Where's Waldo? Searching For Jesus in Contemporary Christian Music

I'm still moving old Facebook Notes over. This one I wrote in 2011. It's been nearly a decade and the data really needs to be updated.

For a long time now I've had this feeling that Jesus is disappearing from Christian music. It's not that I've absolutely known this for sure, but I've had this nagging sense that we don't talk about Jesus much any more in our music. Sometimes I feel like, if Jesus is actually in the music, he's hidden and non-obvious, kind of like Waldo in those funny puzzle drawings where you have to actually hunt for the main character. I've sort of been feeling like I'm having to hunt for Jesus in what is ostensibly "Christian" music. That's been bugging me.

I was already feeling this way when, one day several months ago, I found myself wandering around Fort Worden over on the Olympic Peninsula in Port Townsend, Washington. Fort Worden overlooks the point where the strait of San Juan De Fuca connects with Puget Sound. It's a breathtaking view from up there and you can stand on the cliffs and watch bald eagles fishing in the strait. On the fort's grounds is an old chapel along with a museum of artifacts from the fort's history. I was looking into a glass case in the museum and discovered an old "order of worship" from a chapel service held by one of the groups of soldiers who had trained at the fort for some period of time in the distant past. The chapel service had been held as part of a series of events in preparing for the unit's departure for places unknown. The soldiers had held a ball but, prior to the ball, had held a service in the small chapel. What shocked me as I read down through the front page of the pamphlet was the extent to which nearly all of the songs chosen were explicitly, unambiguously, about Jesus. The fact that I found this to be shocking sort of has been nagging at me for a while.

I'm a data guy. I like data and I like to be able to use it to dispel my own superstitions. I've worked on large, complex systems for many years and I have learned through hard experience not to entirely trust my own judgement about some kinds of things. Complex systems are hard to get visibility on and human beings are very prone to developing superstitious explanations for visible phenomenon that they don't have hard data about. So while I've felt for some time like Jesus is disappearing, I've wondered whether the data would really show whether that was true.

Recently I had an idea to kind of test this thesis. I've been preparing to speak at a conference on cloud computing and, as part of that preparation, I've been doing some little research projects to illustrate how data that's freely available on the internet can be used to inform our perspective and sometimes even show that the conventional wisdom on some topic is false. Often this kind of information is available but you have to be willing to gather it and do the analysis.  Anyway, lots of the data on the internet is what's known as "unstructured data". A short way of explaining this is to say that lots of the data that's interesting is kind of buried in prose or free flowing text and not really organized in a way that makes it easy for computers to digest. So people are always experimenting with ways of summarizing unstructured data to distill insights without having to read every single page.

One of the fun, recent ways of summarizing text is through the use of "word clouds". Word clouds are collections of words on the page in kind of a free-form arrangement where the font used for each word is sized proportionally to its repeated occurrence in some body of text. So, for example, if you take a document and create a word cloud from it, you'll count all the words that are used and the word that is used the most will be displayed in the word cloud using the largest font with words used less often being displayed with ever smaller fonts.  Here's an example of a word cloud of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

Declaration of Independence

You can immediately see that the declaration talks a lot about People, Laws, Government and other things related to those concepts. This is sort of what you might expect to find in a word cloud of the declaration. It makes intuitive sense.

For some time now I've been wanting to test my theory about Jesus disappearing from Christian music so finally today I took the time to do some experimenting with some of the data that is available online. The first thing I did was to download a PDF of traditional Christian hymns that have been sung in churches across American throughout the 20th century. I created a word cloud of all of the lyrics of those hymns. The results were interesting.\

Legacy Christian Hymns

You can easily see that Jesus has been the central subject of the legacy hymns sung in churches for many years. I sort of suspected that Jesus would be a central subject but I admit that I was sort of surprised that he was actually THE subject of most of our singing throughout the 20th century. I thought this was kind of cool and encouraging in an unexpected sort of way.

So now the question was "how am I going to assess what's being said in contemporary Christian music?" I decided that, rather than combine a bunch of lyrics from a bunch of different artists, I would create word clouds of entire albums from a variety of artists. So you'll see below the word clouds from some albums from a number of popular musicians. I chose Chris Tomlin, Hillsong United, Sonic Flood, Shane & Shane, and The Dave Crowder Band.

I found a web site that organizes the lyrics for Christian artists by album. These are the results.

Chris Tomlin - See the Morning Album

If you look at the bottom, center of Chris' word cloud and kind of squint, you can find the teeny word "Jesus". Chris talks a lot about God, Lord, and Glory but not so much about Jesus. Now, I like Chris. I've seen him in concert and he's an inspiring guy. But if you look at the lyrics of this album at least, Jesus is not explicitly the dominant subject matter. I'm not throwing Chris under the bus or suggesting he isn't a Christian or some ridiculousness along those lines. I'm just pointing out that if Jesus shows up in his lyrics, he's more implied than explicit.

Hillsong United - United we Stand Album

Hillsong United for some reason has a lot to say about "TAKE". I have no idea what that's about. While Jesus is not the most dominant theme to their music, he certainly isn't hard to find. I was happy about that.

Dave Crowder - Remedy Albun

Dave Crowder says "Oh"...a lot. "Glory" and "Love" make strong appearances. Jesus, God, and Lord are very much background themes and not front and center.

Shane and Shane - Pages Album

Shane & Shane talk about Jesus a lot. I was glad to see this. I've always liked those guys and their music always seems particularly Christ-centered. You can see why.

Sonic Flood - This Generation Album

Sonic Flood talks about "LORD" a lot but not much, if any, about "Jesus". They do give some attention to "Christ" but he's definitely not a major theme.

So what do I conclude from this exercise? Well, clearly there has been some significant reduction in the centrality of Jesus in the artistic expression of Christian faith in music. You cannot compare the legacy hymn word cloud to any of the others and not notice that Jesus is no longer the most dominant theme. This seems like a significant loss to me. I'm not suggesting that we should limit ourselves to the old hymns or styles. This isn't really an investigation of musical style. And I do believe we should be encouraging Christian artists to express their faith through music.

But I harbor a suspicion that, to a certain extent, there's a growing tendency to shy away from making Jesus the centerpiece in other ways. Jesus is a polarizing figure in our culture. (He has always been a polarizing figure in all cultures across all of time but that's a discussion for a different note.) "God" and "Lord" are less polarizing because in some sense they're less explicitly exclusive. I sometimes suspect that we think God is more palatable than Jesus.

Maybe I'm being picky, but when the apostle said that "God gave him (Jesus) the name that was above every name. That at the name of "Jesus" every knee would bow...", wouldn't you kind of think that we should make "Jesus" central to our lyrics and artistic expression?

Just asking.

Written by

Keith Lowery

Follower of Christ. Husband. Father. Grandfather. Maker. Consumer of Data. Reader of Books. Writer of Code.