Critiquing Critiques of Criticism

[Note: This post was inspired by my friend Lisa’s blog about worship music criticism.]

I remember the first time I criticized worship music. It was in kindergarten. We would sing this song where half the class would jump up and sing “praise ye the Lord,” then as they sat back down the other half would jump up and sing “hallelujah!” I decided it was shallow and repetitive, and as I recall we sang it all the time.
Fast-forward to the new millennium. I was a late-bloomer in terms of modern music, but I had embraced CCM (or “Contemporary Christian Music,” for the uninitiated) when I first heard Jesus Freak as a 12 year old. I’d amassed quite a collection of dc Talk, Jars of Clay, Caedmon’s Call, Third Day, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, and Five Iron Frenzy among many others. But now everyone was putting out worship albums and this made me really uncomfortable. How does one sell worship? What makes “worship music” different from “regular” CCM? On the former issue, I decided this was bandwagon profiteering; on the latter, it seemed pretty clear that worship music was simpler and more emotional.
Verdict delivered.
And with that, I all but walked away from CCM. Now a decade later, all I listen to is secular music, and even though I play on a couple worship teams regularly, I still think it’s some of the most artless music being made. And that bugs the crap out of me.
This is the point where I would normally lay out my evidence and try to bring you to the dark side. But instead I’d like to relate another experience that happened to me over Thanksgiving vacation.
My mom is a Pride & Prejudice fanatic (BBC version only, of course) and I’m not ashamed to admit that I love it, too. We watched the whole thing at least twice over Thanksgiving, and one scene struck me like never before, even though I knew it well. Darcy and Bingley are commenting on a party they went to the night before. Bingley was his usual, agreeable self, while Darcy was quite the opposite. And the exchange went something like this, “You know Darcy, I’ll never understand why you’re so determined to find fault with everything.” Darcy replies, “And I shall never understand why you’re so quick to approve of everything.”
One of the more life-changing discoveries of my time in seminary is the concept of paradigm shift, and how raw data doesn’t prove anything and may be interpreted differently under different overarching theories. And here it was before me: Darcy and Bingley saw all the same things, but they had already decided before they arrived what data they would privilege above the rest to validate their theories.
I am a critic. I always have been, and I think it is a gift from God. But this doesn’t mean I have to be a jerk, or that criticism has to define me. There are times when you have to turn off the switch. There are times when you need a Darcy in the room, and plenty of others when you don’t.
Afterward, we were making the 18-hour drive back from Michigan to Texas… which has now stretched to 24 once you add baby feedings… and I decided I would listen to Christmas music the whole way. “The verdict” had been passed on Christmas music many years ago, but I could tell that my Grinch-heart had grown a few sizes. I chose to enjoy the music, chose to see its worthier aspects and filter otherwise just criticism. And darned if I wasn’t happy. What’s more, I learned a lot about Christmas on that drive that almost 30 years of church hadn’t taught me. (I was going to blog about that on Christmas. Oh well. Maybe soon?)
I still haven’t exactly reconciled with CCM. I still think the Newsboys’ greatest triumph was 1996’s “Take Me to Your Leader,” although I haven’t heard their latest offering. But I’m learning that how I feel about this music is a decision I make, most likely before I even push play. And I’m convinced that there is a godly way to wear either Darcy’s hat or Bingley’s and maintain my integrity. And to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind seeing through Bingley’s eyes more often.
I recently heard Dr. Bingham observe that the Scopes Trial greatly embarrassed evangelicalism, and that many of our ranks feel that same embarrassment now when science and traditional readings of Scripture seem to conflict. Perhaps Baby Boomers struggle with this most; I’m not sure. But I’m inclined to think my generation is reacting the same way to more artistic and cultural concerns. We’re quick to judge music, movies, novels, dress, etc. not because we’ve thought through all the issues and are imposing godly standards in godly ways, but because we’re embarrassed. So we make fun of each other lest an outsider beat us to it and mistake us for being on the same team. (By the way, we are… in case you forgot.)
I think good will ultimately come out of all of this criticism flowing back and forth. I’m not here to really judge anybody. This time. Consciously. But I know my own heart, and I stand convicted of a lot today.

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