A few weeks ago I was browsing through the used section of my local record store and was thrilled to see a whole bunch of old school Christian “punk” CDs. For $3 or $4 each, I got albums by The Insyderz, Twothirtyeight, Value-Pac, Ill Harmonics, and Pedro the Lion. Listening to each of these compelled me to pull out other records that I’ve had for years: Five Iron Frenzy, The OC Supertones, MxPx, Brave Saint Saturn, and more. Even though this music was once the only stuff I ever listened to, it had been a while since I’ve really dug into it, and one thing shocked me as I started jamming out to them again today. I couldn’t believe how explicitly Christian it all was.
Most of my favorite bands include spiritual themes in their lyrics, but it’s nothing like the mini-sermons or devotional messages found in these songs of the not-too-distant past. Some songs felt like I was sitting in a small group discussion, others like I was learning in a seminary classroom. Today, it seems music like this isn’t really part of this “scene” anymore. Oh, there are a few bands (especially in metalcore), but how many of them are headlining stadium tours, like the Supertones did when I saw them back in 1999? How many blatantly religious songs can be found on the latest best-selling alternative Christian rock album? How many artists still speak the name of Jesus on their records?
We all noticed this shift beginning ten or twenty years ago, and I was the first person to defend the “Christians-in-a-band.” I still feel strongly that musically-talented Christians can and should sing about whatever is on their hearts and happening in their lives, and I think it’s cheesy and unnecessary to force an obvious Christian application into each and every song. Just because you are a good musician doesn’t mean you will make a good teacher or minister (and vice versa!), so we shouldn’t try to force that role on everyone. As I said, most of my favorite artists deal with spiritual themes, but they tend to do it with much more subtlety and nuance than the bands listed above. I like poetry and metaphor, and I think that since most of the Bible speaks this way about God, it’s a good thing that most of our bands are doing so today. But the Bible is also theologically robust, encouraging and challenging the Church to move forward in our relationship with Christ, preaching the gospel with bold enthusiasm. Where are those bands today? Why have we made so much room for the artist that there is no more room for the teacher?
In his latest book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, author Brian McLaren tells the story of how American Protestant churches in the mid-20th century divided themselves into two distinct groups, whose legacies both continue today. One group maintained a strong Christian identity, but they were hostile to outsiders. The other group, not wanting to be associated with this hostility, toned down their Christian identity. As a result, they avoided doing harm in the name of God, but they weren’t always very productive, either.
That same divide has happened to Christian rock in a much shorter period of time. Bands with strong Christian messages were seen as cheesy, preachy, and isolating. Since Christian rockers originally saw themselves as evangelists, not youth pastors, many artists did what they thought was necessary to reach more people and with time toned down their explicitly Christian message. Look at the career of any Christian artist who became successful in the mainstream market, and a similar pattern emerges. For Amy Grant and Stryper in the 1980s, and for Switchfoot and P.O.D. in the 2000s, the same thing happened every time. As they sold more records and gained notoriety outside of the Christian market, the Christian nature of their lyrics also became much more subtle (especially on the singles). In doing so, these bands were in fact able to reach a different crowd, showing the gospel with their actions and sharing their faith by building relationships with fans and with other folks in the industry.
I celebrate these bands’ creative ability to show God’s love to people who might not have experienced it from anyone else, but I have to ask, as almost every other Christian band followed in their footsteps, have we lost something significant in the process? In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul writes, “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,” (5:18-19, NRSV). I do not know what the difference is between psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, but it is clear Paul thought that more than one kind of music was appropriate and useful for the Church. So if a Christian feels led to make great art for its own sake, then God bless them. Similarly, there seems to be a rise of alternative worship bands today, and for that I am also grateful. We need to have more thoughtful, creative music expressing praise to God. But as for music that will encourage and challenge other believers, this is something I find lacking in today’s Christian alternative/indie/punk music scene. Who will fill the void?