Contemporary Christian Music: What Can We Learn?
by Mark Allan Powell
If you think CCM refers only to ecumenical matters, think again. The people in the pews know it's also about music. Here's what leaders should know about this faith-based world and why they should care.
"Why should the devil have all the good music?" Martin Luther is reputed to have once asked, endorsing the notion of using secular tunes to promote sacred themes. But would Luther have approved of the Christian rap group Gospel Gangstas, or could he have endured the heavy-metal screaming of Christian rock band Tourniquet? Can anyone imagine him getting down and rocking to Christian dance fave Joy Electric?
Christian rock, you may have noticed, is huge — bigger than it's ever been. Newsweek did a cover story on the phenomenon in 2001,1 and HBO's The Sopranos introduced a humorous subplot about the mob family trying to get in on the action.2 Some pundits in the Gospel Music Association maintain that the field now generates close to a billion dollars a year in business, with sales that continue to rise while pop music in general takes a downturn.
Still, Lutherans are often considered to be somewhat out of the loop. In 1997, Bruce Koblish, president of the Gospel Music Association, told The Lutheran, "Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists are not as active consumers of this music, though I don't know why."3 He might also have mentioned our full communion partners, Episcopalians. Indeed, outside of Lutheran and Episcopal circles, the acronym CCM is usually associated with the phrase "contemporary Christian music," the official designation for what Rolling Stone refers to as "a parallel universe of religious-oriented rock and pop."4
CCM arose out of the Jesus movement revival of the early 1970s, and this may account for its separatist tendencies. The early performers were converted hippies for whom accepting Christ meant abandoning Woodstock nation and its penchant for "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." Mainline Christianity wasn't to their taste either, but they found acceptance in the emerging tide of Evangelicalism and eventually came under the wing of the Religious Right. From the start, it has been an uneasy alliance.
009; Lutherans have always had their own version of what was happening. In the 1960s, John Ylvisaker traveled about the country playing a guitar in sanctuaries. Youth groups sang bouncy songs by Ray Repp ("I Am the Resurrection") and Peter Scholes ("They'll Know We Are Christians"). Parachurch organizations like Lutheran Youth Alive and Lutheran Youth Encounter — now called Youth Encounter — sponsored music teams and lively youth congresses (Youth Encounter continues this tradition throughout the country today). And, of course, our church's Tri-annual Youth Gatherings have benefited from the music of people like Ken Medema, the Jay Beech Band, Lost And Found, and Jonathan Rundman.
Still, none of the folks just mentioned are big names in the CCM world, a world that has become an entity unto itself and a powerful force within American Christianity. In the 1980s, what had begun as a simple movement would become an industry and, in the '90s, an empire. CCM now has its own magazines, radio stations, record companies, and awards shows.
Why Pay Attention?
But why should we church leaders pay attention? I can think of at least two reasons.
009; First, a pastoral reason. Some of the people in your church probably listen to some of this music. It permeates our air space. In recent years, I've noted a surge in the popularity of CCM among ELCA members. Youth and young adults, including seminary students, are buying the albums and going to the concerts. In many ways CCM artists have replaced television evangelists as the primary media connection between pop culture and pop religion. Not knowing about DC Talk or Rebecca St. James is this decade's equivalent of not knowing about Robert Schuller or Jimmy Swaggart.
Second, a personal reason. You might find something you like. Christian rock is a much-maligned art form. The stereotype is of some sort of derivative sanitized-for-your-protection version of whatever is popular on the radio, the musical equivalent of low-fat cheese ("almost as tasty as the real thing — and better for you!").
Still, for what it's worth, most rock critics think the music has gotten a lot better in recent years. For instance, the famed publication Rolling Stone magazine loves the hip-hop duo Mary Mary.5
Of course, if you don't like pop music at all, there may be nothing for you. But otherwise, the variety is overwhelming, from the Celtic strains of Iona to the friendly pop of Steven Curtis Chapman to the screaming rap-core of P.O.D. The group Switchfoot does alternative "nerd-rock" (similar to Weezer) and The Newsboys have perfected a retro/new-wave sound (compare with Smashmouth). If you like loud, buzzing guitars with almost indecipherable vocals, try Starflyer 59, or if you prefer intelligent, sensitive music with poetic lyrics, go for The Choir or Sixpence None the Richer. There's also Christian goth and Christian reggae and Christian disco.
As for the theology, one should not expect profound insights from pop songs, but heresy is rare, and much of the material is less simplistic than one might suppose. As the Christian rock band Daniel Amos once put it, "There may be nothing new to say / But I'm fond of finding words that say it in a different way."6 And even the simplistic stuff can be harmless fun. When DeGarmo & Key did a tune called "God Good, Devil Bad," they didn't intend to offer the kids anything of theological substance, but it had a beat and you could clap your hands to it. So, what's wrong with that? Remember singing "Do Lord" and "Give Me Oil in My Lamp" at summer camp?
In my experience, many Lutheran church leaders, ordained and lay, associate contemporary Christian music most closely with modern worship music. In the CCM world at large, however, worship music is regarded as but a small subset of the field.
Artists such as John Michael Talbot and Michael Card compose albums of songs intended for use in worship services, and several companies (notably Maranatha and Vineyard) have released dozens of CDs full of "praise choruses" for congregational singing. Two of CCM's biggest stars, Michael W. Smith and Third Day, recently released worship albums and embarked together on a "worship tour" sponsored by Chevrolet.
Still, the great majority of CCM artists do not view their vocation as having much to do with music that gets played inside a sanctuary. Most CCM artists record albums that their fans play in homes and automobiles throughout the week; it's not music for worship so much as it is for entertainment. Yet for 10 years now that word — entertainment — has been at the center of a controversy that has rocked the CCM industry and resulted in a division of artists who seem to fall into two camps.
|One should not expect profound insights from pop songs, but heresy is rare, and much of the material is less simplistic than one might suppose.|
On the one hand, there are many performers who maintain that they are not just entertainers. They use entertainment as a means to an end — evangelizing the unsaved, perhaps, or sharing an edifying message with struggling believers. The real goal is not entertainment but ministry.
009; On the other hand, an increasing number of performers say that entertainment is a ministry in and of itself. Some of these go so far as to say that they are artists whose calling is simply to create art. If they succeed at doing this, people might find their art to be enjoyable, interesting, or meaningful — and since they are Christians, their art will probably reflect Christian faith and values at least some of the time. Terry Scott Taylor says, "If you're a tailor and you're a Christian, you try to make great suits. I'm a Christian and I'm an artist so I try to be a good artist — in this case, a rock artist."7
009; The latter emphasis on artistic integrity has definite critical appeal. The problem with the means-to-an-end approach is that the music often comes off as contrived. In the early 1980s, Joey Taylor of the Christian punk band, Undercover, freely admitted that his band had merely adopted punk as a ruse: "If the kids we're trying to reach were wearing cowboy hats, then we'd be wearing cowboy hats too."8 But, as he discovered, the ruse only works short term. Real punk fans eventually want the real thing. And, ultimately, most people don't like being tricked.
The conception of Christian pop music as unabashed art (or entertainment) also deconstructs the notion that "Christian music" is supposed to be religious. Many CCM performers now produce albums that mix sacred and secular themes together in ways that leave the industry puzzled: Which songs should get played on Christian radio? Which ones are eligible for Christian "Dove Awards"?
Somewhere in the background amidst all this I hear Martin Luther talking about the priesthood of all believers and the vocation of all Christians to live out their lives of faith in the world. Bob Dylan once said, "Make something religious, and you make it irrelevant."9 In that vein, some Christians in the rock world — Bono of U2, Kerry Livgren of Kansas, Scott Stapp of Creed, and recent convert Alice Cooper — have deliberately avoided getting pegged as "Christian rock stars" while performing music for which their faith orientation is obvious to any who have ears to hear.
Likewise, Christian songwriter Paul Overstreet has charted 26 Top Ten hits on Country-Western stations with songs about loving his wife and kids. He's surprised at his own success. "I wasn't sure country fans would go for songs that were moral or uplifting," he says, "but I just didn't think the devil should get all the good tunes."10 And where have we heard that before?
009; A rock critic for 30 years, Mark Allan Powell has recently published the 1000-page Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, which offers a critical guide to Christian pop music of the past three decades. He is professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and author of 16 books on biblical and theological themes.
1. Lorraine Ali and Marc Peyer, respectively, "Jesus Rocks: Christian Entertainment Makes a Joyful Noise" (two-article section, "The Glorious Rise of Christian Pop" and "God, Mammon, and 'Bibleman'"), Newsweek (July 16, 2001), pp. 38-48.
2. The Sopranos, Home Box Office, 2001-2 (third season).
3. Linda Romine, "Rock of Ages," The Lutheran (January 1997), p. 25.
4. Charles M. Young, review of the album "WoW 1997: The Year's 30 Top Christian Artists and Songs," in Rolling Stone (April 17, 1997), p. 80.
5. Rob Sheffield, "Godly soul Kirk Franklin lets hip-hop into his church," a review of the album The Nu-Nation Project by Kirk Franklin, in Rolling Stone (Nov. 26, 1998), 117-19.
6. Daniel Amos quote: Liner notes to album Mr. Buechner's Dream by Daniel Amos (Galaxy 21, 2001).
7. Terry Scott Taylor quote: Radio Interview with Brian Quincy Newcomb, Harvest Rock Syndicate (1991).
8. Joey Taylor quote: "Door Interview: Undercover," in The Wittenberg Door (October-November 1984), p. 24.
9. Bob Dylan quote: Liner notes to album Biograph by Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1985).
10. Paul Overstreet quote: "The Other CCM: Christian Country Music," by Steve Rabey, in Contemporary Christian Music (October, 1990), pp. 21-22.
- Howard, Jay R., and John M. Streck. Apostles of Rock (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1999). A scholarly, sociological analysis.
- Joseph, Mark. The Rock & Roll Rebellion (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999). A critical account of the involvement of Christians in mainstream rock.
- Powell, Mark Allan. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music (Boston: Hendrickson, 2002). A comprehensive reference work.
- Thompson, John J. Raised by Wolves: The Story of Christian Rock & Roll. (Toronto: ECW Press, 2000). A historical overview of the field.
- CCM magazine covers the Christian music mainstream, with features on all the big-name acts (see www.ccmmagazine.com)
- Phantom Tollbooth (www.tollbooth.org). Reviews Christian and secular albums.
- Christian Music (www.christianmusic.com). Album reviews, interviews, and more.
- Christian Music Place (www.christianmusic.org). Album reviews, interviews, and more.
- Interlinc — offers packages of discounted, pre-selected CDs by major Christian artists, along with Bible studies, videos, and other materials geared for using the music in youth ministry (see www.interlinc-online.com)
Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music
Mark Allan Powell
Hendrickson Publishers, 2002, $25
Reviewer: William A. Decker
Our author, a New Testament professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio used a portion of his last sabbatical to produce this 1000-plus page encyclopedia on the phenomenon of Christian Rock.
Approximately 1,910 artists are alphabetically listed in this book. "They're all there," he says. "The pious, the outcasts, the hypocrites, the prophets, the heretics, and the martyrs. You can read about miracles and scandals, about incredible sacrifices and greedy exploitation. You can trace the early Gospel influences on some of rock and roll's biggest stars or explore the (sometimes temporary) mid-career detours of spiritual converts. You can find out what happened to a lot of folk now regarded as 'has-been's' in the world at large and you can also read about some 'never-were's,' folks who have labored in obscurity for decades, producing an impressive and occasionally brilliant body of little-known material."
A CD-Rom accompanies the book to help facilitate searches and other functions.
Depending on the outlet, whether internet-based or brick and mortar-based, the price — $25 — can go as low as $20, Powell says.