Why I’m ready to quit Christian radio
I have mixed feelings about Christian music. On the one hand, I’m lazy and it’s nice that I don’t have to spend much energy interpreting the music or lyrics; they’re typically pretty plain, the leftovers from last year’s mainstream pop coated in the faux cheeriness and platitudes of a new youth pastor.
On the other hand, this sappy, bubblegum feel that swallows up contemporary music generally (and Christian music especially) is hard to stomach. It’s almost embarrassing to be caught listening to it. Not because I’m afraid the folks in the slammed 1997 Impala next to me will mock me for being a Christian, but because the music is just shallow. It’s too simple, like a 2×4 to the soul. Still, it makes for good background noise when I’m in my workshop or reading a book. It’s pleasant to have some white noise, and I appreciate that it’s relatively positive noise. I can trust it to be safe if not interesting.
I do not have mixed feelings about Christian music station announcers, who cause me to mute the radio whenever they come on. There is something incredibly grating about that saccharine, do-goody, uber-chipper, “everything is AMAZING!” tone they all seem to have. I’ve sampled a couple stations in my area as well as the other cities I’ve lived in over the years, plus stations in places I travel to. If there’s a contemporary Christian music station where the 23-year-old guys and gals who handle the mic in between songs isn’t
high overdosing on life, I’d love to know about it—especially if they have a streaming option. Because I am sick of being covered in the sugary syrup of their fake happiness.
And the stories!
Recently I was driving back from Home Depot with the back of the van full of lumber, and in the 20-second break between songs Ms. Happy Jesus Pants related some inane anecdote about pasta salad at her family picnic. The gist was that there was pasta salad. And a picnic, at which her family was present. I really can’t go into any more detail because there was none. Pasta salad, picnic, family. You now know as much as I do and are probably more entertained than I was.
I’m not sure how much airtime costs (my primary broadcasting experience was at a college radio station that had a whopping 10-watt transmitter) but it’s probably worth more advertising frozen lutefisk.
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The station nearest me has this slogan: “A friend when you need one.”
I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I can’t recall the last time I called up a friend and said, “Hey, Joe, would you mind playing some power chords and vocalizing in a vaguely spiritual manner?”
Is that what we’ve come to? Have I so greatly underestimated my role as a follower of Christ? Here I thought my job was to build relationships and show God’s love through my own life and the spreading of his grace, and all along I should’ve been handing out portable radios. Who needs people when you can turn to your good buddy the radio station?
Had a rough day and need to vent to someone? Just talk to the radio!
Need a ride to the airport? Just drive the radio!
Want to take your spouse out for date night and need someone to watch the kids? Just use the radio!
Oh, wait. It’s good for none of those things, because:
I would love to see the market research that led to that slogan. If it said that what people really want out of their radios is friendship, then they either misinterpreted the responses or accidentally polled the Borg.
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Somebody show me where it says in the bible that we ought to speak in a voice usually reserved for golden retriever puppies.
But it’s not the honey drips that bother me about the voice. It’s the implication. Like so much public-facing Christian stuff, it’s watered down (sugared up?), pale, monotonous. It’s harmless. And Christianity isn’t.
Christ died. He died gruesomely after much torture. And don’t forget that 1 Peter says we should be glad to have the opportunity to partake in his suffering. That sound harmless to you?
So, what? Let’s say the corporate Christian “we” manages to lasso some unsuspecting passerby who happens to like sweet, kindly voices. Ms. Passerby maybe realizes later the station she’s now listening to is a Christian station. “Hmm,” she thinks, “I guess they seem harmless enough. Maybe I will forget about my teenage rebellion against my religious parents and try going to church again.” Maybe she finds an equally cheery contemporary church that has spent more money on its stage lighting system than most Broadway theaters. Maybe she gets a few overly cheery hellos and welcomes that first time she goes (and the second time, and the third, because who can keep track of all those newcomers?). Maybe she answers the altar call after a few trips.
Sounds like a success story, but it also sounds like a walk along a precipice. We’ve got a follower of Jesus here, people. Praise be to God! But haven’t we done Ms. Passerby a tremendous disservice by putting up this (impeccable and well-funded) facade of joyfulness? Haven’t we, by opening her eyes to only the joys of faith, blinded her to the reality of it?
“Blessed are you,” Christ himself says in Matthew 5:11, when people persecute, hate, and incite evil against you because of belief in him. Blessed.
“Okay,” you’re thinking, “so non-Christians will get mad at us. Isn’t that all the more reason for the church to be a place of joy where we can be free from that suffering?”
Nonsense. Yes, we should take joy in the joy of others. But the church of all places is a place to lay the truth bare, and sometimes that means the kind of loving correction that Jesus explains in Matthew 18:15–17. And you know that section of 1 Corinthians 13 that people are so fond of pulling out to say how lovey-dovey everything should be? Take a look at the actual wording there in verse 6: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (emphasis added).
Love doesn’t just rejoice willy-nilly. It rejoices specifically with the truth. When the truth is revealed and called out, that’s the time to celebrate. Not as escapism from the world, but as recognition that Christ rose above the world. We are called to act out of truth and love, and true love is honest. It corrects. It strengthens. It doesn’t just shout hallelujah—it earns it.
On Sunday my pastor was teaching from Acts and made a short observation aside: “The enemy has so many tools at his disposal in his accusation against us…. How many tools does that guy have? Flattery, manipulations, embellishment….” (you can hear his sermon here). No kidding. It’s fun to go somewhere that’s just pure happiness. But the church—and let’s be clear that I don’t mean the building, but the communal body regardless of where and when members might interact—isn’t a place to go and hide from persecution and rejoice in momentary obliviousness. It’s a place to go and be reinforced by your fellow sufferers and rejoice in that.
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I’m not saying that a pointless anecdote about pasta salad is a gateway drug to failed conversions. And I’m not hoping that Ms. Happy Jesus Pants swings the other way to fire and brimstone. What I’m saying is let’s not fake it. Let’s not rely on a sheen of joyfulness because we think it’s what the world wants and needs to hear.
Because nobody’s that happy about pasta salad.
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P.S. I’ll be attending the Canvas Conference in August in Portland, OR. I’m excited to explore the relationship between faith and the arts, and I’m especially hoping to be clued in to some new music.