Contemporary Christian Music

Read it all: The New Yorker offers a stunningly good take on the 'Christian' rock wars

Read it all: The New Yorker offers a stunningly good take on the 'Christian' rock wars

First, here is yet another tmatt confession: I am so old that I attended one of the original “Jesus music” rock festivals held in Texas in the early 1970s. Then I went to Baylor University during the era when various branches of Word Records in Waco were releasing early albums linked to what would become Contemporary Christian Music.

There’s more. Anyone digging into the roots of “folk” and later “rock” music inside church doors will eventually hit a 1967 landmark — the “Good News” folk musical by Bob Oldenburg. Who played the role of the “skeptic” the first performances? That would be my big brother, Don, who was playing a ukulele before it was cool.

As a journalist, I have been covering the “Christian music” wars since the late 1970s and, of course, that topic ended up in my book “Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture.” The key theme: CCM is music defined by unwritten rules about lyrics and the belief that all “Christian art” should, in reality, be evangelism in disguise.

Hold that thought. I wrote all of that to add punch to my praise for an almost unbelievably good New Yorker feature by Kelefa Sanneh that just ran with this epic headline:

The Unlikely Endurance of Christian Rock

The genre has been disdained by the church and mocked by secular culture. That just reassured practitioners that they were rebels on a righteous path.

It opens with a quotation that left me stunned. I have read shelves full of books about “Christian rock” and have never been clubbed over the head with these words.

Try to guess the minister who had this to say in 1957, addressing whether gospel music could be wedded to rock ‘n’ roll. This Baptist pastor from the South was blunt:

Rock and gospel were “totally incompatible,” he explained: “The profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with the transitory quality of rock and roll music.” And he made it clear which he preferred. “The former serves to lift men’s souls to higher levels of reality, and therefore to God,” he wrote. “The latter so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.”

Who said that? That would be the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Take it away, Aretha Franklin.

It’s hard not to quote every other passage in this must-read piece, which punches all the right buttons — from the copycat “Jesus is my boyfriend” style of worship music to battles over loud drums and heavy-metal guitars. Yes, U2 is in here. Ditto for Bob Dylan.

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New Washington Post shocker: Christian bookstore chain wants CDs with 'clean' language! Film at 11

New Washington Post shocker: Christian bookstore chain wants CDs with 'clean' language! Film at 11

You can imagine that when one of we happy, few Get Religionistas writes a snarky headline, there's more to follow.

Thus, I trust you won't be disappointed as we join the Washington Post on a voyage of discovery. The find? The shocking development here: Folks who run Christian bookstores respond quickly when customers complain about the content of a product they're selling.

(Your correspondent has direct, personal experience in this matter. I'll get to that in a moment.)

Here, now, the "news." Sho Baraka is an African-American hip-hop artist with a highly creative mind, and a love for Jesus. He's been popular in Christian circles after finding faith a few years back, and his latest album, "The Narrative" (promotional video above) hit the shelves at LifeWay Christian Bookstores, a chain owned by the Southern Baptist Conventions. Then, it appears, some folks listened to the songs, which then alarmed those hearers.

Take it away, Washington Post:

Popular hip-hop artist Sho Baraka has taken aim at Southern Baptist retailer LifeWay Christian Stores for dropping his album for including the word “penis,” a move that shows a growing tension between the black artist and his white evangelical fans.
A spokesman for LifeWay confirmed the retailer’s decision, saying in an email that customers complained about the language, but the representative declined to provide further details.
Christian bookstores don’t usually place rap albums by black activist artists front and center on their shelves. But in recent years, white evangelicals have embraced several black hip-hop artists such as chart-topping rappers Lecrae and Trip Lee, whose albums are sold on LifeWay’s website. Baraka, who was once part of Lecrae’s Reach Records label, said he upset LifeWay customers by including the anatomical reference in his album.

Here's a stunner, right?

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A larger story behind the headlines: Why people keep fighting about Amy Grant's music

A larger story behind the headlines: Why people keep fighting about Amy Grant's music

So why do people, decade after decade, keep arguing about the music and life of Amy Grant?

To understand these news stories, it really helps to connect them to other headlines linked to religious believers whose talents allow them to work in mainstream culture. Think about all those debates about the lives of Christian football players, such as Tim Tebow and Russell Wilson. Think about what happens when religious believers, left and right, produce bestselling novels. Think about all those news stories about what is and what is not a "Christian" film. Do the Christians who work at Pixar (and they are part of the mix) make "Christian" movies?

But if you really want to understand this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in), then I'd like you to take part in a little exercise that I have used for more than a decade in lectures on faith and popular culture.

Step 1: Watch the video at the top of this post, which is Faith Hill's stunning performance of "There Will Come A Day" during the "Tribute to Heroes" special a week after 9/11, a fundraising effort that was carried on just about every single television channel in existence.

Step 2: Now read the lyrics to this song, especially the triumphant final verse and chorus:

There's a better place, Where our Father waits, and every tear, He'll wipe away
The darkness will be gone, the weak shall be strong
Hold on to your faith, there will come a day ...

Song will ring out, down those golden streets
The voices of earth, the angels will sing
Every knee will bow, sin will have no trace
In the glory of His amazing grace ...
There will come a day ... I know there's coming a day

Step 3: Now ask yourself this question: Is this a "Christian" song, in terms of the marketplace of American music? That leads to another question: Is Faith Hill a "Christian" artist, in terms of the marketplace of American music?

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Is the Babylon Bee insider 'Christian' funny, or truly funny enough for prime time?

Is the Babylon Bee insider 'Christian' funny, or truly funny enough for prime time?

So what is this week's "Crossroads" podcast actually about?

Well, on one level it's about the "Christian" humor website called The Babylon Bee. But on a deeper level, it's about what happens when the word "Christian" is turned into an adjective defining a form of popular culture. At that point, all kinds of interesting and even distressing things take place. There are news stories in there, folks.

For example, when you hear someone talking about "Christian" rock 'n' roll, doesn't that (if you are of a certain age) make you think of that famous "Seinfeld" episode that included the riff about the car-radio buttons? Here's a flashback, from an "On Religion" column that I wrote long, long ago:

As she pulled into traffic, Elaine Benes turned on her boyfriend's car radio and began bouncing along to the music.
Then the lyrics sank in: "Jesus is one, Jesus is all. Jesus pick me up when I fall." In horror, she punched another button, then another. "Jesus," she muttered, discovering they all were set to Christian stations. Then the scene jumped to typical "Seinfeld" restaurant chat.
"I like Christian rock," said the ultra-cynical George Costanza. "It's very positive. It's not like those real musicians who think they're so cool and hip."

It's all about the world "real." We are not talking about "real" musicians, here. We are talking about "Christian" rock. Thus, when most people hear the phrase "Christian" rock, they probably think of this rather than this (please click these URLs).

What do you think of when you hear people talk about "Christian" movies? Do you think of this or of this?

How about the fine arts? When you think of Christian paintings, do you think of this or, well, of this?

I could go on. "Christian" humor, including satire, is not new -- in fact, it's ancient.

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Christian history flashback: What’s the legacy of the Jesus Movement 45 years later?

Christian history flashback: What’s the legacy of the Jesus Movement 45 years later?

JOSH’S QUERY:

[Referring to Time magazine's 1971 cover story on the youthful "Jesus Revolution"]  A lot has happened since then -- culturally, religiously, movement-wise -- and I’d be fascinated to see you revisit your journalistic and theological mind.

THE RELIGION GUY’S RESPONSE:

This interests Josh because his parents were members of Love Inn, which typified the youth-driven “Jesus Movement” of those days. It was a combination church, commune, Christian rock venue and traveling troupe, based in a barn near the aptly named Freeville, New York (population 500).

As a “Time” correspondent, the Religion Guy figured this revival, which was hiding in plain sight, was well worth a cover story, managed to convince reluctant editors to proceed, and did much of the field reporting including a visit to Love Inn. Arguably, that article -- by the Guy’s talented predecessor as “Time” religion writer, lay Catholic Mayo Mohs -- put the “Jesus freaks” permanently on the cultural map.

The following can only sketch mere strands of a complex phenomenon and offers as much theorizing as hard fact. For some of the history, the Guy is indebted to the valuable “Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism” by Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College.

Quick summary: The Jesus Movement developed pre-existing phenomena into a youth wing that energized and reshaped U.S. evangelical Protestantism as a whole. This occurred just as evangelicalism was clearly emerging as the largest segment of American religion while beginning in the mid-1960s moderate to liberal “mainline” Protestant groups began inexorable decline.

The Jesus Movement was related to and influenced by the “Charismatic Movement,” which first reached public notice around 1960. This wave took a loosened version of Pentecostal spirituality into “mainline” Protestant and Catholic settings and, especially, newer and wholly independent congregations, along with free-floating gatherings akin to the secular Woodstock (August, 1969).

Early “street Christians” clustered around hot spots such as the Living Room in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Christian World Liberation Front adjacent to the University of California at Berkeley, Seattle’s Jesus People Army, and His Place on the Sunset Strip (led by Arthur Blessitt who later evangelized his way across the nation pulling an outsize wheeled cross).

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