Christian SCHAREN. Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to those Seeking God. Grand Rapids Michigan: Brazos Press, 2011. pp.184. $17.99 pb. ISBN 978-1-58743-250-7.
Reviewed by Jacqueline E. WENGER, Independent Researcher, 10507 Water Point Way, Mitchellville, Maryland 20721

A Biblical phrase sometimes used by contemporary Christians to describe their relationship to the wider culture is that "they are not of the world” (Jn 17:16). Just what this means in daily practice may vary widely from generation to generation and across denominations. But, typically, the call to the “serious” Christian is to live an exemplary life, one that models love and high ideals. Yet, in attempting to live this model, Christians can so far remove themselves from the “world” that they no longer hear the cares and concerns of everyday life, especially when those cries are expressed in contemporary popular music.

Christian Scharen is concerned that well-meaning and well-intentioned Christian leaders and groups have inadvertently cut off essential connections between the “church” and the “world”, leaving both with limited access to each other. He calls this limiting approach “constricted Christianity.” His book is a plea for Christians to think more broadly and to hear the voice of brokenness through the art and music of each new generation.

“Constricted Christianity” is Christianity that requires limited imagination: in essence, just give me a checklist of what adult Christians and their children should read, listen to, and watch on TV, and all will be well. But Scharen argues that these limitations lead to false assurances and deny the very essence of grace and redemption. A living faith cannot be reduced to a checklist. In his earlier book on the band U2 (One Step Closer), Scharen says, he tried to show young people how one band addressed numerous social concerns from the point of view of faith. Yet, for many, the concerns expressed about U2’s music became a battleground over whether U2 was spreading a Christian message or “dangerous for Christian ears”. This book addresses these earlier concerns in two ways. First, it tries to develop a theology of how to engage popular culture and second, it seeks ways to engage popular culture where God is already present and active.

Scharen takes a full chapter to describe in detail the life and music of a popular and influential singer (Leonard Cohen) and another full chapter on the musical traditions of the blues. Neither of these musical types would be considered “Christian music” yet the heartfelt struggles that surround the life and music of Cohen and the psalm-like agony of the blues seem to invite God’s mercy, though perhaps not our theology.

Another example brings the conflict to the fore. The popular ministry Focus on the Family, while intending to address the needs of families, often applies a checklist mentality to problems faced by young families. Scharen warns of the tendency to view the world from an “us and them” perspective – those who meet the checklist criteria and those who don’t. The need for discernment remains, says Scharen, but “the line between good and evil, rather than running between the saints and sinners, instead runs right through us all.” (2011:114)

Without a checklist then, how do we make distinctions between what is art and what is to be avoided? For help in understanding this dilemma Scharen turns to C. S. Lewis, an influential writer in Christian circles. Lewis's approach to literary criticism, and by extension to popular culture, is to ask ourselves how a piece of art (theater, music, movies) affects our connection to God. In essence this means not passing judgment on popular culture until we have yielded to its experience. A quote from Lewis helps us to understand that notion.

The first demand any work of art makes upon us in surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) [From: C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1961), p. 1]. In the final chapter Scharen illustrates his message using three examples: the Harry Potter series, an Icelandic band called Sigur Ros, and the band Arcade Fire. Each example provides a practical approach to guide the reader through a healthy evaluation of pop culture influence.

Broken Hallelujahs asks us to venture away from "constricted Christianity" even though it may feel uncomfortable and even unsafe to do so because there is much wisdom in allowing contemporary culture to influence our thinking. As Scharen puts it "if hundreds of thousands of people are buying songs or seeing movies or watching a show on TV, it is worth asking what they are finding there that is meaningful.” [C. S. Lewis, ibid. p. 121.]

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