Why Switchfoot Sings Christians’ Songs

Jon_Foreman,_April_2008Can the word Christian be an adjective?  We certainly have found plenty of things to slap it onto: Christian fiction, Christian movies, Christian music, Christian bookstores, Christian T-Shirts, Christian Dior, Christian Bale…okay, those last two don’t count.  The point is, the word Christian is an adjective these days.  Are we Christians okay with that?

Switchfoot’s Viral Quote

Four days ago CTK Blog posted this quote from Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman as a post entitled “Why Switchfoot Won’t Sing Christian Songs”.  I find it interesting that this post has been shared thousands of times on Facebook and reposted (often without citation) on many blogs as though it were breaking news, often segued by the intro, “Jon Foreman recently said…”  However, this quote is from 2004…or earlier!  CTK does cite his source–the Challies.com post “Another Switchfoot Concert”.  Challies’ article is a reflection on the Switchfoot concert he attended as a part of their Beautiful Letdown Tour (which came out in 2003).  Unfortunately, he cites “The Net” as his source for the piece.  I spent upwards of thirty minutes trying to find the original source of this viral quote without any luck.  All this to say, we need some serious lessons on proper citation–how can we know whether Foreman actually said or wrote any of this statement without the original source?

Christian Music?

But we are not chronological snobs (I hope you don’t mind me speaking for both you and me), and we will engage with this quote attributed to Jon Foreman.   He insists that he does not write Christian songs.  He argues that songs cannot be inherently Christian.

I agree.  Jesus did not come to redeem a corpus of music or a gallery of paintings or shelf of books. Christ came to ransom His peopleThe name Christian is given to those who bear the image of Christ.  No song has been given that privilege, nor any other work of art.  Paul explains in Colossians 3:9-10, that we as Christians have “put off the Old Man with its practices, and have put on the New Man, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his Creator.”  The New Man we are clothed with is Jesus himself.  We are being renewed in His Image.  God has seen fit to bestow the name of Christ upon His redeemed people.

Therefore, there is no such thing as Christian music.

A Christian’s Music?

However, there is such a thing as a Christian’s music.  What I mean is that the music and other creative expressions of a Christian should be distinctive.  When a Christian writes songs, his belief in Jesus has an effect on what lyrics he writes (or doesn’t write), how he composes the music, and what message, theme, or mood he seeks to communicate.

Does this mean these songs will necessarily contain the name “Jesus” or other Christian keywords?  Foreman points out that many Christians throughout the centuries have composed musical pieces sans words (e.g. Bach).  How can a wordless song glorify Jesus?  Was Bach shirking his duty to Christ?

Clown Tragique by Rouault (1911)
Clown Tragique by Rouault (1911)

Let’s think about this same question with a different artistic medium in mind.  Take painting.  Must a Christian make Jesus the subject of every one of his paintings in order to remain true to Christ?  If he decides to paint a landscape that doesn’t include the three crosses in the background is he denouncing his Savior?  Take Georges Rouault’s Clown Tragique, for example.  If he paints a sad clown to express the irony and misery of the human existence apart from God has he tossed Jesus in the scrap bin?  I think we would all agree this is not the case.

Or what about writing?  If a Christian chooses to write a fiction novel with no mention of a cross or Jesus, has she neglected her faith?  What if her novel illustrates the themes of redemption and forgiveness but no mention of Christ is found on any page?  If the novel doesn’t end with the main character verbalizing the Gospel, is the book a waste?  If so, we need to toss out all of Flannery O’Connor’s works, and that’s just a start.

The artistic expression of a Christian–whether in song, paint, word, or other form–will necessarily be shaped by their faith in Jesus.  This does not mean every work of art must center on the person of Jesus.  However, Jesus is informing his decisions.   He is shaping the Christian’s view of the world and the way he communicates it.  A Christian may write a song about murder that illustrates the destructive depravity of man and the hopelessness of taking another person’s life.  A non-Christian may write a song about murder that revels in the twisted wicked pleasure it brings.  Two lyricists can write about the same topic yet produce two drastically different songs.

Why?  Well, a Christian produces a Christian’s art.  The music, writing, painting, sculpting, even architectural design of a Christian is necessarily influenced by their love for Jesus and their desire to see Him glorified.  Foreman drives hard at the false notion that our lives easily divide into secular and sacred boxes.  A Christian never abandons Jesus, not for an instant.  In the same way we cannot take our skin off at the end of the day, we can never disrobe Christ.

Paul notes in Colossians 3:3, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  For the Christian, there is no producing music, there is no painting, there is no writing apart from Christ.  Elsewhere Paul puts it this way: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Separation Anxiety

Whenever a CCM artist separates from the CCM genre to “go mainstream” there is always a sense of uneasiness in the Christian community.  Inevitably, the Christian subculture feels abandoned and betrayed like, “We supported you all those years you claimed to be a Christian musician, and now you are going over to the dark side.”  Jon Foreman’s comments were made in 2003, around the time they made the switch from the CCM label Sparrow Records to the “mainstream” Columbia Records.

We have to realize it is not wrong for Christians to play music for a “non-Christian” music label (besides there is no such thing as a Christian music label, remember?).  It’s not even wrong to refuse to label your art as Christian.  Songs, paintings, books, and movies can’t be Christian; only people can.

I will tell you what may not be wrong but is very unhelpful.  It’s unhelpful when Christians celebrate and applaud sub-par musicians and pop-culture-imitating CCM songs.  It’s unhelpful when Christians hang a Thomas Kinkade painting in their homes and pretend that it is good art.  It’s unhelpful when Christians spend their money on poorly written novels simply because they came from the Christian bookstore.

Bands like Switchfoot realize they will never be taken seriously as artists while they operate under the auspices of the Christian subculture genre.  The world immediately discredits anything that comes out of the Christian subculture, whether it be movies, music, novels, etc.  Is that Switchfoot’s fault?  Or is it our fault as Christians for celebrating and promoting poor creative expression?

The first time we meet God in the Bible, we are introduced to him as our Creator.  What should that say about who we are to be as his image bearers?

(photo credit, photo credit)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC