Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An Episcopalian's Defense* of Contemporary Christian Music

I drove to Milwaukee last Saturday night to hear my brother perform: Matthew plays bass for Christian singer/songwriter Chris Tomlin. (Rend Collective and Tenth Avenue North opened.) The show was stellar - really great - and, without caveat, inspiring. I have always been beyond words proud of my brother. It is a joy to watch his joy in his music, and to see how God is present to his work and the work of those with whom he finds joy playing.
My brother, in the blue lights.

My friend Seth went with me. Seth is a priest, too, and so - perhaps predictably - our between-set conversation veered toward the theology of the songs. The Christian music world is a primarily evangelical music world, though notable exceptions exist (Matt Maher, for one, is a devout Catholic).

What I feel the need to say out loud after last Saturday's concert is this: while distinct theological tan lines continue to mark the underlying evangelicalism of much contemporary Christian music, the days when "Jesus my girlfriend" could be received as a compelling critique of contemporary Christian music - usually at the hands of more liturgical traditions - are long gone. Times have changed, and a rhetorical soundbite that may have been rightfully merited twenty years ago paints the one who would invoke it today as out of touch.

Saying this, I realize that it is probably equally out of touch to assume that pockets of liturgical traditions - like Episcopalians - continue to hold a universal hard line against contemporary Christian music. My own impression is that the hard line has gotten much softer in theory than it has in practice. Even in practice, however, times are changing: a good friend and campus ministry colleague told me today that his Episcopal community had - reluctantly, yet with profound effect - given up contemporary worship music for Lent!

Even so, my experience suggests that the exceptions prove the rule. Consider, then, what follows to be, if nothing else, a bunch of good links to name the continuing advance of contemporary Christian music into theologically articulate (1), grounded-in-the-ancient, and liturgically informed praise - with a vulnerability from which the Episcopal Church might rightly be called to learn.


Far from the exaggerated individual emphasis that plagued evangelicalism for years, the songs I heard last Friday repeatedly referred to "church" - God's gathered people - as the basic unit of faithfulness and ached with the psalmist's desire - shared by the most ardent social activist - to see the redemption of God in this life. One song was impossible to hear apart from the student discussion I attended on Friday about white privilege, Tony Robinson's death, and the longing of those black Christians present to see white Christians use our voices for justice; in response, white students named a fear and insecurity at speaking up that both surprised and angered some of their black sisters and brothers in Christ. This conversation on my heart, I was deeply struck by the way the song simultaneously affirms God's love for the hearer in light of a dubious past and calls the hearer into the more of the new possibility God in Christ has opened for us.
Me and Matt Maher's back.

My friend Seth put the last point more simply: "These songs invite our brokenness and weakness to be a part of the life of faith."

Now, before you - or I - get carried away, let's be clear. I'm a child of the Hymnal 1982.  I was born during Dad's first semester at an Episcopal seminary, and I grew up memorizing hymn numbers during sermons. I owe most of my spirituality to the rich tradition of Anglican hymnody.


This is exactly why I would caution my liturgical family against, in the Episcopal instance, a bias toward the blue book: when we hear our sisters and brothers from different traditions moving toward theological themes at the heart of the life of faith we have discerned in Christ, our stubborn reluctance to receive the gifts these traditions bring becomes our sin.

And, when we see contemporary Christian music naming ancient truths in ways more simply and accessibly than our own tradition has managed, how can we keep but thanking God for the gift of unexpected surprises?

I am sad that it is still cool in some Episcopal circles to disparage contemporary Christian music of the radio kind. I am sad that part of the legacy of the Reformation is the felt need/obligation to honor the divisions of the past. I am sad that smugness in these matters might blind Episcopalians to the shortcomings of even our own beloved blue hymnal, and so also to unseen aspects of the reconciling adventure of the Gospel, to which Christ continually calls us.


I rejoice.

I sing a song and rejoice in the unexpected new thing God is doing in the praises of God's people, in all places, everywhere, and sometimes even together.

To borrow a favorite phrase of my one-time mentor and the new bishop coadjutor in West Texas,

"Let the ones with ears use 'em."


* Not that contemporary Christian music needs defending, least of all from me. I do want to nudge my Episcopalian sisters and brothers, because I believe nothing short of the church's unity is at stake in developing mutual respect and appreciation for God at work in the other.

(1) Of course, one can still find bad theology in contemporary music, but don't get me started on some of our favorite Christmas hymns. God forgive us when/if we find ourselves using theology to justify our existing biases. Theology is important and we are called to be more honest than that.

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