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One Difference Between the Secular and Sacred

February 2, 2013

Last week I got a hankerin’ for some Caedmon’s Call and pulled out my collection of albums. For those that don’t know, Caedmon’s Call is a Christian band with a folk/rock style, known for their deeply personal lyrics and tight harmonies. They had a pretty big cult following as well. You can learn more about them here if you’re interested. Anyways, Caedmon’s Call is one of the handful of bands that I call “my all-time favorite.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that I think they’re one of the best bands ever, but they were very important to me and I listened to them so much that I memorized every note on every album. I also attended numerous concerts and even camped out with them one weekend at a sort of “fan-camp.” Like most everyone else’s favorite bands, they happened to be my soundtrack for a specific point in my life (late 90’s to the early 2,000’s). Here’s why: one of the other things Caedmon’s Call was known for was their reformed theology. I became reformed in my theology sometime in the late 90’s. Their lyrics dealt with the same issues I was dealing with at the time and, in fact, probably influenced my progression in a number of ways. I even talked with members of the band at numerous times (usually after concerts) and could tell that they were excited about the same things I was excited about. It didn’t hurt, of course, that they were phenomenal song writers and musicians as well.

Well, oddly enough, nowadays I don’t really listen to them all that much, despite still considering them one of my favorite bands. It’s not that I don’t like them anymore, because I really enjoyed listening through their catalogue last week. They still hold up really well for me and that enjoyment was more than just nostalgia. No, the reason I don’t really listen to them anymore is because I’ve moved on in life. Their lyrics were such a big part of who I was 10-15 years ago, that when I listen to them now, it’s like recalling my life from that time period. This is not a bad thing, but it does have a very limited interest for me. I’ve moved on. I’m more mature. I’ve developed my views, my theology, my tastes. But here’s the interesting thing that I noticed as I was listening to their albums last week: They did too. At some point, it seems their interests and views went in a different direction than mine (not a bad one, mind you, just different) and that’s when I stopped listening. But for about a ten year period – and 6 or 7 albums – their growth matched mine. Last week I listened to those 7 albums in chronological order and it was fascinating to see how their views matured in the same ways mine did. This is especially apropos of reformed theology, where it’s easy to get excited about the basics of the doctrine, but just as easy to apply them in the wrong way. One of the (many) similarities I noticed in their early lyrics and my early “reformed life” was an unbalanced view of depravity – especially in regards to my own personal sin. It’s easy for a newcomer to reformed theology to become obsessed with his sin and “unworthiness,” and this often leads to depression or even questioning your salvation – this is a common theme in many of Caedmon’s Call’s early albums. Many of my fellow reformed friends never seemed to get over this misapplication of the doctrine and they still struggle with it today. I was able to move beyond it and as I listened to the later albums, it became apparent that the band did too. Perhaps their music even influenced my journey… who knows?

The point I want to make with all this is that this progression is a good thing. In my opinion, the mark of a good band is growth. I want to be able to track a band over a number of albums and see that they’re moving in a specific direction. I mean, isn’t that the point of good art – to say something about your outlook of the world in a way that affects others? To express truth in a way that causes others to think and act? Perhaps this is idealism, but I think this is the goal for many artists. This doesn’t mean the goal has to be life-changing or even world-changing. It just has to be true – people will relate to that. I think this is what accounts for Caedmon’s Call’s big following – despite never really having the support of the Christian music industry.

Speaking of the Christian music industry, this is the other point I want to make: There is a big difference in writing folk songs for the people and writing songs for the church. I don’t think many in the Christian music industry (or the church, for that matter – yes, there is a biiiiigggg difference) really get this. Often the line between pop/folk music and worship music is blurred… in many cases,  I’m not sure there even is a line. There are many, many things wrong with today’s popular worship music, but the one I want to highlight here is similar to what I was just talking about in regards to Caedmon’s Call: a progression of maturity. As I said, you want a folk band to mature. That is what is so great about good folk music – they relate to the people where they are in life. You don’t want this progression, though, with your worship music. Unfortunately, that’s what we get.

From time to time I like to listen to the numerous Christian music stations here in Nashville just to gauge the scene and see what is popular. 95% of the time I’m pretty disappointed at the fluff that’s put out there, yet, it’s hard to be too critical. After all, if we’re strictly talking in terms of folk/pop music, then we’re talking subjectively. Who’s to say what other people like, and who’s to say what hits people at particular times in their life. I mean, I could probably make a good case for why much of the Christian music scene is bad, but there are a lot of talented musicians and writers in that scene, and at the end of the day – as I’ve already stated – a lot of it comes down to subjectivity. But I can say objectively that this is wrong when it comes to the music of the church. One of the travesties of the line-blurring between the secular and the sacred is the assumption that our worship should come from the same place our folk lyrics come from. Music plays such a massive role in the church that our worship leaders/writers are often the biggest influence theologically. This is not good when you do even a quick survey of today’s worship music. To begin with, because the worship writers are also the folk music writers, that maturing process is inherent in their music. Again, this is good in folk music, but it’s bad (BAD!!!!!!) in worship music. And there’s no accountability. How do you make a worship song today? One or two musicians get together with their guitars and a bible, hammer out a catchy tune, find a phrase or idea that affects them emotionally or they think will affect others, and mold it until it fits into their tune. Perhaps I’m generalizing a bit, but this is not too far off from the truth (and this is coming from someone who has written and played a number of “worship songs” in his past).

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not questioning the motives or intentions of these writers – I’m simply questioning the process that is accepted in today’s churches. There once was a time when our hymn writers were theologians first. Hymns were analyzed before they were introduced to the church the way a creed was analyzed. Nowadays, our theologians are talented musicians with little to no biblical knowledge and a deadline, yet their views are being sung by millions of Christians every Sunday (and throughout the week). We (hopefully) require a thorough education for our pastors, and sometimes even of our worship leaders… but what about our poets? From at least one perspective this seems woefully unbalanced. Think about it – a pastor normally only preaches to his immediate congregation (there are obviously exceptions), and presents his sermon on a weekly basis – a little maturity and growth is expected – yet he still needs to be thoroughly educated for this task. The songwriter, on the other hand, has his “sermon” preached to millions of Christians across the land on a continual basis. When a worship song becomes popular, it gets put into regular rotation – there is no chance for development. Of course, this is why style is more important than substance. A catchy hook is more important than good theology because the church inherently knows that there is no spiritual development in it’s music and so instead of maturing in her understanding and practice of worship, she re-emphasizes the goal of worship to emotional connection. Frankly, it’s hard to put all the blame on the songwriters, though. After all, they’re still receiving some sort of theological education from their pastors. I live in the center of “Christian Songwriter World” and I make a point of listening to the variety of preaching in this city. If we ever wanted to figure out what was wrong with the American church nowadays, this would be great place to start.

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