Two weeks ago, we posted a thoughtful commentary from Kate Bowman entitled, “Secular, Sacred, or Both?” The essay looked at Christian artists in the mainstream and argued that the line between secular and sacred music is often a blurry one—if it exists at all.
Last week, we posted a somewhat controversial rebuttal from Jim Pruitt, “Have Crossover Artists Sold Out?” Pruitt made some strong statements in his article, claiming that Christian artists in the mainstream are “more carnal than spiritual.”
We thought Pruitt’s essay might spark some reader response, and sure enough, it most certainly did, prompting more letters than perhaps any article we’ve ever run in our five-plus years online.
Most readers disagreed with Pruitt, but a few thought he made some valid points, like Sam Brose, who wrote that crossover artists have “lost the focus on what they are supposed to do with God’s gift. They’ve crossed over to make more money. My wife and I are [musicians], and we could do secular cover tunes to make a great living. But then we would miss out on [the opportunity] to change a single life because of the Word of God. We are focused on what God has sent us to do, and that’s why we will never cross over.”
Michael “SHOK” Gomes, an emerging hip-hop artist weighing the balance of faith and artistry, wrote: “I have struggled with this issue in the creative process of my most recent work. I have been very successful in the secular hip-hop market. I have dedicated all my work to Christ now. Making secular records was purely based on the commercial value and airplay potential. But when I did a recent album for God’s glory, not mine, my thinking changed. I had some great ideas that would appeal to the masses, but under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, I examined my motives and I ended up cutting out many songs and recording new ones.”
But most disagreed with Pruitt, however, including Kate Bowman: “As the author of the original commentary, I want to respond to Pruitt’s contention that crossover artists are on a quest for superstardom. While I certainly recognize that tendency in some, I can vouch that the people I mentioned in my article are not that sort of musician. In my personal experience with their art, their numerous performances, and behind-the-scenes chats at the college where I work, they are genuinely interested in making good art that speaks the truth—which is not synonymous with “loving the world.” Pruitt’s disdain for the intentions of artists of integrity like Sufjan Stevens, Bill Mallonee, and Sarah Masen makes me wonder if he’s ever attempted to engage with their music or if he’s just making an unfounded generalization.”
“Pruitt’s commentary misses the mark on many levels,” wrote Hilary Landis. “It is right to question artists who have [compromised their] faith.But [that doesn’t mean] artists seeking to honor God with their lives and talents shouldn’t receive recognition from mainstream critics and non-Christian listeners. Very few Christians would consider C. S. Lewis a sellout because of his symbolic writing and the mainstream success of The Chronicles of Narnia.”
Gary D. Kersey disputed Pruitt’s claim that Christianity has never “overtaken and consumed popular secular culture.” Wrote Kersey: “One case comes to mind: Dr Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Dr. King believed he was under conviction to represent Jesus in stating that equality is a God-given right. Today, Dr. King’s ideas of equality and civil rights have found nearly unanimous approval in this country. As Christians, do we want to be a ‘shining city on a hill,’ or are we content with finger-pointing, knee-jerk legalism, and [divisive] theology? Bravo to Christian artists who wish to express the beauty and truth of God in unique and personal ways.”
Marcella Smith warned against being too quick to judge Christian artists without knowing their motivations: “Take the log out of your own eye before you try to take the log out of someone else’s eye. 1 Samuel 16:7b says, ‘Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.'”
Many expressed the need to be in the world, not of it. “I agree that there’s value in artists creating explicitly Christian music,” wrote Joel Buursma. “But to those critical of Christians who work in the secular music industry, I would ask if they think it would be better if there were no Christians working in the secular music industry! I thank God for those who are truly trying to be salt and light, whether they’re clearly proclaiming God’s truth or simply trying to lessen the spiritual darkness in the world around us.”
Shane Sellstrom agreed, compelled to stick up for crossover artists: “When taking into consideration the fact that these musicians are Christians, we should encourage them. It is obviously wrong to judge someone by assuming their motives, and unless their actions [reveal impure] motives, I choose to assume that mainstream Christian artists have been called by God to make the music that they do.”
Becky Stapleton wrote: “How can we be ‘salt and light’ if we only work in the Christian industry? Christians have to be involved in the secular music, news, politics, etc. in order to make an impact on our world.”
“Many are far too quick to judge usually without knowing the facts,” according to Marty Marmor. “As an artist manager, it is very difficult to walk that fine line between ministry and the business of music. If an artist crosses over, and through the music reaches thousands of people who are lost and hurting, we as believers should say, ‘Praise God.'”
Chris Blackstone, a pastor who recently preached on this topic, wrote: “There is a necessary and natural tension in our lives between using our God-given gifts in society and serving God. To say that musicians can only perform ‘sacred’ music puts a requirement on them that is not placed on people in other professions. Can a web designer who is a Christian only design websites for churches? Can a salesman only work for a Bible publisher? The more we place a line between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ jobs, the more we demean the meaningful work that Christians all over the world contribute to making life better for others.”
Doug Clanton wrote: “Did the Apostle Paul ‘sell out’ by making a tent for an unbeliever? If the quality of their work [is recognized as excellent], Christians should not be ashamed of whatever mission field the Lord has placed them in. Billy Graham prefers to preach in football stadiums instead of church buildings, because more lost people show up. It is not our place to criticize the ministry field of another. I would encourage Brother Pruitt to trust the Holy Spirit as he works in the hearts of the chosen.”
Finally, Webb Kline used the debate as an opportunity to take the Christian music industry to task: “While it is inevitable that some Christian musicians are selling out, the more apparent apostasy to me is that the CCM industry sold itself out a long time ago. We have created a Christian subculture that is so removed from the world that it has become virtually ineffective in reaching it.” He notes that there’s no separation of secular and sacred music in Europe, where artists often play in cafes and pubs and successfully lead others to Christ beyond the church walls. “This wall of separation that has been perpetuated largely by the CCM industry has seriously damaged our ability to reach the lost. Yes, involving ourselves in the world is dangerous, but Jesus warned us that it would be. He never told us to not do it. Rather, he commanded us to go. The late Rich Mullins wrote, ‘If I stand, let me stand on the promise that you will pull me through/And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace that first brought me to you.’ The church needs to extend this same grace to those who are still in need of it—not stand in judgment and condemnation of them. God’s kingdom is not of this world, nor of the sub-world we Christians have created for ourselves. The sooner we learn that, the better off we and the world as a whole will be.”