Mark de Jong
Late last year I spent an evening at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards. The event has matured over the years; what used to be a fairly simple, homegrown event has now morphed into a glittering night out for hundreds of people working in the NZ music industry. One of the awards announced on the night was the Best Gospel/Christian Album award, won by church worship band Mosaic for their great album 'The First And Me'.
To be honest though, I felt slightly awkward when this award was being given. It got me thinking.
Here’s the thing. No other award on the night is categorised by what people believe, the rest of the awards are based on musical style, gender or a particular achievement, e.g. rock, top female vocalist, international success, etc.
Having a separate Christian award almost implies that Christian musicians can’t compete with the quality of “regular” artists, so they need their own little section. That was probably an appropriate approach 10 or 15 years ago when there were very few Christians having success in mainstream NZ music. Back then, Parachute was an advocate for the creation of this award category for that very reason.
I think the landscape has changed since those days. Today, the music industry is full of artists who have a Christian faith. They regularly win awards that recognise their artistic achievements - these artists are not primarily judged or categorised by their beliefs.
I am a strong believer in the biblical concept of being salt in the world. The more we separate ourselves as Christians, creating a subculture, the less influence we can have in society. A grain of salt on its own is useless unless it is a part of a meal; when it mixes in with the ingredients around it, it changes the flavour of the entire dish. When just enough grains of salt are added to a dish, it becomes flavoursome and perfect. You may not even really realise that there is salt in a meal, but you will notice if it’s not there.
If as Christians we are called to be salt in the world, bringing our unique flavour and perspective, then I don’t think our best bet is to keep separating ourselves out.
You may argue that Christian music is a genre in itself. But think about it; does this approach work in any other industry? Should we be proponents of Christian dentist practices, Christian building companies, Christian cafes, Christian music labels and events? Or should we just let our faith speak for itself? We could let our beliefs be inherent, integrating with the rest of society around us and influencing everyone we meet. After all, Jesus did say we would be known by our love, not the label of our faith.
We could create Christian monuments for the saints to shelter in until the second coming or we could go about the business of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. I wonder if sometimes we’ve mistaken Jesus’ original mandate of being in the world but not of it and instead just found ourselves out of the world.
In saying all of this, I definitely think there’s relevance to the “Gospel” half of the NZ Music Award, but only in the sense of the word as a genre; music written for the function of religious worship. Maybe the Best Christian Album award should become the Best Church Worship album?
If you’re a folk artist who writes phenomenal music of that ilk, maybe you should just make the best folk album you can and enter it in that category. Be the best folk artist in New Zealand, not the best Christian folk artist in New Zealand. Let your faith be inherent within your art, trust that it speaks for itself. Musically, strive for excellence.
Perhaps instead of separating “us and them” we should just be seen as musicians striving to make great music and let our melodies and our lyrics speak for themselves. It’s worth considering...