The Oh Hellos: Striving to create better art for the Christian Community
Ever since I was little, I don’t remember ever loving Christian music at any point in my life. Or, at least, not the music they commonly play in church. Hillsong Music, Bethel Music, Elevation Worship, or any of the other popular worship songs had never touched me the way some other songs could. I would always linger in the back of the room, dazing off, wishing we could skip ahead to the service. And now that I’m getting older, this strikes me as odd. Because I LOVE music. Each song created a new world for me visually. Each song had its appeal. Owl City with its fanciful technological sounds, Pentatonix with its distinct vocality, Twenty One Pilots with its almost depressing yet hopeful aesthetic. But there was something about the worship music that never “lit me on fire” like the songs said they would. Eventually, I learned to tune it out and ponder what I would do in the coming week.
Now, eventually, as I got older, I began finding Christian music that I enjoyed, like TobyMac, Jamie Grace and Hollyn. (None of whom usually play during worship service.) But it still struck me as strange I didn’t like any of the music at the worship service. Now, in part, it is a personal thing, since until now I had always struggled to make my relationship to Christ personal. This compounded with my overall different worship style makes traditional worship for me annoying, but that didn’t stop me from liking the music from the above artists. So what is it? Is it simply personal taste, or is there something about traditional worship music that needs changing?
Well, truthfully, a bit of both. I know people who love traditional worship music, and that’s fine. Sometimes it comes down to personal taste. As I mentioned before, my worship style is different and comprises listening to Christian podcasts while drawing, or taking in the sunny day or city-scape around me while enjoying some Owl City or TobyMac. Some people feel moved by traditional church songs. It gets them through tough times and helps them feel connected with God. But the sameness of our worship songs showed a seemingly small problem that goes unnoticed by most unless they have a keen eye for art.
As an artist, specifically a Christian one, I wanted to know why I didn’t like the worship music in church. Was there more to it than my differing worship style? So I looked into it—and discovered there were others like me. People who felt dissatisfied with the Christian content that was being presented. Not just the music, but the movies and the TV shows. It all felt—bland, samey, and uninspired. Most Christian movies even have the same plot. A family goes through tough times, and right when they least expect it, God shows up and fixes it. You may think, “Spirit, aren’t you being picky? It’s just a movie!” And, yeah, you’re right. I’m being picky. In fact, I’ve gotten into many an argument with my dad about being too picky regarding the newest “Star Wars” movies.
But being picky—criticizing the movies we love, are what push people to move forward. If fans hadn’t been picky, Paramount Pictures never would have redesigned the character for Sonic in the 2020 Sonic movie. And I’ll be the first one to say the original design was bad. If fans hadn’t been picky, Sony Animation would have never changed their movie lineup to movies that now exceed The Emoji Movie, which was also terrible.
I will point out—there is a big difference between politely criticizing and harassing someone because you didn’t like the film or song or animation. But I digress. The point is, most mass consumers aren’t thinking about the quality of the content they consume. They take their kid to see a colorful movie to distract them for a bit. They listen to songs because the beat is catchy. They watch a show because it’s cheesy. There isn’t a problem with just enjoying something because it’s bad and cheesy, or because it’s nostalgic rather than good. But this is producing a problem that is becoming more and more common. Media that is fueled off of being nostalgic and making you feel good, rather than making you think or even doing both.
Markets are becoming oversaturated with just mediocre content rather than movies and TV shows that are amazing and awe-inspiring. I’ll be the first to admit, this isn’t that big of a deal in the long run. Subjectively bad movies can impact just as much as subjectively good ones, not to mention that everything is, after all, subjective. But it still is good for everyone to ask for objectively better movies.
Fiction, especially good fiction, is one way we digest the world and evaluate ourselves, our situation, others, and life. And having mediocre fiction that doesn’t accurately reflect our situation means we lose a critical lens we have in our world. Good fiction is good when it has diversity, relatable characters, and accurate portrayals of real issues in the world. Good fiction allows us to experience the world from the eyes of others. A major example of the inverse happening is when the movie Split released, which portrayed a person with schizophrenia/dissociative identity disorder as a mentally unstable murderer and kidnapper, leaving people like DissociaDID to combat the stigmas left behind by these films in YouTube videos.
This dilemma regarding mediocre media is something you can see throughout TV, film, music, and novels, throughout secular media (like Disney’s constant releasing of live-action remakes, and Illumination Animation’s unwillingness to take risks with their films anymore although their first blockbuster, Despicable Me, was a risk) and in Christian media, specifically movies and music. In fact, to showcase this point, a YouTube channel run by two Christian brothers put this to the test by teaching their viewers how to write a worship song in 5 minutes or less.
The constant evolution of media always grows stagnant eventually, running out of ideas until a younger generation grows into the old creative positions, sharing their own life stories, but it seems more common with Christian media. One of my favorite video essays by Josh Keefe on YouTube details it better than I can, saying, “I found it incredibly ironic that music made from a group of people who believe in a limitless and creative God only reflected what was being done in the pop industry.”
However, there are still people trying to push the boundaries of content creation, secular and Christian. Into the Spider-Verse set a new standard of animation and storytelling in 2018. Rian Johnson tested the limits of fandom and rewriting old stories with The Last Jedi in 2018. Rebecca Sugar began a shock-wave of queer inclusion with her groundbreaking show, Steven Universe as early as 2016.
Indie and Alternative bands have also begun making rounds in popularity, including AJR, and a newer and smaller band named The Oh Hellos. You may have heard one of their older songs around Tik Tok or YouTube called “Soldier, Poet, King”.
While they are still relatively small, only having around 52,000 subscribers and six albums, their music has impacted many so far and is leading a tiny revolution in changing the way we think of Christian music. Like the Dawn describes a poetic version of the creation story, intertwining scripture in a way that calls back to its original roots of being stories passed down from family to family in the Hebrew tradition. The album Dear Wormwood takes inspiration from C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, having characters, both real and fictitious, test past relationships and break them off in an almost letter format through the point of view of the main characters.
And yet, we still have to talk about their current series of EP’s, Notos and Eurus, music which is both beautiful, and causes one to stop and introspect regarding their own behavior towards others, reminding us to make sure we don’t “keep that old wheel turning.”
“How does this relate to Christian media?” you may ask, and the answer is complicated. Perhaps just as complicated as the themes presented in these two EP’s. The short answer is that this small band has been pushing the fronts of Christian music in a way that is both creative and thought-provoking. They intertwine relevant themes in their songs, themes that tie in with the state of modern content creation, and our current political climate in a world rampant with fear and pain.
Over these next four to five months, I would like to write a series of essays examining the themes of the work of Tyler and Maggie Heath as we look at the albums Notos and Eurus, tying the themes back to modern day violence, hatred & bigotry, and learning how to move past that as queers, Christians, and everyone in between. And while we’re at it, we’ll take a brief look at the current state of music and media across both secular and religious categories and see what we can do to move past it.
Disclaimer: I in no way claim to be an expert in any of these subjects regarding media and movies and am just a teenager sharing things I have noticed and observed. As for the meanings behind what Eurus and Notos mean, I can only speculate. I mostly am using the website Genius Lyrics. I will also link additional websites and articles as I use them. Regarding the people making the music and films, while I may talk about them in a negative light, I in no way mean to offend or bash the creators or anyone who may enjoy these media pieces. I want to encourage thoughtful conversation around the media we consume.
With that being said, I will aim to release 1 essay a month, with the first two being actual analysis, and then leaving space for the last three to be essays tying all the themes together.
A big thanks to Alex for allowing me to post this on his website since I don’t have one of my own, and I would like to thank you for reading this! I think fiction and art are very important to how humans interact with the world and each other, and I think this is something we should realize. Being okay with having only okay movies will give us okay results, and I’ve seen what people in the arts can produce. With that being said, in even the worst of movies, it’s possible to find even the smallest of things to enjoy! Split saw an excellent actor in James McAvoy, Disney has been pushing technological boundaries with their live action movies, and Christian movies and music are great to check out if you’re just needing an emotional pick-me-up! Remember to always see the bright side, especially in today’s cruel world. Criticise with caution and try not to hurt others or be aggressive. Even in genuine commentaries like this one hopefully was, it’s important to highlight the positive! So have a good day, and be the best human you can be!