Sing Freedom! Why isn’t Christian music more revolutionary?

Nearly fifteen years ago, I ruffled a few feathers when I criticized contemporary Christian music for its highly romanticized – even sexualized – lyrics for expressing devotion to God.

In my 2006 book, Exiles, I carped about Matt Redman declaring “Jesus, I am so in love with you,” and Delirious singing “We are God’s romance,” and I outlined all the reasons why I thought the phenomenon of feeling “in love” was an entirely inappropriate phrase for Christian worship.

“Jesus ain’t my boyfriend,” I whined.

 

But things changed after that. And not just because I didn’t like the worship-romance phase of contemporary Christian music. Let’s face it, I have zero influence on the scene.

Who knows what happened. Maybe contemporary Christian music (CCM) just grew up.

But today, songs like Hillsong Worship’s “This I Believe (The Creed),” and “What a Beautiful Name,” and Lauren Daigle’s “Light of the World,” and many more, combine decent theology, biblical phraseology, and engaging poetry.

It’s a welcome relief to the Jesus-is-my-lover era of Christian singing.

More recently, however, other critics have emerged to say that CCM lyrics are too individualistic, too pietistic, too safe.

People like U2’s Bono, and Christian hip-hop artists Lecrae and Marty Mar from Social Club Misfits, have bemoaned the tame, risk-averse nature of Christian music.

In a couple of recent interviews, Bono ripped into the CCM industry, calling it bland and predictable. Reflecting on the richness of the Old Testament psalms, he wondered why modern-day gospel singing wasn’t as concerned with laughter, tears, and doubt.

He especially wanted to know why there’s no reference to injustice:

“I want to hear songs of justice, I want to hear rage at injustice and I want to hear a song so good that it makes people want to do something about the subject.”

 

Lecrae has been more than willing to address systemic issues like racism and injustice in his lyrics, but he has been criticized for doing so. He wrote,

“Christians saying that ‘preaching the gospel is all we need’ ignores how sin affects infrastructures and societal systems… True faith stands up for the oppressed and the broken.”

Then this week, as many Christian music stars gathered for the 50th Annual GMA (Gospel Music Association) Dove Awards, CNN’s John Blake dropped a bombshell by calling them cop-outs for refusing to criticize racism and injustice in America today:

“What’s most striking about these artists, though, is not what they sing. It’s what they leave out of their songs. The America these artists love to evoke in their songs is stuck in what one columnist called a ‘hideous loop of hate.’ White supremacists march in public chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us.’ A man guns down Latino shoppers in an El Paso Wal-Mart. School shootings now seem almost as frequent as proms. The President demonizes immigrants and tweets racist insults.”

He continued, “These issues aren’t just political, they’re moral. Yet little of these ugly realities make their way into CCM, which is now dominated by upbeat praise and worship music.”

 

It seems we’ve gone from Jesus-is-my-boyfriend to Jesus-is-my-savior, but we’re missing Jesus-is-our-Lord.

Christian worship should express our collective hope in Christ of a rescued, renewed and restored world, a world in which injustice, racism, hatred and violence have ended, once and for all.

Back to my book Exiles, my suggested alternative to romantic worship songs was that we ought to sing revolutionary worship songs. We need lyrics that call us into a revolution of love and justice. In fact, there hasn’t been a single revolution in history that wasn’t sung into existence.

Social change has a soundtrack.

 

The revolutionaries of the French, American and Bolshevik uprisings all sang about the new nation they were forging, a song they were willing to die for.

The Civil Rights movement sang Christian spirituals.

The German democratic movement that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall began with singing and prayers for freedom in a church in Leipzig in 1980.

The anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the anti-Russian movement in Ukraine – they all wrote songs to inspire their followers.

Even today on the streets of Hong Kong, millions of protesters resisting the controls imposed by Communist China have found the Christian hymn, “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” as their anthem of freedom. The song has even been banned from Chinese streaming platforms.

And to underscore the point, today, across scores of cities in the US and around the world, secular Justice Choirs are being launched, where ordinary citizens can come together to sing for social justice.

In Exiles, I wrote,

“Isn’t the radical teaching of Jesus as revolutionary as any of these examples of political upheaval? Hasn’t he called us to a revolution of grace, peace, and justice? And hasn’t he told us that if we love him, we will follow him, we will obey his commands? His message is a call to insurgency, to mutiny against the values of this, our host empire… We have been called by the Revolutionary One to demonstrate our love for him with action, with insubordinate acts of generosity and kindness, with a struggle against injustice, with an activist’s vision for a renewed world in which God is acknowledged as the one, true God, and every knee is bent in service to him.”

The Bible is full of revolutionary songs, and not just in the Psalms. In Isaiah 42, we are told to sing a new song to the Lord, but shortly after that, God decides to sing a song to us! And it’s a doozy.

“For a long time I have kept silent,

I have been quiet and held myself back.

But now, like a woman in childbirth,

I cry out, I gasp and pant.

I will lay waste the mountains and hills

and dry up all their vegetation;

I will turn rivers into islands

and dry up the pools.

I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,

along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;

I will turn the darkness into light before them

and make the rough places smooth.

These are the things I will do;

I will not forsake them.

But those who trust in idols,

who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’

will be turned back in utter shame. (Isa 42:14-17)

Singing (wailing?) like a mother in childbirth, God’s lyrics concern a new world in which the unjust, the idolater, the oppressor, are laid to waste and a new world of peace, justice and joy emerges.

Can’t someone write some songs like that today?!

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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10 thoughts on “Sing Freedom! Why isn’t Christian music more revolutionary?

  1. Thank You Mike…..you articulate my innermost frustrations and desire for change

  2. Exactly what I’ve thought for years… it’s as if so many worship groups like to sing as though they were already in heaven and blinded to the elephant of this world in the room. I was recently among a group of Christian visual artists at a residency who all had to work in our shared studio to a sound track of annoying contemporary religious songs. The ones playing this stuff doubted my commitment to Christ when I wore noise-cancelling earplugs!

    1. There are bands out there busting a gut with revolutionary songs! This song, Kingdoms Collide, by Interval, was written for the Justice More than a Word event run by compassion in Adelaide in 2013.

      The band is now called Grey Hearts Red. You can find them on Spotify. Andrew is a gifted musician and songwriter, all the band members are followers of Jesus. They do not do the Christian/church circuits but the pubs and metal gigs.

      1. Here’s another go at the video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgxzqBI7_30

  3. Thanks, Mike. I also find it interesting that there are very few songs written about the 3-year ministry of Jesus. It is like we skip from birth to death/resurrection/heaven, and forget Jesus’ response to injustice, healing, day to day challenges, taxes, political and social issues of the day.
    Yes we have come a long way from “Jesus is my boyfriend”, but we still have a way to go if we are going to call people together through songs and anthems about how we should live today – and how Jesus’ ministry years can call us to respond to the events of our day.

  4. This is exactly why I have always enjoyed songwriters like Andrew Peterson (The Silence of God, No More Faith and many others). Also Jars of Clay – never afraid to express fears and doubts (Where Are You?)

  5. I wonder where the next Jars of Clay is. And how long we might wait for it’s arrival. Andrew Peterson is someone I’ve listened to for years, and you are right to mention him in this thread. I’m struggling to think of anyone else – there was once a group called This Beautiful Republic (our out just two albums) that comes to mind. Matthew West has a great concept of writing songs set to letters he received (3 albums worth), though even that was someone romanticized. Switchfoot sometimes will sing “honest” songs too, especially when they sing about justice for kids left behind by others.

  6. Amen Mike! Since watching “Soundtrack of a Revolution” about the way songs sustained the Civil Rights Movement, I’ve been on the lookout for songs to aid counter-cultural Christians when we end up on the “wrong side of history” or face up to vested interests by trying to care for creation. There is resonance with the latter in the story of the Levellers and Diggers in England- able to read the Bible for themselves and finding God on the side of the poor, not just giving the Royalty their “divine right”.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iK3lw7Rkfkc
    I think singing about the world we want makes a better outcome than endless chanting “When do we want it-NOW!” Here is one candidate: “God is Love” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZ05CgEAsZ0
    Secular songs of protest for modern audience: https://windborne.bandcamp.com/track/the-diggers-song

  7. Thanks for this conversation Mike and your brave voicing of it …we need a revolution for sure there is no alternative that anyone actually wants.
    I led worship for some thirty years in a church I loved whose liturgical shape went crazy with escapist ex-carnational theology and the credibility gap widened in my soul to the point that to maintain my spiritual and mental health I had to withdraw from leading worship…something I had once loved and eventually I felt I had to also withdraw from the church I had loved and grown in for so long.

    The following Andrew Peterson song captures it beautifully

    https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=andrew+peterson+the+rain+kept+falling

    I tried to be brave but I hid in the dark
    I sat in that cave and I prayed for a spark
    To light up all the pain that remained in my heart
    And the rain kept fallingDown on the roof of the church where I cried
    I could hear all the laughter and love and I tried
    To get up and get out but a part of me died
    And the rain kept falling downWell I’m scared if I open myself to be known
    I’ll be seen and despised and be left all alone
    So I’m stuck in this tomb and you won’t move the stone
    And the rain keeps falling
    Somewhere the sun is a light in the sky
    But I’m dying in North Carolina and I
    Can’t believe there’s an end to this season of night
    And the rain keeps falling down
    Falling down
    Falling down There’s a woman at home and she’s praying for a light
    My children are there and they love me in spite
    Of the shadow I know that they see in my eyes
    And the rain keeps fallingI’m so tired of this game, of these songs, of the road
    I’m already ashamed of the line I just wrote
    But it’s true and it feels like I can’t sing a note
    And the rain keeps falling down
    Falling down
    Falling down

    Peace, be still
    Peace, be still… My daughter and I put the seeds in the dirt
    And every day now we’ve been watching the earth
    For a sign that this death will give way to a birth
    And the rain keeps falling… Down on the soil where the sorrow is laid
    And the secret of life is igniting the grave
    And I’m dying to live but I’m learning to wait
    And the rain is fallingPeace, be still
    Peace, be still(Peace, be still)
    I just want to be new again
    (Peace, be still)
    I just want to be closer to You again
    (Peace, be still)
    Lord, I can’t find the song
    I’m so tired and I’m always so wrong
    (Peace, be still)
    Help me be brave tonight
    Jesus, please help me out of this cave tonight
    (Peace, be still)
    I’ve been calling and calling
    This rain just keeps falling
    (Peace, be still)
    I’ve been calling and calling
    But this rain just keeps falling and falling
    (Peace, be still)
    Is it You
    Is it You
    (Peace, be still)
    Is it true
    Is it You
    (Peace, peace)

    1. Thanks for that song recommendation Stephen Williams! Just shared it with my church group- I think someone (aside from me) will definitely find comfort in the message.

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