RICHMOND, Va. (Christian Examiner) – Is contemporary Christian music becoming a little, um, predictable?
Yep, if the razor-sharp satire in "How It's Made: Christian Music," a three-minute video written and produced by comedian John Crist, is anywhere near the truth. With over 6.2 million views on Facebook since it was posted Aug. 16, it must be hitting home. It's also hilarious.
Crist and fellow comic Aaron Chewning star as two Christian music company execs trying to sign a hot new group to a recording contract. All the young musicians have to do to hit the big time is make a few slight changes to their songs – changes which are helpfully outlined by the execs, armed with illustrations in their handy marketing guide.
"Christian music song formula: three chords, simple rhymes, vague struggles. Boom. Hit song," explains Crist's character.
Chords? A, D and G ("It's the holy trinity of Christian music!" Chewning's exec says with a smarmy smile). Lyrics? Keep 'em general. Desert, storm, crashing waves. The more water references the better. And be sure to get chains being broken, laying down burdens and darkness-to-light images into every song. Every. Song.
The band isn't so sure.
"We were thinking about writing more honest lyrics – stuff from the heart," says one of the bandmates.
"We'd like to be more vulnerable in our lyrics, talk about real issues ... like addiction," says another.
Doesn't sell, the execs assure them. And we want to move not only CDs and song downloads but "merch" – T-shirts, mugs, coasters and hats. The target market knows what it wants.
"We've kind of at this point given up on reaching non-Christians," Crist's character admits. Ouch.
I won't tell you if they close the deal; you'll have to watch the video. But they've clearly struck a chord – A, D or G, no doubt – with viewers. Some love it. Some, not so much.
"Man, that's why I listen to rap," said one appreciative viewer. "All the CCM [contemporary Christian music] I've heard sounds the same."
A mom who fits more comfortably into the CCM listener demographic disagreed in her Facebook response.
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"I for one am thrilled that Christian music has been modernized from the old-time gospel," she said. "Maybe if you people listened to non-Christian music for a bit you'd have more appreciation for today's Christian music. It's easier to listen to, especially for my kids, which is awesome. They have something they can get into and sing along with and I don't have to worry about what they are going to hear."
Joshua Postema, a musician with a wider historical perspective, offered this thoughtful response after watching the video:
"I'm a Christian and I write complex instrumental music. I find a lot of modern Christian music to be boring and repetitive, both lyrically and musically. It's the same words in the same order to the same chords played in the same style. The fact this video had such resonance is evidence to the truth of it. ...
"Why can't Christian music be theologically sophisticated, lyrically rich, and musically distinct and interesting? Why do Christian artists so often settle for church-flavored mediocrity? ... In an age of musical garbage ... Christians should be creating something amazing in comparison. It's a shame that's not happening. I mean, were talking about a tradition that included Bach's cantata of 'A Mighty Fortress is our God' by Luther – sung and listened to in churches! The tradition also included, not even 50 years ago, musically literate congregants who could read hymnals and sing in parts. Now, it's A, E, F#m and D over and over."
Postema's lament pretty much summarizes the "worship wars" of the last several decades – and he represents the losing side. In countless churches, the obligatory choir-organ-piano-hymnal combo has been swept away by the obligatory praise band, guitars, drums and smoke machines.
Christian music is both a worship activity and a business today. True, it was a business in Bach's day, too. He supported his large family by writing hundreds of sacred works – often on tight deadlines – which he performed in churches and royal courts. But while the maestro was a working musician as well as a fervent believer, he didn't have to answer to studio executives, marketing gurus and the radio hit parade. Today's popular Christian musicians don't have that luxury. If they want a contract or a successful concert tour, they have to respond to the marketplace.
In the world but not of it, you might say.
That's a biblical phrase Crist, the video's creator, likes to use in his comedy bits. Now in his early 30s, he grew up a preacher's kid and a homeschooler. He makes no secret of his faith and regularly performs in churches and other Christian venues. But he also hones his standup material on "Comedy Central," on the Web and in comedy clubs (even in Vegas), where you get heckled off the stage if you don't deliver the laughs to a general audience. He averages more than 250 shows a year, so it must be working. And like Jim Gaffigan, another Christian taking the comedy world by storm, he's clean.
"People always ask me, 'How do you write only clean jokes?'" Crist told an interviewer. "And the thing is, I don't have any dirty jokes. There aren't all these jokes I'm thinking of where I'm like, 'Oh, man, I wish I could tell these but I'm a Christian.' But whether it's clean or dirty, all we're both doing is making observations. A funny joke is a funny joke. Everyone loves to laugh; it doesn't matter who you are. ...
"I love that comedy is one of the last outlets of completely free speech," he said. "You can get up there and say whatever you want. And if that's the case, then I should be able to talk about what I believe. I'm not shoving it down people's throats, or judging them, but I'll be honest about who I am."
Maybe that's a formula more contemporary Christian musicians should try – if they can sneak it past the marketing department.