Saturday, December 1, 2007

Sufjan Stevens and Psalm 88

This is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. And I don't normally say things like that. This song hits me in the heart and makes me feel like I'm grieving in advance because loss is inevitable.

My understanding is that Sufjan Stevens is a singer/songwriter who is a Christian, yet he doesn't necessarily sing and write "Christian Music." Instead, he sings songs that are interwoven with his faith and deal with experiences that have shaped it. This frees him up to sing about reality.

So, instead of being Christian in the marketing sense of the word. He can be Christian in the actual sense of the word.

My love for his song, "Casimir Pulaski Day," underscores why I detest the vast majority of Contemporary "Praise" music. And yes, the word detest is intentionally used. But, if I'm going to reiterate my detestation, I should probably clarify my definition. When I say "Contemporary Praise Music," I do not mean songs that say good things about God. I do mean the type of music so perfectly described by journalist Jeff Sharlet in his May 2005 Harper's Magazine article called "Soldiers of Christ: Inside America's Most Powerful Mega-Church*:"
The [worship team] was young and pretty, dressed in the kind of quality-cotton-punk clothing one buys at the Gap. ‘Lift up your hands, open the door,’ crooned the lead singer, an inoffensive tenor. Male singers at [this] and other megachurches are almost always tenors, their voices clean and indistinguishable, R&B-inflected one moment, New Country the next, with a little bit of early ’90s grunge at the beginning and the end.”

They sound like they’re singing in beer commercials, and perhaps this is not coincidental. The worship style is a kind of musical correlate to (their pastor’s) free market theology: designed for total accessibility, with the illusion of choice between strikingly similar brands. (He prefers the term flavors, and often uses Baskin-Robbins as a metaphor when explaining his views.) The drummers all stick to soft cymbals and beats anyone can handle; the guitarists deploy effects like artillery but condense them, so the highs and lows never stretch too wide. Lyrics tend to be rhythmic and pronunciation perfect, the better to sing along with when the words are projected onto movie screens. Breathy or wailing, vocalists drench their lines with emotion, but only within strict confines. There are no sad songs in a megachurch, and there are no angry songs. There are songs about desperation, but none about despair; songs convey longing only if it has already been fulfilled.”
If rebellion is an inherent trait of Rock 'n' Roll, then I would have to say that Contemporary Praise Music, as a genre, has its own inherent quality: dishonesty. There are no sad songs, angry songs, songs of despair, or songs of genuine longing. This is dishonest. Even the style is inauthentic. It's not quite rock. It's not quite country. It's not quite hymnody. It's all of those scaled back so as not to offend. Again, dishonest.

I am not saying that it is dishonest to say that God is great, or that God provides, or that God heals, or that God loves. But it is dishonest to sing about only those things. If the compilers of the Psalms had removed Psalm 88 and all the Psalms like it, that would not make psalms like 121 a lie. However, it would make the Book of Psalms, as a whole, dishonest and one big half-truth. Likewise, I do not consider each individual Praise song to be dishonest. But, when they are compiled for cds or for seeker-friendly, marketing-driven church services, they are one big half-truth.

All truth and all realities, not matter how unpleasant, are under the jurisdiction of Christ. It is dishonest and destructive to downplay the problem of pain in order to make Him more marketable.

*"The church referred to in the article was Ted Haggard's.


Austin Darden said...

so good! i love this song.

santry said...

well played. Jesus is my boyfriend music should never be anyone's thing.