Bono Called Out Christian Musicians For a Lack of Honesty. He Didn’t Go Far Enough.

Bono

In a newly-released documentary, U2 singer Bono commented on the lack of honesty in the Christian music industry, saying:

“I would love if this conversation would inspire people who are writing these beautiful… gospel songs, write a song about their bad marriage. Write a song about how they’re pissed off at the government. Because that’s what God wants from you, the truth.”

He’s hit the nail squarely on the head in a way that is both refreshing and revelatory, saying what so many both inside and outside the Church have either realized for years but couldn’t say or struggled to find words for.

He just didn’t go far enough.

It isn’t just the musicians in organized Christian that are guilty of this voluntary editing. No, it’s a far wider virus than that.

The Church itself has an authenticity problem.

The Worship Music Industry (and that’s what it is) much like the modern megachurch worship experience itself, is designed for mass appeal. Despite its very noble core, practically speaking it is fast food, big box store, franchisable product—carefully crafted and marketed pop music for Jesus. It has to be in order to do what it is created to do: engage and move big numbers of people in faith as easily as possible.

The problem is, as smaller churches have continued to die and as that market share been absorbed by massive suburban campuses and gleaming multi-site churches, the pressure to create a weekly, entertaining, crossover spiritual “event” has pushed all complexity out, leaving space for only the very narrowest diversity of faith expressions.

As a result our modern Christian music has devolved into either gushy, effusive love songs to God, or guilt-laden thank you notes to God for rescuing us from our utter depravity.

Those are the hits. That’s the basic playlist. There’s your Top 40. This is the Sunday morning soundtrack.

Complex songwriting containing sincere expressions of doubt, of anger toward God, of any nuanced emotions or thoughts are all but squeezed out, in favor of three-chord, earworm nursery rhymes that can be introduced to congregations and digested in three minutes. The primary question we ask of our Christian musicians isn’t, “Is it true?” or “Is it honest?” or “Is it helpful?”—but “Is it catchy?”

This is not the fault of the artists. Many of them have a great deal to say and the Church would be well blessed if they could say it. They are merely playing the game as one has to play it in order to survive and have success. For nearly two decades I’ve been a worship leader and songwriter in the Church and part of planning Sunday services for large gatherings, and the reality was that ultimately you understood (whether you verbalized it or not) that you were putting on a Sunday production, and entertainment value as much as religious conviction drives it.

There are writers and performers of faith giving voice to the full spiritual experience (Gungor, Jennifer Knapp, Derek Webb, John Mark McMillan among others), but they are either relegated to the periphery of the Progressive Church, selectively harvested for their more palatable compositions, or tolerated in the mainstream, only until their authenticity exceeds what the Church will bear—which isn’t all that much. 

Again, this isn’t a Christian music industry issue. This is true of The Church itself. This is an organized Christianity problem. This is the Church we’ve created, nurtured, and supported; one where pastors and priests and people in the pews all conspire together to maintain a thin veneer of religion concealing a closet full of bones.

We’ve invested all our resources into great curb appeal, all the while the inside of the house is falling apart:

Pastors and speakers, propped up by an expectation of infallibility and a culture of celebrity worship, become more and more reticent about sharing their theological questions, their real-time faith crises, and their general messiness.

Worship Leaders, no longer asked to delve into the deep waters of racism, lust, doubt, or anger, simply wade in the kiddie pool of easy Sunday School psalms, where God is good and we are horrible; second verse, same as the first.

Church attendees, immersed weekly in this conspiracy of inauthenticity, grow to believe that the most they can share with their small group, church friends, and pastors is a sanitized, heavily doctored version of themselves; a closely guarded image that avoids the most jagged of edges.

And it’s a shame all around.

The Church is capable of being a beautifully redemptive community; one where people are invited to bring the full weight of their inconsistency and hypocrisy and vacillation, and to be lovingly received as they are.

It can be a place of limitless restoration and healing and growth, but only when we allow those on the stage and behind the pulpit and in the congregation to be exactly who they are, to ask the truest questions of their hearts, to confront the deepest recesses of their personal darkness.

It should be the very last place that pretending should be required or encouraged.

And the wonderful truth is, a God worthy of worship can totally handle such naked honesty.

It’s sad when we who call ourselves the Church, can’t.

 

 

146 thoughts on “Bono Called Out Christian Musicians For a Lack of Honesty. He Didn’t Go Far Enough.

  1. Don’t know if any of you remember a man named Mike Warnke, a “Christian Comedian” who was quite popular until some real people at Cornerstone outed him as a fraud back in the early 1980’s…

    I liked Warnke a great deal – he was genuinely funny; I remember going to his concerts with a lot of other earnest, clean young Christians and feeling very superior….I remember contributing to his causes, only to find out they were vehicles for enriching himself and his family…

    When Christians retreat behind Christian music, Christian schools, Christian radio, Christian bookstores, only have other like-minded Christians as friends….in an often sincere desire to avoid the corruption of the world – it tends to become very artificial.

    We are asked to walk a balance beam between the Lord and the world…to be in the world but not of the world….and that is very, very hard.

    Listening to Muse – “Unsustainable”, which has a very pertinent message regarding the Earth and its resources….I enjoy all kinds of music from Queen to Earth, Wind and Fire to Johnny Cash to the Requiem in D Minor (‘Dies Irae’ and ‘Lacrimosa’ often reduce me to tears) . I can be just as much as a believer melting over the smoky, soulful baritone of Mr. Michael McDonald (a special creation of God, indeed) as listening to the best hymns…………..

  2. I just discovered this blog. I have to say, you speak the words my soul longs to say. Stay out of other peoples business, love your neighbor, build a relationship with those around you and show your scars, and wounds and the attitude that sometimes grips me so quickly that I don’t even think about holding my tongue. I love this blog!!!

  3. I don’t know… Yes, there are a lot of trite contemporary worship songs (as well as a lot of trite old hymns). But when I came off the road as a professional musician back in the 1980’s and began attending church for the first time (at a Vineyard) as a brand new Christian, I recall being struck by the simple and emotive sincerity of the songs. No, they weren’t theologically robust and yes, they tended to be “gushy, effusive love songs to God” but they enabled people to express their hearts and feel a sense of connection with God. They were often composed by amateur musicians in the congregations and could be easily learned by other amateur musicians and sung by congregants who lacked musical or doctrinal sophistication. In present times, one thinks of the lovely Taize worship songs which, despite (or because of) their “earworm nursery rhyme” quality can engender deeply authentic worship.

    As a Quaker, I’ve found that simple worship songs such as these provide a wonderful way to lead a congregation out of mental busyness and into corporate contemplative silence. That is a purpose to which they are well suited. They may not be well suited to other purposes. The Psalms run the gamut from simple and sappy to happy-clappy to viscerally honest and kvetching to philosophical and even cerebral. There is room and purpose for all of that.

    Perhaps the problem is not with this style or that but with the tendency towards commodification that is so characteristic of Western consumer culture, which squelches originality and churns out marketable derivative product. It is too bad that Christian art so often conforms to that same cultural characteristic.

    • I agree. I don’t know that all Christian music needs to be heart wrenching, soul exposing anguish. Yes, I think that all music should deal with the hard issues, injustices and challenges we face living in this world. But sometimes I just don’t want to listen to endless pain, sometimes I just want some lighthearted pop music. Something to tap my foot to and move on through my day. I don’t know why my expectation of Christian music should be any different.

      I think the challenge becomes if everything that is being produced is fluff. I don’t listen to Christian radio so don’t really know what is being played but I have specific Christian artists that I do listen too. While sometimes I don’t agree with something theological that is expressed in a song, I find the themes addressed tend to be universal. I don’t know how much these artists are played on Christian radio though so whether they represent mainstream Christian music or not is up for grabs.

      I also like Taise, sometimes the repetition is calming and can be helpful when dealing with stress…as can Gregorian Chants. 🙂

    • I think what you are saying here is what Gore Vidal meant when he said that we here in America have a “second rate culture.”

      —or maybe it was third rate.

  4. @Petra Luna: So one is only to come into the presence of God if one is happy, bubbly and peachy-keen??? I think an Eternal, N-Dimensional, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Being knows if someone is bleeding raw from a loss of a relationship, a job, a financial setback, death of a beloved person/pet, or other devastating blow…and I think such a Being can more than handle our hurt, our pain, our ANGER…God desires TRUTH AND HONESTY in our worship – and maybe that just might mean extending the middle finger in rage and pain. God would rather that true emotion be expressed than some sicky-sweet, saccharine, false ‘Jesus praise chorus’.

    The Laodecians in Revelation were called out for being LUKEWARM – neither HOT NOR COLD. God prefers ANGER to INDIFFERENCE.

  5. While we are on the subject of Christian music—its power—its lack of power—its evacuated condition, please come over to my blog and take the brief Jesus Test. It is based on a short video clip that combines the power of music, words, and visuals. H ere is the link at my blog:

    https://faith17983.wordpress.com/

    Did it affect you the same way it did me?

    • Dover I agree with the run away fast part. I am going to say something controversial but true. Maybe it is because I am a gay women and I always end up telling people, even Christians who are not affirming about myself, because they won’t let up with the dating thing. Those are all good points but If you want to stay in a church that says the Bible is infallible without paradox and mystery and think your questions will ever been answered or addressed be prepared for outright hatred and coldness backed up by the most condemning verses one can find in the Bible. At first this is done in a passive-aggressive way. Smiles to the face and condemning sermons from the pulpits. This is war for some; a life and death battle and you are Satan’s tool not a human being. (when you are are told this to your face looking in to eyes of stone) you will experience it, but be prepared and go to Jesus and trust him when you are dealt with in the most despicable way because he experienced this very same thing. No one should be put in a position to be bitten and poisoned by a viper.

  6. @dover1952: I’ve always known that the story of Jesus is one that gets told again and again….even in spite of the Church; you clip regarding Kal-el was very moving.

    Other tellings of the Story I can think of: Disney’s ‘Hercules’, when he dives into Hades’ waters to rescue the soul of his friend Meg, and instead of dying, rises up a god, giving Hades a good sock in the jaw and knocking Hades into the River of Death.

    The ‘Thor’ movies also contain the Story; Thor, Odin’s son, is a champion of humankind, gives his life for and fights for humanity.

    One might argue that I’m reading the Story of Jesus into these things …but I think it’s because it’s there; the entire Creation is designed to tell this marvelous Story, if we are willing to read it

  7. I think people who seek churches are often in pain and seek to feel uplifted. Music can do that. It is not that they don’t know they’re broken or can’t admit they are; they need something to hang onto. That thread you spoke of this week. Music in general, not just Christian music, can do that. We hear enough negativity everywhere in the world. Church is refuge, sanctuary, a safe harbor. If church music focused on what is wrong in the world, they would not offer hope and positivity. If they can’t offer love and hope despite the pain and suffering in the world, what is their role?

    • I appreciate this Dawn. I know many places other than the church which offer love and hope. For some it is family, friends, AA, self help books, a counsellor, a retreat, a good night out, holding your grandchild and so on. I can best describe our role as ‘called out’ to be ambassadors of the Kingdom of God telling others about the story of Jesus that God wants us and grace is Freely given to all even while they are doing wrong or making mistakes. In the kingdom there is no war or suffering; each person has a place to call thier own, people are cared for and all are invited; all are welcome, we are forgiven, no one is despised. The church is each of us; everyone at different levels of knowing Christ, even those who have not met Jesus if they join us is doing this new thing called grace, forgiving our enemies eating with strangers they will meet Jesus one day and be amazed. The church is not some building with a corporate statement and order of service. That idea of church models the old temple system. Yes there are times I have been uplifted by beautiful songs and other times no matter how beautiful the song I still feel pain and my brokenness and I simply need a quiet comforting place to rest more often that not it is found sitting by a stream watching children play and ducks splash around.

      • Or just watching a baby, period…watching a very young baby with his/her hands extended or smiling in sleep…a baby waving his/her limbs in sheer exuberance, or making various baby sounds….learning to crawl….

        Watching young animals and young children interacting is quite restorative, indeed!

  8. I have been reading the comments here and have mixed views on what I’m reading. I am going to the 3rd church in my life and I think this maybe the one for the rest of the journey. First Catholic, second Lutheran, now a bible fellowship church. This for me is what I have been looking for. A church that believes the bible is the word of God, inspired and without error, and the final authority for faith and life. The small group I go to is close and we can talk about anything. I’ve learned more about the bible in the last year than I have in my previous 50. To many churches today are bending the bible to make everybody happy. Reinterpreting it so more people may feel that what they are doing is not sinful because of the church changing its view. The bible is the bible it is the truth. No one should be excluded from the church for what they do or who they are but sin is sin it needs to be acknowledged by that person to God and ask for help and forgiveness. God is coming again and hes coming to judge. I enjoy the Christian music but I only use it to get me in the right frame of mind to hear the word. Personally that’s my goal in church. To hear the word. To learn the word. To try and live the word even though most days I fall way short. Some days when I’m listening to Christian music and things aren’t going well it gets me refocused and thinking about what I’m doing and get me acting the right way.

    • That is great Paul, I wouldn’t want you to change anything that helps you. We are all looking for something and we find places of worship that fit us. The same could be said for all churches. People have been hurt and helped in every single denomination. The difference is fundamentalism has not been around as long as some of the older churches you are talking about. The Anglican church for example is much older, therefore they have had time to reflect and repent of the mistakes they made. The Anglican church reads from the Bible every week, they take sin and confession seriously, they have weekly bible studies and groups and Vespers (which is a weekly prayer gathering)

      The way I look at it churches are mini-conventions held every week by believers. The real church is happening where we live in our daily lives; at home, at work, in the shopping mall, at the movie theatres, in the restaurant and gyms and playgrounds. We are the church to the world and how we welcome them matters.

      • Kathy: Yes!!!!

        Church should be the ONE PLACE where the ‘unpopular’/’unattractive’/’weird’/’nontraditional’/what have you are WELCOMED.

        I think there is so much anger at the Church when people find that it’s just ANOTHER CLIQUE that rejects them – another place for the svelte, the pretty, the popular, etc, to dominate…I found in the railings of George Carlin and even Christopher Hitchens an anger and a disappointment – the Church should be unique and not a regurgitation of all the foibles of human society.

        Perfect? No.

        Different? Yes.

        • Mrs Yattwood. It’s interesting you mentioned George Carlin and Christopher Hitchens two critics of religion and Christianity that I grew to admire and adore. Not because I agreed with everything they said, but because they were earnest, authentic and thoroughly witty. I often winced at their comments but the wincing does good to the heart. Keeps us humble, eh? We need critics those brilliant minds who cut through all the garbage. Yet, they often get torn down. I think that takes its toll. all my best to you.

  9. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There is room for all types of music. Most importantly music that praises and worships our God. Yes have songs of the reality of life, but don’t ever be afraid or ashamed to lift not only your voice, but your entire being to praise and worship your creator. For no other reason, than He is God.

  10. I have heard one song that encompasses everything this article talked about. It’s by Brian McKnight and it’s called, ‘Oh, Lord’. It is one of the most honest and truthful songs I ever heard and it resonated with me. Another is ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ from Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s honest, deep with conflicting feelings. I truly do wish people would be more honest with their walks with God. It is messy. It is painful. There is loss of hope and sometimes wondering if God even hears us.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jShU-5XeqZA < Brian McKnight
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lS2nX4fuzqc < Jesus Christ Superstar

    Listen to the songs. This is what we need.

  11. Our church, Home Community Church in Turlock, California, has transitioned into singing almost completely “secular” songs in the last few years. “Let It Be”, “Ali In The Jungle” (The Doors), “Beautiful Day”, “Getaway” and “Release” (Pearl Jam), “Uprising” (Muse), “Wash It All Away” (Five Finger Death Punch), “Best of You”, “These Days”, “I Am A River”, (Foo Fighters), “All The Same” (Sick Puppies), and the list could go on.

    These songs are truly authentic and give value to the real human experience, crying the hurt and the beauty, the pain, sorrow, and triumph, the anger, frustration, and joy.

    It is truly an incredible experience to hear an absolute hush, a quietness that pierces the soul, after “Beautiful Day” has just been rocked.

    Essentially, we’re finished with “Christian Music.” It’s cliche-filled and sounds like the identical song on a loop and doesn’t speak in any way at all to the human experience.

    Thank you to true spiritualists such as Paul McCartney, Bono, Dave Grohl, and others, and thank you to an audience of authentic people who allow me to tell them I had a couple of incidents during the week that made me lose my temper or made me wanna quit, and rather than looking at me in horror, nod their heads, acknowledging, “Me too.”

    I don’t know if a church like ours can survive, but if it can’t, I’d rather not “do church.”

    • Yes!

      I’ve recently discovered Muse; been playing ‘The Second Law’ again and again…

      I just don’t fit into any church I’ve ever been a part of…

      • yattwood….

        I think that’s where we’re all at in our spiritual community. It’s “Last Chance Cafe” for nearly all of us as far as church goes. Bands like “Muse” are modern psalmists (in my opinion), and Foo Fighters are my favorite. “Pretender” LITERALLY changed my life.

  12. Bono is very real in what he has perceived and judged as Christian contemporary music and the commercialism of salvation in our churches and with all sincerity I see where he is coming from with exception to the mega churches .He has no issues with mega venues which he entertains millions of U2 fans and all the while racking in millions of dollars so why can’t mega churches have the same impact on sinful humans looking for Christ in a large buildings with whatever music God lays on their hearts to share with the lost and weary ?

    God is able to meet us wherever we are broken and in the greatest need but make no mistake , we are all called to repent and be born again

    it’s not about us it’s all about His kingdom & His righteousness > how we find it is up to each person.

  13. Worship in its true form has nothing to do with us but it is all about God.
    “Holy holy holy is the Lord God almighty, who was and is and is to come” …. The worship seen in heaven was 100% about how great and awesome God is. And we have a special love song for Him of our redemption, but it’s all about Him. 🙂

    I think you can have true songs about real issues and trusting God thru the midst of them. But worship vs a Christian song is a very big difference.

  14. All of these are exactly the reasons why I’ve left organized religion behind. I’m absolutely fed up and disgusted with everything in “church” being so fake.

    Just as bad is when you try to point it out and everyone inside the church walls act like you’re a ghost.

  15. The problem is that you are asking people who are exploiting people’s fears and uncertainty to be honest. That’s like asking a lion to be a vegetarian.

    Religion is a profound metaphor that has been drawn as a 2 dimensional cartoon. There is no god, no sin, no heaven, nor hell, but what we create for ourselves.

  16. It was at a Life In The Spirit seminar that I was changed and inspired to write music that glorified God. Indeed it has a place. Songs which reflect our struggles in life and which display injustices and corruption etc, also have a place as these are what we should be fighting with for retaining human dignity. The 60s had a few among the folk singers then. Unfortunately a dark phase in air play management has put an end to such songs. I am currently in the throws of writing this kind of music and will try to put it out there.Making money is not as important as getting the message out there. As Christians we are required to challenge the status quo as Jesus did.

  17. I disagree with Bono. Christian songs should be about the glory of God and who He is, and not about our feelings. The music should lead us to praise the One who is greater than us, than our circumstances. The Psalmists were no different. I don’t what to listen to “Christian” artists go off on how pissed and angry they are in songs. We have secular music to cover that. As Christians, we are dying to our sinful nature daily and walking the narrow path. That is why I need to listen to music that points me to the love and truths of God. What Bono is saying is to be truthful without love, which is from the enemy.

  18. You’ve got some fair points here. I’m not sure we would see eye-to-eye on the purpose of the worship service or its design. But maybe. I’d be interested in a conversation on those lines.

    What frustrates me is that it seems like you’re punching the Bride, and then pointing out her black eye. You say we are all part of the problem (and you include yourself), and then you shout, “See, look! There’s the problem!” Makes for good blog traffic, but is it helpful? Is it profitable for the Church? Where do we begin to exhort our congregations to change? It sounds like your point is simply, “Hey, Church, you’re a pretty sad excuse for what Church should be.” That’s not exhortation: it’s accusation.

    You say you’re tired of singing songs about how good God is and how terrible we are? I’m tired of blogs (and comments) that do the same thing.

    You have a voice, and you have a great following. Some of the comments from your followers are more along the line of talking about how we can inspire/encourage/motivate/convict ourselves and our brothers and sisters to change. That’s where we need to focus our efforts and our words.

  19. Very interesting discussion on this. John, have a question – what would you suggest “Christian music” sound like or look like? If you are going to criticize what is going on, and rightly so in some venues, then please present an alternative – don’t just suggest it – please give us something that we can see or understand; because I find great depth and doctrine and comfort in many of the older hymns of the faith. Ignorance about the authors and the stories behind the reasons for those hymns is not an excuse for the “church” today to not use them wisely and to worship. There also seems to be a lot of criticism towards everyone in the comments on this blog – but I thought progressives were supposed to be “tolerant” about all things!! Am I wrong?

    Thanks for your insights.

  20. You and Bono must not be listening to the right genres or artists in Christian music. Take a look at Red, Flyleaf, Skillet, kutless, switchfoot, POD. These bands share a harsh real look at life and all the problems that it has. Maybe instead we should remember that the “mega-church” draws more people to God and a message of hope than the dying little church. You might not like it but truth doesn’t concern itself with you liking it – the truth is the truth.

    Before casting stones – remember why you are really here. Share hope and help those find Jesus, if you do that effectively at any level regardless of your personal shortcomings then you are doing God’s work PERIOD.

  21. Dear John
    My name is Maher Eldaba
    I’m an Egyptian and I teach Psychology at the American University in Cairo and I’m a visiting lecturer at NYU.
    I read and enjoy your blogs constantly.
    I would like to send you my latest book, it’s titled: The Christian Atheist
    We agree on so many of your ideas and concerns especially with regards to Fundamental Christianity.
    Please send me an address to which I can send you a copy of my book.
    Best regards
    Maher

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