Disclaimer: Opinions are my own and do not reflect all of the IVM staff.
Orthodoxy isn’t cool, and non-Christians make better music than Christians.
Now, I don’t seriously believe this – but it may as well be the mission statement underlying most formerly-professing-Christian artists. David Bazan seems to deftly annihilate the creation account in a single verse. Derek Webb parodies the liturgical experience with a song about alcohol. Bands like Animal Flag seem to dismantle the character of God. Motherfolk said next to nothing on their spiritual changes before writing an album that simply states there is no God. These artists have songs peppered with spiritual references, though usually as a caricature of the faith. That’s not to say they aren’t talented or have nothing meaningful to say but it’s remiss for us to pretend there aren’t fundamental gaps in the understanding of the nature of the world.
But they wrestle with questions many Christian artists don’t want to touch. Evangelical culture remains predominant in America. It was cool to be in youth group with your friends and listen to DC Talk. Everyone did it. And when the door starts to swing the other way, it’s hard to not follow everyone away. When the Church makes the faith more about the volume of belief and the measure of obedience rather than the Gospel, it’s easy to see why many Christians avoid writing songs about depression, sexual sin, death, and the difficulty of living a holy life. Showing weakness isn’t the evangelical way.
That’s why the deconstructionist bands have become popular: they talk about important spiritual matters with real context. They rightly acknowledge the spiritual complexity of many issues. But the answers they provide are contrived or shallow. They have a myopic view of what Jesus demands or that reality that suffering is built into the Christian experience.
Then, there’s the insidious side of things. Bands like Showbread purport open theism. The “cool” Tooth & Nail scene of youth has spawned a generation of Bad Christian supporters. Don’t get me wrong, the heart behind Bad Christian is admirable and does indeed fill the gap a bit. However, it seems to elevate honesty above the Gospel – it feels a bit like a Christian frat party. Lauren Daigle makes vague statements on biblical ethics. Christian artists have a particularly higher standard to present Truth, and while they’re certainly not expected to be pastors, they’re culpable for any heresy they might overtly or covertly spread. This is certainly a harsh-sounding sentiment, and I certainly think we need to be gracious in these conversations, but there are warnings for spreading false teachings and Jesus came to “bring a sword”. I do respect that bands are inviting conversation, but ultimately the conversation should point people somewhere specific. There’s a certain level of obfuscation many artists employ as a way to get “the best of both worlds” – that is, to maintain mass appeal without offending anyone. Before you take out your pitchforks here, recognize any visceral reaction to calling out an artist you may have is proof of the influence artists have and further reason why we should examine their beliefs.
Many orthodox artists fall largely in the liturgical and evangelical categories; they sing “church” songs that feel removed from the experience of the common man. They paint the Christian experience as porcelain and clean or sterile and irrelevant for those who aren’t already believers. These songs certainly have their place, but at large, it feels like artists either break with orthodoxy as a way to maintain artistic autonomy or disengage the culture altogether to preserve their faith.
It feels like a one-sided conversation where the non-Christian artists address the questions of faith and entropy of life. Suffering is complex. Sin is rampant. Death and pain are pervasive. Sometimes external factors are at fault, but more often we share in the guilt. It’s a big opportunity for Christian artists to respond earnestly and handle these topics respectfully. Christ condescended and spent time with sinners. He suffered. He was betrayed. We cannot distance ourselves from this reality, and it’s certainly worth entering into this conversation. Does God deliver us? Yes. Does He provide for us? Yes. But it is rarely that simple. The road is often filled with our idols being crushed, our plans being laid to waste, the end being uncertain.
That’s not to say there aren’t artists working to change things. Valleyheart’s Everyone I’ve Ever Loved in particular was a stunning album in its reconstructionist ethic, its repentant and humble approach toward falling from faith, dealing with personal guilt, and earnestly coming before God in fear and awe. It’s a record that addresses topics of hedonism, alcoholism, and other forms of failure, but it’s also strewn with faith and a desire to grow and return. These topics are either too taboo for many artists or addressed only from a distance. The autobiographical approach makes it feel honest and raw, and the songwriting is top-notch.
Kevin Schlereth may be known primarily known for theologically-rich indie rock, but “QVC” is a hard-hitting rebuke of self-centered Christendom. It directly plays into overlooking Christ’s condescension and the propensity to give into suburban Christian culture. It humbly acknowledges the struggle to look “cool” as a Christian rather than do the actual work Jesus calls us to. It’s not something you’ll hear on the radio, but it’s an area non-believers tend to chastise the Church and seeing a Christian artist address, and confess, this reality is powerful and convicting.
American Arson does a great job melding themes of faith into the regular context of life. “Let Conviction Grow” is far from a shallow track, talking about the abuses of human trafficking and war. It acknowledges the dangers of prosperity and comfort that invite us to overlook dehumanizing activity around the world that we’re effectively distanced from. When the band calls for conviction to grow, they include themselves in the conversation. It’s not “us vs them” – it’s an acknowledgement we are all culpable for what we do (and conversely, what we ignore).
“Flannelgraph” does a good job distilling most of my complaints with deconstructionist notion – God is made into a strawman and easily knocked down. The dissenters of faith weave in and out of orthodoxy as long as it’s socially-convenient and as long as God agrees with their desires; as a disconnect surfaces, the ties to faith are often severed. Self-sacrifice often is inconvenient. But the reality of the Gospel prevails and will hold fast the sons and daughters of God.
Realis is one of my favorite albums of all time and the background reads much like an apologetics seminar transcript. It unpacks the interplay of darkness and light, delves into philosophies and their shortcomings, and ultimately arrives at hope in the Gospel. Most of this isn’t incredibly overt, but it’s appropriately academic and intricate.
Mark Nicks of Cool Hand Luke once said how Christ came to redeem all of creation, including art – and that definitely sets a standard for Christian artists to take part in the ongoing conversation of the narrow way which has bridged millennia of history. Not every artist needs to be writing albums that read like dissertations, but there’s something to be said about offering music that simultaneously acknowledges the challenges of life and the Christian faith while ultimately presenting hope. We as Christians should not expect everything we create will be well-received by the world, but there is a conversation occurring within the arts.
Deconstructionism may be a popular movement for many reasons, but there is room for us to respond like G. K. Chesterton did to H. G. Wells by approaching the same questions with humility and Truth.