Who says what’s ‘Christian’ music?

Who says what is and is not “Christian” music? The Christian Music Trade Association, that’s who! Thanks to our friend Eldon for pointing us to a story from Reuters.

According to the CMTA, an artist such as Sufjan Stevens, whose beliefs are certainly not in question, does not qualify as a “Christian” artist. In other words, you will not be able to purchase his work at your local Christian bookstore. For many, this might not be anything to think twice about. Not many have heard Sufjan Stevens and he’s most likely not going to be a household name any time soon. However, one need listen to his music for only a short time before being squarely confronted with his beliefs. So much so that some reviewers make the point to state that they don’t like what he’s saying, but they like how he’s saying it (Pitchforkmedia for example).

Yet the CMTA’s decision poses larger questions about what really goes on in the “Christian” music industry. John Styll, president of the CMTA quips that Stevens “just doesn’t want to play the Christian music-market game, and that’s OK.” In other words, he has not sought distribution through the right channels, nor does he play the right venues. All of which makes one wonder how a group such as Phillips, Craig and Dean who deny the Trinity (see also) may be purchased at any Christian bookstore while Bob Dylan’s landmark Slow Train Coming may not. Apparently, good business means more than good theology in some circles, and God-glorifying content is not even on the radar.

What password are the gatekeepers looking for? According to the Reuters article, “Styll says albums must receive some national play on Christian radio, 25 percent of sales in the first week must be in Christian shops, and lyrics must have “Christian content.” Styll furthers that the lyrics in question must in line with Scripture, but acknowledges that these boundaries may be “a little loose.” That’s a problem. Who defines what is in the bounds of Scripture? Denial of the Trinity would certainly fall outside of my definition, but apparently not those set by the CMTA. Lyrical/theological content is obviously not deciding criteria.

It must be said, that to my knowledge, Sufjan Stevens has not sought CMTA certification. Indie artist Jeremy Casella notes that Sufjan is “not considered one of the CCMers or GMTA’ers because his music doesn’t run in CCM industry circles. No business connections or touring connections. No label connections. No affiliation really. No Nashville bloodline/money.” In other words, it’s a business decision, not a content question. Casella concludes “Its obvious as daylight that he’s a believer.”

Such discussions ought to make us apprehensive at best about what is and is not considered “Christian” music. Yet larger issues are also hinted at here; most notably the separationist tendencies of many Christians (which I am currently pondering more). Rather than be “in the world but not of the world,” many have chosen to withdraw all together, having a “Christian” version of everything the world might have to offer, both good and bad. We have our own musicians who play in our own venues that we buy in our own stores and labels are worth a thousand words; if it’s “Christian,” it’s alright by me.

All things considered, it seems as that you must be part of the club. If you don’t want to play the game (regardless of clearly Christian content), you will not be sold through us; and if you do play our game, denying the Trinity is just fine. One does not have to look at the issue very long to understand that it is not a question of belief or content, but of business decision.

We must understand that we have created our own sub-culture which runs by its own rules. Just because something may be purchased at a Christian bookstore does not mean it may be trusted. Conversely, just because something may not be purchased at the same store does not mean the people behind it are not glorifying God in what they do. These issues are not new to anyone involved in “Christian” music or books at any level. However, we must be sensitive to the fact that many well-meaning believers are sincerely swayed by labeling, and the lack of endorsement as a “Christian” artist is the death-bell as far as they’re concerned. We must gently teach Christian truth that not only affects the heart, but also the head. We must teach discernment, something sorely lacking in our day and age.

We are faced with a sacred/secular divide that permeates every level of life, forcing us to label everything, regardless of accuracy. Casella concludes, “The labeling is foolishness but that’s just the way it is here in town (Nashville). I think the whole thing is falling apart though. It happening right now and will continue to happen in the coming years.” Let’s hope he’s right but in the meantime, Christians must learn to look past the cover to judge the book.

Read the original article from Reuters.
Read Drop7.com’s thoughts on Sufjan Stevens.
Read Tangled Up in the Bible by Michael J. Gilmour.
Play Biblical Allusions in Dylan Lyrics trivia.
Visit the Christian Music Trade Association website.
Visit Jeremy Casella’s website.
Visit Bob Dylan’s website.
Visit Sufjan Stevens’ website.
Download More Than The Watchman (demo) by Jeremy Casella.
Download Gotta Serve Somebody by Bob Dylan (live).
Download The Transfiguration by Sufjan Stevens.

Originally posted here.


About Mark Kelly

Jesus follower, Bible reader, husband/father/son/brother/uncle, rider, hiker, snapshooter
This entry was posted in Guest columnists, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

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