I just returned home from a joyous, frustrating, exciting, confused, fun, boring week in Nashville. It’s properly called GMA Week and it stands for Gospel Music Association’s week-long event of seminars, interviews, luncheons, dinners, concerts, schmoozing and culminates in the Dove Awards (the Christian Grammy).
It’s an adjective-filled week (see above) for myself because I’m mostly there to interview approximately 25 bands and artists of various types – Tooth & Nail screamo acts to worship leaders. And the process is either thoroughly enjoyable or a Job-like exercise in patience and slow mental torture.
Exhibit A – Giant band. Enormous band. Not in girth, mind you, but in record sales. One of the top Christian acts around today, if not the top-selling (I’m not well versed enough in Billboard lists to say for sure one way or another) was easily the worst interview I’ve ever conducted. Any attempts to discuss songwriting, artistry or any level of thoughtfulness about their craft was completely dissolved at the outset. Or should I say that those questions flew over their head.
“We just want to sing about Jesus.”
Sounds simple enough. In fact, it’s the perfect answer … if we were sitting around in Sunday School. But in this kind of interview, it’s a boring answer. And it’s not a good one. Unfortunately, things get worse.
“You know, the music doesn’t even matter. Fast or slow. Good lyrics or not. I’m not concerned at all with those things – whether someone thinks it’s good music or not. The music doesn’t matter. It’s just the platter the meat is served on. So talking about the music or lyrics as artwork is inconsequential.”
At this point, I don’t even know what to do. All of my questions are about that very topic. Music critics have been unkind to their music, which in the Christian world is not very common. So I wanted to tackle these questions – wondering if they were aware of such criticisms and making steps to ‘get better.’ Apparently, I was ill prepared.
When I first left the interview, I was completely shocked at how poorly it went and how little we had to discuss. I fell back on standard interview questions of tour dates, naming processes and band history. It sucked. And I left feeling dirty – that in some way I was shallow and missing completely what this life was about.
Why am I asking those questions? I shouldn’t be concerned with artistry. In fact, why am I writing about music and books and movies at all? Why am I concerned about criticism, in fact? That only separates and divides the body of Christ. I’m called to encourage and exhort my brothers, not tear them down. (Note, this is what this artist told me) And for a moment, he had me. I completely believed him. After all, he said the magic word “Jesus”, which is always the right answer.
My very next interview set me back in a ‘right’ place. It was with a solo artist who completely believes that excellence in art, in creation, is essential to being a Christian. To strive toward beauty and truth in the arts is a high calling to this person and it was beautiful to discuss these issues with them.
What is it about this divide – to some it’s a mission field with no real thought toward anything but saying ‘Jesus’ as many times as possible; to others it’s the pursuit of the entire package.
I recognize that we are all brothers and sisters. At the end of all things, we will be united together under a common banner and Jesus was quick to call us to love one another and that we will be surprised by who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ … that, in other words, I don’t need to crucify an artist or band over their artistic convictions (or lack of) as if they are not Christians.
Yet there is this part of me that’s just absolutely sick over this kind of thing. I don’t want to listen. I don’t want to talk to them. It rendered me speechless, ruined an interview and I lose all respect for anything they are doing.
So I guess I turn it over here. What’s the proper response?
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.