It’s no secret that we at JFH advocate for excellence in Christian art. Anything that Christians put their hands to deserves to be done well, giving the glory to God in the process. But I have recently been contemplating the concept of what “Christian art” is supposed to look like in the real world, particularly when it comes to how listeners are supposed to interact with the music they listen to.
To sum up my feelings on the matter, I think Christians are supposed to enjoy music.
At first, this sounds like a “duh” statement, but I think the word “enjoyable” is more comprehensive than it sounds. There’s two main definitions for the word “enjoy.” The first is straightforward, “to take pleasure in,” which is simple enough. But the second makes the word a little more complex: “to have or experience.” Experiencing music seems a lot different than just listening to it, doesn’t it?
When the term “enjoyable” is applied to music, it can often bring to mind recyclable pop music that doesn’t take too many chances. The song begins, the catchy beat takes hold, the simple lyrics are easy to memorize, and the listener can hang their hat on the song’s whole. It’s a quick escapist detour that lasts for a whole three and half minutes, though it’s over as soon as it begins. If that’s all that “enjoyable” music is supposed to be, Christians are selling themselves severely short. Great music grows on the listener with time, unfolding layer after layer with successive listens.
Please don’t misunderstand me by inferring that I think pop music as a whole is bad. To call out one whole genre as a lower form of art than another would be to discredit the artists who use pop music to its fullest artistic potential. But if you turn on any Top 40 pop radio station, you can immediately hear the kind of material I’m talking about: unsophisticated and hopelessly aimless pop ditties. And all too often, CCM stations echo this same method with their setlists comprised of mindless earworms that don’t improve the quality of life of the listener beyond a few minutes.
Art is not a utilitarian concept, of course, but truly enjoyable art requires a significant investment of time and emotion. It means listening many times, though not necessarily in a row. It means personally applying it, empathizing with the spirit of the song’s message. It means comparing the song to others like it, identifying what makes it unique and beyond the norm. It means letting the music affect you in the long run rather than compartmentalizing the listening experience to the length of the song.
This concept of enjoying music affects how I approach every album I hear, especially when reviewing something for JFH. I can’t tell you how many times I have listened to an album for the first time, disliked it, but learned to love it after more listens. Given that I have to write a polished critique of the album in the near future, I have to listen to an album more than once. If I wrote my album reviews after only one self-contained listen, I wouldn’t be handing out too many positive reviews, and even the positive reviews wouldn’t be credible or properly representative of the music. But that’s why I hesitate to give a decisive opinion so early on in the listening process. Sure, there are albums that I’ve enjoyed on the first listen with my attitude towards it not changing much, but they’re rare. Great art grows on you.
Is this taking music too seriously? Taking this concept a step further, what happens if we approach people this way? There’s the adage that first impressions are deceiving, and it’s just as true for music as it is with people. Are first impressions important? Absolutely! We always want to present ourselves well when we meet people for the first time. But if we judged others on just those first impressions, we’d have some lopsided relationships to wrestle with. My deepest friendships are with those who I’ve gotten to know over time, over many occasions and seasons, not on one-time, one-way transactions. When we truly experience people, we see their many facets, and we love them for who they truly are. I’d contend that if we are interacting with music in a similar fashion, we gain a better idea of our both ourselves and the music we’re listening to, giving everyone their due credit. Experiencing music isn’t as complicated as experiencing people, by the way.
With all of this in mind, there are some inherent dangers attached if we change our music listening habits to this method. For some, this could be a huge lifestyle change. This refreshed concept of art as an enjoyable entity creates quite a few problems for a culture that thrives on speed and instant gratification. We want to enjoy things now! But when Christians can slow down, find beauty in the details over a span of time, and learn to love the individual parts that make up the whole, our perspective on enjoyment will change for the better. The Christian’s status as an image-bearer makes this level of enjoyment possible, and if we apply this reasoning to our habits as music consumers, we can become music “enjoyers” instead.
— Roger Gelwicks, JFH staff writer