We can all agree that Christian pop music is awful, right? I can’t listen to it. If ever the radio stops on the Christian station and I think I’ll just relive my childhood for a minute, I wonder how I ever did it. It sometimes manages to sound vaguely like secular music that was popular a few years ago, but it doesn’t take any risks or break any new ground musically and the lyrics are a trite assembly of cliches. The only genuine emotion you’ll find comes from worship music, a distinct category, most of which suffers from the same problems anyway. The greatest Christian music is still hundreds of years old, which only serves to point out that this is not a religious problem. Religion in general and Christianity in particular have been a vast wellspring of creativity and beauty in art and music. Many of history’s greatest artists were Christian and created religious compositions for religious patrons. Many contemporary Christians are creating wonderful secular art. So why, with few exceptions, is all of our distinctly Christian art, music, and literature today so terrible? That’s a complicated question but it has a simple answer. It isn’t good because it’s not trying to be good. Why not? Because it doesn’t have to be.
For the same reason, the new Star Wars movies are mostly awful. They weren’t necessarily trying to be great movies in their own right. If they are Star Wars enough, people will see them even if they aren’t any good as movies. They just have to fit a certain mold. Even for otherwise talented filmmakers, this puts a burden on the creative process that is difficult to overcome. Recall that the new Star Trek movies, in contrast, were pretty good except for all the fans who thought they weren’t Star Trekky enough.
If you are one of the people who like Christian music, what is it that you like about it? Is it the message? Is it the way it feels wholesome and non-secular? How it puts you in a right mindset? Reminds you of what you believe? That’s what I used to like about it. The most important thing about Christian Music is not that it be music but that it be Christian. It’s value comes from being non-secular, from being something set apart from the world. If it can sound vaguely secular at the same time, that may make it more digestible to some. It’s not foremost a general artistic expression but a service provided to believers. So you end up with various Christian cliches, a rhyming daily devotional set to music. The measure of a song’s worth is not how true or honest or genuine it is (though an occasional real song might slip through) but rather how uplifting or helpful the message is. Those believers who want to create real art just make art, which is necessarily an expression of or about the dominant culture, the world as it is.
It isn’t impossible to have good art or music or literature be about a specific purpose or have a specific message, but when something other than art is the primary goal then the best artists and art won’t be naturally recognized and rewarded. Inferior art with simpler, more encouraging messages will get more attention and praise. Flannery O’Connor is widely considered one of the best authors of the 20th Century. She was a devout Christian and wrote, although obliquely, about Christian truths and themes. But most Christians hated her in her time, and most still wouldn’t know her name, because she was dark and difficult to understand. They didn’t want truth, they wanted a positive, agreeable message. The phenomenon has nearly ruined the Christian subculture’s music and is in the process of destroying mainstream music, literature, comedy, and art as well.
The mainstream has turned not to religious messages but to political ones. The impulse exists on both sides, as ideology everywhere has made advances on thought. The Progressives are the current cultural gatekeepers, so it’s their messages that predominate, but there is no reason to suspect that a Conservative ascendancy would change anything but the content of this particular problem. Comedy shows may have become angrier and more preachy in the age of Trump, outrage that is only funny in its absurdity, but ranting in favor of Trump instead of against him wouldn’t be any better. Nor is it attributable to a lack of skill or creativity. Bad art abounds. There will always be the amatuer, the untalented, the unartistic, the hacks like myself in every field and discipline. I’m not referring to them. I’m talking about those put forward as the elite, the best, the award winning.
I don’t know as much about high art as I would like, but I never hear anyone even attempt to defend it on aesthetics, the way we would Van Gogh or Monet or Michelangelo, who became important and influential because they were first excellent. Rather you first hear about what it says or means, about how edgy or subversive it is. Art can be about those things, but only because it is first more than that, because it first reveals something fundamentally human in us rather than affirming the ideological constructs we build for ourselves.
But I do read and write a lot of literature, so the effect is most obvious to me here. Review any list of award finalists or the next hot books or high profile reading lists. Read the books, if you can, or read critic reviews. You will notice a common theme. What you will find are some great books and some bad books, technically speaking. What you will learn is that the quality of the literature is secondary, if not irrelevant. There may be some passing mention of form or language or plotting or structure, the artistic quality of the prose, but the most important, most qualifying aspect of a novel is the message. Not, lamentably, that the message is thought-provoking or unique or insightful or emotionally resonant (that’s as it may be), but that the message says the right thing. Does it positively portray a stigmatized group or give voice to underserved populations? Does it affirm and advance the current cultural narrative? Those that do receive the largest share of the praise. The problem is not that these are bad messages—it is a good thing to hear new voices and perspectives—but that as with Christian music, a primary focus on message leads to the degradation of the art as a whole. We get what we value. If we value the message above all else, we will drive out those who excel at creating art and end up with those who excel at creating propaganda.