This morning I woke up with a contemporary Christian music (CCM) song in my head. It was a song used in the liturgy I attended last night, a meeting of the Lutheran conference of churches hereabout: “Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone).” And my very first thought, when I realized what has happening on my lazy dwaddle into consciousness, was: “NOOOOOOOOO. Shutupshutupshutup, stupid song!” (I am super articulate in the early morning.)
That’s when I realized. My dislike of CCM ain’t never going away.
Folks, I tried. I really did. I love the thought behind CCM: to make church music more accessible to the unchurched. To give you something you’d actually listen to in your car. To let Christian music make its way into the casual corners of your life. Yeah. Rock on, Jesus.
I understood so well that I felt guilty about my intractable disdain, so I did an independent study on CCM, to get to know it better. This backfired. After studying the genre, I like it even less, because I can name in solid, academically-responsible reasons, why I dislike CCM so. Namely: every time I sing these songs, I am visited by a vision of Martin Luther weeping quietly in a corner, trying to staunch his flowing tears with pages ripped from The Book of Concord.
Please don’t misunderstand me here. There are CCM songs and artists that I really like, and who I think do a fabulous job articulating some beautiful theology. You can read about some of them here. (Incidentally, that article is the most popular entry I’ve published on this blog, which makes me think that I am not alone in this issue of wanting more theologically-sound CCM.) But by and large, most CCM songs (and vexingly, the most POPULAR CCM songs) do a terrible, terrible job from the theological point of view.
Seriously, I have daydreams of burying some effigy of the genre under a suffocating pile of unused church hymnals. Singing these songs makes me that unhappy.
Brace yourselves, because I’m about to overshare about why.
Last night we sang a rendition of “A Mighty Fortress” by Christy Nockels. For those of you who don’t know, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” was penned by Martin Luther and is the Lutheran theme song. We sing it at least once every single year on Reformation Sunday. Even now, 500 years later, when the verses about the devil start sounding a little weird because we don’t really talk about that anymore, you cannot take away Our Mighty Fortress.
This is the original 500-year-old first verse:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
And thiiiiiis is Christy and Nathan Nockel’s rendition of that verse as their chorus:
A mighty fortress is our God
A sacred refuge is Your Name
Your Kingdom is unshakable
With You forever we will reign
We will keep our eyes on You
We will keep our eyes on You
If you’re going to co-opt the Lutheran theme song, then you have to understand at least one of the the most basic tenets of Lutheran theology. Ready? Here it comes:
HUMANITY SUCKS. GOD IS AWESOME.
There it is. Lutheran theology in a nutshell.
Which is why leaving people with the message “We will keep our eyes on You, God!” is problematic. A more Lutheran rendition would be: “We tried to keep our eyes on You, God, but even when we do that, we still trip and fall flat on our faces, so really we’re here to ask your forgiveness for the sake of Christ. Again.”
I understand that this is not as appealing or catchy, but this is what happens when your lyrics are rooted in a complex and ancient theological tradition instead of, say, a 21st c. consumer-driven individuated cultural ethos.
Also, this: “With you forever we will reign.” I actually don’t even know where you get this from, CCM genre. Like, where in the Bible or the Christian tradition is this idea that we’re going to reign beside God? If it’s in there, I’m pretty sure it’s not a prevalent theme. Not like, say, Jesus getting to reign alongside God. But I’ve looked at me, and I am no Jesus. I am totally unequipped to reign the universe. I am pretty sure that even death will not change this.
And, CCM genre, you may be interested to know that I devote quite a lot of time as a church leader trying to both practice and preach the central gospel notion of servant-leadership, so ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS? Put down the power-hungry vision of the afterlife, and back away slowly. That’s right. Now pick up that towel, and let’s wash some feets. Cool?
And finally, CCM, please stop making it about us. Out of the 36 lines of Luther’s original Mighty Fortress, in only five of them do “we” (humanity) receive an active verb. The song is about God.
Look, not all older hymns follow that pattern. Plenty split the attention between us and God. (Case-in-point: Psalms.) But it is far more common in older hymns that, even if humanity is getting some active verbs, those verbs are in response to what God has already done:
“Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come” (Come Thou Fount).
“When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside his crown for my soul” (What Wondrous Love).
“I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.”
“Jesus I Will Ponder Now (on Your Holy Passion).”
By way of contrast, the #1 Christian song out there right now, according to billboard.com, is Mandisa’s “Overcomer.” The chorus:
You’re an overcomer
Stay in the fight ‘til the final round
You’re not going under
‘Cause God is holding you right now
You might be down for a moment
Feeling like it’s hopeless
That’s when He reminds You
That you’re an overcomer
You’re an overcomer
Tell me, is God your fitness trainer, or your Savior? Because based on these lyrics, it’s tough to tell the difference.
We could also take a moment to talk about pervasive problems in the CCM genre, like the exclusive language for God. (Can you find a CCM song where God is not imaged as a king? Yay! Now try to find a few where God’s not imaged exclusively as male. Oh, you found a couple? I guarantee you that they were written by women, who are, btw, underrepresented in this musical genre. Shocker.) Or the focus on the individual (“I” instead of “we” language). Or, dear Lord, the very performativity of the genre, whose nature makes it extremely challenging for congregations to sing together, resulting in an every-Christian-for-themselves musical experience….
Ok. Now I’m just being bitter.
Look, this is really just a rant to name my own frustration with being so uncomfortable with the CCM genre that I can’t even enjoy the songs that ARE theologically sound. I have grown too suspicious. It’s actually sad.
And also to tell you: if you’re ever at a conference with me where we’re being forced to sing CCM…if you’re staring at that screen and can’t find anything theologically sound to sing, come sit by me. I’ll be the one whose face twitches every time we sing “God is worthy of our praise.”