastors sermon. So in some ways I guess variety is the spice of life—-whether i personally prefer it or not:)

  15. Most of Christian music is focus grouped, formulaic. Who’s arguing that it isn’t? Almost all of radio is, it is just that Christian music is the same ad nauseam (www.beforethemusicdies.com).

    If artistry is so important to Webb, then why is he taking the Robert Mapplethorpe route as a Christian? Sticking the cross in a jar of urine is just as inflammatory as lyrically writing with a premise that some ethnically white Republicans, of a certain monetary status, are proselytizing a heterodoxical belief of atonement for political ends, whether he’s being hyperbolic or not, that is engagingly inflammatory.

    Last note that is a little disjointed, most missionaries that I know who have committed themselves to a life long tenure in Africa are cut from the “white, middle-class republican” segment of American society.

  16. Could anyone tell me what AFI is? Have I left CCM so long ago that I have missed something? Seriously, what is AFI? Did Amy Grant get another new last name? Did East to West rename themselves? Is the A for aAndy pAtti? Did someone say lArnell?

  17. AFI is probably the best pop-punk band on the planet. Goth-inspired, in the vein of the Misfits. Just incredible, if you like that genre. Saw them in Louisville four years ago and it was fantastic.

  18. “Last note that is a little disjointed, most missionaries that I know who have committed themselves to a life long tenure in Africa are cut from the “white, middle-class republican” segment of American society.”

    It’s because it’s “white middle-class republicans” who think it’s cute to adopt babies in China and do missions in Africa but refuse to adopt crack babies in NYC, Chicago and LA. Sorry, but chinese babies are the rolexes of this generation of yuppies. Not to mention that they go to Africa, yet refuse to go out on the street corners in their own backyards and SHOW (not just tell people) the word and deed of Christ to their fellow Christians.

    As for AFI, you need to see Dave Douglas and drop that rock stuff. Rock is passe, old, tired, and devoid of musical purpose or statement. Jazz, bluegrass and classical music are the only bastions of real musicianship left. And of those, jazz is the only form where true creativity can be appreciated.

    Love,

    Paul

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