On grief, grad school, and the unhelpfulness of Christian rock

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine lost her sister after a long illness.

My friend is grieving, as anyone would be, but she says she’s slowly starting to pick up the threads of her normal life again. She’s pretty self-aware and emotionally intelligent, so I expect that through this grieving process she’ll maintain a pretty good sense of when she feels ready to take up certain things again, let go of certain things, and so on. One of the things she’s been struggling with is returning to church, because being in the nave where her sister’s memorial service was held is still difficult for her. She wants to come back, I know–and she’ll get there soon enough–but she hasn’t yet felt like she’s ready to sit in the pews again.

Somehow my friend’s experience of grieving her sister, maybe coupled with the fact that it’s Lent, has gotten me thinking about a problem I have with the Christian music industry.

Perhaps another time I’ll tell the story of how and why I got into Christian music and then how and why I stopped being so enthusiastic about it. My point today, however, is something a bit different.

My point today is that it bothers me how most Christian music seems to insist that sorrow, grief, frustration, anger, despair, and even mild melancholy aren’t legitimate things to feel.

I noticed that phenomenon sometime around when I first started paying attention to heavy metal. I’d never liked metal that much in the past, but somehow after a couple of years in grad school, I suddenly stumbled across bands like Iron Maiden and Dio and Judas Priest and said, “Hey! I get this stuff now!” One of the things I noticed very quickly about that music, especially once I started paying attention to the lyrics, is the way it made me feel like there were other folks out there who sometimes felt as frustrated and angry and alienated as I was starting to feel.

Now, I still had my Christian music, and I also still had the ’60s and ’70s rock on which my parents had raised me, and those things all had their place. But the Hollies and the Eagles, much as I like them, were never quite dark enough for the worst days of grad school, and Christian rock always seemed in too much of a hurry to bludgeon me with hope and encouragement.

You may argue, of course, that following Jesus should mean a life full of hope and joy and peace, so Christian music should cultivate those things. Fair enough, I suppose, but I  felt like most Christian recording artists were trying so hard to push me toward what I should feel that I wasn’t allowed to acknowledge how I did feel first.

I’m no psychologist, but it seems fairly commonsense to me that moving from a bad, dangerous, or destructive emotional place to a good, healthy, and life-giving one first requires acknowledging and accepting where you are. Then, having done that, you can move on.

There’s certainly a good and valuable place for encouraging, uplifting Christian music, of course; the problem was that that seemed to be the only kind there was, and some days that wasn’t the kind I needed. Granted, once in a while you’d hear a song like Caedmon’s Call’s “Center Aisle” or the Newsboys’ “Elle G.” (Grief over a suicide is, apparently, the rare occasion on which Christian bands are allowed to express anguish without somehow resolving it into joy.) But mostly? No, mostly Christian music seemed like it was trying to rush me toward the happy stuff; it wasn’t interested in helping me get my bearings on where I was first. The implicit message was that the frustration, the anger, the sorrow, the despair, and whatever else I felt were, if not signs that I was a bad Christian and insufficiently faithful (though maybe they were that, too), at least moods to be snapped out of as quickly as possible. The strategy was not one of healthy acceptance and moving on; it was one of sheer denial.

This problem wasn’t the bands’ fault, necessarily, or at least not theirs alone. A big part of the problem, no doubt, is the publishers of the Christian music who feel like they have to keep the lyrics and themes and moods within certain limits so they don’t offend or scare away their core market. Likewise the arbiters of Christian pop culture, the magazines and reviewers and such, who advise Christian consumers on what to listen to and what not to bother with.

And a huge part of the problem is us. We American Christians are terrible at dealing with grief, anger, and other emotions that we sometimes call “negative,” and we get uncomfortable when we’re asked to sit in the room with those things and stare them in the face for a while. We’d rather sweep those things under the rug and pretend that the “Jesus makes your problems go away” story we like to tell ourselves is actually true.

Now, I don’t know what kind of music my friend who just lost her sister typically listens to, although I know she gravitates toward Christian music much of the time. In any case, this post is more about what the event triggered in my head than about what she does or ought to do. But it makes my friend sad and probably also angry that she won’t get to see her sister again until the Resurrection, and the best way to find healing is first to acknowledge what’s broken. Most of the Christian music I’m aware of will be very good at helping her move on after she’s done that, but I doubt it’ll do much good before then.