When the toast has burned and all the milk has turned And Captain Crunch is waving farewell When the big one finds you, may this song remind you That they don’t serve breakfast in hell “Breakfast,” Newsboys, 1996
I first heard the Contemporary Christian Music group Newsboys at a church summer camp in 1995, when the unmistakable tones of their single “Shine” pealed through the gymnasium. I was standing with my teammates waiting to square off against three other groups of students in one of those classic exercises that was more about the potential to expend energy than to demonstrate coordination of skill. I was no stranger to music, but to that point the selections I listened to were chosen by my mother or grandmother, and this song had intriguing new textures that instantly drew me in. Over the course of my church youth group involvement in the following years, I listened to everything they made. From my perspective today, some of the lyrics seem trite and laughable, and some of the content no longer accurately represents the way I see the world, but then, art at its best has never been about scientific accuracy. It would seem to me that beyond the function of belief transmission and doctrinal soundness, assumed by so many in evangelical Christian churches to be the point of the work, lies a deeper truth that resonates with the core of my being.
From my perspective today, some of the lyrics seem trite and laughable, and some of the content no longer accurately represents the way I see the world, but then, art at its best has never been about scientific accuracy.
Growing up in a family that appreciates music has its advantages. My mother gave piano lessons to children in our town, and would play guitar while singing scripture-based songs to my sisters and I before bedtime. My grandmother loved music, and played piano as well, and while my grandfather didn’t have an acumen for the theory, he was a mechanical genius and put his efforts toward refurbishing old pianos, among other things. My mother was involved in parachurch religious groups in and after high school, of which music was an integral part; YoungLife, for example, has been singing “Brown Eyed Girl” seemingly since it first aired on the radio. While I was raised with the assumption that my grandparents were largely godless before their “born-again” evangelical shift, it turned out that they were simply Presbyterians. When they attended the Jesus Northwest music festival and heard Keith Green’s impassioned plea to accept Christianity as something more than a hood ornament for their middle-class lifestyle, they embraced a pivotal shift in their priorities, with largely positive results. They also acquired a collection of records that could provide a palatable alternative to the music they’d left behind. While the Christian music business had developed to the point that it had a full array of pop, glam rock and hip hop alternatives by the time that I was approaching my teenage years, my exposure was largely limited to the Jesus music of the 1970s with albums from Evie, Love Song, or the 2nd Chapter of Acts (yes, that’s a real band name). On one van ride to a church function, my parents tried out a cassette copy of Steve Taylor’s On The Fritz, but decided it was a little too edgy for their tastes.
It would seem to me that beyond the function of belief transmission and doctrinal soundness, assumed by so many in evangelical Christian churches to be the point of the work, lies a deeper truth that resonates with the core of my being.
The convergence of songwriting that blended my conservative Baptist beliefs from high school and the overdriven tones of electric guitars repeatedly surprised me at nearly every turn from 8th grade to my senior year. From the Newsboys’ bold, catchy records, to Audio Adrenaline’s vintage guitar hooks, to Grammatrain’s Seattle grunge alternative, I discovered a world of musical artists, often on the projection screen of my church’s youth room before Sunday morning class. These artists used poetry of varying quality to allude to the way my family saw the world, but in a guise that matched the preferences of my peers. Repeated trips to the religious bookstores in my area in search of new content to absorb were guided by the “if you like x, you’ll love y” posters (which, puzzlingly, proposed that brit-rockers deliriou5? were a viable and more godly alternative to U2). In much the same way that my grandparents had been drawn in by a sound that resonated with their generation, I found that the music I was discovering had a visceral impact on me, such that there was truth in the hearing, not simply in the ideas behind the lyrics. I discovered, however, that this was not universally the case, as my mother removed an album of Quebec’s The Kry from my collection when loud, distorted guitars emerged from my bedroom stereo, despite my protests that she should review the lyrics to see if she agreed with them. I learned to be more selective when playing acquisitions from Seattle’s more religiously ambiguous Tooth & Nail Records.
The convergence of songwriting that blended my conservative Baptist beliefs from high school and the overdriven tones of electric guitars repeatedly surprised me...
But the sounds of my generation, a polished refinement of the jagged tones that Nirvana and their contemporaries tossed into the machinery of the popular record labels, were also present on Seattle’s radio station playlists. It was on a drive to church one Sunday that I heard Eve 6’s “Inside Out” and marveled at the possibility that music held to manifest my adolescent experience, and a high school crush helped me identify the band behind “All Star” that had so expertly blended sounds from my grandparent’s records with modern production. Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away” was seductively performed by another crush on a high school church choir tour, and I wondered if developing my musical skills would allow me to prove that I might be worth their attention.
Pursuit of musical skill and technical knowledge became an obsession from late high school into my college years, and was legitimized by my induction into a priestly class of worship leaders, which in some church services facilitated the majority of the gathered time. I poured any time not spent on achieving a passing grade or working on my church internship into practice, performance, and research into the skill set required of a musician, and invested a fair amount of effort into nudging the bandleaders for church or chapel music towards styles that would match the modernity heard on the secular airwaves. While it sometimes felt like a fool’s errand, I remember the glimmer of hope that my first exposure to songs by Nashville’s Chris Tomlin produced. Perhaps church music didn’t have to be dated or overplayed, after all.
Pursuit of musical skill and technical knowledge became an obsession from late high school into my college years, and was legitimized by my induction into a priestly class of worship leaders, which in some church services facilitated the majority of the gathered time.
As much as I appreciated the new life that had been injected into Sunday worship, it soon became apparent that the lucrative nature of shined-up congregational singing might in fact be the root of all kinds of evil. Record label executives noticed that albums full of newly rechristened “worship music”, known to my parents’ generation as “praise songs,” were generating record-breaking amounts of profit, and so naturally began to ask their rosters of artists to dip a toe into the emerging genre. I was intrigued when bands I’d known and loved like Newsboys began releasing albums to respond to the trend, but quickly soured on the notable changes. The new albums sounded like the records I’d grown to love when I was younger, but the clever allegories, poetic expression, or bold musical choices had been replaced with more generic lyrics and homogenous sounds that alluded to the greatness of our God without being specific enough to ostracize any of the denominations that made up the new market share. The excitement that my experience of the world might be reflected in the songwriting of artists that shared my faith more often led to disappointment; many bands that didn’t cater to the worship music market either quit music altogether or moved to distribution in the general market or independent channels, and sometimes abandoned a clear faith identity when it no longer helped them sell records. The industry had turned on its art.
I had my own progression away from the brand of Christianity that I’d grown up with, apart from my love for music. Authors like Rob Bell & Don Miller wrote books that expanded my concept of how faith might find its expression in less traditional ways. Friends shared inspiration from generations of alternative modes of faith expression, such as the desert fathers and their mysticism or the Catholic Workers and their service to those in need. Over time, I grew weary of investing my energy into a production for Sunday morning and dreamed of ways I could invest that energy into connection with and service to a community. When my wife and I, recently married, joined with friends we’d just met to start a house church on anabaptist and new monastic principles, I hoped I’d be able to divorce my love for music from a need to use it to reproduce saccharine choruses. A good five years into our life with the house church and its mechanisms led to a realization that I’d traded a right-wing conservatism for left-wing fundamentalism, and while I had diverted myself from the need to produce a weekly musical stage show, we found ourselves at a philosophic impasse, trying to fit the square peg of the house church into the round hole of our desire for a more organic and resonant outworking of our convictions. In some senses, I found that my convictions had turned on my own sense of faith, as I realized that while I was fighting for how we should handle music or shared meals in our community’s rhythms, I was also finding it increasingly difficult to maintain an intellectual honesty with myself. The metaphor describing faith systems, aptly coined by Rob Bell, of a brick wall versus a trampoline perfectly encapsulated my difficulty; my faith wasn’t flexible enough to serve the purpose of joy, and it wouldn’t bend under pressure, it would break.
Over time, I grew weary of investing my energy into a production for Sunday morning and dreamed of ways I could invest that energy into connection with and service to a community.
Amidst such turmoil, I emerged from Christianity with a desire to retain a deep-seated sense of meaning apart from religion. The same dynamics that had forced a poetic appreciation of life out of the Christian music industry led me to seperate myself from an obligation to ritual without the conviction that it holds meaning for me. In learning to connect to my own emotions, as it sometimes feels, for the first time, I want to believe that the people who made the music I consumed as a child were being honest with their own emotions. I’m grateful to the undercurrent that music provided me, a deeper magic that I found in listening to music with friends, or playing in bands and recording albums. It is a grounding in my remaining conviction that while I can’t understand or name the force that underlies the universe, I know it is there, because the vibrations I experienced in the poetic representations of life on Jars of Clay’s If I Left The Zoo, CUSH’s SP3, or even Newsboys’ Going Public are consistent with that force. This is the feeling that keeps me coming back to these favorites.
The same dynamics that had forced a poetic appreciation of life out of the Christian music industry led me to seperate myself from an obligation to ritual without the conviction that it holds meaning for me.
When I gather with my friends for a live performance or a listening party, I think of it as my current form of church. In the music that I gather with them I find a tolerance, a grace, that allows imperfections to exist while moving toward a harmonic resolution. And that is the space in which I want to exist; a space where we know we are loved and forgiven.
Ben kicks off a new series where we ask why we gather. Today Ben reflects on the Nicene Creed. This is part 1 of a 3 part essay from Ben.
Jide write about 4 principals marginalized communities can use to help be the change they hope to see.