Wednesday, November 24, 2010

CCM revisited

Wow, it's been over five months since my last post on this blog - I think that's a record! No promises as to further posts, but if I have something to say or share that might be worth your time, I probably will...

Those of you who remember me in my early teenage years probably groaned (at least internally) when you saw the title of this post. I can hardly blame you! There was a time where I was a vocal, vehement, and usually ungracious critic of just about anything that could be included under the header of Christian contemporary music. At the time, I believed the primary 'issue' with CCM was that most artists and bands adopted, imitated, or incorporated musical styles that originated in contemporary secular culture. Over time, however, I have come to recognize a much greater degree of nuance to the issue than I ever did years ago.

Even so, I've been pondering recently where the real danger lies with CCM, and I am becoming more convinced that in most cases there are greater concerns than some of the musical styles incorporated in the 'genre'. I would summarize my latest musings under two broad points.

I recently listened to a lecture by Dr. George Grant from his Antiquities series, where he described a visit he made to Iraq shortly after Saddam Hussein was ousted from power. In preaching to a group of pastors there, he spoke words that few of them had ever heard or really understood: that Jesus is Lord over all. Many Christians, he said, take this glorious truth for granted because we have written so many catchy tunes about it that has practically been reduced to a mantra. Music, especially catchy music, has the ability to familiarize us with phrases and concepts to the point where we lose our grasp of the deep significance of what we are hearing or singing along with. This is an inherent quality of all chorus-driven music. One example that comes to mind is the song "He Reigns" by Newsboys. (I enjoy listening to that song, among others, by the way.) The chorus goes like this:

"Glory, glory, hallelujah
He reigns, He reigns"

Nothing wrong with those words, now, is there? The danger lies in the effect that such a repetitive chorus, spinning around in our minds, repeated over and over as we sing along can have on our ability to really grasp what it means to affirm and believe in our hearts that He reigns. Here we have deep theological concepts expressed in such simplistic terms that we run the risk of cheapening the sovereignty of God by reducing it to a mantra - a praise chorus. This is an issue more with us than with the music, or the words being sung. We tend to think at the level we read, listen, and converse at. In other words, what we feed ourselves in terms of literature and music has a direct impact on our intellectual activity. Have you ever read literature by a really talented author with a wide vocabulary (P.G. Wodehouse, for example) and found your vocabulary improve as a result? In the same way, the musical lyrics we fill our minds with inform our literal and theological vocabulary, perhaps more than we realize. Again, I'm not taking issue with the Biblical teaching that "He reigns", or even expressing the sovereignty of God in such terms. But we need to be cautious of letting our doctrinal understanding languish at the level of simplistic affirmation of basic principals. Singing "He reigns" is an affirmation of that truth but will not impart to you any deeper understanding of what you're affirming. By the way, this caution applies to any music we listen to or sing. Whether we are singing "He Reigns" 'round the campfire or "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" in corporate worship, we need to be wary of the cheapening effect that repetition and casual familiarity can have on the great truths of our faith.

The second danger is a matter of volume. Not decibals, mind you, but quantity. This is a simple issue. Speaking from experience, I know it's easy to spend way more time listening to music than reading, writing, praying, or meditating. Listening is a passive experience relative to those other activities, which require more active involvement. But when more time is spent imbibing theological concepts via the medium of music than is spent reading our Bibles, we have our priorities wrong. No matter how good the music, we should not allow it to tell us about God and His world as a substitute for, or in greater quantity than, what God reveals to us in His word. Our worldview (including our artistic sensibilities) must be anchored in Scripture--we know that, right?--but that won't happen unless we actually study it. After all, the only way we'll be prepared to evaluate the content of any music is if we know the standard to which it should be compared. Whatever we spend the most time consuming will progressively define our beliefs. Although there is still truth being sung in much CCM, there is also a lot of error, and we need to be wise to discern the difference by grounding our understanding of God and His world firmly in the Word.

Thanks for reading these thoughts. Writing them down was a good reminder to me, and I'd welcome your feedback if you disagree or have other thoughts to add.


Melissa M. said...

Good thoughts! I, too, listen to some CCM, and don't believe it's all bad but that we must be careful. I especially like your thought that the Bible must direct our beliefs.

Anonymous said...

Nicely written Jonathan. I agree. The only thing I might add in defense of CCM is that in any crisis, the basics of basics will come to mind. As has been studied and proven, music will help us to remember - so when I am in the frontline trenches on any battlefield, my heart, if not also my lips, will cry out not rotely, but in dire desperation, something along this line: "Glory, glory, hallelujah! He reigns, He reigns!" instead of struggling to recall the deeper, longer (albeit more theologically intimate & precise): "Hallelujah! Raise, O raise to our God the song of praise; all his servants join to sing, God our savior and our King. Blessed be forevermore that dread name which we adore: round the world his praise be sung through all lands, in ev' ry tongue....." stanzas 1 & 2 of 6.