February 25, 2014

CCM and the Shotgun Wedding

A few weeks ago, I came across a great post at BJS by Eric Andersen: Parallels of Pornography and Praise Music. He shares a quote from C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves) in which Lewis describes what "lust" does and does not seek after. He says,
We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he “wants a woman.” Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want.

He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes).
Andersen's post builds on the premise that so-called "Praise" music is like pornography in that it is all about aesthetic—not content. We don't want the whole package; we want the part that makes us feel good. And for the most part, Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) has very little to offer in terms of content. Andersen quotes the lyrics from a handful of truly insipid praise songs. They repeat empty refrains over and over, and romancing God seems to be a common theme. (I know of at least a few songs that I heard 3 or 4 times on internet radio stations (for examplebefore I realized that they were supposed to be "Christian" for exactly this reason—they sounded like every other popular love song, with a few allusions to Jesus/God that are easy to miss.)

Father = Church Growth?

Andersen mentions in passing that there are exceptions, and I want to address those. Because it appears to me that the exceptions are being used to "soften up" the traditionalists for a flood of non-exceptional, Haugen-flavored hogwash. While there are a few cases of good texts paired with Praise music, it is not a natural pairing. It's a case of theology being forced at gunpoint into a style of music that doesn't care for it. In the rare instance where a CCM group takes the time to put some semblance of theology into the music, Lutherans who dream about tattooed vocalists, colored spot lights, and glittery drum sets get the butterflies. "Hey, now we can sell this to the curmudgeony old Lutherans who insist on having good theological hymn texts!" So naturally, "In Christ Alone" by Getty-Townsend becomes the poster child for CCM among Lutherans. It should go without saying that the shotgun wedding between sensual Praise music and sound theology produced an ill-matched couple. But for appearances' sake, it might be good enough for a Trojan horse. As soon as we concede to publish Getty-Getty-Townsend in the new WELS hymnal, a horde of well-groomed, dressed-down, microphone jockeys will jump out and start singing the full gamut of Christian Contemporary Music. (Okay... so it is possible to take a metaphor too far.)

Is "In Christ Alone" a good text? Yes, as far as the theology goes. But it is terrible poetry. Which makes it at best an okay text. And moreover, it is not a hymn for congregational singing. It is a song, written for a Praise band and a professional soloist. Just like every other Praise song I've ever heard. And it could never be any other way, because CCM is modeled on the aesthetic of the popular non-sacred music you'd hear on the radio. It's "ear porn." People like it for the feeling it gives them, not for the theological depth of its content. If CCM didn't sound like pop music, it would simply have no appeal to the church growth movement.

Some of you will probably think that I have a chip on my shoulder. How can I be one of the two dozen Lutherans who doesn't at least begrudgingly condone singing "In Christ Alone" in worship? I must dislike everything contemporary.

On the contrary, I actually do like some of it. After all, I like a lot of popular music. Why would I dislike popular music that is also Christian? Most of it is quite catchy, sometimes has well-crafted poetry, occasionally good theology, and (to use one of those "trendy" adjectives) can even be uplifting. It is designed to be easily liked (again, not unlike pornography). But unlike many Lutherans, I hope that I am able to distinguish "what I like" from "what is good," and especially from "what is good for worship."
  • I like a good leather recliner, but I don't need or want one in church.
  • I like Phil Collins, but I don't want to hear his music in church.
  • I like a good beer, but it would be completely inappropriate in worship.
See? We do this all the time. We distinguish between what we like and what is good for worship and beneficial to our fellow believers. But for some reason, this logical decision-making process is checked at the door when it involves Praise music, and we are called curmodgeony legalists for consistently testing everything.