My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
I’ve written about my Christianity before, and yes, most blogs would have a hyperlink over the words “written about my Christianity” with a link to the relevant post (or posts), but honestly nothing I’ve written about religion seems that interesting upon re-reading. The best religious writing, in my experience, seems to come from individuals wrestling with their beliefs (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Milton, William Blake) or with such a clear vision of God that reading it clears the motes right out of your eyes, gives you a transitory understanding of the eternal from the force of the writing (G.K. Chesterton, George Herbert, John Milton, William Blake). Having beliefs that remain fairly secure but somewhat indistinct, my own writing on the subject fails to compel. However, there are some ecumenical matters on which I feel comfortable expounding, and chief among these is the matter of contemporary Christian music, which, not to put it too strongly, is a cancerous pox on the face of an otherwise helpful and productive movement within mainline Christianity.
Much as I enjoy acting like a grumpy old man (see the title of this blog, which is essentially two synonyms for “whippersnapper” used exclusively by people born before the Civil War), this isn’t knee-jerk traditionalism or a reaction against making Christianity more “relevant” to the kids today. If there’s one part of Christianity that could stand to be more relevant, it’s the music- previous updates to Christian music have produced the Gospel genre, a shit-ton of great bluegrass songs, Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio, and U2’s The Joshua Tree. As a member of the Methodist church, the religion so into singing that we had to supplement our 960-page hymnal with another collection of hymns, I understand the central role music can play in evoking spiritual feeling. I personally feel that songs sung in church should be like socially-conscious punk rock: loud, emotionally stirring, full of ideas, and generally less than two minutes long.
The problem is that the Christian songs that hew the closest to this standard can be found in that old Hymnal, being performed in traditional services: a pipe organ and choir are much louder than three acoustic guitars and a drum kit from Guitar Center, and if you time the songs during a traditional service, you’ll notice that even the six-verse hymns don’t go past 3 minutes. Study the lyrics, and you’ll notice that most of the hymns are lyrically complex- note how each verse of “Amazing Grace” develops the theme further, expanding the effects of divine grace much in the way that grace is supposed to expand into the world- and artistically interesting, creating original ways of understanding the Word of God, or finding interesting new twists on old verses from Scripture (“His Eye is on the Sparrow” is a particularly good example of the latter).
The vast majority of contemporary Christian music is bland, simplistic, and over-long: most songs adhere to a pop music format, with three verses, each followed by a chorus, and a bridge between the second and third verses. This means that the songs are generally in the 4-5 minute range, with many churches throwing on an extra 2 or three repetitions of the chorus near the end, presumably to bring the proceedings to a joyous crescendo of mass spiritual connection, but more likely to pad out a church service that, as it de-emphasizes the function of ritual in its service and dumbs down its sermons, increasingly struggles to figure out ways to keep people in religious contemplation for at least an hour. The lyrics are warmed-over cliches that find no new ways to say the same old things. And the music is possibly the worst, if only because contemporary Christian music is supposed to reach a young audience, but its musical style is most likely to appeal to someone who was last young when Pogs were still a thing. I know that the Christian rock that gets played on the radio is generally more with the times, but the music you hear in contemporary services is two decades behind- it’s Dave Matthews Band without the virtuoso musicianship, Counting Crows without the palpable emotional presence, Hootie and the Blowfish without it being 1994 and everyone having so much money they don’t care that their music sucks. The music means less, sounds worse, and goes on longer.
There are exceptions to the rule- I can think of at least two church bands off the top of my head- people who bring creativity and innovation to contemporary songs, even a few gifted lyricists who manage to put a new spin on the approximately two themes contemporary Christian songs are allowed to cover. But these remain exceptions, whereas “contemporary” services in general remain one of the more dependable tortures of the modern church, a scourge for the casual music fan who feels he’s committed a terrible sin. To better illustrate the issues I have with this genre of music as it is performed in churches across the country, I have created a new recurring feature for this blog. In the feature, I will visit a different contemporary service each Sunday, write down the songs, and evaluate what was good and bad about the way that service used music. I may on occasion go into the service itself, what was interesting, what seemed standard, what worked, what didn’t. But above all, I am committed to looking deeper into the genre of contemporary Christian music and figuring out why so little of it seems to pass muster.
Understand, this is not a re-tread of that South Park episode. I’m not trying to denigrate the people who give up their Sundays to come play this music for everyone, nor even the people who write it- I believe that these songs fulfill a religious purpose for both groups of people, and possibly quite a few listeners- there has to be a reason these groups keep turning up. Nor am I denying that the songs possess spiritual value- if they were made in full sincerity of the writer’s personal faith, they do. God is all-forgiving; I think He can find it in HImself to forgive some unoriginal chord progressions and rhyming four words that all end in “-ation.” I’m doing this because I love my God, my religion, and my church, and want the experience of that church to agree with my aesthetic sensibilities as much as possible. If you disagree with my evaluations, let me know, and let me know why. Lord knows I’ll do the same thing for you.