3. The Salty Aesthetic
Before we make an attempt discover what Christian music should sound like, I’d like to take a moment to remind ourselves of what the fundamental truths of Christianity are. Phillipians 2:6-11 (NIV) says,
“Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
The first fundamental truth of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord. If he is not, then the Bible is false and so is our faith. In fact, Romans 10:9 says that this truth is also how we are saved from judgement: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”. Our lives have to reflect this because faith without works is dead and cannot save you (James 2:14-26).
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).” If we’re certain that Jesus is Lord even though sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, our lives will reflect our faith by obeying Jesus’ laws and seeing sin as high treason to the crown of the Kingdom of God. At this point, it will also be useful for us all to be clear on what exactly Christian worship is. Dictionary.com defines worship as “reverent honor and homage paid to god or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred.” Since we are citizens in the kingdom of God (Phillipians 3:20) and Jesus is Lord of that Kingdom (Colossians 1:15), worship is simply giving Jesus (and no one else) the reverent honor and homage he deserves.
So then, a Christian is a person whose national identity is that of the Kingdom of God and who pays homage to Jesus Christ. Again, 1 Peter 2:9-10 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” So then, the broad category of Christian music can be said to be music that reflects this national identity. It has nothing to do with genre, instrumentation, or any other subcultural classification of music. Just as American music is music rooted in America and South African music is music rooted in South Africa, so Christian music is music rooted in the kingdom of God. It cannot be based on any other classification because the “Christian” in Christian music refers to a certain group of people who are citizens of a certain nation and who identify themselves as the people of a certain King who they love dearly. Christian music is simply music produced by Christians. This is not to be confused with Christian worship music, which I have already defined as harmony, melody, color, and rhythm that is organized for the expressed purpose of paying homage to Christ and portraying or teaching the Christian worldview with its cumulative effect on a sentient being. Christian music does not have to be all of those things to be Christian music. However it does have to be something which Christ can enjoy with you.
We have to be very careful when determining whether or not music is Christian. If you do not know the musicians that produced it personally, how can you be sure that they are Christians unless you observe their lives and they clearly show what they believe? I cringe inside when certain artists are labeled “Christian” when a passing glance at their cover art tells me otherwise. Such cases are even more subtle and diabolical when artists make attempts to sound exactly like their secular counterparts in order to yield a greater profit for their labels. Sounds that are typically associated with gross sexuality, selfishness, and inherent arrogance are set with a new text that is supposedly not offensive to the kingdom of God. I have two problems with this: 1) this shows an unsettling lack of creativity and 2) the sounds are being used because they have been made popular; it matters little that the sounds were crafted to be used in a culture of sin and death. This puts music that uses these sounds far from a redemptive category and firmly into the camp of syncretism.
I am not saying that these sounds are evil, but rather that these sounds have been clearly associated with evil. Why would we use them when God gave us wonderfully imaginative minds that can come up with sounds that are much more beautiful and creative? I am not here to tell people that they are immoral because they enjoy certain sounds. As I said previously, the dark forces do not have such specificity in their dominion over the physical world that they have actually taken control of certain sound waves and mathematical patterns when executed through time. I am simply here to say that we can do better.
The most prominent characteristic of Christian music should be its inherent transcendent beauty. No music in the world should be as beautiful or as interesting as Christian music because what inspires it are truth and beauty themselves. The Spirit of God has clearly manifested itself in the most beautiful art in human history, but God has not so clearly manifested himself in “Christian music” because I am not convinced that very much Christian music has actually been attempted. We have plenty of music that has been borrowed and put to Christian texts, but this is not Christian music. How can we have a sound that establishes a distinct national identity when all we do is borrow from our secular counterparts? Consider the sounds you hear on Christian radio and in church. Who are the musical ancestors of those sounds? The strophic form used for traditional church music goes back to romantic Germany; Schubert, Wolf, Schumann, Brahms, etc. (hardly Saints). Western harmony itself is hardly Christian, Bach and Handel being the only Christian composers from those time periods (and calling Bach a Christian is a stretch). It is common knowledge where the sounds in contemporary Christian music came from. While I have no problem with our musicians being influenced by these sounds and using them, calling these sounds Christian would be like jazz African music. These sounds are not salty. They are not useful in creating a Christian national identity. Please note that I am not suggesting that Christians have been writing secular music. I am suggesting that they have not been writing music at all.
Christian music then, while it is influenced by the sounds it gets from the culture around it, should develop into something very distinct. Something alien. Something the world only hears in music produced by Christians. Something divine. Something better than humanly possible because of the intervention of the Holy Spirt throughout the creative process. After all, if the core of our being is to be salt and light in this dark world, should not our art reflect the glory of God also? Even in the case of comical Christian music, there should be something there that is distinctly and unmistakably Christian. Again, this distinctive quality is not the text used or implied in the music; many Godless men have proven this to be false. Ultimately, this will sound like the music that will be produced on the new earth. It should sound like truth. It should sound like wisdom. It should sound like Isaiah 6:1-5, Daniel 7:9-10, and Revelation 4. It should sound like music that is dripping or at least sprinkled with the overflow of the artist’s passionate worship of God. If it’s music about God’s creation, it should somehow point back to our Father. If it’s music about the dark events in this world, it should somehow point back to Jesus. If it’s a love song celebrating a romantic relationship, it should sound like the Song of Solomon and give glory to God. There is no room in Christian music for anything that isn’t holy, sincere, and honoring to the King of the universe. And it should be awesome.
It is not my place to judge for you what fits this description and what doesn’t. You have to judge this for yourself. But if homesickness is your default state of mind as it should be, you will know the sound when you hear it because it will fill you with longing for the world you were made for (Romans 8:18-27).
As a Christian musician, my greatest goal is to make my fellow believers long for the return of the King.