Notes From a Cynic: On Honest Christian Music

If you’ve been involved with Christian art for any length of time, you’ve likely heard the widespread critique that it isn’t honest enough. I am definitely in the camp that resonates with that critique. I like my art in the raw. I like worship songs with unpolished wording. I like songs that feel like I could have written them. I am one big collection of fears, failures, hopes, grief, regret, love, confusion, doubt and faith, so I like songs that seek to address that whole range. This is why I have always gravitated towards rock and roll: there’s this kind of permission to be unapologetic in all life’s difficulties that I have always loved.

But recently, it has come to my attention that there is this odd habit of people (largely the hipsters and the cynical, of which I have been both, so by this I mean: me) assuming that if someone admits to feeling hope through music, admits to feeling comfort in their faith, admits to feeling joy, those songs are by default not honest. Like somehow honesty is only allowed to refer to the hard emotions. Like songs that are pure gratitude must by default be contrived.

I understand that this is in part because of the two, we as a culture have struggled more to be honest about the dark emotions than the shiny ones. There has been tons of permission to be honest when things are smooth, and a massive lack of permission to be honest when things get rough. I’ve certainly experienced this. I’ve watched hundreds of bands’ sets feeling this imbalance strongly, feeling that human experience is being expressed in such a lopsided manner on stage that it’s not even something recognizable to me anymore.

The fallout from this seems to be though an over-correction, a backlash that says “how dare you feel encouraged by this song– your tastes are clearly childish and underdeveloped.” Again, as if hope is by default dishonest. But for a lot of people, the experience expressed in those songs is honest for them. I might not be able to relate to that set of emotions or the way it is being experienced in a particular song, but that doesn’t invalidate the fact that someone else can. And it’s slightly embarrassing for me to realize how I’ve internally dismissed other people for what they find hope in when I should have just been celebrating that they found hope at all.

This has changed how I look at the AC (adult contemporary) genre, and at worship music (both areas I struggle with tremendously). I think the problem is perhaps less that those songs are not honest and more that only one kind of honesty is given a predominant voice. Maybe the solution is less about making happy songs less happy, and more about giving aching songs a platform alongside the happy ones.

Of course, all of this shouldn’t be surprising. It’s nothing new that humanity tends towards tribalism and extremes, while the truth is almost always some careful combination of both ends of the spectrum. And honesty is never either “everything is broken” or “everything is whole.” It has to be both coexisting, the exact same tension every single one of us lives with in our spirits (where we can feel maddening fear and impossible hope in the exact same heartbeat).

I’m trying to learn to honor the full range both in music and in the experiences people share with me as well, to truly hear and affirm both the sorrow and the joys. It’s a work in progress for this cynical heart, but it’s one I don’t want to give up on.

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