Keith Green and the commercialization of Christianity

As I have mentioned before, I was raised in a Christian home and even though I am not today, a lot of my perspective on things is informed by and tied to that fact (indeed, I recently finished Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Blankets that deals with this very subject). I am not talking about the same perspective that bullshit televangelists call “the Christian worldview;” what I mean is that I cannot separate my way of thinking from the way I was raised.

Even now, in a certain way, they are family.

And, as with family, my instinct is never to ridicule Christianity or Christian people. More often than not, I am just frustrated. That’s just the way it is.
On the other hand, sometimes I get just angry. Like when I saw this video:
I was angry because it’s a desecration of a good man and a perfect example of how Christian marketing hides and fosters mediocrity.
There was a time when church music was the only music (with the exception of folk music, which I’m going to ignore for the purposes of this thought). While I am certain that there were composers that made music out of sincere religious devotion, I am equally sure that there were composers who made sacred music because that was the only way to make music for a living. After the mainstreaming of secular music, there were still composers who composed music as a religious offering. This past semester, I sung Hugo Distlers Es ist ein ros entsprungen, written before the composers suicide at the height of Nazism in Germany. Practically every work by Olivier Messiaen has religious motivation. And Igor Stravinski’s Symphony of Psalms, written after his re-conversion to the Russian Orthodox church, takes to heart Psalms 33:3, “Play unto him a new song, play skillfully with a loud noise.”
The thing that connects these composers is that they felt that it was not enough to just compose in the name of Jesus. Rather, they thought that the best thing that they had to offer to their creator was a personal expression that was the highest quality they could possibly produce.
Keith Green was a legitimate pop music child prodigy. When he became the youngest member of ASCAP ever at age eleven, he had already appeared in professional musical theater, filmed a TV pilot and acted in commercials, signed a recording contract with Decca, and written over forty pop songs. He was poised to become the Joe Jonas of the mid 60’s. That is, until Donny Osmond came along.
After it became clear that his plan to become a teen idol superstar was not going to work out, Green spent his late adolescence exploring Eastern religions, screwing the attracted-to-failed-teen-idols set, and tripping the fuck out on acid. In his early 20’s, he converted to Christianity and met and married his wife, Melody. And then he put his musical talent and craftsmanship into writing songs for God.
Here’s a video with Keith singing his song, “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful:”
In this song, and even more so in his song which has now become a church staple, “There is a Redeemer, ” Green shows his respect for the tradition, and master of the hymn tradition. Hymns are close to my heart. Even though the religious aspect does not move me as it once did, I think the communal singing of hymns is one of the most powerful musical experiences. They are written in steady, even meter without syncopation using the most powerful, pure cadences and chord progressions. They are beautiful.
Michael W. Smith’s version is not beautiful. It is a product, marketed and released for commercial consumption by Sony/BMG music group. He shits on Keith Green by changing the opening chords from a balanced, rejoicing major to a melodramatic minor. He subsitutes the perfect chord progression for trite angst. It makes me sad to see the legacy of a great musician treated this way.
It is something that happens too often in “Christian” music. I say “Christian” becuase at this point, it is a marketing term. Christian _______ (insert genre) does not, by necessity, have to be mediocre, but usually it is. Bands know this. Mute Math sued their label in order to get off their Christian sublabel. Christians might dismiss me because I am no longer one of them, but I continue to believe that the most sincere expression of faith comes with the pursuit of perfection, not cheap marketing.
So, let us reject false idols. Here’s Keith Green again, with the perfectly crafted “Easter Song.”

2 responses to “Keith Green and the commercialization of Christianity”

  1. Thanks for your honesty. And I appreciate the links to Keith’s songs. I hadn’t seen the live version of The Easter Song. His music is inspired. As a follower of Jesus myself, I find a great example in the passion that Keith exhibited for the faith, not to mention his musical acumen.

  2. […] I’ve written before about how distasteful I find the Christian music industry, and Protestant “worship” music. And this must also resonate somewhat in the culture, because that piece, “Keith Green and the Commercialization of Christianity” is one of the most read posts on this blog, and I get traffic every week from people Googling “commercialization of Christianity.” This video shows that style of music at its worst–a cynical tool to increase the emotional stimulation of a group of teenagers. […]

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