Today on a local “safe for the whole family” radio station, I heard the song “How to Save a Life” by The Fray.
My first thought was, “Cool,” because The Fray is a cool band and I think their music is pretty decent.
But then I got to thinking: why is “How to Save a Life” suddenly a feature on the Christian radio station? I don’t know much about the spiritual history of the band members, but I do know that The Fray does not claim to be a “Christian” band. They worked their way up through the alternative rock radio ranks in Denver. They write songs that are broadly appealing. They didn’t release their album on a Christian label or distribute it in Christian trinket I mean book stores. When The Fray played Sokol Hall, they weren’t running ads on Christian radio trying to get an audience.
And what’s more, “How to Save a Life” wasn’t being featured on Christian radio a year and a half ago, when it first hit the charts and became a feature song on Grey’s Anatomy. So I got to thinking: what changed? Why is the song now worthy of Christian radio airplay, more than a year after it found major commercial success?
I’m interested in your thoughts on the comment thread. Here’s my two cents: “Christian” radio, which started out as a vehicle for biblical preaching and teaching, has become primarily a “safe” (i.e. “subcultural”) alternative to major commercial radio. So what qualifies a song to be played on the Christian station has almost nothing to do with the faithful witness of the musicians, or the style of the music, or the biblical worldview of the lyrics. Rather, the simple criteria are: 1) is this song commercially attractive to the masses, and 2) are its lyrics “safe for the whole family?”
In applying these criteria, occasionally Christian radio is out front with a Christian artist who has solid commercial appeal (a la Mat Kearney). But more often, Christian radio is behind the ball, suddenly discovering that yesterday’s commercially popular songs also happen to be safe for the whole family (a la “How to Save a Life”). Since people are listening to such songs on secular radio anyway, why not play them on the Jesus station once we’ve confirmed that they’re indeed “safe”?
Some Christian radio defenders will undoubtedly spin this as a faithful attempt to engage culture. But I contend that it is not. Rather, it is another example of picking up the culture’s scraps and slapping a Christian label on them. If God’s people would seek to shape culture in a redemptive way, we’ll have to do more than figure out which songs qualify as both “cool” and “safe.” We’ll have to encourage and promote artists who sing about the complexities of Creation, Fall, and Redemption – including even the ugly parts – and who spur us to think more deeply about such complexities. Such artists are neither neatly “Christian” nor plainly “secular.” They are simply human.
Your thoughts? (Especially if you work in Christian radio, you’re entitled to a rebuttal. Fire away.)