Contemporary Christian Music: RIP

Hidden in the back of the typical American music store -- past the ethnic folk songs and spoken poetry -- is a tiny slot set aside for "Contemporary Christian Music."

Mark Joseph ponders this sad state of affairs whenever he returns home to Tokyo and flips through racks of compact discs, looking for the Christians whose music he markets in Japan through his MJM label.

"Over there, Holy Soldier is next to Jimi Hendrix ... and White Cross is next to White Snake," said Joseph, who is best known in Japan as a U.S. correspondent for CNN's Wow Wow Entertainment Report and the NHK television network. "In Japan, we can get away with that, because to them it's all rock 'n' roll. ... This is exactly how the artists I know would like to see their music handled in the states. But we know that's not possible, since over here `Christian' and `secular' music exist in different worlds."

Of course, no one would try to pin a "Buddhist musician" label on Tina Turner, the Beastie Boys or Courtney Love and lock their music in a commercial ghetto, he said.

"If Christians are going to ... allow others to marginalize them, then it's time for everybody else to play by the same rules," said Joseph. "Let's be consistent and have Buddhist, Jewish, Mormon and atheist sections at the local record store."

The son of missionaries, Joseph's command of the Japanese language and American pop culture helped him break into radio and print journalism as a teen-ager. He later earned a communications degree at Biola University near Los Angeles, while continuing media projects on both sides of the Pacific.

Today, Joseph commutes between different cultures -- "Christian" and "secular," as well as Japanese and American. The bottom line: he believes it doesn't do the church or society any good for Christians to sell lots of records to other Christians in a shadow culture safe from the hard knocks and tough issues of the secular market. Joseph, along with scholar Patrick Cavanaugh and rock musician Kerry Livgren, recently wrote a manifesto asking if "Contemporary Christian Music" -- or CCM -- is heretical.

"We have come to believe that there is no such thing as `Christian music.' It is bad business, but more importantly, it is bad theology," they wrote, in CCM Magazine. "Nowhere in the Bible are we taught to separate activities into the artificial categories of `sacred' and `secular.' All activities are to be done to the glory of God."

This is not a new debate. J.S. Bach was a devout Christian, yet he wrote many "secular" works. Atheists often write classical music for sacred texts. Similar lines are blurred in drama, film, painting and all kinds of writing.

But today's fiercest fights center on popular music. CCM began as an effort to bypass secular censors, yet ended up creating a new industry, wrote Joseph and his colleagues. "What resulted, it could be argued, was a complete cultural and sociological retreat on the part of believers, a ghettoization of nearly all orthodox Christian thought in American music."

Meanwhile, bitter debates rage over the musical and personal choices of CCM stars. Many throw darts at Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and others who have "crossed over" to the secular market. Meanwhile, the highly publicized sins of Michael English and Sandi Patty, and whispers about others, have added a splash of tabloid ink to the whole scene.

The illness is easy to diagnose, if hard to cure, said Joseph. In this celebrity age, most Christians have confused entertainment with ministry. It's time to focus more on the content of popular culture and less on commercial labels, he said.

"This is the great CCM hypocrisy. If fans knew the frailties of the artists, they sure wouldn't set them up as demigods," he said. "It would do everyone good to start being more honest and more critical about the music we listen to and the artists we admire, whether we think of them as Christians or whatever. ... But I'm not talking about lowering standards. I'm talking about raising them -- for everyone."