The Enlightenment Of Pop Music

There’s always been this diametrically opposed balance between secular and Christian. Have you ever wondered where that came from? Or did you just assume that it’s always been there from the beginning of Christianity? And have you ever noticed how it’s affected music today? Bands like P.O.D. and Creed are constantly being referred to as either Christian or secular in a frenzied attempt to label and categorize anything that might renegotiate the age-old boundaries.

The Enlightenment in the 17th  and 18th centuries was an awakening to the reason, logic and science of man. It also focused on the humanity of man and his overall responsibility for the environment and the world around him, culminating in a humanitarian interest in the arts, philosophy and science. As a result, it basically separated church from state—the state of affairs we currently find ourselves in—and created continuities of history. These continuities of history for the secular and the Christian developed over time so that the secular had its own way of relating to the world; Christianity likewise had its own way of relating to the world. The result has been the psychological separation that we know today.

However, if anything has been going against that trend for the past century, it’s been pop music. Over the past 50 years, Christianity and pop music have blended, clashed and fought with secular ideas. Just think of Madonna’s controversial career, pseudo-Christian bands like Creed and crossover newbies like Jars of Clay and DC Talk. Until recently, there has always been a distinction between Christian music and secular music. But bands like P.O.D. and Lifehouse have reached wide mainstream appeal, despite the media’s attention towards their Christian messages. One cannot dispute the success P.O.D. has garnered in the past couple of years, from scoring the Matrix: Reloaded soundtrack to holding the number one spot on TRL with singles “Alive” and “Youth of the Nation.”

The most interesting thing about P.O.D. is that they possess a mixture of mainstream success and explicitly Christian lyrics and messages. Their mission to infiltrate the world without deviating from their calling is impressive—even recently booting guitarist Marcos from the tribe in order to maintain the course and stay true to the mission. In P.O.D. we see an intersection between Christianity and the secular, and not just a Christian band that’s trying to “make it in the real world.”

The problem with most Christian or “spiritual” music today is that it’s too pluralistic. This has never been more embodied in the past six years than in Creed. Creed’s popularity and massive appeal (selling well over 20 million units so far) owes in large part to its watered-down spirituality—ironically, one that is without one particular creed. Pluralism in the postmodern world is not only the way in which the world reconciles the schism created by the Enlightenment, but it is also a threat to the viability of the Enlightenment. To blend Eastern mysticism with Native American animism and postmodern Christianity is seen as non-threatening and eveb appealing.

It’s no wonder then that Creed dwarfs P.O.D.’s record sales, despite P.O.D.’s visibility and public success. Still, music is such a culturally-defined and potent force that we need to consider for a moment the context P.O.D. and other Christian bands are operating in. Unlike most bands that identify themselves as Christian, P.O.D. embraces the secular culture and yet identifies with Christianity. Their lyrics are historically derived from the continuity of religious history. (I’m not ashamed of the Most High/ Even if I die tonight, if I die tonight/ This I pledge, and I’ll take it to my death.) In this sense, they differ very little from the historical voices of Augustine or Pascal, who proclaim Christianity as a moral and aesthetic historical argument. The validity of P.O.D.’s voice relies partly on their particular blend of hardcore/rap-core/reggae/nu-metal. The unusual blend of musical styles seems to encompass the secular in a way that reconstructs the context in which religion is able to come into the secular.

Because of the aggressive nature of the style of music, lyrics like, I surrender, giving up all that is me/ Yielding to you, are detached from their historical Christian context and placed into a secular context. Written as a song of overt adoration addressed to God, which in the Christian context might be label as worship, “Portrait” subtly removes the stereotypes of religion often associated with such lyrics as, Christ—Jah flesh; Christ—light within; Christ—beginning and the end. Instead of stereotypes often associated with denomination or theology, the punk-rap-nu-metal style is able to legitimize the belonging of such lyrics in a secular subculture. P.O.D.’s ability to embrace so many different styles is indicative of the Evangelical Christianity it embraces, in which they are infiltrating top ranks.

“Set It Off” is working several different undercurrents, which persist throughout the album and are subversive to the secular, yet still exist to co-exist within the framework of a secular mainstream culture. P.O.D. talks of Armageddon, of battles and sides and of Babylon—in short, religious vernacular with historically Christian backgrounds. What is interesting about “Set It Off” is that in the midst of this biblical context, P.O.D. places itself as participants within this history. Our time has come … When opportunity knocks/ Break the locks and rush the gates, they say. It’s as if their role in this history is to carry on what Christians have been doing for the past two centuries, except in a modern rock context—Underground blaze the sound to Armageddon.

 

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P.O.D. is able to speak to masculinity, religious warfare and spiritual aggression in secular terms that unravel the backgrounds of such biblically-charged ideas into West Coast street vernacular, disarming any perception of potential threat. The battle against Babylon becomes a battle against “crews,” or street tribes; against real and fake—We real and we’ve outlasted/ Your phoniness, so you best to come correct; and against weak and strong—Overpower the strong tower/ Infiltrate top ranks/ Count down the final hour. These terms offset a historical interpretation to the biblical motifs and attempt to “secularize” them. This translation is culture specific, removing it from historical interpretation into a more synthesized and unified history.

If Christian bands want to infiltrate the world to be in it but not of it, they need to synthesize the culture, but also stay true to their mission. Otherwise, the world will recognize ambiguity and weak intentions with pluralism and turn the Christian mission into a Creed-like Behind the Music story. Props to the ones who subvert the Enlightenment by getting in the game and staying true to the cause.

For more on P.O.D. and frontman Sonny Sandoval’s thoughts on God, their new sound and why Marcos quit the band, subscribe to RELEVANT magazine now.

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