Pentecostal Protestantism Wins American Idol!

As some know, Kris Allen, winner of season 8 of American Idol last night, is a worship leader at New Life Church in Maumelle, AR. He also attends the campus ministry Chi Alpha at UCA. It's funny because my sister Christine and her husband, Cliff, went to Chi Alpha while they were at the University of Texas in the early '90s. I visited a few times and liked it. But soon after I lost my faith and wandered the far country for a couple of years, though not without the love of many in that group, one of whom I worship with today at my Anglican church in Austin.

What's curious about Kris is not only that he represents a long line of Christians winning American Idol (see here for Huffington Post commentary). It's that he's specifically a Pentecostal Christian. More curious, Danny Gokey, #3 singer to be voted off, is also Pentecostal. And he too leads worship, at a church in Milwaukee, WI, Faith Builders International Ministries to be exact.

I looked up both church's websites and yes, they're essentially, or quintessentially, Pentecostal. As I think about arts in the church (in the Protestant church) and our role in the culture at large, I was reminded last night that, in a sense, tradition is everything. Traditions, like biological ecologies, breed certain kinds of persons and practices. Pentecostalism breeds musicians.

Whether it's John Wimber, the godfather of the Vineyard Church and a keyboardist for the Righteous Brothers, or Hillsong Church in Australia with Darlene Zschech bequeathing to the world--yes, world--the song "Shout to the Lord," the Pentecostal tradition creates an ideal environment for musicians to grow and excel at their craft. That craft may be limited to certain types of music. Sure. But it's a music that they're quite good at.

I was surprised Kris won last night. Phaedra and I don't have a television so we had to go to the gym and climb the treadmills so we could watch the marathon of music showbiz. We watched and ran. And ran and ran and ran. Eventually we slowed the treadmills down to a very mosey pace. Our muscles were this close from a massive cramp. Two hours of KISS, QUEEN, ROD STEWART, QUEEN LATIFAH, KEITH URBAN, CINDY LAUPER, LIONEL RICHIE, BLACK EYED PEAS and the gang of variety-style pop musicians was enough to wear us down. The never-ending commercials didn't help either.

We thought Adam Lambert was a shoe-in. The boy's got the chops.

But he didn't. Kris won. Kris the mousy, deferent, aw-shucks, Chi Alpha, worship-leading, tenor-singing, short-term missions trip-going, hot-as-a-sex-idol Kris. Humble Kris. Child of a pentecostal musical ecology Kris.

Well done, Kris. With nearly 100 million Americans voting, Phaedra and I were surprised you took the prize. But we're happy for you. And I said a prayer of thanks for the good that the church has done to foster a love for music.

Now all we need is for the church to develop an equally vibrant tradition for visual art-making, filmmaking, poetry-making, theater-making, dance-making, architecture-making. Then we'll be rocking.


Sarah said…
Hear hear! When most people talk about Christians and the arts, they're talking about music. I don't think that most Christians know how alienated VISUAL artists feel in Christian culture.
Jim Janknegt said…
Rod Dryer has a blog post with a unique point of view of why this guy won: here
Matt McCoy said…
As a father of three, I wonder how much the "Christian vote" helps this out. American Idol is one of the only safe shows to watch with kids. So if somebody wants to watch kids or is just offended by popular culture, they watch Idol. And I think a lot of those people happen to be Christian. So I think bad TV programming has as much to do with it as anything.

And I too long for the restoration of the day when the church is the center of art and not the detractor.
Sarah: I sympathize with your feelings of alienation as a visual artist. I'm working on a review of Dan Siedell's book *God in the Gallery* and I've been thinking a lot about the forces that have gotten us (as conservative Protestants) to this point. It's a long, complicated history. And it won't get unraveled overnight. But I want you to know that I feel a great sense of hope for the future and ask that you keep hanging in there, doing your work, taking risks, loving the folks around you. Good will come.

Jim: thanks for the link. I'm a fan of Dreher's, so it's fun to read his commentary.

Matt: not having kids I don't often see or feel what parents do. That's an interesting thought. Thanks. And I hope Vancouver is treating you right.
dave said…
Hi David-
As a christian that cares deeply about cultural engagement through the arts, and particularly, being a musician, music's role and convenience within popular culture, I was a bit alarmed (and a little annoyed) with this post. In the world of popular TV that has essentially shunned any music that lasts longer that three minuets and, even more, any music that asks for more than a cheap hook or simplistic harmonic structure, it comes as no surprise that the Pentecostal tradition that has produced the music of Hillsong and the Vineyard has ended up as the most recognizable sound on America's top rated television show. By any critical artistic measure, this sort of music- whether it happens in the church or on a TV show- is cheap. By this I mean that it caters to the lowest common denominator by focusing on flash and cliche, and is chronically infected with a sentimentality that avoids any serious engagement with the complexity and wholeness of the world. Moreover, worship music that has embraced this type of sound and approach seems to be dominated by "it-will-all-be-ok" motifs and, to use the cliche, "Jesus is my boyfriend" type sentiment. Its no surprise that the music that ends up being sung on a show like American Idol resembles so closely this sort of worship music and resonates so strongly with the Christian America that has embraced such sentimentality. Now, I enjoy a catchy melody just like anyone- even in Church!- and I even concede that the people who are winning American Idol are ultra talented and even worthy of being recognized in such a capacity. What alarms me is that this music is often lauded as worthy of artistic applause and respect. To risk sounding like a snob- the winners of american idol- specifically in their capacity as winners of american idol- are not artists. They are puppets to a culture (and a television network!) that rewards the cheapest of art with the most lavish and financially absurd rewards. The recognition and artistic definition that American Idol wishes to give to the world is precisely the type of recognition, I think, that the Christian artist should seek to avoid as an artist. Cultural engagement is not acquiescence to the world's- especially the world of american idol- standards for art or even entertainment. The christian story has its own set of harmonies, tensions and resolutions, silences, and rhythms- its own way of expressing the world. True Christian art (if there is such a thing) is art that is schooled by those harmonies, tensions and resolutions, silences and rhythms. It holds itself accountable to the jarring narrative of crucifixion and resurrection. Christian music, then, whether in the Church or on television, is music that has been crucified and resurrected- has put itself through the narrative of cross and resurrection. I think it might be a valid suspicion that any music (as art that is trying to maintain its integrity coming from a Christian artist) that is trying to make its way to the finals of American Idol-be it a worship tune or a Kiss anthem- has avoided any accountability to such a narrative.
Dear David, I only have time for a brief response. First, let me say I looked forward to sharing a season of life with you at Duke. Let the Texans unite and make their longhorn noise.

I also share your general concern for "cheap" worship music. I worked in a charismatic church that I loved dearly but whose music did not always reflect the kind of theology/doxology that I believe is good for our health. So yes, the cross and resurrection should inform all our music-making and worship-giving.

But in defense of my post I don't think I make the claims that seem to provoke such a strong feeling in you. My chief observation is, if you will, a sociological one: 2 out of the top 3 contestants come from Pentecostal churches. Next I observed how the Pentecostal tradition breeds a (particularly vibrant) musical culture. I gave the example of Wimber and Zschech as two influential songwriters in that general tradition.

Then I offered a congratulations to Kris. I felt it was a considerable accomplishment to have made it that far and then to have won.

An important, and slowly acquired, lesson I have had to learn as an artist and pastor is the importance of charity. The natural proclivity of my personality is to find a person guilty until proven guilty. I walk into a room as a skeptic. I leave an artistic performance and the *first* thing I think of is all the things it got wrong. My wife is not always pleased with this trait of mine.

But my "older brothers" in the calling, Frank Burch Brown, John Witvliet and Jeremy Begbie, have all exhorted me to err on the side of charity, to be careful of a too tightly wound critical orientation. Judge all things, yes, but I need to be wary of too swift hammer-throwing.

So with Kris I erred on the side of charity. I did not argue that a) I liked his music best, b) that his music was best, c) that American idol produces the kind of music we as Christians should aspire to, or d) that everything the Pentecostal tradition has produced is all bad or all good. When ever is a tradition all bad or all good? And I would encourage you not to cast such a comprehensive denunciation on the entire musical tradition of Pentecostals/charismatics. It's a broad and complex tradition, like all traditions.

I also think your comment about "puppets" is a bit unfair. Yes, there's a big machinery that churns out stock music. But unless your statement is meant as hyperbole (which I'm inclined to believe it is), you sound shrill and heavy-handed. Have you really watched every episode of American Idol and heard every song to confidently describe its musical repertoire as "sentimental"?

I agree with your desire to see worship or any other kind of music schooled by the cantus firmus of cross-resurrection. But I'm not sure it's that straightforward what that's supposed to sound like in any one genre of music, whether rocknroll or Barbershop music, rag-time or Bossa Nova, or across the life's work of any one artist.

And while I'm not crazy about Cindy Lauper, I do like a good Queen song.

But here's to many more good conversations: in person, with passion, over a beer, in love for our neighbor.
Kelly W. Foster said…
Dave and Dave,

Good discussion. Am I allowed to agree with both of you? I find American Idol unwatchable and unlistenable. I didn't know anything could be more overproduced and sentimentalized than the Christian music industry but this show seems to have achieved it. That having been said, these guys do have some pretty well-developed vocal skills and my experience with the Pentecostal tradition and with teaching music to kids has led me to think that the singing of simple tunes with an unabashed joy is pretty good vocal training - Even if the words are shallow (which they are not always) and even if the music is poorly constructed (which it is not always).

So, to agree with Dave, it's good and valuable to think critically about how different Christian traditions use and misuse artistic expression and you have laid out a good critique of the Pentecostal tradition, though your critique drifts a little into caricature. But, to agree with the other Dave, there are no perfect traditions and no traditions without some strengths. Let's think both critically and charitably.
Kelly: indeed and indeed. Though I'm not really a "Dave." :)
dave said…
I appreciate your response. I too look forward to our time together at Duke. We must get together soon with our wives to figure out how best to make our longhorn noise heard in Durham.

American Idol is an easy target, and I certainly agree that charity should be exercised *even* when watching such a show. I do, however, think that there is some validity at criticizing a show that has become a sort of standard for popular music and has such an influence on people's perspective of music.

I am prone to a bit of hyperbole (*thank you S. Hauerwas*) and yes, my critique of the pentecostal tradition was caricatured. I certainly understand that there are some wonderful things -even wonderful music- that has come out of the tradition. Part of my own christian formation owes itself to such a tradition, and I wouldn't change that.

I do stand by my "puppet" comment- even if it is hyperbole. My point was that the people winning the show, a bit like the president of the US, don't get there without acquiescing the machine in order to sell something. In the case of AI, what they are selling is a particular image, a brand that is acceptable to the sponsors that are funding the show. This doesn't mean that every individual act should be judged as sentimental in itself, but the context in which the acts take place is comprehensively sentimental because of the show's whole reason for its candy-coated existence.

I wasn't making the claim that their is a particular sound or aesthetic to the cantus-firmus of cross-resurrection (that would be ideology at its worst), but I do see how you could interpret my comments that way. I would point out that context and where the Christian artist pursues their art is an important thing to consider when discerning how our art is held up to such a narrative. I was simply raising the concern that American Idol-in its function as a television show that probably doesn't care about the true (critical) quality of the art as long as it keeps selling its products- might not be the best place to sustain such integrity.

We must get together soon. Maybe we could have a beer over listening to some Queen. Cindy Lauper is out of the question though. Cheers.
dave said…
Oh yes...thanks kelly for your insight. I agree that there are two sides to this coin, and that critical and charitable thought should be always be done together, keeping each other accountable, particularly in the act of neighbor- love.
Right on, my man, David Kline. It's going to be an exciting season of life and study at Duke. I can't wait. And I do appreciate your clarifying comments and remain sympathetic to your general concern.

I know the solution, though. We should start an alternative show called "Christian Idol!" (and use the exclamation point in the TR title). Find the right judges and I can hear the coffers--chi-ching!--already.

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