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On Secular Form

In response to a previous post, someone put forward the sensible question, “What does ‘secular form’ mean? Is there actually such a thing?” I wrote a fairly lengthy response to this, but upon sending said response I found that it had been deleted. This post, therefore, will be aimed at exploring this question.

The word secular (this is interesting too) as I understand it basically means ‘any and everything that happens outside of the temple.’ The ‘secular’ is that which is ‘non-religious.’ I have no doubt that the word is more nuanced than this, but I think this basic understanding is adequate to get at what I was trying to say.

There were two things that I had in mind when I said that “many Christians are producing art at a prolific rate without the understanding that you simply cannot take a secular form and cram Christian content into it and expect that the form will not affect the content in any way.”

The first thing that was lurking in the back of my words when I wrote that are the ‘sounds-like’ Christian bands. I once spoke to a father who was terribly excited that he had just discovered a number of bands who sounded (form) just like existing secular bands–ACDC, for instance–but whose lyrics were Christian in their content. This man was thrilled at the prospect of giving his son a slew of CD’s that mimicked in their music the pre-existing ‘secular’ form–thus making them sound hip and relevant, I’m assuming–while simultaneously giving his boy a healthy dose of Jesus at the same time. Thus, you have a genre of music that is decidedly ‘secular’ in its form and religious in its content. Feast your ears.
The second, and broader, issue that I was referencing, was the state of popular Christian music in general. I find that, as I am scanning through the radio stations in my truck, it is difficult to tell the difference between the songs I hear on the Christian stations and the songs I hear on the secular ones. Based on their form alone, there is little to distinguish them–and even when I listen closely to the lyrics it is still often hard to tell which one I have landed on. The station advertisements between songs are also highly telling: the ‘announcer-voice’ comes on in a tone dripping with enthusiasm, “Pickin’ you up, makin’ you feel good.” Can you guess whether it was a Christian or secular station I heard that on? I bet not. Again–the content of the songs is ostensibly religious , but in its form it is indistinguishable from the existing secular form that it is so obviously mimicking.
I’m trying to avoid judgement on the issue of Christian music– though I’m sure I haven’t entirely prevented my distaste for “Christian music” bleeding through–and simply point out that a secular form must necessarily alter and change the content to which it is wed. Neil Postman goes so far as to argue that the medium is the message. We take for granted how powerful form can be in communicating ethos and pathos; the logos is only one part of the equation.
The discussion that this topic spawned between my wife and I revolves around whether or not there ought to even be a thing called “Christian art.” My wife feels strongly (and those of you who know her will appreciate that understatement) that the only Christian music we should have should be music sung in church (within the temple), that is, sacred music–the rest should not be “Christian art” but simply art made by Christians. The danger, she feels, lies in the fact that we have created a subculture–a subculture which is by definition at least one-step removed from its parent. Personally, I dislike most ‘Christian art subculture’ because most of what I see is shockingly poor art that often leads to a kind of emotional drug addiction. I wonder if this misunderstanding of the relationship between form and content is in some way related to the rationalistic dichotomy that divides the spiritual from the physical (a dichotomy I wholeheartedly reject) and assumes that they are in no ways related or joined. You may separate form and content in theory–in order to discuss it–but it is impossible that form and content ever be divorced.

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