St. Cecilia (Patron Saint of Music) by John William Waterhouse, Photo by freeparking 😐
Last week, I came across this article by Alissa Wilkinson, in which she makes the case that when Christians review movies (or books or music or culture) they need to fight the temptation to reduce the movie to a tidy Christian “message.” Wilkinson writes, “Form speaks, as well as content,” and she goes on to say:
Christians, of all people—people who still believe they’re embedded in a cosmic story, one with both form and content—ought to be the ones who get why we focus on how a comedy works, or what’s going on in the background of a shot, or why a filmmaker might be drawing on the past, or whatever. If we think art is designed to work both on the level of form and content, then we can’t possibly be satisfied to get the “message,” evaluate it, accept or reject it, and move on.
What Wilkinson has hit on in the Christian treatment of non-Christian films also rings true in the attitude of many Christians toward the creation of film — and books and music and culture. As creators of art, many Christians have bought into the notion that content, not form, is what really matters. During the days of the so-called “worship wars” (for those who are not familiar with that term, it was a time when contemporary music styles in worship services were on the rise and at odds with “traditional” hymn styles in many churches), I remember having conversations with church leaders who believed that rock and pop styles were unbiblical and unsuitable for expressing Christian themes. At the time, it seemed so logical to refute their claims by saying that the music itself wasn’t good or bad — it was the message that mattered.
But what I didn’t see then is that the music is the message; the form influences the content and the content influences the form and neither can stand in isolation from the other.
While I do believe rock and pop styles can be perfectly suitable for Christian themes (which is a good thing, since I frequently employ those styles in the services I lead each week), I can also see now that bringing rock and pop song forms and styles into congregational worship has affected the kind of content that goes into those songs, as well as the content and the form of our worship services.
What disturbs me even more about the idea that “only the message matters” is how it has affected the Christian contributions to popular culture. We think we can get away with bad art if “only the message matters,” but we can’t, because eventually people stop listening. I know I have. Every time I dial past a Christian radio station, I hear the same guitar tone, the same types of melodies, the same kinds of voices, the same repetitive guitar riffs. Every. time. So I stop listening.
Now, I know that there are Christian artists out there working to create music with beautiful and imaginative form, and I applaud them. But their work isn’t what I hear when I scroll past those radio stations. You know why?
Because those stations’ target market, much of the church, thinks that “only the message matters,” and as a result, has developed a palate for a stale, repetitive musical diet.
To that, I can only quote Wilkinson again:
“We should be hungry for more. I am. I hope you are, too.”
Read more of Alissa Wilkinson’s film reviews here.