The Future of Christian Rock

I’m reading a fascinating book called Body Piercing Saved My Life. It is a look inside the world of Christian Rock from an outsider’s point of view.  The author is a writer for Spin magazine.  This book came out in 2006 and I’m not quite sure how I missed it.  My best guess is that it didn’t make much of a splash in seminary academia and since it seems like that was all I was consumed with at the time that is probably why I just missed it. 

            Anyway, just like, in a previous post, I mentioned that the show Madhouse had got me thinking about my geographical heritage, this book has got me thinking about my musical heritage.  I cut my teeth listening to country music.  And I’m not just talking about the pop country you hear today on the radio.  My parents probably owned every Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn album that ever came out on vinyl.  My parents listened to what is today considered classic country: George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Eddie Rabbit, Guy Clark, Exile, Alabama, etc.  But my favorite singer growing up was Barbara Mandrell.  First of all, she was very pretty.  Even being only 5 years old, I knew that.  Second, she could sing.  I remember watching her show Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters when I was very little and singing along to her songs as a kid.  Third, she did a gospel album.  In 1982, my parents purchased for me He Set My Life To Music.  It became one of the more formative albums for me, believe it or not.  Years later, I was able to purchase it on cassette tape and wore it out until it broke, just like I wore out the original record.  Another formative album for me was Amazing Grace by B.J. Thomas.  I remember listening to the songs “I Believe” and “Unclouded Day” and just loving it. 

            I think it is interesting when I look back on that phase of my life, that I never considered it odd that country artists were doing gospel albums.  As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until I began kindergarten at my Christian school that I learned that there were people who believed that such music was ungodly.  Despite the propaganda that was thrown at me for thirteen years of school, I never drank the Kool-Aid. 

            When I was around ten years old, there was one day when I just decided to start listening to “rock music.”  I remember the day very vividly.  I had brought my “boom box” with me on a shopping trip that my recently-widowed mother took with her Sunday School class.  I put my headphones on and turned over to the rock station.  The very first song that I heard was “Take Me Home” by Phil Collins.  Not too long after that, I heard George Harrison’s “I Got My Mind Set On You” (At ten years old, I had no idea that George Harrison was a Beatle).  I was hooked.  I began recording the radio using blank cassette tapes because I knew that my Mom couldn’t afford to really help me buy any music.  Around that time, I took a trip with my Godfather to a Gardner-Webb football game.  I can even remember who they were playing: Carson-Newman.  On the way back, I heard the pop station playing this song about heaven.  I finally figured out who sang it and went out and begged my Mom to buy the album Heaven On Earth by the beautiful and talented Belinda Carlisle.  She finally capitulated and it became the first ever “rock” album I ever owned. 

            Not long after that, I heard a song on the radio…something about sugar.  I recorded it off the radio and then took a pen and paper and listened and rewound the tape until I finally got all the lyrics to my very first hair metal song, “Pour Some Sugar On Me” by Def Leopard. From that time on, my musical taste became harder and harder.  I loved the 80’s glam and hair metal bands and listened to a lot of Motley Crue, Poison, Warrant, Guns and Roses, and many more. 

            In 1990, there was a guy who went to my church named Kilroy.  Ok, that wasn’t his real name, but his call name.  He used to be a DJ at a local radio station and now he was working with the youth at my church.  I credit him for officially introducing me to Christian Rock.  The first album I ever fell in love with, and one that I still consider one of the greatest ever recorded, is Petra’s Beyond Belief.  Another favorite was Degarmo and Key’s The Pledge.  I was soon gobbling up all the Christian music I could get my hands on and thanks to Lemstone Books selling their old demo tapes for $3, it was much easier to talk my Mom into buying me albums.  About this time, I started getting an allowance, too, which made life just a little easier.  I bought the very first album by DC Talk (note that at that time they capitalized the first two letters) and despite people who want to be rather harsh to the album now, the follow-up to their debut, Nu Thang, was groundbreaking.  Of course, Free At Last became probably my favorite album of high school.  In 1995, when I lived in Michigan, I left class early to go purchase Jesus Freak the day it came out.  Jesus Freak is, in my humble opinion, the greatest Christian Rock album ever.

            Sometime in 1991, while watching MTV early in the morning, a band came on that just simply changed everything…again.  I still remember the first time I ever saw the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by the legendary Nirvana.  Shortly thereafter, I saw the video for this new group called the “Stone Temple Pilots” and things just evolved from there.  All of a sudden, there was a music that only fed my need to rock, but added some incredible and introspective lyrics (for the most part). 

            Some time around 1991 or 1992, I dated a girl named Amy.  I’ll spare you her last name in case I find her on Facebook or something.  Anyway, one night driving around, she pops this tape in of this band that I, of course, had heard of, but had never listened to any of their music.  The album was A Collection of Great Dance Songs by the legendary Pink Floyd.  If I would have known that music could be that good so long ago, I would have been listening for a long time.  One of my favorite songs then, and still today, was “Wish You Were Here.”  I remember that I really resonated with the lyrics, “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl…year after year…running over the same old ground….and how we found…the same old fear….wish you were here.”  It was at this point that I begin to physically change.  I began to dress, whenever I was not at school, in a fashion that was clearly in the grunge category.  I wore ripped up blue jeans, old t-shirts with “Baja’s” over them, and Birkenstocks.  I parted my hair in the middle and let it grow long during the summers when I could.  I think it was at this point that my music came full-circle.  I finally reached a point where I listened to music because I liked it, not because my friends were listening to it.  One of my favorite bands of all time is Creed.  They obtained massive commercial success, but most critics just didn’t like them.  However, I resonated with their lyrics and I still Mark Tremonti is one awesome guitar player.

            I’ve had a few phases since then.  Most of them are small phases, maybe a few weeks at the most, where I listen to a lot of one artist because they really speak to me.  At any given time, I have been into Sixpence None the Richer, Jars of Clay, the Kry, The Waiting, P.O.D., Project 86, etc.  My longest phase was probably around 1996 when I got really into club and house music.  And pretty much as soon as I got into it, I got out of it.  It was a complete fad for me. 

            Currently, there are a few artists that I just seem to go back to, for whatever reason.  Some of them include Johnny Cash, the Cars, Styx, Kansas, INXS (Primarily Kick), Jeremy Camp, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Project 86, Skillet, dc Talk, Petra, Bob Dylan, Stevie Ray Vaughn, B.B. King, Evanescence, Linkin Park, Caedmon’s Call, Derek Webb, and numerous inde bands.  And I still think the most perfect song ever written is “My Girl.”  That’s right, I’m talking about “My Girl…”

            What is interesting to me is, as I said before, I never found anything unusual about “secular” singers making “gospel” albums.  And, despite the well-meaning people who proposed that Christian Rock could replace Secular Rock for all those Christians who still wanted to rock, it never happened for me.  As a matter of fact, I don’t know one person who stopped listening to “secular” music just because they listened to Christian music.  So here is what I think and here is where I think we are.  I think that there is no such thing as “Christian music.”  Christian should be a noun, not an adjective.  Music is music.  What makes music different is what it is made for.  Music that is made for church is either a hymn or a worship song.  Anything else that is not set apart for worship is simply music created for another purpose, most of the time for entertainment.  The acceptance of a separate genre for Christian Rock (the only genre, by the way, that is distinct because of lyrical content only) is the acceptance that our lives can somehow be divided between the secular and the sacred.  I think this is a false division.  The pastor who is called by God to stand behind the pulpit every week to proclaim the Word of God is just as called as the plumber who shows up to fix my toilet.  They both can or cannot be done to the glory of God. 

            I believe that musicians are also just as called by God.  Does there music necessarily have to give a direct presentation of the gospel in every song?  I don’t think so.  Music can be about love, hate, anger, depression, suicide, sex, drugs, you name it, and still be written by a Christian.  One such singer that I mentioned above, Derek Webb, comes to mind.  He writes love songs, songs about gay people, songs about the church…just songs.  To be a Christian does not mean that we stop being human or facing some of the common things that almost all humans go through.  Very few people, Christian or non-Christian, have not had their hearts broken in a relationship, be it romantic or otherwise.  To gloss over that pain with a trite message just to make the song “Christian” and acceptable to a certain market is not only being disingenuous, it could be sin.  On the other hand, there is a common joy that can be shared with another person over the birth of a child, the taste of a cheeseburger, the feel of wind in your hair as you drive 65 mph down the highway on a beautiful day.  These are all gifts of God and do not need our religious stamp of approval.  I am very grateful that many so-called Christian Rock artists have noticed this and have stepped up their game and started writing songs about life in general.  And I’m completely cool with that.  And there have been so-called “secular” artists who are Christians who have found creative ways to insert God into their music without it sounding trite or preachy and while maintaining their artistic integrity.  And I am also completely cool with that.

            So that is what I think, but what is the state of Christian Rock?  My opinion is that just like the housing bubble, there was a Christian Rock bubble that formed and at some point in the late ‘90’s or early 00’s, the bubble began to leak.  The genre of Christian Rock, as we have known it for the past 30 years or so, is slipping away.  Within 10 years or so, the scene will be dramatically different.  As the old guard continues to fade away, the new guard, with its emphasis on holistic music rather than a segregated “secular vs. sacred” mindset, will take over and Christian music will look very different.  I think that we will always have some form of “Christian Rock,” but its numbers will dramatically decline.  As long as there is a church, there will be music for it.  And as long as there are people who still believe that music can be Christian, there will be Christian Rock.  But with the coming ages, Christian artists are replacing Christian music and only time will truly tell what the music industry will look like for Christians.


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