I drove our two daughters to a birthday party on Sunday afternoon. The house was half an hour away, and we started out without speaking much; the youngest fell asleep. Ellis, our oldest, and I sat and listened to the radio. She complained, at one point, about the song, so I went searching for a station that was palatable to my daughter and myself. With young children, most of talk radio was ruled out: she would simply ask for another station. I had to avoid any stations with singers who might “sound mean,” and anything with off-color lyrics or banter. Or, really, anything that focused on falling in love as the end goal of any relationship.
Which, naturally, left Christian pop music.
Were I more of a musician, I could note what it is that allows someone to immediately identify Christian pop. Perhaps it’s five or ten years behind, still flowing in acoustic guitars, refusing to take chances. But a lot of music refuses to take chances. Perhaps it’s the endless bubbliness, the continual refrain of how we’ll make it with God’s help. There’s something identifiable about the sound, and certainly about the lyrics, that signals the genre.
The church has ceded cultural relevance at an astonishing rate over the last 100 years (200 years, perhaps, in Europe). I do not know if the songs on the radio are symptomatic or drivers of the disease. Obviously, there is a feedback loop that they participate in: as the mind of the western church decays, the songs mirror this, then they add to it. It happens on Sunday afternoons in the car or Sunday mornings in the pew. We sing the same refrain: God is good and he makes me feel good.
Part of the cultural relevance the church has lost is its ability to speak into hardship and loss. This is also one of the places church–religion, spirituality, the whole kaboodle–is most needed. Our society has no way to deal with destruction and death: we deny it and move on as quickly as possible. We seek revenge. We fail to properly mourn and question and flail against whatever has allowed this.
The poet Christian Wiman, in My Bright Abyss, refers to this:
It means that conservative churches that are infused with the bouncy brand of American optimism one finds in sales pitches are selling shit. It means that liberal churches that go months without mentioning the name of Jesus, much less the dying Christ, have no more spiritual purpose or significance than a local union hall.
Somewhere between these two problems–the first being the Christian music problem and the second being it’s opposite: denial of a good God–is a middle ground of honesty. It is something that we must talk about from the pulpits and sing about from the pews. We must begin to realize that this life is not about me, or you, but religion invites us into a story beyond ourselves. And this story is not one of ebullient happiness and American optimism. It is one of struggle and denial, suffering and loss.
It is one of great beauty and love, but we can only find joy in proportion to our experience of pain.
For churches to find relevance, they must find language that speaks into this experience of pain and joy. This is why the creeds will never go out of style: they have been found, over centuries, to articulate our existence. Until churches rediscover this ability to speak both pain and hope, they have nothing to say. The most liberal will be Wiman’s union halls, and the most conservative will swap the romantic lover of pop songs with a supposedly transcendent God. They must, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, find ways to speak prophetically: to criticize and energize.
To hurt and hope.
We need to find these articulations in new songs. Until then, you might find such words in an old poem or song–or a psalm–or you might find the act itself on a cross.