Thoughts on Christian Counter-Culture

A few weeks back, Michael Spencer, more famously known as the Internet Monk, wrote a lengthy post extolling the virtues of those Christian artists – musicians, in particular – who have been a counter-cultural voice and bemoaning the lack of that voice in the present moment.  It’s an interesting read, because in the process of making his claim, Spencer does a fine job of pointing out all that is wrong with much of Christian culture today.
Let me say from the outset that I agree with Spencer that most of Contemporary Christian Music is bad.  I’ll go a step further:  it’s utter garbage, almost every last bit of it.  It’s second-rate nonsense, and even the sorry rot on most secular pop stations is better than what you’ll find at Lifeway.  The most imaginative music being made by believers is being made for an audience that is religiously mixed, because the artists are coming to the music on its own terms.  They have no agenda other than to produce art, but they know because of their faith, that their Creator will be glorified.  Not because of meticulous, market-driven directives, but the organic, spontaneous act of the Truth.  I think of artists like Sufjan Stevens, the Innocence Mission and Over the Rhine, who operate in much the same vein as my heroes Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. 
So in many respects I appreciate the tone of Spencer’s piece.  On the back end, however, I take great issue with his call for artists to address issues of social change.  It’s not that I don’t think a singer-songwriter or a rock band shouldn’t do that sort of thing.  They can and I would hope they would.  It’s the angle of Spencer’s concern that I find troubling.  His concern does not seem to be with how the artists hope to solve those issues; what is important, as far as I can tell, is that the artists simply point out the problem.  But this will not work, because the artists Spencer mentions – Derek Webb, Steve Earle, Bob Dylan – all take pretty specific political positions.  Here’s a hint:  not a one of them is a Republican.
From Spencer:

“I don’t hear the kids of voices that shined the light of God on the darkness of racism, that opposed the Vietnam War with a Christian conscience or that awoke to the realities of poverty and corruption in America. Evangelical art seems to reflect the concerns of the status quo, and the easy acceptance of a world where how we feel is the great crisis of our time.
Those artists that do find a prophetic voice stand out immediately from the bland majority.”

Right then and there, Spencer gives up his ghost.  I wonder how many Christians protested the Vietnam War without the Students for a Democratic Society talking points.  I wonder what they said when our troops left Saigon and Pol Pot descended on Cambodia like a vulture on a carcass.  Of course racism should have been tackled, but how often in the 1960s and 1970s was it done without engaging in liberation theology or some other nonsense?  And who “awoke to the realities of poverty and corruption” without seeing in the State the hope of justice? 
Let’s translate that into our present day.  Do we want artists who oppose, say, the Iraq War with a Christian conscience?  I’m not opposed to songs in that vein, actually, but find me a Christian artist who opposes the war without falling back on platitudes and is willing to acknowledge that terrorism in the present age is a real issue.  Of course I want Christian artists willing to shine “the light of God on the darkness of racism,” but let’s make sure that it doesn’t turn in to white guilt lectures or typical academic claptrap.  And by all means, speak the truth about the realities of poverty and corruption, but let’s always make sure that the facts are straight and we aren’t engaging in class warfare and we aren’t resorting to the State as the solution to these problems.  And for heaven’s sake, if Spencer wants to reference Steve Earle, fine, but Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger?  I admit they were great songwriters, but let’s avoid the apologists for Stalin and, in Seeger’s case, Hitler.  Seriously.  And while we’re at it, so what if kids hear that MLK was an adulterer – he was.  Does that discount his work?  Not in the least; he was a marvelous Christian leader in many, many respects. But if we’re talking about Christians and social change, Charles Wesley and William Wilberforce did a far better job of holding up both the Gospel and the issue of social reforms.  And since when is “social Gospel” a slur?  I always thought activist Christians had embraced the term.  I’ve got a stack of books suggesting that they have and continue to do so. 
But there’s a problem here, because I can’t think of a single artist, with the possible exception of Bob Dylan, whose social consciousness isn’t an artist’s rendering of the Democratic Party platform.  Even politically, you’ve got serve somebody.  We’re going to ultimately come down on one side or the other, and no matter how much we want to pretend we’re not political, we’re all nudging one another in a certain direction.  Derek Webb might want to be above politics (and I might want to believe him), but the fact is that his ideas will eventually fit the bill of either “conservative” or “liberal.”  Same goes for Steve Earle, Bono and all the rest.  Why is that so?  We eventually settle somewhere.  You accept plans or you accept wisdom.  Because as Douglas Wilson is fond of say, conservatism is common sense. It rejects massive plans and it has traditionally placed more trust in the local than in the federal.  Liberalism is more abstract and theoretical and eventually it becomes a series of plans from on high. And spare me any talk about an evangelical third way, because that failed experiment usually finds a Christian prostrate at the feet of Rousseau’s guillotine and rarely at the foot of Christ’s cross.
So if Spencer and others of a like mind are vexed to know that too many Christians march against homosexuality while ignoring the poor, I’d likely agree.  The real debate, though, is what must be done about the poor?  Will the evangelical champions of the social conscience be relieved when a few Christian folkies lament the poor but suggest that the free market helps rather than hinders the solution?  I doubt it.