Today, the Christian music industry is a billion-dollar-a-year business that regularly mints platinum-selling groups and has exported a few groups to popularity in the mainstream. The sound is vastly better today, but Forbes, now a professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, says the lyrics aren't any more substantial than they were in the 1970s. That's especially true, in his estimation, of the 10 songs vying for Song of the Year honors at the Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards this year.
The awards, given out Thursday in a made-for-TV event that mirrors the Grammys, are highly coveted in Christian Nashville. The winner of Song of the Year honors especially is considered an ideal measure of Christian songwriting. For observers like Forbes, the nominees also represent the limitations of what Christian pop has become. "What strikes me most is that these songs represent a privatized Christianity," says Forbes, co-editor of Religion and Popular Culture in America. "There's nothing in these songs about Christian community or social justice, or where Christians struggle, or all the stuff that is the complexity of the Christian life. Rather, it's all me and God, me and God. If this is the totality of the Christian life, it's very narcissistic."
As an example, Forbes offers that the last line of dc Talk's "Consume Me," sung to God, reflects the spiritual individualism that he hears permeating the songs: "It's you and I, you and I."
William Romanowski, a professor at Calvin College and author of "Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life," points out that Christian music exists primarily to evangelize and praise God. Impassioned songs that portray faith with anything other than a happy face are frowned upon.
So is music that doesn't explicitly reflect faith. Two years ago, after Bob Carlisle's "Butterfly Kisses," which lacked a firm faith content, won song of the year, the association established criteria a song must meet to be eligible for a Dove. Under the new rules, Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me," a huge hit inside and outside Christian confines, was ruled ineligible last year.
The rule making and even the narcissism reflect evangelicals' skittishness about rock & roll. "In order to justify being involved in popular music, evangelicals created a spiritual purpose, and that is to do evangelism and ministry," says Romanowski. "That's why Christian music tends to focus on a very individualistic faith. These songs deal with faith rhetorically rather than substantively. You could do more. [Bruce] Springsteen can do a lot in three minutes. Christian musicians certainly should, too."
Part of the problem, according to Romanowski, is the celebrity culture that surrounds rock. "In a Christian celebrity culture, you can't have people struggling in their faith," said Romanowski, an evangelical Christian himself. "They're supposed to be positive role models. So songs don't deal with the struggles of faith. And when they do, evangelical consumers are sometimes critical about that."
So is there protein among the nominees, or are they all theological Jell-O? "There's protein in there for the common person, but there's not protein for the theologians," Mark Campbell, vice president of marketing and sales at Benson Records, a Christian music label based in Nashville. "The common person wants their protein in bite-size chunks." There's only so much you can say in a three-and-a-half-minute song. To pretend that we're going to deliver a theological education to someone is asking too much of the song. I would challenge the theologians to write a book that you could read in three minutes and make a huge impact on someone."
The emotional favorite, however, is Michael W. Smith's "This Is Your Time." The song is based on the death of Cassie Bernall, one of the students killed in last year's shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and the Dove Awards ceremony falls on the anniversary of the shooting. Smith co-wrote the song after participating in a memorial service for the students. Although accounts of Bernall's death are disputed, a widely held story is that one of the two gunmen quizzed her about her faith, then shot her after she confirmed that she was a Christian. Bernall is hailed as a martyr by many evangelical Christians.
But some critics have said the song plays on sentimentality and makes Bernall larger than life. According to the opening chorus, "She lived every moment, left nothing to chance." By the end, Smith exhorts all Christians to "live every moment, leave nothing to chance." "If this song is sentimentality, it's sentimentality coming from genuine emotion," said Marita Meinerts, a Christian concert promoter in St. Paul, Minn. "I really believe that Michael W. Smith was touched after having gone to Columbine and sang for the students there. Some may see the song as sentimental and contrived, but I don't believe that was his intention. This song has really touched listeners."
Romanowski, who has been critical of what he calls the "merchandising of martydom," called Smith's song "lightweight." Columbine, he says, provided ample opportunities to write about social issues from a Christian perspective. "They could write about images of masculinity promoted in the media," he said. "Or the whole idea of violence as an acceptable solution to problems. Or the emotional and verbal violence in schools that was clearly a factor in motivating boys to shoot their classmates and teachers. These are the kinds of issues Christians should be addressing."
Forbes, who is an ordained United Methodist minister, said Christian music appeals to conservative Christians more than mainstream Protestants and Catholics. Because of that, he was struck by what he didn't find in some of the lyrics to this year's nominees. "There's not a lot of 'this is the only way to be Christian' and everybody else is going to hell," he said. "It's more about people personally experiencing God. That has positive and negative sides. People aren't satisfied with a Christianity that's a bunch of 'thou shalt nots,' and these songs clearly try to fill that yearning. I can see the appeal in that." But, he added, "Faith is not just about me, and that bigger picture is what's missing" in this year's songs.