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The Unrelenting Positivity of Contemporary Christian Music

Saturday, June 4th, 2016

Leah Libresco at FiveThirtyEight recently analyzed the lyrics of Contemporary Christian Music and found that they’re overwhelmingly positive, especially compared with historical shape-note (Sacred Harp) music:

Pairs of words, like life/death and sin/grace skew to the positive in modern Christian pop.
Source: fivethirtyeight.com.

In the article, Libresco talks to Peter Beck, who offers the following axes of Christian experience to explain how upbeat Christian pop songs (which in a church context often repurpose themselves as worship songs) neglect “Winter Christians,” or Christians who engage (“commune”) with God and the church but who see complaining or lamenting to God as part of their spiritual experience. Instead, Contemporary Christian Music appeals to “Summer Christians,” who can have a tense relationship with Winter Christians.

Two axes, high/low communion and high/low complaint, illustrate four kinds of Christians.
Source: Experimental Theology.

Winter Christians follow a rich history, with lament Psalms making up almost half the book of Psalms. Indeed, my analysis of online Bible notes from last year found that complaints and requests for help accounted for 43% of all prayers recorded in these notes. Beck’s model is static, but he adds, “Personally, I think both situational and dispositional issues are in play. Many Summer Christians have ‘dark nights of the soul.’ But I also think there are some people who are tempermentally Winter in orientation.” In other words, while you might have Summer or Winter tendencies, circumstances can push you to the opposite side for a time.

Types of prayers in 52 online Bible notes (bold indicates a complaint)

Type Percent Count
Examination (examining / devoting self) 35% 18
Intercession (help for others) 23% 12
Adoration (praise) 13% 7
Tears (sadness) 10% 5
Radical (boldness) 10% 5
Petition (help for self) 8% 4
Suffering (agonizing with others) 2% 1

Libresco also quotes David W. Stowe, who suggests that “when that secular pop music moved on from this fear [of nuclear war and annihilation], so did the Christian music.” I would further suggest that the “all pop is now Scandinavian pop” effect is no small part of this shift. John Seabrook describes circa-2015 pop music this way: “ABBA’s pop chords and textures, Denniz PoP’s song structure and dynamics, ’80s arena rock’s big choruses, and early ’90s American R&B grooves.” The hooks, or catchy melodies, for these songs almost demand upbeat lyrics to match their upbeat feel.

The extensive crossover between secular and Christian music is visualized at musicmap.info, which argues that Gospel music as a distinct genre (below, at the top in blue) effectively ends as a major force in 1968 with the advent of modern Contemporary Christian Music. Instead, each secular genre develops a “Christian” subgenre: Christian pop, Christian R&B, Christian metal, etc. Libresco doesn’t talk about differences between modern secular genres and their Christian equivalents, but such an investigation would be interesting: does Christian rap, for example, “complain” less than secular rap? Do certain genres speak better to Winter Christians than Christian pop?

Musicmap.info's genres include gospel, arranged vertically by time.
Source: musicmap.info.

For another look at the relative popularity of Christian music genres and artists over time, see Google Research’s Music Timeline.

Visualizing historical English metaphors related to the Bible

Saturday, July 18th, 2015

The images that come to mind when you think of heaven aren’t the same ones you would’ve conjured had you lived a hundred, five hundred, a thousand, or two thousand years ago. The word heaven accretes and shifts meaning over time–the cosmology of the Israelites who first heard the creation story in Genesis, for example, uses the metaphor of a “firmament” to explain the structure of the heavens, while your idea of the physical heavens probably involves outer space and Pluto.

Or take angels. Before the Renaissance, you wouldn’t have pictured a cherub as a chubby baby, yet today the first image that comes to mind when you think of angels might very well be this:

Detail of Raphael's Sistine Madonna showing two child-looking cherubs.
From Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, 1512

Linguists can pinpoint precisely when English speakers started to use cherub to refer to a child in this way: 1705. (The OED entry for cherub elaborates that this image developed further during the 1800s. Thank you, Victorians.)

Researchers from the University of Glasgow have created a website that explores how metaphors from different semantic domains (“angels” and “children,” for example) bleed into each other over time: Mapping Metaphor.

While the website lets you visualize the data in a number of ways, I thought it would be interesting to combine a couple of their visualizations to clarify (for myself) the historical cross-pollination of some Bible-related metaphors in English.

The first chart shows how metaphors have shifted over time for heaven and hell. The arrows indicate the direction of the metaphor. For example, an arrow points from height to heaven because linguistically we apply the real-world idea of height to the location of heaven: the metaphor points from the concrete to the abstract. Conversely, when the arrow goes the other direction, as from heaven to good, the metaphor points from the abstract to the concrete. When we say, “This tastes heavenly,” for example, we’re applying some qualities of heaven to whatever we’re eating.

Historical metaphors for heaven and hell.

The second chart explores the application of metaphors relating to angels and the devil. The Mapping Metaphor blog discusses this metaphorical angel/devil dichotomy in some detail.

Historical metaphors for angels and the devil.

There’s also data for Deity (i.e., God), but its historical connections overlap so much with other (mostly Greek) deities that it’s not so useful for my purpose here.

Finally, I want to mention that the source data for the Mapping Metaphor project, The Historical Thesaurus of English, is itself a fascinating resource. It arranges the whole of the English language throughout history into an ontology with the three root categories represented by color in the above images: the external world, the mental world, and the social world. Any hierarchical ontology raises the usual epistemological questions, but I think the approach is fascinating. The result is effectively a cultural ontology (at least to the extent that language encodes culture).

I compared a few Historical Thesaurus entries to the Lexham Cultural Ontology (designed for ancient literature) and found a surprising degree of correlation: all the entries I looked up in Lexham mapped to one or a combination of two entries in the Historical Thesaurus. Considering that we know (pdf, slide 33) that people who write linguistic notes in their Bibles are more interested in the meanings of English words than they are in the definitions of the original Hebrew and Greek words, I wonder whether an English-language-based ontology might prove a fruitful approach to indexing ancient literature–at least for English speakers.

Via PhD Mama.

Bible Verses for the Pinterest Set

Saturday, March 24th, 2012

Jonathan Ogden runs Typographic Verses, a collection of about seventy-five Pinterest-friendly Bible verses designed as posters. Here are three of my favorites:

Romans 8:38 crosses out all the things that can't separate us from the love of God. Matthew 6:22 is rendered as an eye chart. Psalm 48:1 uses striking, infographic-style type.

Also see Jim LePage’s Illustrations of Every Bible Book.

Jim LePage’s Illustrations of Every Bible Book

Friday, November 11th, 2011

Jim LePage has just finished a two-year project in which he’s created an illustration for every book of the Bible. The always-underappreciated Obadiah is my favorite:

A giant hand reaches for a bird, with the caption, “Though you soar like the eagle, I will bring you down. Obadiah.”

Jim also runs Gettin’ Biblical, a site that showcases non-schlocky Christian-themed artwork. I particularly enjoyed The Savior collage and the papercut-esque Burning Bush. Good examples of “Christian art” (a difficult term to define if you’ve ever talked to artists who are Christians) are hard to come by, and I appreciate Jim’s efforts to collect them.

Update September 2016: Removed outdated link to Gettin’ Biblical.