Honest Christian Art: Helping Bono Find What He’s Looking For

Bono, U2, Eugene Peterson, CCM Magazine - imageA few days ago a wonderful little film showed up online. It featured one of my favorite authors, Eugene Peterson, having a conversation about the Psalms with Bono, one of my favorite songwriters. It actually brought tears to my eyes, not just because of the good content but because the video was so well done. I even texted the filmmaker Nathan Clarke to tell him so.

But Bono said something that prompted a Twitter response from me, and that response stirred up a good discussion on the internet—a discussion that I hope will bear some good fruit.

At one point Bono says, “I’m talking about dishonesty that I find a lot of in Christian art. A lot of dishonesty. And I think it’s a shame because these are people who are vulnerable to God—in a good way—vulnerable. I mean porous, open. I would love if this conversation would inspire people who are writing [with] these beautiful voices, these beautiful gospel songs [to] write a song about their bad marriage. Write a song about how they’re pissed off at the government. Because that’s what God wants from you. The truth…and that truthfulness…will blow things apart. Why I’m suspicious of Christians is because of this lack of realism. And I’d like to see more of that in life, and in art, and in music.”

It’s clear that Bono, for whom I have a lot of respect, is shooting from the hip, and while it’s tempting to criticize and parse every word he’s saying, it would do us all good to remember how many conversations we’ve had over coffee that we’re thankful weren’t being recorded, and aren’t being listened to hundreds of thousands of times. (As of this writing, the video has almost 350,000 views.) It’s important to keep the context in mind, and to recognize the spirit of what he’s saying.

Andrew Peterson, Tweet, CCM Magazine - imageMy Twitter response was this: “I get where Bono is coming from, but the fact is, there’s TONS of honest Christian art. It just isn’t mainstream.” Allow me to expound, now that I’m not constrained to 140 characters.

First, there’s no shortage of honesty in art created by Christians. (For the sake of this argument I’m going to assume we mean honest and excellent. There are plenty of bad songs that are honest, and we certainly don’t need more of those.) I think Bono was speaking broadly, about the whole of popular Christian music, and like I said, I get where he’s coming from. There’s no Psalm-like anger or vengeance or confession there—though there’s plenty of Psalm-like joy and praise, much of it lifted straight from the Bible. But I bristle whenever I hear people complain about the state of Christian music because there’s so much good music, good writing, good visual art being made by followers of Jesus. When they say, “Christian music is so bad,” I answer, “What are you listening to? Because I can name scores of songwriters who are Christians whose music is excellent, honest, beautiful and true, not to mention well-produced.” Jill Phillips? Andy Gullahorn? Josh Garrels? Jon Foreman? Sandra McCracken? Thad Cockrell? Colony House? U2?

You could say the same thing about books. “Christian books are so cheesy,” says the guy holding the Amish romance. But what about Walt Wangerin? Marilynne Robinson? Frederick Buechner? Eugene Peterson? Leif Enger? Wendell Berry?

The problem, you see, isn’t that Christian artists lack honesty. It’s that the masses seem to prefer something else, and that something else casts a long shadow. There have always been, and will always be, followers of Jesus working away in the shadow of what’s popular, using their gifts to season their communities with honest and beautiful art. And I will always harbor a crazy hope that some of it will break into the mainstream so that even the most cynical listener might encounter the honesty that Bono’s talking about. If nothing else, I hope that this conversation prompts some people to seek out the artists that aren’t played on the radio every five minutes. Part of the reason I started the Rabbit Room website  years ago was to draw attention to good, true, and beautiful works of art that were more or less ignored by the mainstream.

So in one sense, Bono’s exactly right. I hope that his conversation leads those with influence in popular Christian music to consider the Psalms, to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with their massive cultural impact. That means putting songs into the world that the audience might need to hear, songs that might reflect not what’s hip and safe but what’s beautiful and true and honest.

And on the other hand, I want Bono to listen to some of my friends. I’d love to see him draw attention to the many who are too explicitly Christian in content for the mainstream yet don’t stand a chance on Christian radio because they don’t reflect the sonic homogeny of the decade. Let’s talk about the artists who are baring their souls, troubadours and prophets with beautifully imperfect voices and stunning rhymes, songs about divorce and heartbreak and doubt, just like the Psalms—but also like the Psalms, songs about God’s steadfast kindness, his tender mercy, our desperate need for rescue.

They’re out there, Bono, doing exactly what you and Eugene described. How can we draw more attention to what’s working than to what’s broken?

If you want to discover some of the songwriters, authors, and visual artists I mentioned in this piece, visit the store at www.RabbitRoom.com.

Andrew Peterson, CCM Magazine - imageAbout Andrew Peterson | Andrew Peterson is a singer/songwriter of more than ten albums and is the author of the award-winning fantasy series The Wingfeather Saga, as well as the founder of a creative community called the Rabbit Room. He lives with his wife and three children in Nashville, Tennessee. www.andrew-peterson.com

  • Mikel Withers

    Or Project 86, MC Jin, Red, Skillet, Switchfoot… the list goes on and on.
    Bono sounds like someone who listened to the wrong radio station and assumed that summed up the whole of Christian music.
    Now… if he had talked about production and promotion etc., then he might have a good argument… you really have to listen to a lot of yawners to find the good stuff.

  • Baron Richmond

    I actually agree with Bono. I listen to a lot of different music and to be honest…i cant stand most “christian music”. Don’t get me wrong i like some…but most christian radio music nowadays is full of songs written with more “lalalas” than actual lyrics.

    I believe that the topic is a bit deeper than the above article covers: check out this article Jon Foreman wrote about “Christian” music. –> http://community.switchfoot.com/topic/11530-why-switchfoot-wont-sing-christian-songs/

    • You agree with Bono, but what you say seems to agree with Andrew as well. He says the same thing about the music on the radio that you do and he also points us to Jon Foreman as a good example. Excellent link, btw.

    • Kepha Hor

      Most of the Christian songwriters I admire are long dead–Pretorius, Rinkart, Dachstein, Nicolai, and of course King David himself.

  • As an example of honesty in Andrew’s own music, take his heart-wrenching and soul-baring song, “The Rain Keeps Falling”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJ-ur29jGMc

  • Mary Jo Laupp

    I would add Matthew West to the list – especially his album “The Story of Your Life”. As for authors, Brennan Manning.

  • Justin

    I would totally include Burlap to Cashmere(totally amazing band) and Sarah Masen and her husband David Dark (author) amazing. Also, Kendall Payne, Rosie Thomas, and even Jonathan David Helser(though he is much more mainstream now after merging with Bethel music, but nonetheless some of his lyrics are awesome. Also, Over the Rhine and so so many more but it never makes the airwaves oh and Michael Card of course and of course Jennifer Knapp and Kristene DiMarco and Shawn McDonald.

  • jon

    Bono is right. My dog eats dog food every day, therefor my dog loves dog food every time she hears me scooping it into her bowl. There are few singer/songwriters that write with the heartbreaking honesty a Gospel-inspired life requires. I think Foreman deserves a spot on that list. I don’t really know about the others. IMO – those who frequent the WOW compilation album are automatically disqualified.

    • dave2

      I think AP’s point in this article is that no one should say “there are very few singer/songwriters that write…” Folks might not be aware, just like you learned several names from AP today. I have been running the Under The Radar podcast for 7.5 years, specifically curating heartbreakingly honest songs by Christian artists. You can go to that website, http://radarradio.net, and click “Artists” — and you will see a list of 700+ artists… just to get you started on discovering the breadth of what’s out there.

      • jon

        Hey man – don’t take my indecision as a lack of appreciation. I’m a big fan of Thad, Garrels, obviously Peterson, and many others. Don’t get me wrong. I am just undecided as to whether I think they are able to speak to the depravity of the human condition without needing to insert the classic, redemptive “Christian” upturn by the end of each song. I’m not speaking to whether there is “good” Christian music out there. There’s a lot of it – I am sure your podcast is a great expression of that. But – from what I’ve heard (which I’d say is a fair amount) – few are without the “cheese factor” that makes me want to listen to Arcade Fire or Elliott Smith within about 3 songs. This permeates to the production as well. You can spot a Christian tune after listening for about 5 seconds (even without lyrics) based on the over polished quality of the recording. And heck there’s probably a lot out there I am not familiar with, but if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound. I think Bono was speaking to a systemic quality of modern Christian music that is hard to deny. Hopefully it’s a call to action, not a call out.

        • dave2

          I agree with you Jon that overall Bono’s comments were more a criticism on what is acceptable, promoted, and even desired in the mainstream. I could point to a lot of artists that would squarely fit in your criteria of thoughtful, honest, creative and void of cliche and void of typical CCM polish. Try Levi Weaver, Eric Peters, Over the Rhine, Julie Lee, Giants & Pilgrims, Joy Ike, Andrew Osenga, The Oh Hellos, Justin McRoberts, Waterdeep just for starters. Seriously dig into just these artists and you will see grit and depth and vulnerability that will refresh you and challenge you in profound ways! And when you pick your jaw up off the ground, I can give you 50+ more artists to keep digging. They are not writing music for the mainstream, but the art that they are creating MATTERS deeply. I hope that you will be open to discovery, because there’s a lot of non-cheesy and non-cliche music out there being made by Christian songwriters. You can listen to them right next to Arcade Fire on “shuffle” and they will hold up artistically, lyrically, passionately, and spiritually. If you need more artists, feel free to write me. Connect more at facebook.com/radarradio

  • myfriendamy

    I mean, to be fair, if you turn on popular music radio there’s not a lot of depth there either.(I mean it might be honest, but it’s also not saying much of anything) People, Christian or not, prefer to be comfortable. There’s always going to be less exposure in a Christian market because there’s a smaller audience.

  • Mac

    You have struck at the heart of the issue, and the reason I don’t listen to Christian or secular radio. As an amateur musician and Christ follower I find both offensive. Real music and real Christian life are lived by real people… Not famous people.

  • Mike Harrigan

    I like U2 but have always questioned Bono and his responses to the Gospel and his interpretation of Scripture. He supports homosexual marriage and thus contradicts the fundamental nature of God revealed in Christ. So what he thinks about Christian music seems rather irrelevant to me. Maybe what he is looking for is the real Jesus?

    • Combi

      Not only that, he endorses a paraphrase containing new age and gnostic terms and concepts within its pages

  • Jasmine “BushMaid” Ruigrok

    This has expressed my very own thoughts here. Having been on a gradual journey to discover authentic music written by Christians, I do fully understand Bono’s comment, yet completely agree that he is looking in the wrong place. Among my favourite truthful heartfelt musicians are obscure artists such as Andrew Peterson himself, Jason Gray (who totally should’ve been on the list), Josh Garrels, Andy Gullahorn, Eric Peters, the Holcombs, and bssically anyone from the Rabbit Room. Even so, there are some vulnerable gems in the mainstream world too: All Sons and Daughters, Steffany Gretzinger, Tenth Avenue North, Francesca Battistelli, for KING and COUNTRY. Like anything worthwhile, you have to hunt for it to find it. The dross always floats to the top. Mainstream music as a whole is for consumption, not for art.

  • Angela Williams

    Thank you for the heads up on some good stuff. My faves: The Autumn Film. John Mark McMillan. Sara Groves. Matt Maher. Jason Gray. And I was delighted to see you mention Josh Garrels?.

    • Jamie Gil

      I was wondering if anyone else would mention Jason Gray! If you want brutally honest acknowledgement of struggle, Way To See In The Dark album is a great source.

  • Larry Stephan

    Andrew Peterson is correct. I am amazed at the amount of thoughtful well-crafted music being produced by Christians. I could add many to his list, for example: Christa Wells, Tanya Godsey, The Gray Havens, The Choir, etc. I would recommend going to the Under the Radar website for more. Under the Radar produces a weekly podcast and their website is full of information about Christian artists who I am thinking Bono would like.
    https://radarradio.net/episodes/episode-335-top-11-gourmet-albums-of-2015-revisited

  • Micah

    Andrew Peterson, Sara Groves, Jon Foreman, Fernando Ortega, and Jill Phillips should be on regular rotation on AC Christian radio. And of course, there’s so much good music to reach back to. Thinking of Keith Green, Rich Mullins, almost any Wayne Kirkpatrick/Susan Ashton combination. Wish some of these good classics were being heard by the new generation of pop Christian music consumers. Remember what C.S. Lewis said about old books?

  • Steve R

    I would add Bob Bennett, Carolyn Arends, Pierce Pettis, Steve Bell, Rita Springer, Jacob Moon and countless others to the list of Christian artists who tackle the deeper, harder aspects of life head-on. I would also point out that the secular music industry is just as full of mainstream pap. I have been a musician for 45-odd years, and it has always been this way.

    Bono is just disillusioned, and needs to dig harder.

    • dman278

      The industry promotes crap, and it’s Bono’s fault for not wanting to sift through it in hopes of finding something worthwhile.

    • Justin

      Yes Pierce Petty for sure and of course Burlap to Cashmere

  • “The sonic homogeny of the decade” whoah. Nailed it.

  • dman278

    Am I the only one who sees the irony of publishing this article on CCM??

  • Charles Tryon

    First, I think you’ve put words around some of the same reaction I had to Bono’s statements. (And yes, I totally understand your point about not trying to over analyze his every word!) I am a part of an artistic community where Christ followers are honestly, authentically trying to create art that reflects this kind of reality. It does exist. It just doesn’t get very much mainstream exposure.

    Second, as a visual artist (sculptor) myself, I think the situation you point to may be marginally better when you are talking about music and songwriting. When you start branching out into the visual arts, or worse yet, into real professional quality dance, it’s difficult to find ANYTHING that even claims to be led by the Spirit of God. Oh my… there’s a flood of Christian kitsch in the visual arts — the fair skinned, Americanized, silky haired Jesus paintings, full of sunsets and doves… Yes, there are real, honest artists out there, ones who have taken the time to not only become excellent in their craft, but to hear and reflect the voice of God, and their own response back, and reflect that honestly in their work, but do you ever set that in church? Do you see it in galleries? How many churches understand how to incorporate the visual and performing arts into their worship, or even into their teaching? Yes, thankfully, there are some churches that “get” the arts, and more that are struggling with coming to grips with how Imagination is a real part of the character of God… but we still have a very long way to go!

    Thank you for leaning into this topic, and keeping the conversation going! We need more of this!!

    ( http://arts.om.org/ )

  • You are right on, Andrew. It is a great tragedy that the incredible artists you listed (Jill Phillips, Andy Gullahorn, Sandra McCracken, Josh Garrels, and many others–including you) are unknown even by most Christians. There IS great art–honest, gut-wrenching, soul-shattering and soul-fulfilling music, books, and film being made. Bono…get with it, buddy. You have the perfect platform to unleash these brilliant artists on the world.

  • Ian

    Note that Bono did not say that “all” Christian artists are dishonest. While the article definitely expounds upon the issue, I see no disagreement in the two positions.

  • Jonathon Edwards

    You can change the word “artist” to “pastor” and it would work as well. There are pastors who preach what they think the people want to hear instead of preaching the truth of the Gospel.

  • JeffTN62

    Somewhere a punk band thinks U2 is not being honest. Worship at its purest form is abandonment of oneself to focus totally on God. Music is a commodity, Christian or mainstream. Widows and orphans is pure religion, not being more truthful and arty. In CCM, ministry has been lost in favor of the altar of radio spins and marketing. When you pay $40 to worship that is a problem…. Many artists and media lament the prosperity gospel, but need to look in mirror as the current model is not a Keith Green or Rich Mullins calling. I still love U2 and CCM but go feed orphans if you want truth and reality. Also if your a known worship band, your rider shouldn’t demand to see the box office receipts<<< true. Fedora anyone?

  • Analisse Reyes

    Andrew. I think you’re right. And maybe it’s not that the masses prefer something different. Maybe they are just being fed something different. I think the issue lies in the Christian Music Industry, not Christian music. All of your thoughts are beneficial to the conversation. Thanks for sharing.

  • Johnny

    Joshua Tree. What a fantastic album. Need to give it a fresh listen.

    Yeah, nothing to do with this article, but yeah, great album…

  • Jayden Lawson

    Andrew, I assume Bono is referring to popular worship music.

  • Ember

    Bono is speaking so far over the heads of CCM – Andrew Peterson included. It is not just about honesty in lyrics. It is about honesty in art as well. I checked out Rabbit Room and Peterson’s website and it’s all the same CCM – just a tad bit hipper. Guy with a t-shirt, guitar and a beard of any length or a girl with the “natural” look (that took an hour to achieve) and a guitar looking wistfully into the camera. It is cookie-cutter and exactly the kind of artless music Bono was talking about.

  • Vonda Sellers

    I understand both perspectives. So so many artists I love are almost never played on Christian “hit radio”. I find myself wanting to share all this beautiful music that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. There is so much diversity out there.

    Besides the ones listed above, I enjoy Audrey Assad, The Vespers, Elenowen, Jellyrox, Svrcina, Amanda Cook, Dave Barnes, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, Ellie Holcomb, Future of Forestry, Ben Rector, Waterdeep, Young Oceans, Miss Angie, Matthew Perryman Jones, Trent Dabbs, Sugar and the Hi Lows, Harvest (Bashta Parker), Jillian Edwards, Amy Stroup, Ben Kyle, Christa Wells, Taylor Leonhardt, Esterlyn, Paper Route, Shel, Act of Congress, Savannah Ellis, Levv, Chris & Gileah, Liz Vice, Rivers & Robots, Jordan & Kristin Rippy, Mindy Smith, Lainey Wright, Tal & Acacia, Caroline Cobb, Tides of Winter, Us and our Daughters, Heath McNeese, The Gloomcatchers, The Sweeplings, and Sherri Muchira.

    I’m sure my list is just scratching the surface. If it’s all a bit overwhelming, start by listening to the Under the Radar podcasts.

  • Brett Gibson

    Would anyone be able to recommend specific albums by the musical artists Andrew Peterson mentions (and Peterson himself)? I’d love to explore that more deeply, but don’t know exactly where to start.

    • Jamie Gil

      Jason Gray – Way To See In The Dark
      He openly admits the struggle to have faith, how much easier fear is than love.

    • Bailey Gillespie

      Andrew Peterson: “Counting Stars,” “Light for the Lost Boy,” “The Burning Edge of Dawn.”
      The Gray Havens: “Fire & Stone,” “Ghost of a King.”
      Jill Phillips: “Mortar & Stone.”
      Andy Gullahorn: “Faultlines.”
      Colony House: “When We Were Younger.”

  • Jamie Gil

    Nancy Rue – Reluctant Prophet trilogy – talks about helping the “least of these” – prostitutes and orphans. And about trying to not let hate win when it tries to take you out. And about trying to tell God “I quit” only to hear Him say “Too far to say far enough”. Honesty and beauty in art!

  • I so feel with this! I know there is a wealth of beautiful, honest, thoughtful, well-done Christian music; I also know it takes digging to find. Christian radio doesn’t seem to like it, and plays generally safe, simple, uncreative music that most people scanning through radio stations wouldn’t stop to listen to for more than a few seconds. I don’t like Christian radio’s version of Christian music. But I do like Christian music– by Andrew Peterson, Jason Gray, Colony House, Josh Garrels, Chris Rice, Andy Mineo, Jillian Edwards, Social Club, Tow’rs, Jon Foreman, The Gray Havens, the list goes on. However, I only know these artists because I’ve been willing to explore various places to find them. Most Christians don’t care enough to do the searching and just accept what the radio gives them, and that makes me sad, because there is such a treasure trove of truly moving music to tap into. I wonder if Bono is more upset at the Christian music industry than the music Christians are making.

  • Robb Chastain

    Thank you, Andrew, for pointing out what all of us who are fans of Christian music know–that there is so much out there and you really have to search for it. And maybe Bono hasn’t found what he’s looking for because he hasn’t dug through the record crates at the flea market or the discount record bin in a Christian bookstore. Surely I grin but over the decades, I have found lots of great music there, including, more than three decades ago, Zonic Bonds by Bono’s fellow Irishmen Andy McCarroll, an artist respected by Bono back when U2 was one of those upstart bands on either side of the Atlantic with a willingness to share their faith. Certainly, then as now, there is art by Christians–whether music or media or whatever–that is just another day at the studio, and maybe today is just okay but tomorrow will be inspired. Or vice-versa. Even honest people don’t always win. I am a fan of Bono–his All That You Can’t Leave Behind album is one of my favorites–but I am disappointed by his disrespect of Christian artists, particularly when it shows up as a Yahoo headline and when there are so many awesome Christian artists. But who knew Bono cared that much about Christian music? I hope, for starters, he checks out Andrew’s music and hey, that’d be cool, Andrew and Bono on stage together somewhere. That would be a beautiful day.

  • Jeremy Olson

    There’s no such thing as good Christian music…it all sounds so much the same.