As a pastor, who loves music and hates most "Christian music," I’ve been pondering this question for some time and thought that I had already cycled through all of the explanations. But Matis’ answer was stated more succinctly than I’ve been able to—shamefully so since it turned out to be the explanation that should come most quickly to a Lutheran. He said, “I let the music be the holy thing.”
For most Christian artists, the music is not the holy thing itself. It is only a tool we use to point to some grander doctrine or idea of the divine. After all, wouldn’t it be idolatrous to make a holy thing of something as palpable and finite as a song? At first glance, this all sounds very pious and right-headed (and weary churchgoers like myself might swear that many praise songs have attempted to solve this problem by simply not being finite).
But poorly thought out pieties about such things can be deceptive. First of all, the theological problem with treating a doctrine, or whatever abstraction these Christian artists are pointing to, as the divine itself is that ideas can be every bit as idolatrous as tangible things. Nothing is God but God—not religion, not the Bible, not the creed—nothing. The second problem is more practical: when you don’t let the art be the holy thing but are only using it as the vehicle for some more transcendent idea, you end up with something that is neither art nor transcendent. By the time you’ve stripped the lyrical content of anything that sounds too mundane and earthly and avoided any minor or dissonant chords like the plague, you’ve ended up with a song that has no drama, no movement, nothing to resolve, and is transparently manipulative.
Luther thought that a shoemaker need not enter the monastery in order to do a holy and faithful thing but should concentrate instead on simply making a good pair of shoes. Similarly, I believe that the the holiest thing a songwriter can do is not to write a "religious" song but to write a good song.
All of this ultimately got me thinking about beer (not surprising as most things ultimately get me thinking about beer). One of the comments that Aaron and I have frequently heard, since we started dreaming up this idea of having a church brewery, is “What a great idea to reach people with the Gospel” or “to get people into church.”
The folks who say this are just being supportive, and they mean well, but if our intent behind the brewery were simply to “get people in church,” then the brewery would end up looking like a bad praise song—a transparently manipulative gimmick with no integrity of its own. If we had no passion for the actual craft of making a great beer and seeing someone’s eyes light up when they have a sip but were merely using the trend to bait and switch people into hearing some religious spiel that we believe necessary in order to sanctify the simple act of sharing a beer, we would wind up with neither holiness nor very good beer.
In two thousand years of Christianity, the chronically religious have tried using every come-on imaginable from relics and bones of saints to electric guitars and laser lights to try to lure people into their version of church. Our goal at Castle Church is not to add beer to that list of gimmicks. Our goal is rather to create the kind of space where we ourselves feel most at ease and most at home, where we can be stripped of the artificial personas that people dawn in more suffocatingly pious environs. Our wager is that if we feel fully ourselves in this space, then others will too.
Then what will happen will be something quite extraordinary, miraculous even—something Gospel. Business executives and construction workers will sit down at the same bar together. Democrats and Republicans will thump their mugs against the same biergarten table. Caucasians and latinos will discuss their favorite kind of hops together. At that point, without beating a single person over the head with a Bible or another verse of "Blessed Be," we will have facilitated something very holy.
If we don’t just claim the doctrine of the incarnation but it's implications as well, and we believe that something as plain and everyday as sharing a beer is precisely the terrain on which holiness walks, if we do it for the organic and non-agenda-ed love of the thing itself, we will create something of real value and integrity in its own right.
It’s ironic that it’s the Christians who so often don’t get this. Because the assumption imbedded in your average praise song is that earthly and tangible things cannot be appropriate vessels for the holy but can only derive their value from some grander, less tangible belief system, spelled out ham-fistedly in a predictable chorus line. This is essentially a rejection of the church's original doctrine that the Son of God has walked among us. Aren’t we the ones who believe that God dwells in mangers? Aren't we the ones who profess that rivers and chalices can bear the divine? How much have we lost the plot if it takes a Jewish rapper to remind us of what Martin Luther said ages ago? Finitum capax infinitum. The finite is capable of bearing the infinite.
Cheers and Peace,