What is Christian Music?

What is Christian music?  Is it music that is released on a “Christian” music label?  Does Christian music always have to talk about Jesus?  I have a friend that joked with me that one could tell whether a song was Christian by its JPM count.  JPM meant Jesus per minute.  Can we tell how Christian a song is by how many times it mentions Jesus?  These answers are a little tongue-in-cheek, but it gets to the point of the discussion:  If there is such a thing as Christian music, what is it?  How do we define music as “Christian”? 

Wikipedia says that “Christian music is music that has been written to express either personal or communal belief regarding Christian life and faith.”  This definition, in my opinion, is one of the better ones I have seen for “Christian music”.  It includes the obviously Christian music and artists:  It certainly includes praise and worship music.  It includes artists like Michael W Smith, DC Talk, Chris Tomlin, Third Day, Steven Curtis Chapman and others whose music is released on “Christian” labels.  It includes the music you would hear if you tuned in to your local Christian radio station.

I think there might be something left out of the definition on Wikipedia, though.  In my opinion, the ultimate test of whether music is “Christian” or not is whether or not the music is truthful.  Yes, music that worships God is Christian.  Yes, music that talks about Jesus is more often than not Christian (although this isn’t necessarily true).  Yes, music that is played on Christian radio is Christian.

Let’s talk about Christian radio for a minute.  There are those who seem to think that if a song is heard anywhere else besides Christian radio, it isn’t Christian.  There are those who seem to think that Christians ought to only listen to Christian radio stations, because that is the only music that reflects a Christian worldview.  What about truthfulness, though?  There are “Christian” radio stations that market themselves and “positive” and “encouraging”.  Now, ultimately, Christianity is positive and encouraging.  There are times in the Christian life, though, that do not seem “positive” or “encouraging”.  And the fact that these times feel negative is not necessarily a sign that we are not doing what we should. 

We are in the middle of Holy Week.  On Palm Sunday, we celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  What a joyous occasion that was.  But that joy didn’t last all week.  Thursday night and Friday were not all that joyful.  Jesus wept and prayed that the Father would spare him from the coming circumstances.  He was betrayed by one of his disciples.  He was spat upon, beaten and ultimately crucified.  The joy of Palm Sunday was nowhere to be found on Good Friday.  Yes, that joy was renewed and multiplied on Easter Sunday, but we have to get through Good Friday and Saturday before we come to Easter Sunday.

When we Christians label ourselves and “positive” and “encouraging”, and pretend that we have to be that way all the time, we are in danger of being untruthful.  Honestly “Christian” music ought to address the seemingly negative times as well as those positive and encouraging times.  What does this mean?  This means a song like Taylor Swifts “Fifteen” might be as much a Christian song as any worship song ever written.  “Fifteen” honestly tells the story of a girl in high school who loses her innocence with a guy and goes on to regret it.  How is this a Christian song?  Because it is honest enough to not glamorize pre-marital sex.  It is honest enough to warn others, saying that what the person in the song did was a mistake.  Is it a “positive” and “encouraging” song as we normally think of those adjectives?  No.  But it is a Christian song because it is truthful.

Am I saying the songs played on Christian radio stations are not Christian?  Absolutely not.  What I am saying is that the world of “Christian Music” might be much bigger than we realize.  God is not limited to revealing himself through artists released on certain labels or through artists who use certain words.  God and His Truth want to be found in many more places than we realize.  I can only pray we have eyes open enough to seem Him.

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Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus–Introduction (Answering the Critics #3)

We are going to take a more in-depth look at Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus than we have in our other “Answering the Critics” posts.  We will take the book one or two chapters at a time.

Bart Ehrman begins his Misquoting Jesus in a very different way than one might expect—with an introduction which tells the story of Ehrman’s interactions with the Christian Church as he was growing up.  Continue reading

Did Easter Really Happen? (Making Sense of Christianity #4)

In the “Making Sense of Christianity” series of posts, we have been discussing whether or not the Bible is a reliable source of Truth.  In this post, we will examine the Easter Story more specifically.

The Easter Story is the climax to the Old Testament narrative.  At the end of the Old Testament, we know that humanity has sinned and that God has promised redemption through the line of David and through the Covenant(s) He has made with Israel.  We are waiting for the Messiah, the Anointed One who is to come and bring the Kingdom of God to earth, the One who will finally set things right.  Through the first four books of the New Testament, we are told the story of Jesus, the Messiah who has finally come.  Jesus indeed starts setting things right, but in ways we do not expect.  Jesus takes the place of a servant, washing feet, healing beggars and the sick, eating with adulterers and tax collectors.  Then we have the Easter story.  Jesus the Messiah dies, most unexpectedly, but then Jesus lives again, ushering in the Kingdom of God.

But for those of us who live so many years after the events supposedly took place, we have a burning question:  Did the Easter Story really happen?  What evidence do we have to believe that Easter actually happened?  Continue reading

Music Review: Sara Groves’ Fireflies and Songs

Personal.  Honest.  Original.  These are all words that describe great artistry.  These are also words that describe Sara Groves’ newest cd, Fireflies and Songs

Lyrically, Fireflies and Songs explores personal relationships–relationships between husband and wife, one’s personal relationship with God and understanding oneself.  “Different Kinds of Happy” celebrates the power of confession and honesty in marriage (and in any relationship): “It’s a sweet, sweet thing/Standing here with you and nothing to hide/Light shining down to our very inside/Sharing our secrets/Bearing our souls/Helping each other come clean”.  “Twice As Good” tells of the joy of having a person or group of people with whom we can share our deepest thoughts and feelings: “With every burden I have carried/With every joy it’s understood/Life with you is half as hard and twice as good”.  “It’s Me” speaks to some of the harder aspects of marriage.  “Setting Up The Pins” is a fun, modern-day work song.  Groves’ personal honesty shines throughout the record, perhaps shining brightest in “Eyes Wide Open”, where Groves is not afraid to address weaknesses in her own life: “I’ve got layers of lies I don’t even know about yet”.  Fireflies and Songs ends with “Joy Is In Our Hearts”–a sort of benediction that challenges us to remember that as we weather good times and bad in our personal relationships, through it all, Christ is our joy and strength.

Musically, this album has a sort of piano, folk, acoustic sound.  It’s a very original mix that one has to think was influenced by the Producer of the album–Charlie Peacock.  The instrumentalists Groves surrounds herself with are top-notch.  Of course she and Charlie Peacock play piano throughout the album.  Matt Slocum (Sixpence None The Richer) helps with the strings.  Jerry McPherson (Amy Grant, Rich Mullins, Trace Adkins, Dusty Springfield, Out of the Grey) plays guitar.  Scott Dente (Out of the Grey) plays guitar.  Buddy Green plays harmonica.  And to top it all off, Bruce Bouton (Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, Lonestar) plays Steel Guitar.

It is clear that even though Fireflies and Songs is a very personal album, Groves has made it a community effort.  And the effect is to multiply the album’s appeal with each new member of the community.  Fireflies and Songs is simply a must-have.

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Answering the Critics #2)

Our discussion of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion will focus on Chapter 4, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”, because this contains the central argument of the whole book. Dawkins sums up his argument in 6 points leading to a conclusion. These are provided below, not in exact quotes, but translated into language that one can understand without having read the first half of Dawkins’ book.

  1. One of the greatest challenges to human intellect is to explain the improbable, complex appearance of design which we observe around us.
  2. It seems only natural for humans to attribute the apparent design to a Designer.
  3. We must not attribute this apparent design to a Designer because it would lead to a “who designed the Designer” problem. If we conclude that a Designer designed the universe because we observe the universe to be complex, then surely the Designer is more complex than what He/She designed. If complexity shows that something was designed by a Designer, and the Designer of the universe is complex, then who designed the Designer of the universe? (This fallacy is called the fallacy of infinite regression).
  4. Darwinian evolution, that is, evolution through small degrees, has explained the illusion of design.
  5. We do not yet have a theory which explains the appearance of design in physics, as Darwinian evolution does for biology.
  6. Even though it is true that we do not yet have a theory to explain design in physics, the weak theories we do have are still better than the theory of an Intelligent Designer.

Conclusion: There almost certainly is no god.

There are a number of problems with Dawkins’ 6 statements. A number of them are questionable at best. For the moment, though, let us assume Dawkins’ statements are accurate. Even if all of them are true, there is a sort of bait-and-switch going on here. Throughout Dawkins’ argument, he is talking about Intelligent Design. In the conclusion, though, a switch happens. Dawkins no longer talks about Intelligent Design–he makes the jump to say that there is no God. It does not make sense to make a whole argument about Intelligent Design, and then end with a conclusion that is about the existence of God. In short, Dawkins’ conclusion does not follow from the premise. One cannot make an argument about Intelligent Design, and then follow it to a conclusion about the existence of God. Continue reading

The Gospel of Paul (Making Sense of Christianity #3)

“Gospel of Paul? This guy’s lost his mind!”

Yeah, I can hear you now. Okay, I admit it, Paul didn’t have a gospel in the same way Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had a gospel. Paul did indeed have good news for us, though. In 1st Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul sums up his “gospel” that he says he received from others. Paul does this summary in a list form: Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised on the third day, and he appeared to individuals and groups, the last being Paul on the road to Damascus.  This list is the content of Paul’s gospel. Essentially, it agrees with the 4 gospels–Jesus the Messiah died, was buried, was resurrected and then appeared to witnesses. From a historical point of view, though, Paul’s gospel just might be a stronger foundation to start building a historical case from. Continue reading

Artist’s Best: Caedmon’s Call

Caedmon’s Call has had a prolific career.  In their independent years they gained a following with an acoustic folk-rock sound.  Their self-titled and 40 Acres albums were the epitome of this acoustic folk-rock sound.  With Long Line of Leavers they added different elements to their sound, including brass.  They experimented with more radio-friendly fare on Back Home.  They released two praise and worship offerings with In the Company of Angels: A Call to Worship and In the Company of Angels: The World Will Sing.  Caedmon’s Call recorded their missions experiences with the sounds of the lands they visited on Share the Well.  And they returned to their folk-rock roots with Overdressed

But what is their best work to date?  Hard to say.  Most long-term fans would probably say it’s a toss-up between their self-titled album and 40 Acres.  But here we have a winner.  And the winner is….40 Acres.  Why?  Well, there are two words that best describe 40 Acres: Rich and Layered.

Lyrically, this collection of songs pulls together Scripture and real-life experience like no other album to date.  Take the second verse of “Where I Began” (written by Aaron Tate) for example: “So you have yourself your ninety-nine/Isn’t that enough for you/Still you followed me to the shadowed valley/Carried me on your shoulders too”.  The Scripture that is most obvious is Matthew 18:12 & 13, where a shepherd leaves his 99 sheep in order to find the 1 who is lost.  The idea is that each one of us is the 1 lost sheep, and Jesus is willing to do whatever it takes to come find us.  Looking back at the lyric, though, there’s still that pesky line about “the shadowed valley”.  What shadowed valley?  Psalm 23 has the answer.  This is perhaps the most well-known Psalm of them all.  Look at verse 4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  The “shadowed valley” is the valley of the shadow of death.  In these four short lines, Tate has woven together the story of the 99 sheep and Psalm 23.  The picture he is painting is one of a wandering sheep, lost in the valley of the shadow of death, and our Shepherd is willing to leave the 99 in order to carry the lost sheep back home.  These stories are woven together seamlessly and in a way that helps us appreciate both passages better.

Or take the title track, “40 Acres” (written by Aaron Tate).  On first listen, this could be the most confusing song on the album.  It seems to be a song about rain and fields and perhaps we might simply relegate the metaphor to likening redemption to being washed by the rain.  And this is true–that is an element in the song.  But there is so much more!  In the 1860s, when African-American slaves were freed, they often times were given 40 acres and a mule in order to be able to start a new life.  Tate is using this idea to reflect on what redemption really is–not simply forgiveness of sins, but the start to a new life where everything is changed.

While layered lyrics make up the majority of the album, there are points where the lyrics are more straight-forward, but no less challenging.  The opening lines of “Shifting Sand” (Aaron Tate) are “Sometimes I believe all the lies/So I can do the things I should despise”.  Not much mystery in what is being said, but a challenging acknowledgement of reality nonetheless.  Or take these lines from “Faith My Eyes” (Derek Webb) “But I get turned around/And I mistake my happiness for blessing/And I’m blessed as the poor/Still I judge success by how I’m dressing”.  Again, the point is pretty straight-forward, but still challenging to put into practice.

The album 40 Acres is just as layered and rich musically as it is lyrically.  On the face of it, we have a pretty standard folk-rock album.  Lead guitar, acoustic and electric guitars, drums, bass.  On the 3rd or 10th or 100th listen, though, we realize it is not quite that simple.  Some elements we know are there, but they blend so well into one song we don’t always recognize the individual elements.  Aric Nitzberg playing bass on “There You Are” is a great example of this.  The bass in the chorus moves the song along arguably as much as the lead guitar.

Another element that is easily overlooked but much appreciated is the simple fact that Caedmon’s Call has two percussionists: Tod Bragg on drums and Garett Buell on various percussion instruments.  And when I say various percussion instruments, I put the emphasis on various.  Including trash cans on “Thankful”.  I have seen Caedmon’s perform that song more than once and every time it is great fun to watch.

It’s the little musical touches that set Caedmon’s Call, and the specific album 40 Acres, apart from other folk-rock.  We’ve already noted the two percussionists.  There is Randy Holsapple on the Hammond B-3 organ.  The addition of the organ doesn’t feel like one more instrument, but it holds each song together as one cohesive piece of art.  There is Randy Holsapple’s harmonica and accordion.  There is Phil Madeira’s accordion on “Table for Two” that makes you feel like you’re really in a diner sitting at a table for two.  There is Derek Webb’s banjo on “Climb On (A Back That’s Strong)”.  There is the way the music perfectly fits with the lyric on “Daring Daylight Escape” (Derek Webb).  All these little touches put Caedmon’s Call and 40 Acres at the top of their game.

If you are a long-time listener to Caedmon’s Call, pull out this classic album (it’s been 10 years!) and give it another listen.  If you are unfamiliar with Caedmon’s Call, there is no better place to start then 40 Acres.