Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

Archive for December 7th, 2013

Switchfoot and Christian Music

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There is a very interesting interview with Jon Foreman posted over at the CTK Blog. Jon is the lead singer/writer of the band Switchfoot, which is sort of a quasi-Christian band that emerged in the late 90’s. The irony in that statement is that the term “Christian band” is exactly what the interview is about, and Jon offers a thoughtful critique of the entire notion of labeling his music “Christian” (or any other music from someone who is a “Christian” artist, like J.S. Bach).

I won’t quote the interview here. The key for me is contextualization. I have no problem with a bunch of Christians having a band that writes songs that aren’t explicitly “Christian,” whatever that means (it means various things to various groups; does he mean evangelical? would he define it in a gospel-centered way, as I would?). I would ask, initially, what is the purpose of Switchfoot? To communicate truth? Or, beauty? These things are inherently good because, in a sense, all truth is God’s truth (a la Philippians 4). But does Jon have to be singing about the “gospel” explicitly in order to be a “Christian” band? I don’t think so. A good poet doesn’t just come out and say what is true in explicit terms; he creates beautiful language, and in turn causes his reader to think hard about what he is saying. Switchfoot’s songs communicate something true about God, and in that sense, it is for his glory. Even if Jon’s songs don’t mention “Christ,” the songs still “reedemed,” I would say.

But is Switchfoot trying to communicate the gospel in their songs? I don’t think that they are, at least in the songs that I’m familiar with. If singing the gospel is their intent, then I would argue that they should be more explicit, or at least state this intent at their concerts and in their albums. Using someone like J.S. Bach as an example (as Jon does in the interview) isn’t exactly helpful to what Jon is saying. No one doubted the real intent behind Bach’s music because he put “S.D.G.” (soli deo gloria — to God alone be glory) at the end of every piece he wrote! Lewis and Tolkein—to whom Jon also points as examples of “Christian” authors who don’t mention “Christ” in any of their stories—serves as another example. Even so, does anyone really doubt the biblical allusions to Christ and redemption in those stories? What Jon is doing is different. When Jon sings, “We were meant to live for so much more,” what does he mean? Does he mean, “live for Christ,” or, “live to do something good in the world?” And, does it help his audience at all if they don’t know what he really means? I remember hearing that song on an ESPN highlight reel, and I doubt that the editors of Sports Center were thinking “live for Christ.” So in the secular context those words mean one thing. In the “Christian” music scene, they mean something else.

Lastly, I would say as one commenter does at the bottom of that post that that this entire question is not an either/or proposition—to be an explicitly Christian band or not. Switchfoot is trying to make a living too, and if they want to be in the non-Christian market to make more money, fine by me. I don’t understand why so many Christians have a problem with this, as if being a Christian requires you to write only explicit Christ-on-the-cross lyrics. In a way, Switchfoot is more free to be a positive Christian influence by not adopting that label as part of the music scene. Thus, I generally agree with most of what Jon is saying. I would not, however, use their songs in a worship service. I conclude with a particularly poignant quote from Jon that I found refreshing:

“None of these songs has been born again, and to that end there is no such thing as Christian music. No. Christ didn’t come and die for my songs, he came for me. Yes. My songs are a part of my life. But judging from scripture I can only conclude that our God is much more interested in how I treat the poor and the broken and the hungry than the personal pronouns I use when I sing. I am a believer. Many of these songs talk about this belief. An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me. I do have an obligation, however, a debt that cannot be settled by my lyrical decisions. My life will be judged by my obedience, not my ability to confine my lyrics to this box or that.”

Written by Josh Philpot

December 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Culture, Music

Christian Scholars and Tenure

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In the most recent issue of “The City,” a publication of Houston Baptist University, Owen Strachan interviews Douglas Wilson and asks, What words do you have for young Christian faculty members at secular institutions that are seeking tenure? What do they do in these kind of university climates?

Wilson: “I would echo the words of Robert George at Princeton, who spoke at commencement at New Saint Andrews a few years ago. At dinner afterward, Peter Leithart asked George what advice he would give to young scholars in this situation—how did you do it? Robert George said that he did it with both guns blazing. Obviously everyone’s situation is different and you can’t have a one-size-fits-all thing. The gatekeepers in these universities are pretty astute, and they watch the gates carefully. If you’re so far in the closet that you can see Narnia, when they find out and let you go, you’ve given them deniability. They can say “it wasn’t his evangelical faith, but the quality of his work” or something like that. If you’re clearly an evangelical and there’s a hit job on you in the department, that possibility will be clear to those who are watching the situation. Now, I don’t think you should be unnecessarily scrappy. But I do think it’s important for Christians to be clear, and if God wants them to be promoted then they will, like Daniel in Babylon.”

Perhaps this servers as a good illustration for how Christians should engage the general public, too, in defending the faith with conviction. Wilson had to face this issue personally in a lecture at Indiana University in 2012 on biblical sexuality. It’ll do us no good if we couch our language in vague terms, failing to define what we mean, or skirting issues entirely. We should come with both guns blazing.

Written by Josh Philpot

December 7, 2013 at 8:00 am

Posted in Culture