Monday, February 8, 2010

"Christian rock" as "diet Coke"...

First, I don't care about the Superbowl, or football much in general. So, that's that.

Now, I was having lunch with some friends today and, among the varied topics we discussed (since we're all philosophical-theological nerds) was the idea of Christian rock music as an expression of what philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls "reality deprived of its substance..." (see The Puppet and the Dwarf)

In any ideological system, people develop an uncanny method of dealing with their anxiety. What is the anxiety? Well, on the one hand, we want to experience a genuine reality, on the other hand, we know (or are told/taught/brainwashed/etc) that genuine reality is potentially quite dangerous. As a society, this is a tool used to protect ideology.

An example might be: We know that genuine individual freedom is desirable in the American system. But, we also know that too much freedom would result in chaos. So, the system develops a series of "rules" that allow us to have enough freedom, but not too much.

Now, obviously, such an approach is often necessary to provide some structure to our lives. But Zizek wants to challenge the systems of ideology that currently rule, and point out their flaws. He has developed an entire philosophical methodology of his own in an attempt to do this. And one of the tools he uses is to humorously point out the absurdity of our attempts to create a safe reality, a reality that is deprived of substance.

Some of his most well-known cultural examples are: chocolate laxatives, virtual sex, alcohol-free beer, and diet Coke. In each case, the very thing that we desire has been "removed" while keeping enough of a semblance of the thing that we are able to convince ourselves that what we are doing is genuine. But, as we all readily admit, it is a bit silly, when we think about it. Chocolate laxatives? Ah, the irony.

I want to add one more example to Zizek's list, and I think anyone who's been involved with "the scene" for a while will understand this: Christian rock music.

Christian rock is not evil or superficial, necessarily. That's not the point. There are some good "Christian rock" bands out there. And there are some musicians who genuinely want to be witnesses to Christ while performing as artists, doing what they are passionate about. But what I want to point out is the lack of substance that often exists at the heart of Christian rock. It is like diet Coke - we want to have the carbonated beverage, but without the calories. We want our rock and roll, but without the sex, drugs, and rebellion.

Now, when I was younger, I heard this common mantra: Christian rock (this was especially true with the punk and metal bands) is the MOST rebellious form of rock music, because it has taken rock and roll and completely undermined it, using the "devil's music" for Jesus! And for a long time, I completely bought into that line of thinking. But something nagged at me, and it wasn't because I thought - as some fundies still think - that Christian rock was secretly being used by the devil.

No, what bugged me, and what I came to realize - and what Zizek has now given me the language to articulate - is that Christian rock is like diet Coke. They are both reality deprived of substance. I don't mean, to repeat myself, that all Christian rock is without value. That's not it. But it is an ironic bit of reality that a style of music initially developed as a way to push boundaries and offer new, often disturbing forms of musical expression, has been turned around by the Christian faith to become a tool that wants to help foster stability, morality, and Godly thinking.

Is that bad? Again, not necessarily. I'm all for Godly thinking! But it does point to some deeper questions that Christians (and rock musicians) have struggled with for a long time. What does it really mean when you take an art form and manipulate it in this way? Does it cheapen the art? Does it cheapen the faith? Can you have a "diet Coke" musical style without cheapening it somehow?

Isn't that precisely the point of Christian rock - to eliminate the bad while keeping the good? But that assumes "good" and "bad" are like chemicals one can easily separate. Reality doesn't seem to offer that sort of assessment. Very often, in trying to create a new, safer, diet reality, we find instead that we have brought a lot of the bad with us, and gotten rid of a lot of what made that previous reality good in the first place.

This is what I think has happened with Christian rock, and why, today, you will notice if you take a quick look around, that 1) Christian rock has begun merging with the mainstream rock world to a much greater degree, and 2) at the same time, Christian rock is desperately trying to cling to (and re-define) its identity. It is because it is a diet Coke reality that is not happy with its lack of substance. The "rock" side wants to return to its progressive, or perhaps decadent, status, and the Christian side wants to protect the new reality it has created.

So there is a tension. And my guess is that tension will continue to foster more and more splits within the world of Christian rock.


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Rebekah said...

While I don't disagree with some of the points you made, I also don't really agree with you on everything either.

Obviously, I work in the Christian music world, and I agree that a lot of it is superficial, and the people are fake. The lyrical content really isn't that challenging unless you start getting into the smaller artists who take pride in that.

But did you ever think about the fact that not everyone is where you are at spiritually and that to some people, these basics are what they need to hear? Yes it might be cheeseball and extremely cliche, but some people need that. They might be a new believer that is just discovering these truths we see as simple, and they might need a little reassurance.

Now, I really don't listen to much Christian music, and I feel as you do that it's just shallow and surface... but I also remember way back when I was a teen, it helped me get through tough situations at school and encouraged me to take the path less traveled. That music that helped me make those decisions which became a huge factor in making me the person I am today.

I think sometimes we get caught up in our own Biblical knowledge and spiritual maturity that we forget that some people do just need those basics. For some people, deep lyrics might end up discouraging them because it feels like too much to process while they are still tackling the simple truths of grace and unconditional love.

Geoff Dargan said...

Don't get me wrong, Bek, I hear ya. I agree sometimes people need the basics. I think I even said that I am not trying to disregard the value of some Christian rock music - I too have found it valuable and it's been used by God, I believe, in many ways.

I am only trying to point out that I think there is always going to be an inherent tension in the substance of Christian rock, precisely because it is trying to "wear a coat", so to speak, that is not completely a good fit. Maybe that's a bad metaphor. But hopefully my point makes sense.

Rob said...

Good post. I think it will be like Diet Coke as long as a Christian group will think of itself as "rock-n-roll, but with Jesus." However, if a group just says, "call it what you want, this is the art we create," then they are probably going to be received as genuine artists. I guess I'm asking "Who makes the labels?" "Who is creating and promoting the image?"

Funny, I remember in jr high a kid who had a Stryper poster on his wall. He went around saying, "Stryper, eeeSEE-hay 53:5..." He had no clue it was a Bible verse until I told him, "It's Isaiah, dude... from the Bible?" He liked the music.

Anonymous said...

good read, post more!