Dirty Words: The Need for Christian Criticism

Last year I wrote a review of a prominent worship-genre album, for a Christian magazine. I thought the album was very predictable and too safe, and gave it two stars out of five. On the way to publication, however, the score was bumped up to three stars, and some polite qualifiers were dropped into my prose.

A bit unusual; but it got stranger. A glance on Wikipedia showed me that all other publications (all Christian) had given this album a minimum of 9 out of 10. The only album I was aware of that had gained better reviews in 2015 was Kendrick Lamar’s frankly blinding ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’. Meanwhile, a flick back through the Wikipedia pages suggested this Christian artist is on the longest unbeatable streak since the Beatles.

There’s always room for disagreements in journalism, but it certainly struck me as odd that this merely-alright album gathered such runaway praise. Where was the hunger for good music? Where was the criticism?

Worship can’t be critiqued. Music can.

Let me be clear. One individual’s moment of worship shouldn’t be critiqued. Worship is vulnerable honesty, an act of humbling ourselves; whatever form it takes, the aesthetics are irrelevant. ‘Music’ and ‘worship’ are far from interchangeable anyway, but it’s still valid to say: God is not elitist about who sings to him, or how. We should mirror that.

Unfortunately, we often extend that critical immunity to people who write and record songs, when in fact, critique and deconstruction can raise the standards of art as much as they deepen our own understanding of what we’re listening to. Of course, if the music is intended for churches to pick up and use easily, there are questions of function as well as form. But on every level, when we don’t hold artists to high expectations, we condemn them to mediocrity. And it is a fact often acknowledged, yet to be solved, that popular Christian music is aesthetically mediocre.

Face-to-face criticism is a pastoral art.

Offering critique to the artists and musicians that we know personally is another matter again. There is a place for it, mind you; any teacher or parent would tell you that constant affirmation does not breed maturity or skill. When they know their child or pupil well, they can criticise them in tact and love, knowing it will do them good.

It’s ‘knowing’ that makes the difference. Many artists are given criticism that is way off-the-mark because it just doesn’t understand the person behind the art. If that’s the case, even positive feedback can fail to be constructive. Despite what you might think, artists are not sensitive flowers that need to be constantly encouraged; but if our opinions aren’t well-informed and trustworthy, they aren’t worth sharing.

Published critics have an influential role to play.

With that all said, when facing a published, lauded songwriter, we should be ready to say “impress me”. Not because we want to tear down successful people, but because these artists define trends, and have the capacity to open minds and shape aspirations. Intentionally or not, what these artists do sends a message: “this is what a Jesus-following musician sounds like”.

That message isn’t untrue, but it’s not the whole truth, and critics can crank that statement open to allow a little more colour in. They can be tastemakers, champions of pioneers and scourge of the easy-riders. That sometimes means harsh (and/or hilarious) reviews, out of disappointment as much as anything: calling out artists’ mistakes when they’ve sold themselves short.

Christian music in the UK is such a small world that nothing can change overnight. There is talent out there in the wings, but it’s not as if it’s fully developed, just waiting to be acknowledged. We need to challenge and raise the bar for artists, especially nationally. If we don’t speak what everyone is thinking, we can’t expect things to ever change.

chris d

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