Thoughts on Bono's call for honesty in Christian music

The short film "The Psalms" has been circulating across the web this week, stirring up an array of responses from the Christian community. The film is a conversation between The Message Translator, Eugene Peterson, and Bono of U2. In the film, Bono makes the statement that he finds a lot of dishonesty in Christian music and art. He recommends that Christian artists, 

"write a song about their bad marriage, write a song about how they are pissed off at the government because that's what God wants from you, the truth... and that truthfulness... will blow things apart.  Why I'm suspicious of Christians is because of this lack of realism and I'd love to see more of that in art and in life and music." 

Bono contrasts the "airy fairy" content of what he witnesses in modern Christian music to the brutal honesty written in the Psalms. In many ways I could not agree more. But there is more to the story to consider. 

To begin with, there are a lot of "Christian artists" who cannot or will not identify with that term simply because to do so, they immediately inherit a host of crippling stigmas and a mass of assumptions about their art. Not to mention the heaps of pressure and expectations put upon them from the church community. (Should I mention what happened to Gungor when he made several theological statements that didn't jive with the church communities hosting his performances? Let's just say the tour was rerouted.) Perhaps the honesty Bono is looking for could be more easily found within Christian artists who aren't branded as such than in those who are by label, "Christian artists." (Sufjan Stevens, Johnny Swim and Mumford & Sons come to mind.)

The "dishonesty" Bono is witnessing is primarily a product of Industry and party-line, communal acceptance rather than dishonesty within individual artists themselves. I have personally spoken with Christian artists whose lyrical content has been censored, edited or re-directed by their label or management. Before we judge them (there is enough of that going on in our communities) let's put ourselves in their position. Family, livelihood and vocation may be at stake. Who is to say what we would choose given their disposition. 

When discussing my own art, one of my least favorite questions is "Are you a Christian band?" What does that even mean? If I am a Christian and an artist, does it mean my art must serve the agenda of the Church or a ministry? I don't know another genre of music that is defined by the artist's theological position or personal persuasions instead of the content of the music itself. Do you ever hear the question asked, "Are they a Muslim band?" or "Are they a Buddhist band?" 

Christian music itself cannot properly be lumped into one defining label. We must remember that all music is contextual, especially Christian music or more specifically, worship music. Even in the Psalms there are teaching songs, praise songs, laments and even national songs. I could write about a bad marriage or political unrest and put it on my album for someone's personal meditation time but to sing it on Sunday morning may not accomplish the goal of that experience. Worship music is for connecting the believer's heart, mind and emotion to the truths of who God is. I can write songs with a Christian world view and it can be every bit an expression of my worship, but if it does not serve the purpose of the context I'm presenting it within, the song will fall flat. Congregational worship music is a very purpose-specific art form.

The Psalms were the Hebrew worship hymnal and certainly did include all of those types of songs I listed above, and even songs of David's repentance for adultery. That is bold. That is truthful, that is raw and will speak more to the world than angel-harp-cloud music. (I suppose there is a place for everything.) I do think very much so that Christian artists need to find the freedom and permission (you don't really need permission, just go do it) to explore real life experiences coupled with the hope and reality of the gospel and bring them into the context of worship. Where else can we take them? 

I'm grateful for Bono's heart, his words, his wisdom and perspective. (Thank you for speaking out!) Ultimately, I think his issue may be more with the industry that has produced dishonest, cardboard Christian music rather than with the artists themselves. My guess is that if our communities at large (and dare I even challenge the industry?) made room for more honest exploration without judgment or excommunication, you would see more integral art coming from the Church. Maybe we would even experience less stigma from the general market and more accurately portray the gospel we desire folks to encounter. 

Here's an idea. Bono should start his own label for honest Christian themed art. And maybe we as Christian artists can stand together to make bold choices with our work and not sell out to the status quo or the expectations of mediocrity. Oh and back to Gungor. Have you read his latest lyrics? That's honesty for you. Keep going, friend.

"If all the outsiders are wrong

If your questions don't belong

If your doubt is called a sin

And you're not to search within

Let it go, open your eyes" 

- Gungor