Monday, May 20, 2013

Thoughts on "Christian" Music

Rock 'n roll is everything
Everything to a lonely man
And never will I bow to you”
- Delirious?

Martin Smith has a way with words. I think that is why, even in my days as a Christian that despised most Christian music, I still listened to Delirious?. The dude can write. The band had this amazing, evolving sound. They took risks. And sure, in the eyes of most Delirious? wasn’t true rock and roll (you know, no sex and drugs and all), but truth be told they were pioneering, they were defying the system and they were leaving behind trails that other bands would follow, albeit some, a decade later.
And that’s part of why music is just so important. First, it is a reflection of a diverse landscape. Second, great music, whether it be Aaron Copland, the Fugees or Charo, is pioneering. And both diversity and pioneering were marks of Jesus and the early church and should be of the Church of today.

Let’s roll back to around Fall 1998. I was a sophomore in college. I was studying religion at a Baptist school. Two things were simultaneously evolving in me. First, was this displeasure with the state of what is known as CCM (Contemporary Christian Music). The second was a lack of congruence with my developing understanding of church and my Baptist heritage. I think in my youthful zeal, I unfairly combined these things. As a matter of fact, I know that I unfairly attributed a lot of things to UMHB that were just a matter of growth. So Aunt Mary, consider this my apology.
Now, I have outgrown a lot of my calling people out, so I won’t really name some of the bands that were targeted by my wrath, but there were three common complaints that I had (and probably still would have) when I listened to CCM. The first was cashing in on worship. Everyone was coming out with a worship album. It was so frustrating. Sure, they were Christians, but as soon as people saw Vineyard and Hillsong selling records, others decided to capitalize on a trend. And the biggest problem I saw was, these were simply covers of better renditions. There wasn’t even anything original being done.

As a quick aside, I have nothing wrong with covers. As a matter of fact Antioch Community Church does a great job of covers. BUT, the point of their CDs is to provide a central listening point for people within the movement…not to make a quick buck. And that is why I can appreciate the work of JMG others who are just trying to aid congregants.
The second complaint and the third complaint are two sides of one coin. There were some artists who could write great poetry, but didn’t give a crap about production and aesthetics of music. There was a huge disconnect that prevented people from being able to access the music. There were plenty of people who threw at me the mantra of the 1990s, “But just listen to the words.” Sorry. That is no excuse. As Chris Hodges would say, there is no excellence in doing that. Those artists only did half the work.

The last complaint was the converse. There were these musicians who understand musicianship, created really pretty sounds and had the depth of a snail (I originally wrote titmouse, because blogs need more titmice, but in researching the intelligence of that species found they are indeed intelligent…inasmuch as birds can be intelligent). So, you had this great sounding stuff that considered whether or not unsaved people in hell could eat Lucky Charms. (Okay…moment of immaturity in calling out that song and band.)
That is why I stopped listening to CCM. I did however continue to listen to worship music, and still do, but there was still this desire for rock and roll. I think that is what happens when your dad raises you listening to Janis Joplin. Something just sticks with you. Something desires music that isn’t just safe, bubble gum, over produced, prettier than everything else garbage.

Enter the picture one Jennifer Knapp. Knapp is currently a lightning rod for those who know she is still around. She stands as this statue in the crossroads of Church and homosexuality. To some she is this beacon of strength and a public example of learning to stand on two feet as a gay Christian. To some, she is nothing but a confused, deceived woman who thinks you can have your cake and eat it too. But to me she is simply rock and roll.
Two things stick out to me about Knapp. First, is simply, I have seen her in concert, I guess three times. The first two were back in those Baptist days. The third was at Hotel Café in Los Angeles where she was coming back “for one show.” That place was packed. An hour early, and it was overflowing. It was an interesting show in several regards. First, it was a bar, and for the most part, Angeleno Christians have no problem throwing down some beer. But, the out of towners who came from Nashville, Dallas and anywhere and everywhere seemed to feel a bit awkward. Second, Knapp did new music…and it was REALLY raw. Like throw a steak on a grill for two minutes raw.

Finally, Knapp didn’t close the concert. She snuck out a side door. Yep. And at first I was disappointed. But then I realized, this woman probably just isn’t ready for all that comes with “those questions.” And I think that ended up being a fair assessment. And she dealt with those questions (quite well I may add) with Larry King.
Second, and more importantly, Knapp wrote like no one else at the time (except maybe Rich Mullins) in CCM. She was raw and emotive from the very beginning. She was working out her faith with fear and trembling before her sexual tendencies were ever known. But she was also doing it with great musical relevancy and ability. When I listen to old Jennifer Knapp albums, I hear someone who determined that the low road of putting out a product for a buck wasn’t enough. Part of me thinks she would have been fine had she never been the crowning glory of Christian music (which she was for a time). She was doing her thing. She has continued to do her thing through it all. And in that was she pioneered. And in what she is doing now, whether you agree with her or not, she is a diverse voice that is trying to speak to the Church…and others.

In other words, like Bob Dylan, Ella Fitzgerald or even Mumford, she was making socially aware rock that spoke into the culture, and in many cases the church. Like Delirious? she was rock for the Church…and rock and roll? It’s everything.


  1. I don't listen to Xian music anymore. But when I did, I was a big Jennifer Knapp fan (even before I had reason to applaud her for extra courage). In the last days when I cared about such things, I was always drawn to the CCM artists who spoke honestly about life.

    1. That's exactly it. There was something unauthentic about so much of what was being played at the time. And her voice was real. You didn't know what she struggled with, but you heard that there was struggle in her voice. Thanks for the comment btw!