Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

Switchfoot and Christian Music

with 3 comments

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.”

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Written by Josh Philpot

December 7, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Culture, Music

3 Responses

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  1. Great commentary, Josh. I think the problem arises when we conflate Christian artists with Christ himself. Artists are human beings just like we are and when we promote them to a level of “more Christian” just because they have recorded a CD or are on radio, we distract ourselves from what is true and sanctifying. On the other hand, some believers think that if a band is played on non Christian radio they aren’t worth listening to. If we ground ourselves in the Word then we will be able to discern the truth no matter who the messenger is.

    Holli

    December 8, 2013 at 3:14 am

  2. Don’t worry, I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon and whine about how frustrating
    it is, or rant about why I think things should be different.
    Think of it as just another way to stay on top of everything Gather you love.
    Businesses, on the other hand, realize their fan base is not seeing everything it posts.

    facebook

    June 28, 2014 at 11:46 am

  3. I am a pastor, and two of my greatest concerns are to nurture believers and equip them to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus for the sake of God’s glory. I served in Student Ministry for many years when CCM was an everyday big deal to teens and college students. (Yes, I am old.) It appears that those days are all but gone. Not only do non-Christians avoid CCM like the plague, Christian millennials have little to no interest in it outside of some worship stuff. Seems to me that if believers who are musical artists today are going to have any significant impact on a non-believing world either directly or indirectly through their art, it is going to happen outside of what we have always considered a CCM context. Most everything else will just be insider church stuff. A serious consideration of that distinction with regards to our “Great Commission” mandate really matters to me. I think it matters to God, too.

    Bob Moore

    April 3, 2015 at 4:25 pm


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