A few years back, the Associated Press ran an intriguing story on the then-American Idol contestant, Chris Sligh -- a son of missionaries who spent much of his childhood overseas -- and his apparent disregard for his faith by singing secular songs. You may remember the curly-headed crooner that inspired some to wear fake glasses and crimped wigs and call themselves the "Fro Patro".
Meg Kinnard wrote:
Chris Sligh, the American Idol contestant who has won fans thanks to his curly mop of hair and soulful voice, has a few people concerned with his departure from strictly Christian music...Jonathan Pait, a spokesman for fundamentalist Bob Jones University where Sligh attended for several years, said: "We really are somewhat disappointed with the direction he has gone musically."
For those that are familiar with Bob Jones U, this should come as no surprise. Unfortunately though, a story like this in a major North American newspaper will mean that people will make unfair judgments about the state of evangelicalism based on the statement of a supposed expert.
There are two things that were unsettling about this story. First, it furthers the world's view that evangelicals are stodgy, moral mongers that only approve of music that meets a certain religious threshold. Secondly, it highlights the misconception that there is such a thing as Christian music.
As for my first discomfort, there has been much debate between evangelicals themselves about what constitutes our approved list of music. We have churches frozen at nostalgia points on the music spectrum all over the country. Even for more progressive churches, the definition can change from the shower to the sanctuary. I want to address the aforementioned second concern that I have.
I've heard Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Dallas, say that he didn't know that music could get saved. Humorous but profound. Chandler said it in a satirical fashion but I'm just going to say it: there is no such thing as Christian music -- and further, Christian art.
[Disclaimer: Let me say that I do think there is such a thing as art by Christians for Christians, particularly for worship music in the local church. This would fall under the Colossians 3:16 banner -- psalms, hymns, spiritual songs.]
Is there Christian truth and worldly truth? Is there Christian good and non-Christian good? Is there Christian morality and secular morality?
We can instantly recognize that worldly truth, non-Christian good, and secular morality are oxymorons. All truth, goodness, morality and other similar qualities come from God. They do not exist apart from God. There is nothing good which can come from any other source.
Christian truth, good or morality are "double speak". That leaves us with simply: truth, goodness and morality. In the same way, art is at its core a search for meaning, truth and beauty. Art cannot be separated from God.
But that is what some try to do. This is what would be called sectarianism. Brian Howard says, "Christians with this mindset become postmodern monks that must validate the arts by valuing its spirituality. All forms of art for the sectarian must have some utilitarian benefit: a sacred slogan, a Bible verse, a Jesus fish, a Holy Spirit dove, or some other object that lets everyone know that this car, painting, song, t-shirt or business is promoting the cause of Christianity."
Howard goes on to say that the effects of sectarianism have two affects. First, it marginalizes the importance and cultivation of the arts in the church and secondarily, limits the influence of the gospel in our culture by promoting art that is mediocre or kitschy, at best.
Here is the problem. All of life, for the Christian, is spiritual, including the material world. In Christ the whole man is redeemed, not just a portion. There is no sacred/secular divide.
If this is true, then things like art can't be subdivided into a Christian category and a mainstream category.
Now it must be mentioned, as C S. Lewis rightly wrote in The Great Divorce that an artist's own creativity may draw him away from God and become his idol. C.S. Lewis also alludes to objective standards of artistic worth -- the belief that an object can merit praise due to inherent quality of goodness or sublimity -- in his Abolition of Man. This could be described as syncretism.
While sectarians do not go far enough into culture, syncretists go over the line. Syncretists are more concerned with being culturally progressive than with being faithful to God and the Gospel. This is a mistake as well.
Now, in all fairness, allowance should be made for the rightful concern of pastors, parents and teachers in the church for the souls of fellow Christian musicians (or more broadly, artists) committed to their charge in their covenant community. But it should be with a "Lutherian" attitude. Luther says:
I am not of the opinion that all the arts should be crushed to earth and perish through the Gospel, as some bigoted persons pretend, but would willingly see them all, and especially music, servants of Him who gave and created them.
Luther is right. Art, particularly art made by Christians, isn't confined by a subculture; it's defined by a Creator. In this sense, "Christian" is a noun, not an adjective. It is who or better, whose we are, not a descriptor for the type of thing that we do. It's not sacred and secular -- it's all sacred in the secular.
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