Church vs. Art part 4: In the Land of Double Standards

As I mentioned yesterday, I believe that there are two barriers between Christian communities and Christian artists, the first being our tendency to idolize successful artists and prop them up with impossible standards.

The second issue that creates a wedge between churches and artists is the propensity to hold double standards. Kevin Max also addressed this issue in his Cross Rhythms interview: “The funny thing is that the Church, the Christian community, when it’s observing somebody over in the general market, let’s say Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan or Bono, who are exploring their faith but again in a very realistic manner and talking about their weaknesses, they seem to somehow latch onto those people and make them heroes. But if they’re in their own backyard, forget it!”

The church loves secular artists that sound like they could be Christian bands. We look at bands like Collective Soul or Mumford and Sons and play the game of connect the dots to see statements of faith hidden in their lyrics. As highlighted in a blog post on Stuff Christians Like – we claim these Christianish bands as our own. Yet, when bands who genuinely claim to be Christians start singing about drug addiction or sexual temptation or any other topic that doesn’t fit into predetermined mold that’s youth group appropriate, we shun them. We disallow them. There is an unfortunately long list of albums that have been prohibited for sale in Christian bookstores for the most petty of reasons.

The first Sometime Sunday album was banned because the cough recorded in the intro to ‘Home’ sounded like a smoker’s cough. Their second album was banned for the use of the word “damn” in the liner notes. Don’t Know’s album was banned for using the word “crap” in their liner notes and singing a song about Taco Bell. Lust Control’s album was banned for a song about masturbation (even though the message of that song is aligned with most evangelical churches’ views on the subject). P.O.D. has had several albums banned for offensive cover art; as has Mortification, Zao, and Training for Utopia. Steve Taylor’s wife painted a portrait of Steve for the cover of his 1987 album, ‘I Predict 1990,’ and found that album banned in some Christian bookstores because people thought the portrait looked like a tarot card. Other bookstores took offense to the opening track, ‘I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good,’ a song that criticizes the bombing of abortion clinics. Bon Voyage was banned for their song, ‘Kiss My Lips,’ a love song the lead vocalist wrote for her husband. Stretch Armstrong was banned for their cover of Modern English’s, ‘I Melt With You.’ And Everyday Life was banned for a multitude of reasons including themes of racial injustice, coping with anger, the exploitation of Native Americans, alcoholism, and single parenting – not to mention featuring Marika Tur’s photo of Reginald Denny being pulled from his truck during the ’92 LA riots on their album cover.

I may be committing the sin of overkill by listing so many instances where Christian bookstores have outlawed music made by other Christians. But I want to make a point. The fact that I have to list more than one is ridiculous. Sadly, that isn’t even a full list of banned albums. That list doesn’t even include the books by Christian authors that have been banned for their content from select Christian retailers. *

And you won’t find the DVD’s for the TV series Chuck in a Christian bookstore even though its lead star, Zachary Levi, is an outspoken Christian.

I also failed to mention books and albums that were banned strictly due to their style. Genre bias is another double standard that builds enmity between artists and the church. The predisposed notion that certain styles of music are acceptable while others are not, or that one genre of book is better than another, or it’s OK to paint pictures of some subjects but not others is a pet peeve of mine.

This annoyance started during my teen years – if not sooner. My high school Sunday school class spent a few weeks on purity – the body being a temple and making wise choices with what you take in via your entertainment options. We talked about what movies and TV shows are appropriate for Christians to watch. Several of the kids in my youth group did their best to defend their right to watch Friends and we debated the value of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. We talked about the unwholesome facets of popular love songs, and one week we were asked to bring in our favorite CDs to share with the rest of our group so we could jointly decide which albums would be suitable for the Christian listener.

First up was a country album brought in by one of the cool kids. I don’t remember which artist it was or what song was played. What I do remember is what the song was about – someone going to the bar and getting drunk over a lost lover. Being the good little Christian boy I was back then, I said it wasn’t the kind of music we should listen to. As I’ve said before, I was an outcast, so my opinion wasn’t worth much. The trendier and much more popular kids in my youth group all insisted that it was acceptable because it was country music and everybody knows country western is wholesome music. A friend of mine (one of the other outcasts) brought Superunknown – from his favorite band Soundgarden. He played the song Black Hole Sun. That song was immediately struck down as inappropriate because it was evil grunge music. To this day, I have not figured out what is so offensive about that song’s lyrics. My album was from the band Plankeye. Never mind the overt reference to a biblical passage in the band’s name, it too was deemed unworthy for Christian ears due to its punkish grungy sound.

That was fifteen years ago. The irony that a song by a mainstream artist that glorifies public drunkenness was determined to be more wholesome than music from a Christian band still puzzles me.

The fact is that the majority of Christian audiences are more critical of Christian artists than they are of their secular counterparts.

The result of such double standards is that it creates laziness in artistry. It encourages the artist to play it safe. It tells us that we must conform to absurd standards to make it as an artist; that to be successful, we must be like everyone else. That habit is the source of another pet peeve of mine – one that has to do with acronyms.

* I was lucky. The Christian bookstore in my hometown was owned by a family friend. She stocked many of the banned albums that I mentioned above, as well as books, videos, paintings, and other items that snobbier retailers would have looked down upon or considered controversial. My brother and I discovered many new, wonderful, and edifying musical experiences thanks to her bravery as a small business owner.

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