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The On Being Project

Christian Pop: Crossing the Religious and Secular Line

Commenting on “Christian Pop,” if one is not at home in it, is precarious and will doubtless reveal how out of it the commentator is. So I wander in with a sense of mission. If “public religion” is the field of our notice, overlooking “trendy hip-hop, dubstep, funk, and synch pop beats” would be to miss some very public expressions. Allison Stewart pointed to the music styles just mentioned when commenting on rapper TobyMac, whose album “Eye On It” was only the third “Christian” product ever to have debuted as No. 1 on Billboard’s “top ten” charts.

Stewart, in an interview: “The lines between Christian and secular music are so porous now—do you think the distinction even matters?” Answer: “I think the walls are coming down between genres of music in general, and especially Christian music.”

The rapper’s responses are cogent, modest, and to the point, as he delineates lines between the “vulgar” and “clean versions.” I won’t pursue this further, lest my ignorance and unfamiliarity be paraded vulgarly. We move on now to comment on the “porous” lines between Christian and secular music or most anything else in the arts line.
I was drawn to this topic while researching for a forthcoming lecture before Chicago Chorale’s March 24 Passion According to Saint John by Bach. Whenever I am called, or freed, to wander in the fields of classical sacred music, I find that sooner or later — usually sooner, now — the subject of how “Christian and secular music” inter-relate comes up.

I’ve been hearing Bach for over 80 years, having been child sat near my father’s organ bench while mother was in the small town church choir. And I’ve been reading musicologists, theologians, and other Bach scholars for three fourths of those years, again and again pondering the lines and distinctions. Sections and strains from Bach’s sacred cantatas can sound much like his Coffee Cantata and its kin, until one hears the words. What makes the music religious, Christian, or sacred, and what is “secular?”

Rather than deal with such questions musicologically, I’ll turn in the few lines ahead to the questions of esthetics-politics-and-culture. Try as I might, I can’t be moved by hip-hop, dubstep, funk, and synth pop beats labeled Christian. And I have to admit that my kind doesn’t even try very hard. Yet as in so many areas, the porousness of the line between Christian or religious and secular is welcomed. True confession: of course, sacred and secular lines are blurred or sounds blended in the fields of folk music, and many of us classics-lovers are at home with it, as are composers of choice. A step further: Where is the line between Christian and secular in jazz, and should we worry about it? I am in the company of those, dwarfed by Christian pop adherents, who cherish jazz by Mary Lou Williams, Dave Brubeck, or close-to-home-and-almost-in-the family Andy Tecson, who for years have rendered the old line porous.
What many of us are learning is that some of the choices are simply matters of taste, however rationalized. And those of us who pay attention to how religion or specific faiths like the Christian might best be furthered, fostered, and delighted in musically are learning tolerance. But, wait a minute: what’s that I hear? Bach! A-a-a-a-a-a-h.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s the author of many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.

This essay is reprinted from Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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