Theology and Pop

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The interviewer asked Fernando Ortega, one of my favorite singers, about what he thought of the commercialization of Christian music.  Here’s what he said:

“Well, I think that most of today’s Christian music is based on a thin premise. When you take a pop song and weigh it down with the gospel it sort of cheapens both. The theology is too heavy for the song, and the song usually ends up being too light for the theology. Often I feel like you end up with some sort of fuzzy Christian propaganda that doesn’t do music or the gospel any justice. That’s why I like hymns so much. The early fathers wrote many of the texts to hymns that we sing today. I like that they attach us to our Christian history and remind us of what in our faith is worth preserving. Hymns were written by theologians, not pop stars, and that is why when they are sung, we so tangibly feel the weight of glory.”

And that’s why we love Fernando.

Here’s the link to the rest of the interview.

By the way, if you haven’t listened to his latest album In the Shadow of Your Wings, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  In fact, why don’t we make one of the songs from that album the Song of the Day?  If I get in trouble I’ll take it down.  It’s called “Oh God, You Are My God (Psalm 63).”

 

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


39 Comments

  1. Nate

    Oh… you’re in trouble AP. Just kidding, of course.

    I like what he said about the songs. It is something for me to think about all day. I would say that the same could be said for T-shirts, coffee mugs, and most books and even sermons.

  2. christiana

    When I introduced Fernando the night of his concert with us, I used Andrew’s Rabbit Room answer of what CD you’d take to the Siberian gulag.

    This CD is my most played from the summer while I was out of the country. I listened to it and Ben’s CD regularly, but Fernando’s almost every night as I was getting ready to go to sleep. The richness of the hymns and scripture quieted my heart.

  3. Paula Shaw

    Oh Fernando, Fernando, Fernando! I fall in love with God all over again every time I listen to one of his CDs. (Yes, I do have them ALL!) And I don’t need to explain why I have them all….for the same reason I have all of AP’s CDs! God speaks to me on sooooo many levels through music lyrics, and the way they fit with the music that is arranged. Both FO and AP, and the folks who help them arrange their music and play it are so in tune with the impeccable ways in which God wants to touch people that it just all falls into place there in their CDs. It’s really cool to realize that each little nuance is meant to do something in someone somewhere on this planet! Thanks to all of those who, like Fernando Ortega and Andrew Peterson, try to remain open to Holy Spirit.

  4. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Fernando, along with AP and his cohorts, is one of the few I consistently recommend. I must have bought at least 7 or 8 of his last record (I did the same with The Far Country) to give away. Shadow is one of my favorite recordings ever, and Fernando’s best so far in my book. When I put that cd on there’s nowhere to go but straight into the arms of God.

    I wish more of the Christian music world had Fernando’s respect for hymns. It seems sometimes that we are awash in a sea of “Oh Jesus you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind hey Jesus, hey Jesus.”

  5. Matt Algren

    Great, Ron. Now somebody has to record that.

    I’m a big fan of this album. Quite seriously, this is Fernando Ortega’s Mona Lisa.

    It’s wonderfully constructed. The songs are great alone, but put together in this way, they’re a great worship service in song cycle form. The song Andrew has up is easily my favorite.

    Ortega did a second version of “Sing To Jesus” on the album. It’s beautifully piano based rather than the previous guitar (on his album “Storm”, and Alison Krauss sings backup. (When Alison freaking Krauss is singing backup, you know the song is a winner.)

    And I so into the pulse of the hidden last track that I didn’t recognize the melody for about a year after I got the album. I was kind of absentmindedly listening to it one day and thought the chord progression sounded familiar. Then I listened to it with a silly grin on my face.

    I are dumm.

  6. Andy Stager

    Hilarious, Ron…and spot on.

    And FO is spot on, and very eloquent, regarding the way pop music and its musical and lyrical idioms prove brittle when attempting to bear the weight of the Holy One of Israel. And, like FO says, that’s not to diss pop music, b/c its idioms are almost tailor-made to express many of the pleasures and frustrations that make mundane life livable, or almost unlivable, depending on the circumstances.

  7. Joshua Keel

    I don’t really know much about Fernando Ortega. I’ll definitely give his stuff a listen.

    This line from the interview gave me pause, though:

    “Hymns were written by theologians, not pop stars, and that is why when they are sung, we so tangibly feel the weight of glory.”

    I think he’s giving the theologians a bit much credit there, and the pop stars not enough. Pop stars are theologians, too. Theologians didn’t create that sense of the weight of glory.

    I know Fernando’s comment was probably just off the cuff, but there are some people out there who seem to think that Christian songs should be written only by the theologians who have all their swans swimming in the proper circles.

  8. Paul H

    I have felt funny/frustrated with modern CCM pop culture and really could not put it into words, like he has. I just found myself turning off the local Christian music station more and more because it felt like water torture to hear “that” one song ..one… more… time.
    That is how I found AP (along with the Square Pegs Alliance, through Caedmon) and Jill Phillips music so rich and less fluff and containing more substance.
    Now the rest is history, this site has introduced me to Randall, Andy’s of all kinds, Ron, and many more. I have not owned a Fernando CD yet but I have him down on my wish list for sure now.

  9. Aaron Roughton

    That’s why I won’t let my kids sing silly songs like Jesus Loves Me. They only sing ancient hymns. In new testament Greek. No light theology around here…I mean, as far as we can tell, since we don’t know how to translate the Greek.

    Don’t get me wrong…I think most of the “accessible” Christian music today sucks, an IS based upon a “thin premise…” It’s designed to sell and make money for the “pop starts” that present it. But to say that Christian theology or the truth of the gospel is too “heavy” to be presented in a pop style is ridiculous. Maybe the bible should still be in Latin.

  10. Tony Heringer

    “Christian songs should be written only by the theologians who have all their swans swimming in the proper circles.”

    Props for that last bit “all their swans swimming in the proper circles.” As a member of an uptight denomination I give a hearty amen to that turn of phrase.

    Ron, you clever devil! We finally have a use for that awful Toni Basil song. I was cracking up at that song this summer while watching an 80’s video music retrospective. Between that and Pete’s Springsteen post I’ve been recalling a lot of that decade of late.

    As much as I appreciate hymns, I’d say you need a broader palette to paint from that just theological treatise. Simple pop songs can have a profound effect on us. For no other reason than to just bring us some joy. “I got sunshine, on a cloudy day.” When you hear “My Girl” you want to snap your fingers not gaze at your navel.

    As a good pastor friend of mine used to say “either its all sacred or none of it is.” Charles Ryrie said “everyone is a theologian—of one sort or another” which is an echo of Lewis who said the only reason for “good philosophy” is “bad philosophy.” Sometimes, a simple song, even a simple, silly song (with Larry?) is all I need to hear; other times its “A Mighty Fortress” or “Be Thou My Vision.” There is room for both.

    Selah

  11. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    This thread has a little of everything. It’s so much fun to be a part of a place like this in which everybody doesn’t sit around all day drinking Kool-Aid. Props to Andy and Fernando for the initial post, Joshua Keel for the “all their swans swimming in the proper circles,” reference, and Ron Block for the Toni Basil lyric modification. Ron, I think you should cover that in your next project. The banjo version, of course.

  12. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    It’s important to not take Fernando’s comments too extremely, as if he’s saying “All Christian music, except for old hymns, is bad.” He said he listens to AP and Sara Groves – they give theology a pop (in a very loose and tasteful sense) sensibility. And Fernando himself writes songs. I took it this way – Christian music needs to be written by committed, Word-loving, Christ-following, God-trusting believers. And they need to excel at the music part of it as well as the theology part. That means studying music, and studying the Bible. Being honest, transparent, and committed to proper marriages of lyric with melody and harmony, and having the right setting for the theology. Of course, there are absolute elements to this, and subjective ones as well. But if believer-musicians are committed to Christ, to studying the Word, and committed to excelling (like some of the people we are discussing) it will show in the music. Fernando’s ‘Shadow’ and AP’s latest record are two great examples of Christians committed to musical and Biblical excellence.

    We cannot be strong believers without having a strong knowledge of Biblical theology, and we certainly cannot be Christian songwriters without doing our best to be as Biblical as possible.

  13. Tony Heringer

    Curt,

    Do you remember that Steve Martin routine about the banjo back in the 70s? “Nobody can play a depressing song on the banjo. Here, I’ll try ‘Oh death and grief and sorrow and murder.'” The whole time he’s smiling bigger and bigger. Then he goes on to say “I think Nixon would stil be in office if he just played the banjo. I’d like to talk about politics but first a litte Foggy Mountain Breakdown ” Then he breaks into song.

    But, lest you think Martin was just using this fine intrument as a prop, here he is on Letterman with Earl Scruggs and many others playing: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5856533002813741743&ei=81TdSIiKFqGI-gGR3qmiCw&q=steve+martin+earl+scruggs&vt=lf&hl=en

    All that to say, its seems, based on Mr. Martin’s theory that the Toni Basil song is banjo ready. 🙂

  14. Nate

    I want to take the Fernando comment and run, run, run. It is absolutely, absolutely necessary that we be in the business of redeeming whatever it is we do. God created the world and everything in it and declared it “very good” (not just good, but very good.) We have a cultural mandate to fill the earth and subdue it, to raise up everything to be God-glorifying.

    That is not just our immortal souls. It is our work, our families, our relationships, our music, everything. Being a Christian singer (or doctor) is not enough. We must make Christ supreme and work to make everything we do glorifying to him. We must remember the pre-fall state of the world – or imagine it anyway – and strive for a redemption back to that. Of course it will never happen fully “this side of eternity” as they say, but if we are to be Christians – little Christs – we must be working to redeem everything. For God is in the process of redeeming it all with his church.

    I’m sorry. I’m on my soapbox. Its just that what Ortega says is like a gateway or a giant signpost that can point us the right way. They only come along every now and then.

  15. John Michalak

    I first saw AP live when he opened up for Fernando back in 2000. AP and FO are two of the greatest influences on me as a musician, and Fernando, especially, has helped create a passion in me to communicate music in a quiet, simple sense, reducing the clutter and communicating to the soul in a deep, organic way. There are lots of great musical styles out there, but that’s the kind that speaks to me in the strongest sense. Certainly, theological forethought is a major contributor to its strength as well.

  16. Seth Ward

    I’m not sure simple or thin “pop” isn’t a proper or effective medium for “heavy” theology. After all, many of our most loved hymns are simplified forms of the rich and complex chorals in the germanic tradition – and “How Great Thou Art” ain’t that old…

    The most profound statements of poetry are often considered so ingenious because the poet finds the simplest way to express them -like “Jesus Loves Me,” -the great theologian, Karl Barth’s favorite hymn. And since pop music exists in mostly simple forms, if done with skill and artistry, the two can mix nicely. I think what Fernando said was just a nice way of saying that some, if not many, CCM songs are just written by bad poets, mediocre musicians, and fourth-rate theologians. Sort of, “Its not ALL their fault, pop music just doesn’t lend itself…”

    He gave a pretty logical reason for this but it comes with too many exceptions to seal the deal for me. Pop isn’t intrinsically cheap or “thin” just as rock and roll isn’t intrinsically sexual. The same thing was said of Christian Rock Music in the 70s. “How can that devil-sex music with a drum-beat be Christian?”

    It’s just that there is such a thing as bad music and bad poetry, and it just happens to saturate a genre or “business” that probably shouldn’t exist in the first place. I often wonder, is there such a thing a “Christian Industry?” Doubt it, unless you’ve got some kinda’ biiiiig corporate baptismal.

    If Christian music were excepted and tested upon its artistic merits alone, rather than played and excepted because they are just “Christian,” then we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. However, because it is considered by many believers to be an “alternative,” much of it gives of the artistic taste of any other alternative, like Sweet’n’low or Equal. (Haven’t listened to it in a while, it might be better since last time I listened, but from what he’s said, I fear the opposite.)

    The question is, who is to judge what is good or bad? Well, the hymnal is a pretty good example of how that works, which is why we all love them so much. Time is pretty much the best jury for what stays and what is thrown in crapper.

  17. Paul B

    I don’t own a single Ortega album, but I’m very interested in getting one. Could someone suggest a good’n for me?

  18. euphrony

    “When I put that cd on there’s nowhere to go but straight into the arms of God.”

    Ron – I couldn’t have said it better. I’ve listen to Fernando Ortega’s music for the last seven or eight years and feel the same way. It’s like his music invites me to submit to silence and peace and allow my voice to calm and God’s to be heard. Every time. And that’s a beautiful feeling.

  19. Stacy Grubb

    I first heard Fernando Ortega’s music because I was checking out the “friends” of a favorite artist of mine on My Space. I often find that I really enjoy the music of people who people I enjoy the music of enjoy the music of…….uhhhh…..what was I saying? I was blown away and drawn in at the same time. What a smoooooooth voice this man has. Effortless.

    I think I do understand where he’s coming from with that statement. I’m always the first to champion for the different genres that can exist within Christian music, but to me, I don’t think it’s the sound that he’s talking about so much as the substance. I’ve seen it many times on songwriter showcasing websites where songwriters will post one song that’s about God and the Christian life and the next song is about his favorite bar and picking up women there. It goes without saying that the Christian-themed song was written for the sole purpose of attracting a certain crowd and the lyrics are full of cliches and “write by numbers” phrases. I grew up listening to Christian pop, rock, and even rap, though. I don’t think it’s an inherently vapid way to enjoy Christian music, nor do I believe that’s what Ortega was saying. I doubt I would’ve been listening to music at all if not for the Christian artists making music that appealed to me. CMT and MTV weren’t allowed in my house. It was also music that I wasn’t embarrassed to play on my own stereo in my car with friends who didn’t get any exposure to Christian teachings, otherwise.

    Years ago, there was an artist whom I really, really loved. I loved his songs (many were written by him), his voice, his delivery…all of it. Then he decided to cross over into country. That was disappointing, but the most disappointing of all was that he crossed over using the very same songs he’d written seemingly talking about his relationship with God and put a spin on them so that it became a relationship with a woman. He eventually went back to Christian music, but I never bought another CD of his. That has forever left a bad taste in my mouth and, I suspect, is one type of situation Ortega was talking about that exists within Christian pop.

    Stacy

  20. Profile photo of Stephen Lamb

    Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    According to Christianity Today, Fernando’s first Christmas album, Christmas Songs, is releasing this year, and it includes a new version of his song Jesus King of Angels.

  21. easton crow

    My father (now in his 60’s) grew up in a church where the same hymns were sung in the same dull way every dull Sunday with no particular reason given as to why they were sung except that you have to sing before the sermon or it doesn’t count as church. Now that he goes to a church where worship is the culture and music is done with joy, he loves the singing and says, “I could never sing another hymn in my life and be very happy.”
    I grew up singing hymns with people who loved to sing. The pastor played the accordion while one deacon played the fiddle and the other the trombone. Yeah, a strange ensemble, but it worked. my father and I go to the same church now, and we both find peace and balance in a worship that recognizes that there is 2000 years of worship music out there, and it isn’t just the warm up for the sermon.
    That said, I love singing a modern song like “Blessed be the Name” and “Trust and Obey” makes me want to rip out my vocal chords.
    Not sure this actually contributed to the topic, but thanks for letting me ramble for a minute.

  22. Josh

    The argument isn’t style vs. style. It’s lyrical and musical excellence vs. cheap cookie cutter pop hookiness. It’s the lyrics that are the focus of these songs, not what they sound like or how much emotion the worship leader puts into his voice when he sings them. The message and wording of the old hymns across the board puts modern praise songs to shame. When all of our prominent worship leaders are putting out songs consisting of two or three lines repeated endlessly that tells me that someone’s not really trying that hard. It’s hard to write a good solid meaningful song that captures the essence of any particular aspect of God’s character. Which is precisely why i think there should be a higher standard of lyrical content among the people who are releasing praise music for the church at large. We don’t give just any joe off the street a national stage to present their theology and teaching because if the wrong person gets in that position it could be bad for those who young in their faith and easily swayed. Music is equally powerful in its ability to influence people’s beliefs, so why do we let anyone who can play three chords have a giant and powerful medium to present questionable theology to the masses?

    Easton I fear that you’re letting your distaste for a particular church get in the way of the bigger picture. It’s not about song vs. song or style vs. style. It’s about holding the artists who claim to be image bearers of Christ to a higher standard than what they’re being held to now.

    That’s precisely why i’m so thankful for the Square Pegs, Pierce Pettis, Bob Dylan, U2, etc. They reperesent a standard of excellence that I wish more musicians in the popular PW sect would aspire to.

  23. Profile photo of Curt McLey

    Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Tony wrote:

    Do you remember that Steve Martin routine about the banjo back in the 70s?

    Yes. 🙂 And most of the rest of his routines. He hit it big my freshman year of college.

  24. Aaron Roughton

    Josh, I think Fernando IS making a stylistic argument. I think he’s saying that a pop style is not capable of carrying what he deems a “heavy” theological content. I’ll say it again…I think that’s ridiculous. And I think it’s completely subjective.

    Your argument that the “message and wording of the old hymns across the board puts modern praise songs to shame” is also subjective. Even though I tend to prefer hymns over modern worship songs, I don’t think that my opinion in any way makes the hymns the better choice for worshiping the creator. I think that truth and beauty can be found in both.

    And…really? We don’t give any joe off the street a national stage to present their theology and teaching? What about any Joel? I dare say that the worse the theology and teaching the bigger the stage they get.

  25. Josh

    I just don’t see this as a stylistic argument. The original quote said Christian pop is based on a thin premise where the theology is too heavy for the song and the song too light for the theology. That has nothing to do with the style, but rather with the motiviation. When the industry pressures writers to be crowd friendly and marketable, then it squelches any probability of it being deep and meaningful. Now i’m not saying it’s impossible to write a simple pop song with a deep and meaningful message, i’m only saying that the ones who have the biggest stage to present their stuff aren’t coming anywhere close to the mark.

    I never said one or the other was more acceptable to corporate worship. I think the repetitive choruses have their place, but the place they’ve been given is a lot bigger than what they deserve.

    And i hate how this always turns into hymns vs. praise songs. I like a lot of praise songs that are out. I like God of Wonders, I Will Lift My Eyes, Mighty to Save, etc. Those are good songs. My point was that there aren’t very many prasie song writers who are going much beyond surface level, emotinoal, fluff in their writing. They’re purposely writing minimalistic lyrics because that’s what’s easy. And the American church is screaming for ease over content today.

  26. Josh

    And the whole giving people a big stage was a bad example. But Osteen is a perfect example of how shallow our faith is getting. We live in the “entertain me” generation and it seems people want entertainment more than truth these days. They want health and wealth instead of faith and wonder. I think our pop culture, which is in a large part driven by the most disposable trends of the time (music?), is destroying the young people’s perception of what the church is all about and Osteen is the champion of the “we don’t want the truth” crowd.

    And I agree with your last sentement. The worse the theology, the bigger the exposure. I guess it’s because the wisdom of God is foolishness to people like that.

    I hope i don’t sound like i’m attacking you Easton, i sort of felt like my first comment had that air. I’m sorry if it did. That’s my bad.

  27. Aaron Roughton

    Josh, I guess I just read Fernando’s quote differently. But you’re right on the money, literally, about motivation. Andy Gullahorn said at a house concert that someone in the business suggested to him and Jill that they might consider making a worship album…because they’re selling like hotcakes right now. The biggest stages are given to the people who can appeal to the most people and generate the most cash flow. It leaves the rest of us digging for the more authentic content, and digging even deeper for stuff that is authentic and excellent. But it’s out there…and it’s there in every style imaginable. And like Russ Ramsey pointed out in his post “Truth and Free Stuff,” there are some exciting things happening in the distribution of music that might help to undercut the choke-hold that financial profit has had on good music.

    Thanks for responding.

  28. Aaron Roughton

    I’ve been pondering motivation and integrity more after writing that last response, and it brought something else up. We often talk about the motivation and integrity of the artist here, but what about the consumer? The reason I thought of this was because someone just emailed me and said that I should go see the new Kirk Cameron movie Fireproof to show my support for Christian films. My immediate response was heck no. I fully expect that movie to suck. Bad. The last time I “supported Christian films” was when I saw Left Behind. I did not find it enjoyable. I’m no film expert, but the thing that was left behind was the production budget and acting ability. (My opinion, nothing more.) Yet movies like that seem to explode at the box office because churches buy reels of tickets…some going unused…just to show Hollywood we care.

    It seems like this could be doing a lot more harm than good. Supporting bad art, just because it’s been labeled “Christian” opens the door for more bad Christian art. The labels seem to be the real problem, as noted by Seth (comment #20) when he said that “If Christian music were accepted and tested upon its artistic merits alone, rather than played and accepted because they are just “Christian,” then we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

    But then again, maybe it would put money in the hands of someone who could actually make something beautiful. What do you think?

  29. josh

    Fireproof was like a bad episode of Gilmore Girls. Not worth all the hype. And I agree that it’s ridiculous to support so much bad wor just because it’s labeled Christian.

    And maybe it would put that money in the hands of someone who could make something great. That would be fantasic, but I really wish people would understand that it’s ok to criticise “Christian” art. In my experience people get raging mad at me for saying anything negative about Christian music, movies, etc.

  30. Aaron Roughton

    Josh, when you criticize Christian art, you’re criticizing Jesus.

    And of course I’m joking. I think you’re right. I still think criticism of art is subjective, but I think that both artists and lovers of art need to be willing to hear and accept honest criticism. And because it is subjective, you can’t create something and expect everyone to respond in the same way.

  31. josh

    Oh yea absolutely i think art it definitely subjective, but any objective viewer of Fireproof probably won’t have much good to say about the acting, dialogue, cinematography, etc. But the message and the truth that is presented is excellent. The thing is, the truth doesn’t need any help so it’s always going to be excellent no matter how it’s presented. That’s why it’s the responsibility of the makers of these “christian movies” to strive for excellence in their endeavors of writing, directing, acting, etc. Because the truth will make its statement without our help, all we need to do is be the best we can be at everything else around it.

    I don’t know if that even makes sense.

    What really kills me when I have something negative to say about a “Chrsitian” artist people usually get really defensive and say “well i wonder where their hearts were when they made that”. My whole point all along has been that someone’s heart can be in the right place all day long, but that doesn’t mean that whatever art they may produce is automatically and unquestionably good by all standards. I don’t know if you have ever run into that, but man, i have unintentionally gotten myself in trouble many many times with that sort of thing.

  32. Aaron Roughton

    Absolutely. And I think it extends beyond art. How many people do you know that find Jesus and then decide they’re “called” to be preachers or youth pastors or worship leaders or evangelists…only to find out that they have no gifts in any of those areas whatsoever? It reminds me of the people who audition for American Idol and are furious when the judges won’t let them through. It’s as if they’ve never been told they weren’t meant to sing (for a living) before. It’s as if no one has ever really loved them enough to be honest with them. They were told to “reach for their dreams,” and “if they want anything badly enough, it will come true,” and a bunch of other Disney baloney.

    In contrast to that, I have heard people stop short of excellence because they don’t want people to think that the thing they’re doing or creating somehow comes before Jesus in their lives. In other words, if they’re TOO good at something, they must be focusing on it too much and not on Jesus enough. Ah, the lies we believe.

    And you brought up another great point, which is that the truth of the gospel message is able to stand on its own. That really makes it even more amazing that God allows us to be a part of the work here on earth, whether creatively or otherwise. Thanks for the reminder.

  33. josh

    Man Aaron it’s been really nice to get to vent some frustration to someone who understands where i’m coming from. Most of the time I end up having to defend my position in an endless circle, but now and then it’s nice to just have some say “yea man, i know what you mean”. Thanks for that.

    I guess it is encouraging to know that there are people out there striving to be the best they can be in order to bring glory to God, but at the same time it’s especially sad when, as you said, they fall victim to the lies that stifle creativity.

    This rabbitroom has been so incredibly encouraging to me in my growing understanding of art and creativity and how striving to be the best you can possibly be at it plays into God’s overall glorification of Himself. And it is good to remember that He lets us help because he wants us to, not because He needs us to. Terribly encouraging indeed.

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