Wednesday, March 14, 2007

how's that?

I'm confused. When did trading integrity for sales start counting for respectable behavior?

If you follow Christian music, you've probably heard of the band Jays of Clay. I don't follow it myself, so I don't know how to describe their music except that it's popular with the church kid crowd. Apparently the band's lead vocalist, Dan Haseltine, is disgusted with the shallowness of the Christian subculture. Good for him. I'm disgusted too.

In a column on Argus Leader Media, writer Robert Morast discusses Haseltine's frustration with the failings of contemporary Christianity. That includes the self-delusional lie that Christians are more moral and better off than non-Christians, the too-earnest desire to turn everything into a scree on why people should be Christians, and so on. He quotes Haseltine:
There's such a facade that we have all our crap together, that we don't wrestle with what other people have to wrestle with. And that's just not true.
That's honest -- refreshingly honest for a Christian musician, who's usually expected to talk about how great God is, how following him has ended all the struggles we used to have -- and I'm with him a hundred percent on that.

But where Haseltine loses me completely is in this: The band won't perform or release some of its deeper or more controversial songs -- the column specifically notes unnamed "war protest songs" -- because it could hurt record sales.

There are many in the evangelical church to equate godliness with Republicanism and middle class values. Too many Christians are willing to break fellowship over issues like abortion, creationism (or Intelligent Design, as the new label has it) and gay marriage. And there are many who see George Bush as God's president, and therefore equate any disagreement with him or criticism of his presidency as an attack on God.

Here's what Morast has to say:
And in today's America, being "Christian" seems to be tied to being a "patriot." Basically, if you're an outspoken Christian, you're assumed to be a conservative Republican who backs President Bush without question, supports the war and believes abortion is wrong.

No question that breaking from the party line on an album is a risky thing. A lot of people, not just evangelicals, consider Christian to be inextricably linked with conservative, and have a hard time accepting the reality that there is a Religious Left out here, and that we're growing louder. Criticizing Bush or claiming that war -- any war, not just the Iraq war -- is contrary to the teachings of Christ is sure to cost a band sales and fans.

Even breaking from the tepid formula of "Gosh, how I love Jesus" can make a big mess. Amy Grant did that back in 1990 with "Lead Me On," and got angry reactions from all across the church because the album wasn't stuff like "El Shaddai" or "Thy Word." It was, in fact, a deeply personal, deeply moving and deeply spiritual without being superficially churchy album, but all that was lost amid the huggermugger over her failure to drop Christ's name into every second line of each song.

So I can see what Haseltine is saying that the band could take some hits for really speaking honestly about social issues. But Truth, not popularity, is supposed to guide believers. If the band has something more meaningful and original to say than the stuff that the Christian labels spew out with nauseating regularity, then it should come out and say it.

If Haseltine believes that the war in Iraq is wrongheaded, stupid, ill-conceived and not something Christians should be supporting -- and he'll get no argument from me on that score -- and he wants to say so, then he has an obligation to his listeners to go ahead and do it. Sometimes there's a price to be paid for revealing how ridiculous ridiculous things really are, but it's always worth it.

On the other hand, if Haseltine doesn't want to voice his views on the war because he considers them irrelevant to what Jars of Clay does, that's fine too, but then he has no business complaining the Christian recording industry is too shallow, because he and his band are just as much a part of the problem as their listeners.

Haseltine may have won new respect from Morast, but he's lost any I had for him.

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.


MJ said...

wow, that IS pretty lame!

Liadan said...

Jars of Clay is most influenced by Toad the Wet Sprocket and U2, so it ends up being acoustic pop-folk rock, if that makes sense.

I sort of have to admit that a war-protest song wouldn't necessarily fit into their ouerve. Incubus, Radiohead, and Rage Against the Machine can get away with protest music because their music is largely of a nonconformistic declarative bent; JoC is more introspective and narrative, so a political song might feel out of place on one of their records. If anything, that's how it would hurt record sales, not because their audience is conservative, but because it would just be uncharacteristic music for the band.