Some Criticisms of Trevin Wax’s Christian Radio Article

This is a guest post by Austin Gravley. Austin is an intern at Redeemer Christian Church in Amarillo TX, and also works as a professional exterminator. He hopes to attend seminary once he finishes his B.A. in General Studies at WTAMU in Canyon, TX. You can follow him on Twitter at@gravley_austin

Update: Shortly after this article was originally published, Trevin reached out to me via Twitter and we had a great discussion about the subject. He and I are on the same page about this issue. I will leave the original article up for context, and because the criticisms themselves are still good criticisms in-and-of themselves. 

Whatever your opinion of The Gospel Coalition, you can’t deny their uncanny knack for publishing pieces on some area of life or doctrine that will get people talking. Such was the case earlier last week when Trevin Wax  published an interesting piece on the theological content of the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) radio industry. Usually I appreciate content from TGC when it comes to the arts, as they usually get that subject correct quite consistently. This article, however, was not the case, and thus I want to respond to it.

Please go and read his article before continuing onward. I have two criticisms of his article, the first being a secondary criticism and the second being a primary criticism.

First and foremost, I was surprised to see that the source material for this article was Trevin’s experience of listening to two hours of KLove. I would be curious to see if Trevin’s post would look any different if he repeated this experiment a few times over, at different days, different hours, and even different stations. His assessment might be accurate based on his two hours of music he heard, but two hours of KLove is the tip of the iceberg relative to the amount of music the Christian market produces. His claim at the end of his article, “Whatever you may say about CCM, the idea that it’s just a playlist of sappy, sentimental, superficial songs is simply untrue.” is not a claim that can be supported with a 2 hour sampling of one radio station. There are many formats and approaches under the umbrella of Christian radio, and although KLove is unquestionably the king of the Christian radio empire, it does not rule that kingdom with an iron first.

Perhaps if he had narrowed his remarks down to just KLove itself, I might actually agree with him. However, the sample size is just too small for an all-encompassing claim on the entire CCM market. I won’t go so far as to claim this is an outright fallacy of composition in Trevin’s reasoning, but it’s certainly very shaky ground.

His quote leads directly into my second criticism, which is the main issue I have with his article. As someone who has regularly lambasted the CCM industry, I don’t have a problem admitting that most of what comes from the market, though usually shallow in terms of theological depth, is nonetheless theologically sound. In fact, in the past I’ve de facto conceded that theological soundness usually isn’t an issue by virtue of the fact that I can only recall one or two times I’ve written on songs that are explicitly problematic (and here, this is one from several years ago on Britt Nicole’s All This Time”). When taking into account the Andrew Peterson-s, Audrey Assad-s, Kings Kaleidoscope-s, Citizens and Saints-s, and even Theocracy-s as being a part of the greater CCM market, theological clarity is not an issue. Instead, the majority of shade I’ve thrown towards CCM is exactly what he notes in two of his criticisms. Here is his list:

  • Why is it that in a two-hour block there was only one (one!) female vocalist?
  • Why do so many of the songs sound alike?
  • Where are the brilliant songwriters like Andrew Peterson and Audrey Assad?
  • Why do certain aspects of Christian theology get overlooked?
  • What do we do when aberrant theological affirmations make their way into a song?
  • Why does so much Christian art mimic other forms instead of innovating?

Specifically, his criticisms of “why do so many of the songs sound alike?” and “why does so much Christian art mimic other forms instead of innovating?” are the two criticisms of the Christian market that I (and many others) have made until we’ve gone blue in the face. My harshest criticisms of the Christian market as a whole have not been on theological terms, but solely on the fact that the majority of what it produces is just terrible music, and Christian radio is the primary catalyst for that criticism because of the significant role it plays in the Christian music market.

Now, I’ll give Trevin the benefit of the doubt here – I don’t know how many of these criticisms he considers to be first-order criticisms of CCM. Maybe he does, and decided not to elaborate for the sake of this particular article. If that’s the case, that’s quite fine. If that’s not the case, and he considers these criticisms to be of secondary concern (especially the two I highlighted), then I am certain that Trevin’s intentions in writing this article will backfire, and the critics of the Christian market will double down on their grievances; the criticism Trevin is responding to is not the primary charge against it.

The critics of the Christian market have long maintained that the first order of making music is not to make it theologically sound, but to make good music for the sake of making good music to the glory of God. Often times (no – nearly every time) the primary rebuttal to criticisms of the quality of most Christian music is that the songs are singing truthful things about God, and that’s all that matters. Such views reduce Christian music to merely being propaganda, where the means are insignificant as long as the ends are sound. I don’t have to elaborate on why that’s not a Biblical view of beauty and art – nowhere are we called to produce propaganda. To truly do everything to the glory of God requires we examine every aspect of our work and pursue excellence, which is inherently antithetical to propaganda.

Christian subculture has become conditioned to turn its musicians into its theologians, and its theologians solely the property of the academics and irrelevant to everyday life. Although not directly responsible, I fully believe this inversion of turning our musicians into our theologians is part of the mosaic behind the crisis of theological literacy of the church. We were never meant to gain our instruction in the faith through our music, and the state of theological illiteracy is the smoking gun showing that’s exactly what the Christian subculture has done (and Trevin correctly notes at the end of his article that CCM is a supplement to the ordinary means of grace; gotta give him credit there). However, elevating the theological content over the quality of the music nonetheless continues this precedent, or at least gives credence to the notion that the theological content is all that matters when it comes to Christian music. It doesn’t, and has never been the case. I hope Trevin does not believe that, and I will be disappointed if he does.

My present word count is going much farther than what I anticipated, so I will conclude with a quote from Frank Schaeffer’s old but phenomenal work Addicted to Mediocrity.  I’ve used this quote countless times and still have yet to formulate something that communicates my thoughts better and more effectively:

Imagine you wished to build a home and for one reason or another you seek out a “Christian builder.” . . . you employ him, hoping to get a decently constructed house as a result. You move into your house some months or years later and on the first night of your occupancy, as the rain pours down, torrents of water come in through the roof, the refrigerator falls into the basement, the stairs collapse as your wife climbs them, your children receive electric shocks in the show. You pick up the phone and (if it is still working) call your “Christian builder” and have very strong words with him. If all he could offer you were some spiritual platitudes, perhaps humming a bar of ‘Jerusalem’ to you, quoting a few Bible verses for comfort, telling you that ‘you were being tested, this is really good for you and you should give thanks in all things,’ if this was all he could offer you to console you for having completely ripped you off in the construction of your home,  you would be furious. You see, the mediocrity and platitudes would no longer fit the bill. They would be used to do something in the real world to patch up your home, to mend your angered feelings, and they could not accomplish it (bumper sticks are notoriously bad for patching roofs), simply because we would not accept the mediocrity in some real area that we accept daily in the insults of the so-called Christian arts and media, Christian thinking and spiritual world.[1]

  1. Frank Schaeffer, Addicted to Mediocrity (Westchester: Cornerstone Books, 1981), 42 – 44.