Let's talk about contemporary Christian music for a minute. I confess, with no contrition at all, that I'm not a fan of most music in the genre. Generally, the musical skill is weak and it subsists on light, airy sounds and breathy lyrics. You find God's love compared to the ocean so much that one friend of mine brilliantly coined the term "ocean music" to refer to the genre. The quality of this music, as judged by the Christian consumer market, can be gauged by the Jesus-per-minutes, or JPMs, that is, how many times can you mention the name of Christ in a minute. The basic formula for contemporary Christian music may be put: More JPMs + more ocean references = better music = more Christian music.
But the most difficult thing about this music is that the Christian life is always presented in unbelievably positive terms. Anyone who experiences doubt can't connect with this music. Anyone who struggles with serious sin can't connect with this music. If you sometimes think the Christian life is just downright tough then this isn't the music for you.
Can you tell I really don't like this music? I don't need to name and criticize specific artists, I'll just point you to any K-Love radio broadcast. A blessed reprieve from this music can be found in Josh Garrels, a talented artist who confronts the difficulty of the Christian life head-on. Being a small artist, he doesn't have a lot of music videos, just YouTube Songs.
This is his song "SISU," which is a Finnish word meaning determination or bravery. His ability to rap is fun, and if you need help with the lyrics go here. The lyrics are worth understanding. If rap isn't your thing, he's got other songs that I'll dive into in the future. So the point of this post isn't actually to rip on contemporary Christian music, but to go through a Josh Garrels song and see what wisdom we can find in it.
So SISU has verses with the chorus after each one. I've not posted all the lyrics here, only the ones I want to discuss. In the first verse he goes through the difficulty of one caught in sin and unable to get out:
I remember the sins of my youth, the path and the madness of unrestrained pleasureAnd then he's trying to get out of this sin, but he can't. When I'm caught in sin, the meaning of life gets lost. Is life something I must earn or is it simply a gift? Is it just a delaying of death? Is it mine to do with as I like?
The heavier trip it made the heavier debter
In the deepest of dark without a wing or a feather,
The spiral closed in like a cage, like a cage
A maze that’s amazing for days turns to rage if the page it refuses to turn
And the hopeless will hope the book burns
When the lesson it returns, but the lesson is still unlearned
See I yearn to discern if a life can be earned or is given as a gift to the deadAnd then he gives the strongest imagery yet on how tough this sin is to get out of:
I read and I bled and I fed to the full my soul on the sickest of sickness
Seeking the light of a saviors witness, a way that one day that I might forget thisSin drags you away from God, almost to the point you can't see him anymore:
But slave master wont permit this
Cause I’m a hooker I’m his mistress
And when I look for freedom he puts more chains on me
Strangles my hope so that I live like a zombie
What masters house can this be, that when I look for freedom he still deceives me
If there’s a God I screamed, “Answer me!”The imagery in this song is so much stronger than you ever get in ocean music. But he get's something fundamentally right: sin weighs you down like a bird without wings. Or like a book where you want to turn the page and just can't. Seeking a way out of sin he says the "slave master wont permit this, cause I'm a hooker, I'm his mistress." Contemporary Christian music this is not. In the chorus, he starts to find the path out of the mess he's in:
I didn't expect an answer to be received,
You must die to be set free, living in the kingdom of God eternallyDeath to self, living for others, is the path of true freedom. Sin traps us looking inward, sending us on a never-ending spiral of looking for happiness in a place we'll never find it. Then he starts to play out the implications of this truth, this that the death of God's Son saved us. It is powerful, and it can never be compromised.
Open up my eyes so that I can see, and die with a cry revolutionary
Every man and woman is a witness, and we will never forget this
Undiluted, undisputed, never to be substituted, or uprooted, fully suited for the warEventually, he understands that this unstoppable truth is the source of his strength. The Book of Wisdom says of the just souls that, "Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed. because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As God in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself" (Wis 3:5-6). Our friend Josh Garrels says:
It’s a modernization of a timeless metaphor, and
By the boomerang we bring the beats back more
What for man, do we work exterior to core, or begin it in the spirit of the Lord
Now you could pull the chord, but the people still sing it acapella
Marching to the beat I hear their feet are in the cellar
Fear not the world cannot stop what must begin within you and me
A fire wind, holy hymn, beautiful diadem, hidden within positively pure prism refraction
Every colors broken down, harmonize with my eyes spectrum
In the end bleeding into the One, to the source, to the beautiful father of light
All the pressure and pain, produces perseveranceSin traps you in a web of lies where you pursue an illusory happiness that never fulfills, but you doggedly keep pursuing it because you think that eventually the Father of Lies will eventually deliver on his empty promises. The only way out is dying to your own will and desires and receiving a new life from God.
It’s purged by the flames, without interference
Produces a hope, In the glory of God
My God I am your son, and I know that you will finish the work that you've begun
Homespun, grassroots, spontaneously suits the purpose, and we don’t deserve this
Josh Garrels has impressed me with his uniquely honest take on the Christian life. It's not easy, and breathy lyrics that compare God's love to an ocean don't speak into the pain that many of us feel, they only cover over it. If you know of any other musicians with this quality in music and honesty in lyrics, please let me know.