When I was a teenager, the joke was that Christian music always seemed to be either old-fashioned or inauthentically derivative. If that was true then, I do not think it is true anymore.
Worship music has carved out its own genre, which might adopt certain conventions of other genres in one band or another, but which is held together by something that is its own and is not obviously stolen or smuggled in from other musical traditions. To someone on the outside looking in it might still seem kind of boring, or funny, I couldn’t say. But musically, I think, there is something distinctive and not intrinsically objectionable holding this genre together.
I’m not an expert on worship music. I haven’t listened to a great deal of it in the last few years.
But when I do listen to it, I love thinking the thoughts it expresses, thoughts often but not always adopted from the phrases of Christian Scripture, and to seek to join those thoughts to the thoughts that are rolling around in my own mind.
This attempt has taken different forms over the years.
For a time, I tried to ground these songs in the history of the worshipping community. Around that time I had been exposed to some opinions about how individualism and hyperindividualism are rampant in the Western world and are showing up even all over our worship songs, and we need to resist them. I actually regret being so accepting of a teaching that was really conceptually imprecise, and thereby quite misleading and destructive (more on that another time, perhaps), but it did open up for me the imaginative possibility of trying to listen to these songs in a way that was removed from my own personal experience.
And so, for instance, when I heard a lyric about how God has saved me, I wouldn’t relate it to some moment or event in my own life but would think of how these words might resonate in the Exodus, or the return to Jerusalem after Babylonian exile, or to those present at the events surrounding the life of Jesus.
These days, I tend to do something that I think is closer to what Christian thinkers have done since the early Church (though most of them would not have articulated it quite like this). I try to think through how the lyrics might resonate with an ancient Neoplatonist.
Neoplatonism (as we use the word today) did not yet exist during the very earliest years of the Church, but the intellectual seeds from which it was to grow were widespread and already flourishing. Once it did come into existence, it exerted a powerful influence on Christian thinkers.
To take one famous example, Augustine found the Christian faith unthinkable until he was first charmed by the viewpoint of some Neoplatonist writers. This certainly isn’t to say that Christian belief and Neoplatonic philosophy were thought to be identical, or even compatible on every point, but they did seem to be mutually illuminative in a unique way, and much of what has become traditional Christian theology bears the imprint of its engagement with Neoplatonism.
And so that intertwining has become characteristic of the way I often hear and think of worship music now. Something about the sound of it makes it really attractive for listening to and thinking through in this way.
I would recommend that it could be worthwhile, or at least interesting, for even an irreligious person to try listening to such worship songs with an open mind, if they aren’t stylistically too far from what is agreeable to the listener, to see what meaning and agreement can be found from that perspective, and to see whether there isn’t some kind of benefit from the experience.
And if that’s what I recommend to an irreligious person, then of course I will encourage any jaded or self-satisfied Christian friends who have a list of complaints about how such music is overly simplistic or emotionally manipulative, to consider giving it another listen and see if there isn’t something of merit to be found as well.