The following ideas are my own opinion and do not represent IVM as a whole.
For all the creeds and confessions we have, for all the things Christians past and present have died and are currently dying for, for all the sentiments of things that were simply understood in regards to what it means to be human, the present understanding of what it means to even be a Christian is about as abstract as trying to define which subgenre of punk this or that band is. And since many musicians and the labels which endorse them exist in a layer of public influence, it’s worth talking through these things. Are many “Christian” artists even Christian?
This is sure to ruffle some feathers, but even Christ Himself said He came to bring a sword (Matthew 10:34). Lest you misunderstand me, this is not a physical sword, as Jesus specifically rebukes Peter for using a weapon when Judas arrives with the authorities. There doesn’t seem to be much space for this conversation as there’s a lot of social capital in any music scene. By nature, we want to play nice. We’d like to think we all use the same terms the same way. We’d like to think that established record labels would have some sort of statement of faith they hold their artists to, or that bands regularly attended church (together, when possible) or any number of other things.
But as we continue to see declines in the general understanding and belief of some of the fundamentals of faith, like Christ’s virgin birth and bodily resurrection, replaced by views that seem to lean toward gnosticism or syncreticism (and even the general lack of Christians understanding these things), the result is quite frankly “another gospel” that Paul warns about. To borrow a quote from my friend Levi Sykes of Former Ruins, “We all need to hear some hard things sometimes.” Paul wrote entire books warning at length of ideas infiltrating the Church. Jude mentioned the destroyers were already inside and to run fast away. But in a world of touring, festivals, and labels, how does this play out practically? And when the labels we used to love have been bought out by bigger labels with different ambitions, is there really any hope to be had among larger artists?
There is a very public nature to music. And it’s clear that there are some difficult trends among creative types, from childhood rejection to depression and mental health challenges as adults. And the art within orthodox (as in traditional Christian theology) churches often times can be lackluster or limited in scope. So, to hold fast to any numbers of doctrines as a musician playing out in bars and venues is perhaps one of the most isolating situations. There’s certainly a pressure to loosen some stances. And I’m not claiming every song or gig needs to be preachy by any stretch – only noting that there is such a vague use of what it means to be a Christian artist. Even something like the Caedmon’s Call reunion, where Derek Webb had renounced his faith, was troubling in the sense that he is able to market on both sides of the fence in a cunning way. But I am convinced that the overtly dark things are not nearly as destructive as the darkness which cloaks itself in a false light.
At any festival, you might have bands from megachurches, bands with reformed theology, bands who believe in open theism, artist like Jackie Hill Perry or Lecrae or Fallstar or Wolves at the Gate or Relient K. And whether by association or their our direct profession, these artists hold views that carry degrees of controversy and incompatibility. And while there’s certain room for disagreement on non-essentials, our very reluctance to own the essentials for what they are does little for us. At the end of the day, we know that the stats from the State of Theology survey are not too promising. If we assume a similar pattern for bands under the “Christian” label, the result gets concerning quite quickly. But of course, many artists aren’t too clear on where they stand on things. I do not think pressuring artists on subjects is the correct answer here, but the claim to follow Christ certainly carries some objective standards with it. Even considering church-specific music, calling it “worship” seems to be a way to elevate the songs as a higher service to God than, say, the singer’s life. After all, the song is what gets released and circulated.
But I’ve talked to enough people in the industry, people I might call friends or acquaintances, and when I start to ask about things like church attendance or accountability, things break down fast. People shouldn’t be getting their theology from bands, but it’s kind of like how people shouldn’t be getting their sustenance from McDonald’s. They still do. And I understand that there are a lot of corrupt churches and ones that aren’t even aligned with the Gospel. But I think about bands of teens and college students hitting the circuit on a “mission from God” with no mentorship, oversight, or even personal support and the result basically goes the way it would for any firebrand chasing a dream. And by the time the band members hit their 30s, they’ve deconstructed and become apologists of just how meaningless life is (so go and buy their shirts so you don’t forget).
I don’t think it’s simply a matter of doing a certain number of actions to prevent things like this, but we should at least have a level of discernment. I know it’s not cool to be a Christian, and Christ said we would share in His sufferings. When we capitulate and our understanding of Jesus looks no different than the world, it is an affront to the Gospel and does nothing to show how Jesus overcame the world. Personally, this is one area that metal bands have actually had the most say in – but even then, the conversations have shifted or been obfuscated lately.
It is troubling when a band says they are Christian and the impulse is to follow that with 20 questions. Who do you say Jesus is? What is the nature of sin? Do we need to be reconciled to God? Are people basically good? Are there multiple paths to God? Did God create, and if so, was it actually good? Can we trust the Bible? The list goes on and on. All that to say, following Jesus means something specific. In our post-modern, post-truth world, this is an offense statement. But 2 Corinthians 2:16 reminds us that by nature the truth will have a pungent odor of death to those who hate it. There are duplicitous tongues in our midst concerning matters of spiritual life and death, ones who might be well-intentioned or simply misguided. Why should we assume the nature of the body of believers would be any different than the past when it comes to the redemptive history of humanity? Even Israel only had a small remnant that was true. But frankly, it doesn’t seem like we like to draw hard lines on conversations. Jesus and Paul were pretty harsh concerning people who posed a threat to the purity of the Gospel. And while a song may not carry the weight of a sermon or even any overt Gospel presentation, it is still worth heeding the warning.
If anything, I’d simply like to say this: the commandment of taking the Lord’s name in vain applies as much to how we live our lives as His heralds on earth as it does our speech. Do we live with the conviction and awe that should accompany our allegiance to an eternal, invisible, all-powerful Creator made manifest through the person of Christ Jesus and His atoning sacrifice, or is it simply a label to slap on spiritual-but-not-religious music? Can we have artists who draw clear lines? Can we find ways to equip and mentor artists?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and keep the conversation going.