The Shallow Psychology and Theology of Christian Music

musicEver been driving through an unfamiliar city will or stuck in traffic and just scanned through the radio stations? Somehow, even if there is an identifiable Christian lyrics like “Jesus,” most of us can identify when we’ve gotten to the Christian music station as opposed to the pop or light rock stations. You hear those songs that just lift you up.

As K-Love, the #1 will Christian music station put in their mission statement: “To create compelling media that inspires and encourages you to have a meaningful relationship with Christ.” But the Christian life isn’t all inspiration and giggles. We struggle just like non-Christians do. But how many of the most popular Christian songs talk about real struggles not just vague ones?

Just look at this list of the top 10 Christian hits of 2015. (These may not be the exact top 10 but they’re definitely some of the top hits.) There are really only two plots: either the sense of overcoming a certain vague struggle and being strengthened by God through it; or God is great and close to me and I’m a Christian. All of them include similar terminology, phraseology and even musical chords.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy Christian music from time to time but I also realize his limitations. It’s like a variation on the old joke: what do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your wife back, your truck back, your dog back and your house back. When you play “Christian” music, you feel happy, uplifted and giggly. I think you enjoy contemporary Christian music so long as you realize that in general they only display part of the Christian life and not the whole of the Christian life. I admit there are exceptions but am talking about the general attitude in Christian music and the most popular songs. Let’s examine the two ways it is shallow.

musicEmotional Shallowness

When was the last time you felt sad? What was the last time you were disappointed? Have you ever felt doubt? What about feeling overwhelmed? Have you ever wanted to be alone? Have you ever struggled with a serious challenge like domestic abuse, alcoholism, pornography addiction, spousal infidelity, etc.? Were you ever tempted to sleep with your girl/boyfriend or actually do it?

Can you name a single Christian song that deals with any of those emotionally challenging issues? Off the top of my head, I can’t.

The Christian life has its ups and downs but it seems like Christian music has decided just to focus on two basic and similar emotions: I’m better now after a struggle, and I’ve always been great. There are almost no songs about losing a family member, falling in love with someone you eventually marry, or dealing with addiction.

In a way, it is good the Christian music lifts us up but the problem comes in the fact that if we are always only emphasizing positive emotions, we end up with a superficial happiness rather than the deep happiness. When we are sad over a loss, it is cathartic to experience that loss again through music, drama or art.

In the Poetics, Aristotle says the catharsis of sadness is helpful even when you’re happy so when sadness comes you are not overwhelmed by it. The sadness we feel at the end of Hamlet teaches us two lessons: to avoid the errors of Hamlet who began as a virtuous man carrying out an act of justice but became vengeful which causes his own death, and it teaches us how to properly manage our emotions in real situations now that we have managed them in a fictional situation.

I want you to imagine a Christian music song with lyrics along the lines of: “As I close my mother’s eyes / I hear raindrops falling from the skies / I sit and weep alone today / it’s the first time I don’t know what to say / I really hope she’s heaven bound / but I still miss her all around.” (I’m not a great poet but I think that gets the sense.) Obviously, the melody and chord progression of such a song would be on the sad side. However, it brings out the human emotion of the situation all adult Christians will go through: the loss of someone they love.

Unfortunately, I fear a song on this theme set according to modern Christian music standards would have to be upbeat with lyrics like: “As I close my mother’s eyes / I know the Lord awaits her in the skies / earth today, heaven tomorrow / Jesus dries my tears of sorrow.” But realistically, is that an honest way to help most of us deal with family death? I don’t think so. If you don’t cry the day her mom dies there is something wrong with you; but unfortunately, there is no room for this in Christian music.

In book IX of the Confessions, St. Augustine struggles with a similar conundrum after his mother’s death: at first, he feels like he shouldn’t cry because he knows she should be in heaven but then he realizes it is okay to cry because he no longer has this person he loved.

Other emotional issues in Christian music are likewise dealt with only superficially.

musicTheological Shallowness

In 1999, a song by The W’s hit was number one on Christian rock charts and featured the following deep theological passage repeated four times in the refrain: “You are the devil and the devil is bad.” Obviously, that’s an extreme example of a certain theological superficiality in Christian music but I don’t think it is alone.

Two YouTube spoofs – How to Write a Worship Song in Five Minutes, and HOW IT’S MADE: Christian Music – both mention this theological shallowness. They both mention how you just need to mix a few random spiritual concepts like grace, love, something being on fire, and water analogies.

I think a lot of this is for a profit motive because a more theologically complex song might be a little hard to sell. However, this is a little shortsighted because most of the hymns that last decades or centuries have a little more theological depth. We could take the traditional Irish hymn, Be Thou My Vision, which explains the way God works through our various faculties, or Thomas Aquinas’s Panis Angelicus, which describes transubstantiation lyrically. They both go very deep theologically.

It is good that Christians learn basic theological ideas like grace and forgiveness but if we just repeat the most basic concepts in a haphazard way, we never really reach a deeper and more satisfying understanding Christianity. With a superficial theology, Christianity remains something akin to spiritual Prozac instead of being a spiritual Thanksgiving dinner with your family.

Don’t get me wrong. I listen to Christian music when I need to be cheered up and I listen to some of the more energetic stuff to motivate me while working out. However, I realize the limitations Christian music impose upon itself. It represents one part of Christian life is not the whole of Christian life. And, unfortunately, if we don’t recognize its limitations, it ends up promoting a superficial version of Christianity.

About Fr Matthew P. Schneider, LC

In 2001, I traveled from Calgary, Canada to join the Legion. Since then I’ve been all over North America and spent some time in Rome. I currently reside in Washington doing a bunch of writing and taking care of the community while studying my Licentiate in Theology (between Masters and Doctorate). I’m most well-known on Instagram and Twitter where I have about 6,500 and 40,000 followers respectively.
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4 Responses to The Shallow Psychology and Theology of Christian Music

  1. Bruce Wren says:

    Fr. Matthew,

    Greetings from Chicago. I stumbled across your article on Christian music, and being delighted by the title, I read it through. I couldn’t agree with you more, and am glad to see that finally someone has put into words what I have only allowed myself to judge on an intuitive level. I always cringed when those stations were played: couldn’t stand them for more than a song or two… Great article.

    Couldn’t agree more. Fr. Bruce, L.C.

  2. Susan says:

    I cringe every time the choir at my church bursts into ‘All Are Welcome’ or some equally banal pop tune…which, unfortunately, is all too often. But our priest is orthodox, so for that I am thankful.

  3. Cindy says:

    Having recently lost my mother, I heartily agree with your comments above. I actually don’t listed to modern Christian music at all … I checked it out when I first came to faith in an evangelical setting but soon it felt repetitive and boring. I actually find that kind of music to be spiritually draining due to the qualities you explain–emotional and theological shallowness. Instead of consoling or uplifting me or feeling inspired/encouraged, it affects me negatively — deflating and discouraging my faith. The mores I listened to it, the less connected to God I felt… It’s actually one of the reasons I started to look around and eventually leave the evangelical church and…poof…here I am now, Catholic and grateful to have found a few parishes with gorgeous, more traditional music.

  4. Br. Joseph, LC says:

    I just wanted to let you know I read and appreciated your article on Christian music as possibly helpful but has its limits. I actually forwarded it to my old college roommate and he benefited from it as well. As young people (at 25 I still lump myself into that category), we cradle catholics have a solid theoretical background in the faith, the cross, the true meaning of love, etc.; but when we go out into the real world (or move to a different country to study philosophy), we realize that all the theory needs to be applied to the brass tax. Yes, God loves me, so can I apply that theory to my life today studying for exams? That’s the life lesson that we’re learning.

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