The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Making Art with Words

Christian(y) music, like any music, has created its share of “bad art.” “Art” as a concept is one fraught with plenty of aesthetic debate. These are discussions worth having. Art has the power to carry truth, meaning, and beauty simultaneously in ways other man-made products don’t. This potential is what gives art forms, like music, their power.

One element that helps increase music’s impact and power is how it uses words. Mozart and Beethoven did wonderfully without them. Brahms united words with music magnificently in his Requiem; Handel too in his Messiah. Today, music is predominantly created with words.

In Christian(y) music, the music itself has in recent years improved in quality, making it nearly indistinguishable from mainstream products [1*] Although, I can still nail a Christian(y) radio station pretty quickly.

The reason for Christian(y) music’s previous failure to make good music was its determination to communicate a preconceived message [2*]. The music then became only a medium for the message, making the music contrived and uncreative. But in the past ten years, artists have improved in regards to music. So, I applaud them.

Moving from evaluating the music to evaluating the lyrics, the failure of most Christian(y) lyrics is the same as that of high school poets. They fail to use specific and concrete images in their poems. In my younger days, I thought this emphasis on concrete imagery seemed low and disrespectful to the actual nature of the concept. So, instead we talk about the thing itself as it really is, using technical language. Ironically, however, this obscures our understanding rather than clarifying it. Using imagery—fresh imagery!—can communicate truths and concepts unlike any other.

Some examples:

The trenches dug within our hearts—“Sunday Bloody Sunday” U2
In a world that’s burning out—“We are One Tonight” Switchfoot
Your tongue is a knife/There’s blood on the floor—“Clear the Air” Bleach

Each of these uses images, some more concrete, some not quite so specific but no less evocative. “Trenches” are dug in war, and this imagery immediately communicates more than technical language could in as many words. Furthermore, it puts it in language that will evoke a feeling in the individual, if only because it is a new way to say it, to say, technically, “People hate each other and are in conflict”—boring.

It is the same with “a world that’s burning out.” Although there’s not a concrete term here, it obvious refers to a specific object that everyone can relate to and resonate with. It says so much in so few words. It’s compelling and evocative. Bleach’s lyrics do the same in a graphic, concrete way. It communicates so much, more than a paragraph of technical language could. A well-chosen metaphor can carry tones far beyond the direct analogy—senses about war are carried beyond the specific idea of trenches being dug in the heart.

Jesus used this same artistic approach, likening the Kingdom of God to pearls, a hidden treasure, a relationship, likening himself to a gate, a pathway, a snake—remember that one?

You would think that Christian(y) musicians would take note, learning from the One they constantly talk to or about, and use fresh images—instead of the Bible’s overly repeated ones, losing their meaning because of it. Followers of Jesus who can harness the power of fresh metaphors will see greater power and deeper meaning flow from their songs.

[1* note] The question has occurred to me on occasion, “What makes ‘quality’ music?” Christian(y) musicians have, it seems, used the sounds and popular flavors created by mainstream music to set their own standards and guide their musical choices. Is this right and good? If musical sounds and styles are amoral, then we have no worries. The question incumbent upon Christian(y) artists is “Is my standard of quality determined by culture or by God?” This is a serious question worth pondering. Having any other standard than God’s is idolatry.
[2*] For Christians, this message is superlative to all else; yet, in so doing, it sacrificed the music at the expense of the message; Christian(y) artists spent more time concerned with the words than creating the music. This was a short-sighted, limited view of what the message means. The poor quality indicted the artists for failing to see that honoring God meant making good music too, not just communicating the all-important verbal, technical message. If only the words were of value, then music is unnecessary and we should only speak. But of course music has a place, and that is more than simply as a medium. Music can honor God in ways even words cannot.