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Artistic Grace


Artistic Grace

Ryan Lackey

by Ryan Lackey

Let’s do this AA-style.

Hi. My name is Ryan, and I’m a Christian who despises contemporary Christian music.

I admit there are people who find contemporary Christian music powerful. Affirming. Good. I am not one of those people.

There is one song – Matt Maher’s “Hold Us Together.” I first encountered this song at a church camp during a considerably more conservative point in my life, and considered independently, the song isn’t really anything remarkable. Maher has a pleasantly inert voice, sings over an acoustic guitar and handclap beat, and in a few places there’s just a touch of twang. What makes “Hold Us Together” really noteworthy is that Maher, a self-defined and explicitly Christian artist, manages to complete the song without a single overt reference to God. Or Jesus. Or the Holy Spirit. He never utters the words “worship” or “glory” or that contemporary Christian standby, “praise.” The song is positive and upbeat but about as religious as anything Taylor Swift sings. This is the chorus:

And love will hold us together
Make us a shelter to weather the storm
And I’ll be my brother’s keeper
So the whole world would know that we’re not alone

Working in a genre averse to subtlety, Maher’s Christianity is, well, subtle. And subtlety, or at least a recognition of subtlety, is a prerequisite for artistic grace. This is how art works: an inner inspiration or theme acts upon the surface of the art itself – emerging in a novel through symbol and character, showing up in a painting’s literal depiction with a suggestion of the transcendent.

Compare Maher’s lines to the chorus from a Newsboys hit:

We believe in God the Father!
We believe in Jesus Christ!
We believe in the Holy Spirit!
And He’s given us new life!
We believe in the crucifixion!
We believe that He conquered death!
We believe in the resurrection!
And He’s comin’ back again!

No subtlety here. This song is Christian. The Newsboys’ intention lies right upon the surface (you might say it walks upon the water). There’s no room for interpretation or contemplation. Listening to the song is passive. No theme to unravel. No ambiguity to ponder. It’s Jonathan Swift, in A Modest Proposal, editing it all down to something like, “We ought to be nicer to the Irish.”

Here’s another example, the chorus from Stephen Fee’s “Glory to God Forever”:

Glory to God, glory to God
Glory to God, forever
Glory to God, glory to God
Glory to God, forever, yeah

A basic principle of art lies in the dynamic between repetition and variation, the establishment of patterns and deviations from them. Christian artists seem to think that adjectives stack like multipliers in a video game, but including “holy” six times in a verse does not actually make God (or you) six times as holy.

Then there’s the part we don’t talk about: the really, really uncomfortable eroticism present in so many Christian songs. These are the lyrics, stripped of their context, that would work equally well in any secular love song, a fact that I find creepy and unpleasant.

Here’s one from Hillsong United’s “Oceans (Where Feet May Fall)”:

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Consistent with the doctrine of unconditional affection and the recognizance of Love itself in God? Yes. Distasteful? Also yes.

What this all reduces to, I think, is an artificial split between art and “Christian art,” between music and “Christian music.” In fact, no difference exists. At least, it shouldn’t. The act of creation is divine, so good art is Christian art. What's more, the incorporation of klaxon-loud, neon-bright, Christian phraseology does not rescue bad art.

I think the problem is the larger isolationism of Christianity proper and Christianity’s appropriation, in the name of being “in the world but not of the world,” of cultural artifacts, which are then branded as “Christian.” An exploration of that phenomenon would require many more words, and I suspect I’ve already said too much. Consider this. Creation is beautiful. We have a duty as creators to beget more beauty. We are made in the image of God. We’re humans, not ragdolls. Let us not have a ragdoll art.