Archives For Steve Turner

Malcolm Gladwell

My favorite podcast—since the day it launched—is Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. I’m always excited when a new episode auto-downloads on my phone, and I rarely let an episode sit an entire day.

This week’s episode is entitled “The King of Tears,” and Gladwell’s premise is that country music is the best genre for connecting with people and eliciting emotional responses. It’s another fantastic episode, but about halfway through, I realized: “Uh oh. He’s wrong on this one.” Here’s why.

It’s the kind of mistake you’d have to be steeped in a certain tradition to recognize, and I happen to fit that demographic. I was raised on CCM (Contemporary Christian Music), a genre which shares the same fatal flaw as country music. And this flaw is tricky. It makes you think the music is powerful and moving, but it’s actually a shortcut. It short-circuits the creative process, and robs the listener of something vital.

What Gladwell loves about country is what people tend to love about CCM: it tells powerful stories. It gets into the details and draws you into a specific situation:

“The thing that pushes us over the top into tears is details. We cry when melancholy collides with specificity. And specificity is not something every genre does well.”

Ok. I’ll follow him most of the way on this point. Details matter for good art. To create in God’s world, we have to dig into the real STUFF of creation. Get our hands dirty. Work with the raw materials. That requires making abstractions concrete. It’s taking an idea and incarnating it—wrapping it in flesh. This is what it takes to make art live.

Travis Tritt

But I refuse to concede that the kind of specificity that country music traffics in is better—or more emotionally attuned—than what rock music (or other genres, for that matter)—offer.

For Gladwell, rock music is subordinate because it tends to be vague and repetitive in subject matter. (That’s an unbelievably broad generalization and far from true in many cases, but let’s let him run for a moment.) So he contrasts the intricate details of country ballads with the “vagueness” of the song “Wild Horses”:

“That’s how you get tears. You make the story so real and the details so sharp and you add in so many emotional triggers that the listener cannot escape…[It’s] far easier just to fall back on the bland cliche that ‘wild horses couldn’t drag you away.’ Country music makes people cry because it’s not afraid to be specific.”

But no.

Country music suffers the same flaw as Contemporary Christian Music, and this is what Steve Turner calls the fatal tendency to SPELL. IT. OUT. Art works by indirection. Art shows more than it tells. A sermon works because a preacher explains a passage or concept in detail. Understanding is a primary goal. But art leads you into contemplation. It’s a journey, an experience, a question, a “what if?”

Many country songs tell stories (sometimes good stories!), and you get to enjoy hearing the story unfold. You can be moved by the story, but you don’t find yourself reflecting, wondering, or soul searching. You’re moved emotionally in the same way that a story out of Chicken Soup for the Soul moves you. It’s all spelled out for you, and you get to respond in a sappy way.

This is the same impulse that has defined CCM. It has to be clear, it has to be positive, and it usually has to invoke God at least 2.5 times per song. There’s nothing wrong with clear communication, but as I’ve written elsewhere, co-opting an art form and making it a vehicle for a sermon diminishes the power of that art form (though it might remain interesting a sermon substitute).

We could also dismantle Gladwell’s argument this way: some of the most emotional music ever written is classical. Can Gladwell (or anyone human) listen to Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” or Bach’s Mass in B Minor or Smetana’s “Moldau” and not well up in tears? Please. It’s incredibly rich emotionally, but the words are not English. There is specificity, but it’s not specificity in the characters or references that create the emotion, it’s the specific relationships between the notes and tones that does the emotional heavy lifting. I’m sorry, but Gladwell’s premise is so demonstrably false.

So what’s the takeaway? I’ve written at length about this over the years, but: Christians ought to be among the most creative people on earth because of our connection to the Creator and because he has called us to continue his work of creation (when God placed the first humans in the garden, their task was to “work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15)). Yet tragically, we have in some senses come to be categorized by a genre of music that shies away from creativity, that values lyrical formulas over artistic craft. I lose interest with country music for this very reason. I love sweet little stories, but if there’s nothing to ponder, if everything has been spelled out and I’ve been told how to think and feel, if there is no mystery to capture my imagination, then I can listen to the song once and move on. And that’s a great definition for bad music.

I’m glad that Malcolm Gladwell tears up when he listens to Garth Brooks, and I thank God that many Christians are inspired when they listen to CCM. But we can do better. And thankfully, we often do.

[While this should go without saying, I’m obviously just sharing my opinion here. Please feel free to happily disagree. And if you want to learn more, I’ve written a ton about these concepts here.]

U2U2 has been extremely influential for a very long time. Not many bands have been major players in the music world for 30 years. And they have earned every bit of their notoriety—not through pop gimmicks, but through dedication to creating inventive and genuine music.

Bring up U2 in Christian company, and you’re likely to receive two polarizing responses: (1) “U2 is amazing! Did you know they’re basically Christian?” or (2) “I can’t believe you listen to them! Don’t you know they’re trying to convince the world that all religions are basically the same?”

How should we think about U2? First of all, let me assure you that even if U2 sings about bad things and promotes a “coexist” agenda, their music is still worth listening to. Their music reflects the creative genius of the Creator, and we can glory in the beauty and creativity that flows out of the remarkable gifts that God has given these men. So it’s not a decision between “They attend three Bible studies a week, so let’s listen in!” and “We need to plug our ears in disgust when they come on the radio!” Music, and all culture, deserves far more appreciation and discernment than this naïve dichotomy offers.

Next, let’s explore the reality that members of U2 see themselves as Christians, and they see their music as an extension of that identity. Music writer Steve Turner writes about listening to a message delivered by Bono and the Edge in the early days of U2 in which they cited Isaiah 40:3 and explained that their purpose as a band is to prepare the way for the Lord. In Turner’s assessment, they have succeeded in this purpose:

“Although any mistakes they have made over the past twenty years have been very public, U2 has expertly created a body of work which draws from the best traditions of modern music, adds something unique and incorporates a vision clearly rooted in the Bible. More than any other act in the history of rock, they have forced God, Jesus, the Bible and a Christian worldview on to the agenda. Rock critics could ignore the Jesus rock of the 1970s (and they did!), but they couldn’t ignore U2; they had to voice an opinion about the values they stood for.”[1]

U2 on stageIf any of this is even remotely true, then we have to acknowledge that U2 are among the most prominent ministers the world has ever seen. Now, you may object by pointing out that you were at a U2 concert and didn’t hear Bono preaching the gospel. But when was the last time you stood up in your cubicle at work and started preaching? When you led a training seminar on safe and ethical business practices, did you start talking about the cross?

We all understand that being a faithful follower of Jesus requires a slightly different approach if you’re working in the public sector than when you’re standing behind a pulpit. We don’t expect Christian contractors to build crosses into people’s newly constructed houses, nor would we expect a Christian who writes presidential speeches to sneak a few “repent and embrace Christ” phrases onto the teleprompter. But we should expect these Christians to be a faithful presence for Christ in every activity, and to point to him through their lifestyle and, when appropriate, their words.

Why should we expect anything different from Christian musicians? We have a tendency to assume that a song is a sermon set to words. It’s not.

And in the case of U2, I don’t think they really need that much slack in this regard. They often introduce explicitly Christian themes into their music. Many of these themes are subtly stated, but I believe that they are all the more powerful for their subtlety. U2 has consistently brought significant gospel truths to the forefront of the music world and been a key player in discussions of these important topics.

But there’s still an important issue to be addressed. Can we really get behind a band that is pushing a “coexist” agenda? That question will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

UPDATE: You might also find this interview with Bono interesting:



[1] Steve Turner, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001) 106.

Christians sometimes think that if we could just get someone rich, powerful, and influential to turn to Christ, then the rest of the world will follow. Most of us have had these thoughts from time to time. If the right movie star or rock star or athlete or politician or philosopher or scientist or whomever could be influenced with the gospel, this person could then reach the world.

The idea is that the influence that this person has built up through her fame will automatically transfer into influence for the gospel. If this person has had the ear of our culture through her songs or athletic skills or political prowess, then won’t everyone want to listen to her talk about her newfound faith?

It’s a nice thought, but probably not.

As rock stars go, few have had more of an influence or enjoyed more name recognition than Bob Dylan. What if we could win him over for Christ? Well, we did. In the late 70s Dylan converted to Christianity and was very outspoken about it. He even recorded a couple of albums that were so heavy in Christian content they made Michael W. Smith sound secular.

In his excellent book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Steve Turner describes what it was like to be at a post-conversion Bob Dylan concert. Dylan sang his songs calling people to repentance and faith in Christ to huge crowds. Did people listen to Dylan singing about Jesus the same way they had listened to him sing about the war or drugs or guys playing the tambourine? No. They booed. They shouted for him to play his older songs.

In Steve Turner’s experience, Dylan’s influence as a musician didn’t transfer directly and proportionately into influence for Christ. People were into the Dylan who sang about peace and a-changin’ times, but they weren’t into the Dylan who sang about Jesus.

Turner explains some of this in terms of our misunderstanding of art. In other words, we think that songs are sermons set to music. Those of us who are more preaching-minded feel that our sermons will be made even more powerful with musical accompaniment, but it just doesn’t work like that. The message is more embodied than spoken. Art works more through indirection than through direct address. I’m not saying that our faith shouldn’t manifest itself in our music, I’m just saying that we shouldn’t expect a song to work in the same way as a sermon. And we shouldn’t expect people to suddenly get behind the Christian message when it comes packaged with folksy guitar, crazy vocals, and a harmonica.

I don’t want to overstate anything. God can and does use whomever He wills. I don’t doubt for a minute that many people were influenced by Dylan’s faith. But I don’t think our hopes for the transformation of the world should be contingent on the conversion of the famous and powerful. As much as we are drawn to this top down approach, it seems that God prefers to work from the bottom up.

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)