Round Table Discussion at Cornerstone '97

Contemporary Christian Music: Is It Contemporary or Christian?

From a round table discussion at Cornerstone 97 on the topic of "Contemporary Christian music,: Is it Contemporary or Christian" sponsored by Prism magazine. The basic concept was: is CCM a bunch of garbage. Is it even contemporary or Christian... and what are the implications for us if it is or isn't.

After being in the industry for a long, long time I've been called on to make a lot of compromises. And for me, it's not so much a question of "Is it Christian or is it not?", but it's the question of "Is there integrity in what you're doing?", because I think music is Christian. It may be corrupted, but if we're created in the image of a creative God, this instinct that we have to create... You know, I don't know how you'd evaluate what someone makes. And I know I don't understand a lot of what you guys [the audience] listen to. I'm just not young enough anymore, and that doesn't mean that it's not good. I think every generation has to draw from itself it's own expression of whatever is there. And I think once you get my age you just have bow out and go, "I'm just not angry enough to do this song anymore." But I once was, and it sounds tame compared to what you guys are doing. But believe me, we were mad as hell.

So I think creativity is a very Christian thing. I think that, at least Christians, have a very distinct understanding that if we are created in the image of God that means we're going to have an impulse, or whatever you want to call that, to create. And so, you kinda go, "When people are creative on whatever level, there's something Godly about that. Even if it is corrupted and sick; like there's something Godly about us even though we're corrupted and sick." So the question 'Is contemporary Christian music either Contemporary or Christian?.' I kinda go, "Well, it's happening now, so that's contemporary" (I mean, I don't know how you can be any more contemporary than that).

The question about 'Is it Christian', I think the real question that we all want to discuss is 'Is there integrity in what we're doing?' And boy, that's a call I don't know who could make. But I do want to say, because I'm assuming that most of you are contemporary Christian music fans, if you really want Christianity, you won't find it in- there are a million great books out there, there are a million great records. If you're really interested in Christianity go to church, and commit yourself to being obedient to the gospels. I mean, that's where it really happens. That's why it's always such a hack off to me when people talk about my ministry. I tend to think my ministry is to clean up my hotel room before I leave. My ministry is to leave a generous tip for a waitress who's having a really lousy day and who's had a bad attitude when waiting on me. My ministry is to not tailgate people who are driving like idiots in front of me. If you're a Christian, ministry is just an accident of being alive...of being Christian. It just happens. And I don't know that you can divide your life up and say, 'This is my ministry' and 'This is my other thing,' because the fruits of Christianity affect everybody around us.

So is contemporary Christian music Christian? I don't suppose it's any more Christian that anything else is. I think that people are Christian, and things are neither this nor that. It's kinda...sure, ...but maybe not. I don't know how you would baptize an industry. Hopefully with fire. .....

Look, here's the deal folks: this discussion is that kind of a thing where you go, "I wish that people who were making records would resume the attitude of 'We're in this to make money. We're not in this to be prophetic.'" Let pastors be prophetic. Let churches be prophetic. I don't think it's the Vigilantes of Love's job to stretch my imagination about sex. And I like those guys a lot, and I have no objection to Love Cocoon, or whatever. But I don't understand why artists have to be the moral conscience of the world. Most of us don't know anything about anything. We don't have enough sense to have a moral conscience for ourselves. We shouldn't be responsible for stretching the boundaries, for pushing the church into a new direction. That is a church matter, you know. What I mean is I think an artist's obligation is to honestly, as honestly as possible to reach into themselves and pull out whatever is there that is human that people can relate to, and set it out. And if people want to buy it, then buy it! If people don't want to buy it, then don't buy it. But I, as an artist, have no right to criticize you because you don't happen to like what I have found that is human in me. Does that make sense? .....

What I'm saying - Oh! What I was gonna say a long time ago - (laughing)... It is a dangerous thing to give me a microphone... I read this great thing in a collection I carry around with me, all this multi-cultural reading stuff you're supposed to do - and this guy talked about Elvis. And he talked about the problem with white middle class culture, and his thing is - and I think he's wrong - is that we really don't have a culture, we have products. And he said, here's an example: Elvis would go in Mississippi and he would listen to the music of the black community and he would go, "WOW! I love this stuff - it's really cool." And then someone said "If we clean it up a little bit, if we sanitize it, then we could possibly sell it to white people with money." And so Elvis took a cultural expression that came out of the black culture, what was integrally a part of it, was organic there, he took it and cleaned it up and here it is, a product that was removed from the culture. And they made it marketable to people who had no understanding or appreciation for what that music is really about. And then everybody thought that Pat Boone came along and said "Well...Elvis kinda cleaned it up a little, but if I really clean it up, if I castrate this stuff, I can sell a lot of it." And he made it very marketable as well. So, what we have here is: pop music is an illusion of an imitation of something. You know what I mean? And it's disconnected from anything really human.

I think in the church one of the ways the American church, like every church for every culture, really runs at risk is when we begin to read the Bible purely from our own cultural bias, and we don't realize that there's something here more than when we're not suspect of ourselves. And I think that a lot of it is the horror of hearing people talk about America being a Christian nation. Or an industry being a Christian industry. You go, "That's impossible".

I think that the problem with the American church is the same problem with the English church. Except that our problem is that we're American and their problem is that they're English. The same problem with the Chinese church, only our problem is that we're American and their problem is that they're Chinese. Does that make sense?

And one of the distinct things about the American culture is that we're product oriented. Most people I know would rather watch a movie about riding a horse than go ride a horse. Most people I know would rather (with all of this "Virtuous Reality" or whatever that is) seek out the sensation of something, than seek out the thing itself. That's why pornography is very popular in our culture, because you get all of the, most of the, thrill of sex without actually having to touch anybody. And it's absolutely safe. That's why soap operas are so popular. They're the female equivalent of pornography. They get all the feelings, they get to be stirred up and disturbed and emotionally traumatized and never have to be around a man to do it. And the church has adopted that very thing.

We can saturate ourselves - this is the disturbing thing for me. When you're trying to have communion in a church and the organist is playing some horrible piece, and you think, "Geesh - I'm trying to think about the body and blood of Jesus and you're playing this discordant stuff. How am I supposed to meditate here when you're directing every thought, when you're occupying too big a spot in my head?" So you have to let the communion plate pass because you can't possibly eat it without taking damnation into yourself.

We love the sensation of Christianity and the sensation of spirituality- we like the illusion of it, but we don't want the reality of it. The reality of it would be way too glorious and too boring for any of us to handle. And that's why we have, as Americans, this wonderful thing that we can buy, this illusion. As long as you recognize that it's an illusion it's perfectly fine, it's perfectly safe. It's when we begin to believe that this is the reality of the thing that we run into trouble. And so we go (oh yeah, I get this all the time) "I'm so glad you came because I'm in such a spiritual low. It's been three months since our last Christian concert and I'm just starving spiritually." And I go, "Well babe, you're starving worse now than ever, because you just got a lot of candy. That's all can give you. If you really want spiritual sustenance, go to church. Lock yourself into something that is more eternal than your little MTV generation head can handle."

You don't have to be constantly thrilled. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with going to a concert and having a great time, as long as you realize that what I'm doing here is a lot of fun. It's not particularly spiritual. It's no more spiritual than making my bed- it's just a lot more fun. And so I think, to answer your question about this cultural sub, sub what? [aside to other panel members]( I don't even know half of the words you guys are using.) But our sub-cultural thing... yes, I think it's polluted. It's No more polluted than it would be if we were all from Afghanistan and we were all sitting around a tent talking about problems in contemporary Christianity in that culture. Everybody's got problems with their culture and Christianity because Christianity is not a good mixer, it's a solo thing. .....

(To a question from the audience along the lines of "But don't you think that there are some musicians out there that are prophetic and that is expressed in their music?")

I think if a person speaks sincerely, if the person has the Holy Spirit in them, if they're filled with the Spirit and they speak honestly- then it is very possible that that can become prophetic. I know I was living with this couple when I lived in Wichita and they had a little boy. And I was sitting on the couch one day and Jacob did this thing that I loved to see, he won't do it anymore because he's too old. He used to throw himself down on the floor and he would bang his head on the floor. I loved that. {Laughing} And I would always have to go out on the porch because I would laugh and that would blow the whole thing. But Megan, his mother, one day he threw himself on the floor and was beating his head on the floor, and she stepped over him and walked into the kitchen. Man, it killed me. I didn't laugh this time. I had to leave because I was, I was crying.

And I realized, "Man, this is prophetic. Jacob is me. I'm always throwing myself on the floor and beating my head on the floor going 'God, if You don't give me what I want right now, I'm going to hurt Your image. I'm going to destroy the closest thing I have to You, which is me. It's a long way away, but it's still the closest thing we got.'" God is not going to answer my prayer when I come to Him in a demanding way. God's not gonna pay any attention to me at all, I can beat my head until it bleeds. He can't honor that, cause He is a good father. He has to discipline you by saying , "Hey- I'm going to just be quiet here. I'm gonna go in the kitchen and make a pound cake." So I think all kinds of things in life are prophetic, and I don't think we should exclude Christian music from that just because it's crummy... I guess that's the idea I'm getting here. And watch out what you say about radio...they play my songs all the time.!

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