Christian rock: How I started listening and why I started listening less

A couple of weeks ago I said I might write a post about how I got into and then back out of listening to Christian music, so here I go.

I grew up in a church that sang hymns. I knew of a few Christian songs in other genres, like the folk-ish kinds of things you’d hear someone strumming on a guitar in the ’60s or ’70s, and I was dimly aware of something called “gospel,” but most of what I knew was what you’d find in a standard white mainline Protestant hymnal. But then I started attending Bible studies and other events for a youth group at one of those suburban megachurches, where we sang what I can best describe as newer songs in the tradition of the ’60s and ’70s folk stuff. It was fun, but not particularly earth-shaking.

Until the night they showed us the music video for Michael W. Smith’s “Secret Ambition.” (Warning to sensitive viewers: The linked video includes brief scenes of flogging and crucifixion. Also, a mullet.) This was the first exposure I ever had to Christian rock. I’d never believed (or been taught) that you couldn’t combine Christian themes with rock music; it just hadn’t crossed my mind that you could.

Shortly after that I learned about Petra (Warning: More mullets. I’ll stop with the video links here, though.), then others. My high school days brought me Audio Adrenaline, the Newsboys, DC Talk (of course), Jars of Clay, the O.C. Supertones, and Caedmon’s Call. Then in college I joined one of those CD clubs they had in those days, where you get a dozen CDs for the price of one and then every month they send you another one in your genre of choice and you can either pay for it or send it back. That CD club was focused on Christian music, and through it I discovered the likes of Skillet, Bleach, Guardian, mxpx, Burlap to Cashmere, and Room Full of Walters. I even had a show on the campus radio station one semester, playing Christian rock for the, like, two people who were awake and listening to it at 6:00 on a Wednesday morning.

I should point out that I never adopted the mentality that a Christian should only listen to Christian music. But I was impressed with the variety and quality of some of the acts, and I liked the music and lyrics I was hearing.

But college was also a time to start thinking about life more deeply than I had done so far, and Christian music was part of my life so I started thinking more about it.

At first the question was merely one of taste. I’d heard enough Christian music I didn’t like that I came up with a rule of thumb: if I wouldn’t like the music of a given act without the Christian-themed lyrics, I wouldn’t bother with it as a Christian act either. That was simple enough.

But then the questions started getting more complicated. A woman I knew wouldn’t let her teenage son listen to the Christian heavy metal he liked because the lyrics weren’t clearly audible. Does music not count as Christian if the words aren’t distinct? Another friend pointed out that the applause at Christian artists’ concerts might not all be given to God. Is an artist’s message invalidated if some of the fans are applauding the band instead of God–or if the artist is accepting some of their applause for himself? I found myself less willing than some of my friends were to reject most music as Christian over issues like those, but the questions still troubled me.

The questioning continued after college. An article about author Reed Arvin’s struggles to find a Christian publisher for his novel got me thinking about Christian music in the context of the larger Christian publishing industry. A book about the spiritual journey of U2 and a couple of interviews with Bruce Cockburn (the sources for which I can no longer find), which included Cockburn’s and some of the U2 members’ thoughts about deciding whether to identify as Christian artists, pushed that issue further. I came to understand that, in their capacity as gatekeepers, publishers can legitimate or exclude certain voices and could restrict the kinds of decisions artists made about the lyrical content, the auditory balance between music and words, and so on. And marketers, culture-makers (like the reviewers who wrote for Christian magazines), and retailers shape both production and consumption along similar lines. It becomes easy for Christians to sequester themselves in a sort of pop-culture silo, hearing little from outside and being heard by few who aren’t their own.

On its own, those insights might have made me appreciate how the cultural gatekeepers can protect Christians from unwittingly hearing anything that might be a bad influence (although that kind of protection isn’t something I’m inclined to appreciate to begin with). But couple them with some theological points that I was beginning to understand–namely, that all truth is of God regardless of whose mouth speaks it and that creativity and excellence honor God simply by virtue of creatures made in his image using gifts he gave them to create and to create well–and I was bound to start seeing the Christian gatekeepers as restricting the artists, sanitizing the art, and inhibiting the integrity of their art and their messages. And I didn’t want to restrict my own art consumption that way, to implicitly validate the pop-culture silo’s restrictions, or to privilege Christian art over art that took other forms or spoke other messages.

So I backed off a bit. I didn’t stop listening to Christian music–and in fact I still listen to most of the CDs that meant something to me when I was in high school or college, and they still speak to me–but of the new music I’ve bought in the last twelve years, none has been Christian.

And it’s been interesting to notice the truth and beauty I’ve been finding in other places. Maybe eventually I’ll write a post about that, too. But no promises.

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On grief, grad school, and the unhelpfulness of Christian rock

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine lost her sister after a long illness.

My friend is grieving, as anyone would be, but she says she’s slowly starting to pick up the threads of her normal life again. She’s pretty self-aware and emotionally intelligent, so I expect that through this grieving process she’ll maintain a pretty good sense of when she feels ready to take up certain things again, let go of certain things, and so on. One of the things she’s been struggling with is returning to church, because being in the nave where her sister’s memorial service was held is still difficult for her. She wants to come back, I know–and she’ll get there soon enough–but she hasn’t yet felt like she’s ready to sit in the pews again.

Somehow my friend’s experience of grieving her sister, maybe coupled with the fact that it’s Lent, has gotten me thinking about a problem I have with the Christian music industry.

Perhaps another time I’ll tell the story of how and why I got into Christian music and then how and why I stopped being so enthusiastic about it. My point today, however, is something a bit different.

My point today is that it bothers me how most Christian music seems to insist that sorrow, grief, frustration, anger, despair, and even mild melancholy aren’t legitimate things to feel.

I noticed that phenomenon sometime around when I first started paying attention to heavy metal. I’d never liked metal that much in the past, but somehow after a couple of years in grad school, I suddenly stumbled across bands like Iron Maiden and Dio and Judas Priest and said, “Hey! I get this stuff now!” One of the things I noticed very quickly about that music, especially once I started paying attention to the lyrics, is the way it made me feel like there were other folks out there who sometimes felt as frustrated and angry and alienated as I was starting to feel.

Now, I still had my Christian music, and I also still had the ’60s and ’70s rock on which my parents had raised me, and those things all had their place. But the Hollies and the Eagles, much as I like them, were never quite dark enough for the worst days of grad school, and Christian rock always seemed in too much of a hurry to bludgeon me with hope and encouragement.

You may argue, of course, that following Jesus should mean a life full of hope and joy and peace, so Christian music should cultivate those things. Fair enough, I suppose, but I  felt like most Christian recording artists were trying so hard to push me toward what I should feel that I wasn’t allowed to acknowledge how I did feel first.

I’m no psychologist, but it seems fairly commonsense to me that moving from a bad, dangerous, or destructive emotional place to a good, healthy, and life-giving one first requires acknowledging and accepting where you are. Then, having done that, you can move on.

There’s certainly a good and valuable place for encouraging, uplifting Christian music, of course; the problem was that that seemed to be the only kind there was, and some days that wasn’t the kind I needed. Granted, once in a while you’d hear a song like Caedmon’s Call’s “Center Aisle” or the Newsboys’ “Elle G.” (Grief over a suicide is, apparently, the rare occasion on which Christian bands are allowed to express anguish without somehow resolving it into joy.) But mostly? No, mostly Christian music seemed like it was trying to rush me toward the happy stuff; it wasn’t interested in helping me get my bearings on where I was first. The implicit message was that the frustration, the anger, the sorrow, the despair, and whatever else I felt were, if not signs that I was a bad Christian and insufficiently faithful (though maybe they were that, too), at least moods to be snapped out of as quickly as possible. The strategy was not one of healthy acceptance and moving on; it was one of sheer denial.

This problem wasn’t the bands’ fault, necessarily, or at least not theirs alone. A big part of the problem, no doubt, is the publishers of the Christian music who feel like they have to keep the lyrics and themes and moods within certain limits so they don’t offend or scare away their core market. Likewise the arbiters of Christian pop culture, the magazines and reviewers and such, who advise Christian consumers on what to listen to and what not to bother with.

And a huge part of the problem is us. We American Christians are terrible at dealing with grief, anger, and other emotions that we sometimes call “negative,” and we get uncomfortable when we’re asked to sit in the room with those things and stare them in the face for a while. We’d rather sweep those things under the rug and pretend that the “Jesus makes your problems go away” story we like to tell ourselves is actually true.

Now, I don’t know what kind of music my friend who just lost her sister typically listens to, although I know she gravitates toward Christian music much of the time. In any case, this post is more about what the event triggered in my head than about what she does or ought to do. But it makes my friend sad and probably also angry that she won’t get to see her sister again until the Resurrection, and the best way to find healing is first to acknowledge what’s broken. Most of the Christian music I’m aware of will be very good at helping her move on after she’s done that, but I doubt it’ll do much good before then.