Excuse me while I unload.
The culprit is a hit single called “Fireflies,” by Owl City. You’ve probably heard it. It’s a down-tempo, ethereal song about some guy dancing with fireflies in his dreams. That’s it – just a surreal, disjointed dream with no spiritual relevance whatsoever. What got me thinking, though, was that I heard this song over the local Christian radio station. A couple of questions immediately jumped to mind:
First of all, even though the song lyrics are squeaky clean, exactly what does it have to do with anything related to Christianity? Secondly, what constitutes a “Christian” song? Is it a lyric that reflects the values and message of Christianity, regardless of the artist? Or is it merely the artistic work of a self-proclaimed believer, regardless of the message (this seems to be the common trend I’ve observed lately in so-called “Christian” radio music)? When did content cease to matter? I can think of some songs by secular artists that have a stronger spiritual message than some of the stuff that gets Christian radio airplay these days. If a radio station bills itself as Christian, shouldn’t the songs that it airs reflect the values and message of Christianity?
“Fireflies” is a cool, creative, unusual kind of song (even though it’s not really my style), and it definitely has its place. I have discovered that Adam Young, the artistic force in Owl City, is a strong Christian and is unafraid to speak about his faith in public. Now, I find nothing wrong with artists like Adam Young, who simply want to make music for the fun of it. There are Christians whose music is all over country radio (Paul Brandt, Craig Morgan, and Tim McGraw, to name a few), who are unafraid to let their faith shine through. However, my personal philosophy is that “Christian” radio should be exactly that. There shouldn’t be any doubt when you listen to it, that you’re hearing Christian music. Unfortunately the message is so watered down sometimes, that you can’t tell if it’s Christian or not! Many times as I’ve been scanning the radio for a Christian station, I’ve caught myself thinking, “I wonder if that’s a Christian station…?” Isn’t it sad that I have to wonder at all? Doesn’t that sound suspiciously like the proverbial “hiding the lamp under a basket”? Let’s explore this a bit.
For the record, I’m not against Christians writing songs for the sake of fun or creativity. If that’s all it is, then that’s great! However let’s get one thing straight: the fact that a songwriter is a Christian does NOT imply the same for the song. At the very least, a “Christian” song should project a Christian perspective on its subject matter. The classic song “Wait For Me” by Rebecca St. James is a very good example of this. For those who haven’t heard the song, it discusses purity and abstinence in love, and God’s forgiveness for those who have “gone all the way” before marriage. Compare this to Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me,” which is really nothing more than a love song, plain and simple. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Sixpence, and “Kiss Me” is a great song, but I couldn’t call it a “Christian” song. What I’m talking about is the message. As I said earlier, I find nothing wrong with Christians writing songs just for fun. But at the same time I can’t help but wonder, if an artist feels that he/she has been called by God to make music, wouldn’t it stand to reason that he/she should be passing on what God has put in their hearts?
Moving along to the message of the music. There seems to be a disconnect between some music and real life. Listening to some Christian artists would give the impression that life is blissfully free of pain and discomfort. As a person who (like everyone else on this planet) has seen some unpleasant phases of life in the few years I’ve been around, I get frustrated when I hear Christian musicians singing trite songs about superficial, meaningless topics. Or – worse yet – to hear them singing flippantly about something that is actually meaningful or serious. Yes, Jesus has saved us, but some artists appear to forget about the other half – Jesus suffered and died one of the most brutal deaths imaginable. This world is not a utopia. Far from it…it can be an outright dangerous place. Every day we see tragedy and evil in the news. Yes, if we’ve accepted Jesus as our Saviour, we have a glorious future to look forward to, but the fact is that for the present, we’re stuck on this planet, where life can be anything but glorious. Of course there is joy in our salvation and peace that comes from knowing Jesus, and it’s great to sing about that. But most people probably aren’t experiencing the seeming bliss that comes across in some CCM music. They want and need something that will speak to their hurts and disappointments. They need to know that Somebody has been where they are, understands what they’re going through, and can fix their lives. Hearing about fireflies is not going to make things better! This – right here – is where that Christian message comes in. Even if the words aren’t explicitly Christian, shouldn’t they have a strong message from a Christian perspective? Taking it a step further, what kind of message are we sending to non-believers when we sing watered-down songs about whatever we want? Are we showing them that we have the Answer to their problems? Or are we just trying to show that we’re no different from them after all? Of course, I’m not saying that all Christian music should be evangelical or even preachy, but I do think that it should be an extension of Jesus’ ministry in the earth. A complete discussion of that is beyond the point of this post, but the four Gospels paint a good picture of what I’m talking about: ministry to the hurting, deliverance to those who are bound, encouragement to the discouraged, and even a sound rebuke to those who need it. We are called to stand out, to be a light. This is what I mean by ‘ministry.’ Sadly, sometimes the point of making music seems to be more about the money than the ministry.
Lately I’ve been reading about a man named Larry Norman, a musical pioneer of the Jesus People era. He has been called the Father of Christian Rock. I managed to find some of his music and was blown away by its raw sincerity, in-your-face honesty, and sometimes even sarcasm and abrasiveness. Even a casual listen will leave the listener with no doubt about where the man stood in his faith. Pointless controversies aside, Larry Norman was genuinely concerned with a dying world, and through his (often misunderstood) music he did his best to reach out to the unsaved people he saw. Check out these lyrics:
Sipping whiskey from a paper cup,
You drown your sorrows till you can’t get up,
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself,
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf,
Yellow fingers from your cigarettes,
Your hands are shaking while your body sweats,
Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer.
Gonorrhea on Valentines Day,
And you’re still looking for the perfect lay,
You think rock and roll will set you free,
You’ll be deaf before you’re thirty three,
Shooting junk till you’re half insane,
Broken needle in your purple vein,
Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer.
You work all night, sleep all day,
You take your money, throw it all away,
You say you’re going to be a superstar,
But you’ve never hung around enough to find out who you really are.
Think back to when you were a child,
Your soul was free, your heart ran wild,
Each day was different, and life was a thrill,
You knew tomorrow would be better still,
Things have changed, you’re much older now,
If you’re unhappy and you don’t know how,
Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer
I love the sincerity and honesty of those words. Lyrics like this would put a lot of modern mainstream Christian music to shame. The message is raw and gritty, and goes straight to the heart of the issue. So, just forty years after those words were penned, where did we get off to the point where we find it OK to hear someone croon about waltzing with fireflies over Christian radio? Something, somewhere, went seriously wrong, to the point where contemporary Christian music has been reduced to not much more than a G-rated entertainment industry.
So as you may have guessed, I am disillusioned with CCM radio music, and have been for years. Not that I don’t listen to Christian music anymore. There are plenty of good bands out there that are fighting the good fight, so to speak. But I like something that’s got a message. Something that’s not afraid to be controversial or misunderstood. Something that’s raw, bold, brutally honest, and even disliked by those who have been conditioned to the entertainment industry.
Speaking of the entertainment industry, I have a bone to pick with the so-called “Christian music industry.” I’m fed up with an industry that demands that artists say certain things in a certain way (at the cost of real creativity and artistry), in order to put the most money in its pockets. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of being force-fed someone’s idea of “the next big thing” over and over again. As a side note, don’t you find it odd that some of these musicians are called “artists” when the music that they produce is exceptionally unartistic? (Yes, I realize that this applies just as much to the secular music scene). I do acknowledge that there is talent within the CCM industry. It’s a real shame though that so much of this talent remains untapped. And at the same time, starry-eyed, largely talentless people are being touted as the next big thing. And let’s not just stop at the sounds either…have you looked at the lyrics that play across the CCM airwaves these days? Like I mentioned earlier, at times it’s difficult to tell whether a song is Christian or secular from a cursory listen. I’m tired of “fluff” – I want real substance. Unfortunately many talented and passionate bands never get airplay, and meanwhile the radio sweetly plays song after “shut-the-radio-off” bland song that sings what some corporate executive thinks we want to hear. What about something that challenges us to the point of grating on our fleshly tendencies? What about something honest and real? Gritty and intense? Or even anguished and soul-baring? Here’s what one of my musical heroes, Glenn Kaiser, had to say about this:
Child, you don’t say much
Maybe ain’t got much to say
You sing about boys and girls
Seem to like bein’ up on the stage
Perhaps just a little too young
Maybe just a bit afraid
Or maybe it’s a case of fantasy thrill
Maybe just wanna get paid
But ya don’t say much
Words are important to you
You like to hold tight to the truth
But fun means more sometimes
It’s an interesting habit I find
From the mouth we reveal our heart
And singin’ ain’t only an art
We need to think about the things we say
Life isn’t only for play
Some folks are so out of touch
Because you don’t say much
But ya sure like to play guitar…
Heaven, hell, or this earth
There’s somethin’ ‘bout value and worth
Actions speak louder than words
But hidin’ God’s truth is absurd
No matter what the rational hush
Aw ya don’t say much
I’d like to expound a little more on a few points. For the record, I don’t measure the spirituality of a song by the number of times it says “Jesus” or “God”, or by how preachy it is. However I do appreciate artists who have something to say, and that, in general, is what’s lacking in Christian radio. Every now and then there will be a gem, such as Matthew West’s “The Motions” (one of my all-time favourites) or the Newsboys’ “Born Again.” But overall, I see the label “Christian music” as representative of little more than “non-offensive” or “nice.” As a little side note, Shine FM doesn’t even bill itself as a Christian station anymore; it is “safe and fun for the whole family.” Why do we have to hide our light under the basket? Why can’t we be unafraid to speak the truth through the music we make? Why does our music have to be so sterile, so non-offensive, so weak?
For that reason I love bands like Day of Fire, Project 86, Glenn Kaiser Band, and Petra (yes, I realize that I just dated myself!). Not only do they have a great sound, but their lyrics are rich and poetic, and their messages are powerful and oh-so-meaningful. Take a look at this one by Project 86:
Her heart bleeds
It is a basis for your heartfelt hunger so gaze
At the page at the faces of nameless…
You’re alone again
And this distortion is an apt replacement for
An unquenchable desire for more
More pages strewn across this sickening floor
I can’t look at any of this
If they saw what those eyes have seen
Oh how her heart it would bleed
If she only knew those abusive roots
And how the children would weep
If they only saw what those eyes have seen
It always keeps us longer than we wanted to stay
It always takes us further than we wanted to go
But you don’t seem to mind at the time
Begging to be set free…from what we were meant to be
It’s inside you and your soul is longing, yearning
Pleading to be set free
Within your eyes, within my eyes, within our eyes
There could never be a more complete perversion of what we were meant to be
And with all that is in me I hate this
As we’re sinking inside this ever-feeding illness
We are all quite silent
Yes, I do understand that there’s often a negative stigma associated with the “Christian musician” label. And sadly, this is a direct result of the caliber of music that has been produced under Christian labels in the past. So I empathize with professional musicians who want the broader audience but don’t want the label. On the other hand, that certainly doesn’t excuse them for watering down their message to the point that it loses its power. As Darrell Mansfield, another of my musical heroes, once pointed out, “There’s nothing wrong with crossing over, as long as you take the cross over.” I’m all for mainstream success, but not at the cost of the message. When compared to some of the powerful lyrics penned by pioneers like Larry Norman, Keith Green, and Steve Taylor (and numerous others), songs like “Fireflies” seem pretty pathetic. Why do we tolerate this on so-called “Christian” radio? Have we become too comfortable where we are, and don’t want waves rocking our boats? Are we trying to attract a secular audience through politically correct, non-offensive music? (Ironically, this only makes it a laughing stock to the secular world.) Or have we adopted the values of the world around us to the point that we seek only entertainment?
Yes, I know, these are not easy questions to answer. So what am I getting at?
We need to stop treating Jesus’ Great Commission as the “Great Suggestion,” dust off our lamps, and start making a difference in people’s lives. And it’s high time that so-called “Christian” music reflected that as well. “Christian” radio needs to stop being so afraid of offending its audience. If we’re trying to reach a sick and dying world, shouldn’t we be giving the medicine? Turning a profit should never come before getting the gospel out and helping those who are hurting.
Well that’s all I have to say for now. Alright Owl City, you can go back to your firefly dreams. Thanks for listening.