There’s a lot of tension right now between the Christian world and the secular world.1 Political, moral, cultural, whatever—people on both sides are angry, worried, and fighting for what they believe will be a better life for themselves and their children. But in spite of all of this tension, there’s one thing that Christians and non-Christians alike can agree on.
We all get annoyed with Christian rock.
This might surprise you if you are a non-Christian. I assure you that it is true. I asked a bunch of people that I know, and since they are all white Christians, we can safely assume they represent everyone’s view on the matter.2 People give a wide variety of reasons for this, but generally all of the reasons fit into two broad categories.
Category 1 – The music is Satanic and probably/definitely hypnotizes people into sin. (FYI – Very few Christian people actually think this. But if you’re interested, you can find all of them on the Internet.)
Category 2 – The music is vapid, dull, and boring. It all sounds the same, and the same songs get played over and over until they completely lose whatever minimum level of meaning they may have originally had. Everyone I talked to gave some version of this second answer.
Now, by “Christian rock” what I really mean is Christian Adult Contemporary music, or CAC, the kind of Christian music that you’re going to hear if you turn on the radio to whatever family friendly station happens to be in your town.
There are three kinds of CAC songs:
Song 1 – Christ is awesome and powerful. Praise Him! These songs usually rhyme “grace” with “face.”
Song 2 – Same as Song 1, except the song is directed to “the Lord,” instead of Christ. Also, one of the four choruses is sung by a choir of children. These songs usually rhyme “grace” with “face.”
Song 3 – My daily life is hectic and sort of miserable, and I often fall short of my religious ideals. These songs usually rhyme “grace” with “face.”
That’s pretty much it. And as uninspiring as the music is, the DJs are even worse. It’s not that they say anything particularly hateable. It’s that they say everything in a tone of voice that makes me want to run my car into a large tree.
If you’ve never listened to your local family-friendly CAC station, or if by some strange geological quirk you live somewhere that the long arm of family-friendly radio has not yet reached, then you can recreate the voice at home using the following technique that my wife and I co-developed. We call it the “Basketful of Baby Unicorns Talking Technique” or B-BUTT.
Here’s how you do it:
1. Picture a basket full of baby unicorns.
2. Make the basket bigger. Baby unicorns aren’t that small.
3. Imagine them rolling over one another like puppies, licking and nipping and generally romping about.
4. Put sneakers on them.
5. Why sneakers? If you’re asking that question, you aren’t picturing it. A baby unicorn wearing sneakers is the world’s cutest possible imaginary animal/clothing combination.
6. Say something to the baby unicorns.
Do you hear that? Do you hear the sound of your voice? That sort of high-pitched, saccharine mommy speak? That’s the family-friendly voice. Now use that voice to talk to normal human adults, and time how long it takes for people to crash their cars into trees to get away from you. It’s incredibly annoying. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, but I think the most important one by far is its relentless sincerity.
We have a deep, cultural suspicion of sincerity, of people, music, and art that endorse simple, unironic values – especially if those values are positive. We almost never have trouble believing that hate is sincere, or pain, or grief, or despair. But love, kindness, joy, worship, these we have an issue with, these we are suspicious of.3
I’m sure this has a lot to do with Vietnam and Watergate and Bill Clinton and steroids in baseball and abuse in Catholic churches and Guantanamo Bay and Justin Bieber… ad nauseam. Our heroes have betrayed us so frequently over the years that we now default to the belief that any claim of goodness is almost certainly a lie. Truth has become the dirty little secret hiding behind a veneer of respectability; reality is equated with badness.4
I really hate this tendency, this natural distrust we have of sincerity. Christians are supposed to be free from it. Yet already, as I go back and reread my own sarcastic takedown of CAC radio, I can hear the snark and the sarcasm, the doubt and suspicion. This is the fourth column I’ve written for McSweeney’s, and at one point recently I got the following email from a reader:
“For once I am honestly confused as to whether something on McSweeneys is satire or not…”
Sometimes I feel the same way. Sometimes I can’t tell when I’m being genuine or not, and I’m inside my own head, so I ought to know. There’s a possibility that CAC is actually exactly the kind of thing that we all need: a twenty-four hour force of simple, unyielding positivity.
My wife and I live in Bloomington, Illinois, about a quarter mile southeast of the dividing line between Bloomington and the much better named city of Normal.5 Our local CAC station is family-friendly WCIC (call-sign meaning: We’re Centered In Christ). Family-friendly WCIC is all about three things: Faith, Hope, and Family. Their slogan is a play off of 1 Corinthians 13, which you’ve probably heard at your cousin’s wedding:
“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Notice that the most important part of this passage, “love,” is replaced in the WCIC slogan with “family.” This is a really baffling choice, since Paul literally tells us that love is the greatest one of these virtues. My guess is that WCIC substitutes “family” because they want to position themselves as a safe alternative to secular pop. Their stations are designed as protected areas where mothers and fathers can feel confident that they and their children will not be exposed to songs about sex and drunkenness, a sort of baby-proofed music without hard edges or sharp corners. Religious pablum.
And maybe that’s why Christians get annoyed with CAC as much as anyone. Because they know better than anyone how short the music falls, how little it often says about a person of whom there is so much to say. Every once and in a while there is a song that rises above the muck and manages to extend a hand to God. I sing some of them every Sunday morning, and during about half of my showers. They are worship candy. But there’s got to be somewhere between the religious candy and the secular venom that we can find good spiritual food. I swear this metaphor makes sense.
If I had a Christian radio station, I think it would be mostly silence. People who tuned in would listen to dead air, would wait quietly with all the other people listening, sitting in the presence of God. Every once in a while we might play an older hymn, or read a Psalm. Come Vespers we’d pipe in a feed from a Trappist monastery somewhere, and listen to the old brothers chant and sing and the organ echo in the high vaults. And Friday and Saturday night we’d take a few hours to play some of the best CAC stuff, so people could dance. Dancing is important. I’m pretty sure it makes you a better person.
But mostly it would be silence.
I suspect no one would listen.
1 And, like all true patriots, when I say “world,” I mean “America.”
2 Just kidding. I actually asked my Asian-American friend as well. And googled stuff. #wellresearched
3 This observation I’m making is not really new; a lot of people much smarter than me have been talking about it for years. If you’ve ever made it through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for example, then you’ve encountered the idea before, in lengthy, footnoted form. Wallace, in fact, wrote a fairly influential essay about this phenomenon, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” from which I steal a lot of things in this column that sound smart. You can find it online if you want a way more in depth and interesting take on the pervasiveness of modern irony. Give yourself an hour to read it and fifteen minutes to look up words you don’t know. (Otiose! Anaclitic! Plangent!)
4 Note, for example, the next time that someone you know praises a movie or song or novel for being “realistic.” There’s a good chance that person actually means “depressing” or “hopeless.”
5 The city of Normal is briefly mentioned in the Don DeLillo book Underworld, and was the long time home of David Foster Wallace. It upsets me a little bit that I don’t actually live in the city limits of Normal; I feel like I’m missing out on an opportunity to make myself more interesting. And an opportunity to make a lot of bad puns.