Baby, baby, how long have I been writing about controversies involving Amy Grant and fights about what is and what is not Christian music?
Well, so long that I cannot link to the "On Religion" column I wrote about the topic a quarter of a century ago. You see, the World Wide Web didn't really exist at the time for normal people -- so that column isn't stored anywhere online, at least not where I can get to it.
But back in 1991, people started worrying about whether Grant's "Heart in Motion" album (containing "Baby, Baby," which led to that controversial music video) was "too secular" and part of the "crossover" trend that would undercut Grant's public witness, etc., etc.
Well, now Grant is back in the news and, alas, it appears that some people have not noticed that lots of water has gone under the bridge and there are new issues in play. This brings us to the top of the story in the singer's local paper, The Tennessean:
LifeWay Christian Resources will not be selling Amy Grant's new Christmas album this year, and the manager for the Nashville-based singer says it's because it's not Christian enough for the Southern Baptist retailer.
Manager Jennifer Cooke said in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that LifeWay's decision not to carry "Tennessee Christmas" reignites a debate about how Christian a product needs to be in order for Christian retailers to sell it.
"'Is it Christian enough for Christian retail to support?' LifeWay Christian Resources, the large Southern Baptist retailer, decided it was not. It’s their choice, and it’s okay," said Cooke, in the column posted Tuesday.
LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, confirmed its retail stores are not carrying the album, but would not comment on the reasons for the decision.
Of course, the Southern Baptist Vatican, as the locals call it, is in Nashville, so this is a local story on every possible level.
Meanwhile, note that the story actually broke in an opinion column by Grant's own agent. What a fitting symbol of the journalism times in which we live.
Now, the Tennessean story does contain lots of newsy and logical information, like the fact that LifeWay -- at this point in time -- does sell other Grant albums. It's also nice to know that the main competitor in the marketplace, Family Christian Stores, has decided to sell "Tennessee Christmas."
So, what is missing here? What other factors may have influenced LifeWay to sit this one out, in terms of splashing out a new Grant product at Christmas?
Now, there is no way to know for sure without candor in key offices in Nashville, but it might have something to do with the lively chatter in online Christian media in recent years about a certain PrideSource.com feature:
EXCLUSIVE: Amy Grant In Her First Gay Press Interview
Christian Music Legend Talks Gay Fans, Marriage & First Album In 10 Years
The key source of the chatter is this section of the interview, focusing on Grant's history of silence on politics.
... How do you respond to people when they ask you about your feelings on gay marriage?
In the same way that I did not tell one person who I voted for. I don't. I never talk about anything like that. I did tell Vince (Gill, her husband) the day after the election. (Laughs)
But I think my response is, I have had so many occasions in my life where I have felt really strongly about something - but that feeling has changed. Those feelings change about different situations, and so because I'm a public person - and because I want always to bring people together -- I really do say this is a world that's unfamiliar to me and I am always trying to observe with compassion.
This isn't a cut-and-dry issue for you, then.
Well, nothing is cut-and-dry.
Afterwards, the gay-media activists at GLAAD focused on this section of the Q&A:
"I have had so many occasions in my life where I have felt really strongly about something -- but that feeling has changed. Those feelings change about different situations, and so because I'm a public person -- and because I want always to bring people together -- I really do say this is a world that's unfamiliar to me and I am always trying to observe with compassion."
She also acknowledged that the Christian church has not had a good track record of LGBT inclusion. However, she continues to hold out hope that the church can gather diverse people into community together.
"I know that the religious community has not been very welcoming, but I just want to stress that the journey of faith brings us into community, but it's really about one relationship. The journey of faith is just being willing and open to have a relationship with God. And everybody is welcome. Everybody."
If Amy Grant continues on her journey to advocacy for LGBT people, she will be in good company. In recent years, more and more Christian artists have proclaimed support for LGBT equality.
Now, note that -- unlike lots of Grant critics online -- GLAAD noticed that, while Grant said she was honored that a gay friend invited her to sing at the friend's wedding (Grant had a schedule conflict), the singer never stated that her beliefs have changed on the definition of marriage. To GLAAD's credit, note the "if" in this reference: "If Amy Grant continues on her journey to advocacy for LGBT people. ..."
Well now -- Nashville (my favorite city in America) is a small, small town when it comes to chatter among the powers that be. Have editors at The Tennessean been tuned out to the ongoing discussions of Grant and her beliefs? Did something have to run in an elite newspaper in the deep blue Acela corridor to get their attention?
Yes, it is possible that lyrics in the new Grant album lacked the proper JPM ratio (that's "Jesus Per Minute," in Nashville lingo) in the eyes of some Southern Baptist executives. However, as the Tennessean story noted:
The 13-track record includes two Christmas hymns: "Joy to the World" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful." And, Grant covered holiday mainstays like "White Christmas" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
In her opinion column, Cooke pointed to the song "Melancholy Christmas," written by Grant and Marshall Altman and questioned whether it was necessary for songs to specifically talk about Jesus for it to be deemed Christian.
"Does the name Jesus need to be said for his love to be shown or his message to be lived and shared?" Cooke said. "Is it wrong to celebrate Christmas in ways that are human -- love, loss, nostalgia, family, romance, fun and grief -- all with the backdrop of the birth of our savior that gives meaning to it all?"
Cooke smashed the lyrics issue with a baseball bat in her Post column.
This is long, but important if you want to understand the decades of debate about lyrics and theology in what many still call Contemporary Christian Music (CCM).
Is it enough to sing…
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room. And heaven and nature sing….
He comes to make his blessings flow… far as the curse is found…
He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove.. The glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love…”
Is it enough to sing…
“Yea Lord we greet thee born this happy morning… Jesus to thee be all glory given… Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. O come let us adore him… O come let us adore him.. Christ the Lord.
O Come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant… O come ye O come ye to Bethlehem… Come and behold Him…born the king of angels… O come let us adore him… O come let us adore him… Christ the Lord.”
Is it enough to sing…
“I’m singing out this song til every lonely soul has heard. We’re not alone ’cause Love has put His arms around the world…To be together…At Christmastime… So every time that lonely feeling comes around again, listen Love is knocking here wanting to come in… to be together..”
Is it enough to sing…
“Mary’s in a nursing home…she puts her favorite records on…reminds her of the years long gone.. Another Merry Christmas.
Billy’s home from overseas…the pride of his whole family…still fights a war that no one sees… Another Merry Christmas..
It’s happy and sad
The good and the bad
Someone’s up and someone’s barely hanging on
It’s everything all at once
And if we’re honest enough
Everybody wants to be loved.
Every year on Christmas eve, Jill hangs four stockings, now just three.. wonders if there’ll ever be Another Merry Christmas..
Our painted old nativity is fragile like the lives we lead
Silently reminding me… God is with us.
Another Merry Christmas.”
Fact is, it is not enough for LifeWay. But it is more than enough for me.
In conclusion, let's flash back to my 1991 column about Grant and the CCM cops. In it I noted -- using material from one of my Denver Seminary lectures -- that there are at least six definitions of "Christian" music being used in the faith, art and commerce marketplace.
I'll write all of that out here as background info, since I would like to have a copy online.
(1) "Christian" music consists of hymns and some classical music. Amen and amen.
(2) It may be hard to define "Christian" music, bit it isn't rock 'n' roll. Folk songs may be OK and perhaps soft pop. But a strong backbeat is off limits. ...
(3) Each and every "Christian" song -- whether heavy metal or traditional gospel -- must include obvious evangelistic messages to woo the unbeliever.
(4) "Christian" music must at least include words that are overtly religious. This camp is especially critical of crossover artists, such as Grant, who often express their religious views in more subtle lyrics.
(5) "Christian" music is any music made by an artist who is publicly identified as a believer, as long as it expresses a Christian worldview. ...
(6) "Christian" music doesn't exist. It is arrogant for sinful people -- even Christians are sinners -- to put such a sacred label on their work. Members of U2 have taken this stance.
So where does this leave journalists working on this valid news story?
Well, the new Grant Christmas album contains two hymns and other music that fits into categories (4) and (5). So is this really a controversy about lyrics? I have my doubts.
Thus, I would advise journalists at the Tennessean to dig a bit deeper -- maybe even talk to some church people in Nashville and Franklin -- if they think this story has legs.