Among my many problems with Christian popular music is its (by virtue of its being popular) transitory and “trendy” nature. For example, many would consider the 70’s music of the Gaither’s “passé” today (I would at least hope so). I think the glory of hymns written before the middle of the 19th century is that they seemingly transcend this phenomenon. The chant form in particular, I think, resonates in a transcultural manner. Popular forms, on the other hand, are not usually able to transcend this barrier.
Every once in a while I will watch TBN on TV, and laugh at the old Michael W. Smith music videos because they are so “out of style” (“they are sooooo 80’s,” if you know what I mean). I feel the same way towards songs like “He Touched Me,” El Shaddai,” and “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” Of course, this is well illustrated with other, older tunes like “At the Cross” and “Fill my Cup.” All these songs have at two things in common: 1) they are not transcendent, and 2) they are popular. They did what they were intended to do; they were crafted to be immediately popular and strike a note with the current trends in popular evangelicalism at that time. So were the tunes of Ira Sankey, J. W. Peterson, even the recordings George Beverly Shae. Who knows how many “contemporary” Christian LPs of the 70’s (which were very trendy at the time), donned with bell-bottoms, big hair, and 9-inch collars, are now sitting in Salvation Army bins of no use to timeless Christianity? I am willing, to a certain extent, to take the music of any culture (German, Russian, English, Italian, Romanian, and African) that speaks to this timeless message of the gospel and use it in worship. I am not willing, however, to get caught up in whatever popular American evangelicalism is doing and look back only to be embarrassed fifteen years from now because my worship then was soooooo “2000’s.”
In reality, this popular aspect of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism closely resembles what American liberalism had always sought to do: amalgamate Christianity to the prevailing culture. Whereas liberalism sought to force Christianity in the shapes of modernism and current philosophical trends (high culture), evangelicalism (broadly speaking) has historically sought to press their Christianity into the molds of the wasteland of popular culture (low culture). Both desired that Christianity would be relevant. But both were subtly deceived; the progeny of this interspecies breeding was a religion that was so quickly out of style that it had to be continuously updated to keep in step with the current “relevance.” And in so doing, the new religion was hopelessly irrelevant–unable to really offer any kind of transcendent gospel to the world. And so it continues today.