Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Is Christian Rock an Oxymoron?

Is there a point to it?

It came from the eighties... Stryper
Big-haired, spandexed, Christian Rock

I guess there's a point to it. Who am I to say there isn't? It's enormously popular, and obviously speaks to the hearts of a lot of people. We've been posting quite a bit lately in our small blogging circle about music, which brings to mind the fairly recent phenomenon of the rise of Christian Rock music. Apparently, it's the sixth most popular form of music in the US, outselling both jazz and classical.

Jars of Clay

I suppose we've come a very long way since the fifties, when DJs and preachers in the Bible Belt were incensed about Elvis Presley's swiveling hips and the acceptance by white society of the unmistakably sexual beat of what was called "race music" at the time. Now it has been fully co-opted and integrated into the religious landscape, with production values and styles not too far off of what is currently found in secular music. Most of these bands come out of the evangelical scene, although there are a few contemporary Catholic ones to be found now. There's Critical Mass, and of course, Father Stan Fortuna of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

dc Talk

Speaking personally, and no offense is meant to anyone, but I've never especially cared for this type of music. I prefer the spiritual elements to be found as nuggets in secular music. They are usually more profound. To me, there's a rebellious streak that is supposed to be found in rock music and other contemporary forms, and for the message to be co-opted towards the purpose of overt evangelization does a sort of disservice to the purposes of both the music and the evangelization, in my view. In a spiritual sense, I tend to get a lot more out of songs like Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For by U2 and Redemption Song by Bob Marley than I would from most of these bands. But, hey... I'm older.

In May of 2007, David Nantais (a campus minister in Ann Arbor) wrote an article for America magazine called What Would Jesus Listen To: A Catholic looks at Christian Rock. I tend to be in agreement with him on most points. Some excerpts:

Christian rock has been derided for many reasons, including for what some see as the genre’s simplistic “Jesus is my friend” piety. Indeed there is not much theological substance to some Christian rock lyrics. Bands may legitimately be “on fire” for God, but few have the theological vocabulary to communicate their religious experience. Take dc Talk, a band that is often cited as boosting Christian rock’s popularity in the early 1990’s. The title track from their album “Jesus Freak” features lyrics I would expect to read in a second grade catechetical workbook: “People say I’m strange, does it make me a stranger/ That my best friend was born in a manger.”

Christian rock has also been characterized as mediocre music that sacrifices quality for a message. Hank Hill, a character on the Fox animated show “King of the Hill,” told the lead singer of a Christian rock band during one episode, “You aren’t making Christianity any better, you’re just making rock ’n’ roll worse.”

(My interjection here - I'm not sure that's entirely fair... Jars of Clay, for example, is a pretty decent band, in terms of their skills and production values and in comparison with their secular contremporaries)

The religious roots of Christian rock are largely evangelical Protestant. While there are likely many Catholics in the Christian rock fan base, I, as a Catholic music fan, have always felt uncomfortable listening to it. One reason for this discomfort lies in the foundational differences between Protestant and Catholic theology. Thomas Rausch, S.J., explains such differences cogently in his recent book, Being Catholic in a Culture of Choice. Rausch writes that Protestant theology has traditionally been more “pessimistic” than Catholic theology regarding the holiness of the world. The “Catholic religious imagination,” as portrayed by Andrew Greeley and others, helps Catholics to see the sacred in everyday life. The foundations of Protestant theology, however, focused on “Luther’s personal struggle over justification or his righteousness before God,” which, according to Rausch, “has resulted in Protestant theology’s stressing redemption more than incarnation.” This means that the world is more in need of being saved than it is good and holy. It makes sense that, if Christian rock emerged from this theological foundation, evangelicals would consider it vital to “redeem” rock music by baptizing it with Christian lyrics for a Christian audience. Yet for Catholic rock music fans, the approach is unnecessary.

Since the genre was born, many rock artists have addressed religious and spiritual themes in their music. Often they do it in a very subtle way, but the message can be quite powerful. As songwriter and’s editor in chief, Bill McGarvey, wrote in a recent article in The Tablet, “Although I was raised Catholic, I now realize that my first religious experience came through music.” McGarvey is referring to secular rock music and, more specifically, to Bob Dylan, an artist with a history of grappling with transcendent themes in his music, but also one you would never find in the “Christian rock” bin at your local record store. The same is true for Bruce Springsteen and U2, who are often cited for the religious and social justice themes in their lyrics. Through much of their music, these artists, and others like them, evoke emotions and convey important messages about faith without any heavy-handed proselytizing. In this way, their spiritual and religious roots are more “Catholic,” meaning that God can be found incarnated in the music itself and in the transcendent experience of listening to it. These songs do not need to be baptized or redeemed. They are reflections of the human beings who created them—simultaneously beautiful and sinful, capable of great pain and great joy....

At the end of the day, people are going to listen to the types of music that appeal to them. There are plenty of genres from which to choose, and the number of bands grows daily. If you find Christian rock enjoyable, then, by all means, listen to it. If it helps bring you closer to God, that is even a better reason to listen to it. Christian rock, however, is not somehow ontologically purer than secular rock. Nor do Christians have to forgo the pleasures of listening to a mainstream rock band because they believe their faith requires a spoonful of Christianity to make the rock music go down. For those who do believe this, I am sorry for what they are missing. As for me, I will continue to take my rock music straight with no religion chaser.

I tend to concur. Here's a far less charitable post by Nantais on SoMA Review, where he apparently didn't need to be as nice - I Hate Christian Rock.

Our Secular Franciscan friend Don, on his old blog once wrote...

I'm deeply religious and very profane. I read Thomas Merton and love George Carlin. I don't think there is a "war on Christmas". I think we should have a "war on bullshit." I think the Christian Right is actually the Christian Wrong. I love animals. I don't hunt. I live on the edge of the "hundred acre wood." I love to visit monasteries and stay in quiet places. I like Gregorian Chant and I like Jimi Hendrix. I love my wife and family and I miss our children being away at work and college. I've enjoyed being a blogger this year. Next Friday I'll be celebrating the 36th anniversary of my 18th birthday. December 8th is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Mary holds a special place in my heart. Blue is one of my favorite colors and though I carry a Rosary frequently I only pray it occasionally.

Amen. That was very well said, brother.


James K. said...

This is a very good post, I am a bit younger-born in the late eighties-so I never knew about Stryker, and the origins of Christian rock, but as you said, I have tended to find more meaning in the 'nuggets' of truth in 'secular' music than in the overtly religious lyrics of most Christian artists. Two Christian artists that I respect though, are Relient K, and Jars of Clay, because both could successfully pull off a totally secular band, and their music doesn't slam Christianity over your head. I also thought that your point about the Catholic imagination always being more hopeful about the goodness in the world, incredibly insightful. Thanks for your valuable commentary.

Jeff said...

Hello James,

Thanks, and welcome here. Cool blog you have there. I like your poetry. How did you happen to find me here, if you don't mind my asking?

I'm not familiar with Relient K, but I agree with you regarding Jars of Clay. Their chops are as good as anyone else's I'm hearing out there.

James K. said...

Hey Jeff,

I found you on the St. Blogs parish aggragator. I actually stumbled across your 'what ancient language post', yesterday, and then stumbled here again today. Here's a link to a representative Relient K song.

Steve Bogner said...

My wife likes quite a bit of Christian music, but I've never really liked it much. I do find a lot of spiritual inspiration in U2's music, though. And Six Pence None The Richer (now defunct, I believe) had some richness and complexity to their music. But I don't believe either of them are/were trying to be explicitly 'Christian' in their labeling. They were expressing themselves, and that was their genuine expression.

And then there are artists like Sting, Bob Marley, and Los Lonely Boys who have written some pieces that are very catholic in their spiritual message. There's an awful lot of good 'Christian' and 'catholic' music out there if one listens for it.

I like the point about how Protestant and Catholic theology tend to see the world differently. That's reflected not only in music, but also in politics and literature. Well, maybe less so in politics these days, which is regrettable and is taking this off into a different tangent, so I won't go there any further....

crystal said...

I don't have much chritian music ... some carols, a Taize CD, and one CD by Robin Mark - I'm not sure if he's catholic or protestant, but he's Irish. But I prefer secular music.

jackjoe said...

Religion , as I have written so many times,deals to a great extent with standards. The old relativist bosh "I think chocolate pie is great, you think cow patties are great; so what's the difference. My opinion is as good as yours" This is what we are discussing.While we do not have absolute standards we do have standards!! That which lasts because it appeals to what is common to most people is what we call great. Universality it's called. I like Bach, you like Slim Pickens. Is my opinion better than yours? Hell, yes. 500 years from now people will be inspired by Bach and slim pickendswill be what you get at a bad dinner!!

Please list 20 christian rock pieces from 15 years ago that are still widely heard and I'll list 500 pieces from 250 years ago that we still hear and love if our ears and souls have not been ruined by 'crap'.

Frankly to put it simply something last because it touches us deeply. And we call that GREAT.

OOOh, cured my indigestion!!! Thanks Jeff Jack, still in there.

Jeff said...

Hi James,

Thanks for the link. I checked out their official site. I wonder if they still market themselves as a Christian band... They seem more low key about it than some of these other ones.


Ha! It is getting a little bit late tonight to get into politics, isn't it? You bring up Los Lonely Boys. To me, they are a very good example of a secular band that brings spiritual elements into play very well. Enya was another, but I'm showing my admitted Catholic bias again.


Taize. I've always been curious. Do they do Gregorian Chant, or something different? I'm sure they musn't be into rock. Is this the Mark Roberts you mean? Quite nice. :-)


Well, there certainly is something to be said for stuff that holds up over time, although I do prefer Slim Pickens more as an actor of timeless quality (Dr. Strangelove) than as a singer.
BTW, I promise I won't bring up "On Eagle's Wings" again. ;-)

Anonymous said...

We must be pondering similar things today though our outcomes are far different. I love the Don quote.

All the Best, B

jackjoe said...

Jeff, Dr. Strangelove, one of my all time favorite movies. I listed it once on one of my early blogs. I used Pickens' name because I couldn't think of any other corny song writer. But seriously, I don't want to sound like B16 in a bad mood, but in all fields that call for judgments we must have standards. No standards left today in the arts[ pure relativism} and we're moving there in ethics I'm afraid. Then what?

cowboyangel said...


Interesting post. I'm curious - what brought up the topic?

I went through a period where I investigated "Christian rock" or rock that was "Christian." One day I'm listening to the Sex Pistols and Joy Divison, the next, I'm having a religious experience and trying to sort out my life, which, naturally included music. It wasn't easy for someone like me.

Christian rock, to me, ultimately seemed like just another part of the Evangelical Bubble Life. Us versus Them. "Christians" [who think and act like us] against "Non" Christians. Black and white. Totally dualistic. I found that world way too limited and restrictive.

But there were some good musicians within Christian rock who seemed like they had a certain artistic integrity, openness, and searching quality that befits any true creative soul. I think of Larry Norman, the "fahter" of Christian rock, who was already doing stuff in the late 60s and early 70s. He was big into Dylan and it showed. I have fond memories of Only Visiting This Planet and In Another Land. Interestingly, he was also an influence on Frank Black of the Pixies.

My favorite "Christian" band was Daniel Amos, who also started in the early 70s. (The first phase of Christian rock really came from the 60s hippies - the counterculture Christians - the Jesus movement. So, while production values may not have been quite up to the ultra-slick efforts later on, I think they had a warmth and honesty that vanished as Christian rock became a real market and focused on Pop music.) Anyway, Daniel Amos was into William Blake, T.S. Eliot, Chesterton, Muggeridge, Kierkegaard, Dorothy Sayers, Walker Percy, etc. The Christian intellectuals. They were a pretty cool and interesting band. I especially dug Horrendous Disc and Vox Humana, the latter of which was part of a trilogy or quartette called The Alarma Chronicles. I saw them in concert in Denver and they put on a great show.

Randy Stonehill also came out of the hippie thing. And Keith Green, who had a hand in Dylan's conversion. And Resurrection Band, who was doing the heavier stuff -the Christian Zeppelin band! They were part of an interesting social action community in Chicago. And I liked The Altar Boys, who were straight punk. I don't know if any of the people are still playing.

Most of these groups were also into social activism - and I soooo desperately needed to hear those voices back then. They weren't your Right Wing Republican Christians. This was the Sojourners crowd. Jim Wallis and all that.

And then there were the Christians that my friends and I listened to who were on "secular" labels: Dylan, U2, Bruce Cockburn, and The Call in particular. I still think Cockburn's albums from the 1970s may be the most beautiful and genuinely spiritual albums of the rock era. Great, great music - he's an excellent songwriter and a way undervalued guitarist, classically trained. Sadly, his later music never seemed to equal the heights of his 70s work.

Oh, and Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes had a this terrific punk-gospel group called Mercy Seat, with an amazing black woman singing. Saw them in Denver, too, in a tiny little club. Never danced so hard in my life. And we got to hang out with him afterwards. Turns out he was the son of a minister. Unfortunately, they only put out one album - but it was a lot of fun.

As I said, I got tired of the Evangelical/Christian bubble. Life became huge and beautiful and vibrant again. I guess this is part of what Rausch was talking about. But for a while, those few cool bands meant a lot to me - probably helped keep me sane. I was just thinking recently about looking for some of the Daniel Amos albums again. They were good - Christian or not. Unlike Stryper, who would've sucked no matter what their beliefs were.

Now, like you, perhaps, I find spiritual truth here and there among musicians who were/are trying to capture what it means to be fully alive, to be genuinely human, who know full well what it means to be desperately in need of love, mercy, grace and forgiveness.

cowboyangel said...

By the way, I'm not sure it's wise - spiritually speaking - to be dissing the great Slim Pickens. Even dead the man could probably kick all of our asses combined.

Real cowboys ultimately find a way to bring about cosmic balance. And it ain't always pretty. :-)

crystal said...

Ha :-) nope, that's not him. Taize isn't like gregorian chant. On the CD I have, the songsare sung in many different languages. You can hear samples of it here

Garpu the Fork said...

I confess that I've never been a fan of "contemporary Christian" or Christian rock. I'm also not a fan of it being in Masses, but that's my personal preference. It does bring butts into pews, though.

I guess I don't like contemporary Christian/Christian rock because I don't like most contemporary pop. No clue why contemporary Christian is so vapid, but I think it may have something to do with commercialization and its lack of innovation. What's popular sells. What isn't threatening sells. Or I could be reading too much Adorno again.

Liam said...

I have to admit, I've never really investigated the Christian rock thing, even after I started going back to church. I guess it's because I always associate it with megachurch evangelism, which just doesn't say anything to me either spiritually or aesthetically.

I am intrigued by the idea that the difference between Catholic and Protestant concepts of the world's goodness affect this whole issue. There might be something to that.

I like a lot of music that approaches Christian and/or Biblical themes but that grapples with their complexity rather than simplifies them to banality. I'm thinking Leonard Cohen's "Song of Isaac" or lots of things by Nick Cave.

Anonymous said...

My conclusion is that you need a little brimstone to be cool in the adolescent sense really required for good rock & roll. Somehow Jesus just makes things a little to square. Don't shoot the messenger. B

Jeff said...

Hi William,

Sorry to hear that you're moving, but I hope you're moving to a better place, at least. Moving is never fun.

What brought up the topic? I just happened to be reading America and came across that article by Nantais. Also, I sometimes listen to the local Christian radio stations during drive time from and to work. I hear the Jars of Clay being mentioned a lot, so I was a bit curious about them, and listened to a few clips on Youtube. I was familiar with dc Talk because their 'Jesus Freak' books could be seen everywhere a few years back.

Joy Division! Wow, that brings me back a bit. :-)

Daniel Amos sounds really familiar to me. Should I know him from secular music somehow? Keith Green... I don't like to speak ill of the dead, but he was a horrid man...

I think that John Michael Talbot
came out of that same late sixties Jesus movement that you describe. Bruce Cockburn was very good, I agree. Some evangelicals I've known are very fond of the religious music of Phil Keaggy and Tom Rush. I always liked Tom Rush.

I miss social activism in music. A lot of people think that the sixties songs that I like are corny, but there really was a time for a while when people were sincerely singing about peace, and brotherhood, and justice... all before everything fell apart in drugs and cynicism and commercialism. I'd like to see a sort of return to that, with eyes a little bit more open this time. John Mayer has a great song about "Waiting for the World to Change", but it could be better. Don't wait! Make it change.

There's a way to do that, I believe, in embracing fullness of life, and looking for what is good in other people and inherent in the world. Have life and have it more abundantly. Like yourself, I guess I resist the notion that total self-separation is what is needed. A separation that seems to sing "Our God is an awesome God... but everything else is crap."

Jeff said...


That Taize community is fascinating. Paula posts about them a lot. I need to learn a bit more about them.

Jeff said...


Ha! Yes, interesting that we both sort of touched on the topic at the same time.

Is cool=evil in that it rejects good authority? Always? I'll have to think about that one for a while. I don't think it's good for any authority to go unchallenged forever. I'm not one for smashing all authority, there are times when authority and order are most definitely needed (that's why I don't want to smash authority), but I think that there should always be ways to challenge it too. Authority needs to be reminded that it is there to serve rather than to be served. I like checks and balances. Maybe that's why each and every generation needs to challenge the status quo by rebelling in their own particular way. In a way, that's a healthy thing.

I hear what you are saying. I have to take my age into account. Some of the stuff seems so far gone now, I can see the attraction to Christian music by people who've had enough.... I suppose it's good that someone is singing about something other than bling, booze, misogeny, and getting laid. Maybe this is a form of rebellion in itself. Still, I find the mixing of mediums to be strange, and it sort of cheapens both. It doesn't work as well as Gospel Music in my opinion.

Jeff said...

Hi Garpu,

As a musician, I'd like to hear what kind of religious music you're partial to. :-)

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave are worth checking out? I've got a lot of listening to do, I've been out of it for too long. Thanks for the suggestions. I've heard some Nick Cave that Crystal has posted. Very powerful.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

Yeah, my wife agrees age and frame of refrence have an awful lot to do with what is 'cool'. But that depends of course if you define cool as something subjective, like taste, or if cool is a particular stage or brand of broad-society taste that makes people even have the desire to watch a reality show featuring Victoria Beckham. In other words, Victoria Beckham is always, everywhere, and objectively cooler than Erkle. Led Zeplin is always, everywhere, and objectively cooler than Stryper.

So I figure I could hire a bunch of really good looking 20 year olds, lay down a really mean driving rythm, and maybe crankout some vicious lyrics about Pontius Pilate whipping people and it could sound cool. Really hot chicks in skimpy outfits could writhe around singing the chorus while a heavily tattood muscular dude ground out the lyrics.

So I figure Christian rock is probably an oxymoron because by the time we finished making it cool it wouldn't really be Christian anymore. You need a little brimstone for such things.

cowboyangel said...


I got caught up in my whirlwind and never got to finish this conversation.

Daniel Amos, like Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jethro Tull, etc. is a them not a him. Just the names of two prophets put together, i believe. And, no, there's no real reason you should've heard of them. They were too weird (read: interesting) for the normal Christian rock world, i.e. they sang about Blake and Kierkegaard and Chesterton. Not really what the Amy Grant crowd wanted to hear. They did fairly well, though, I suppose - had dedicated fans that supported them.

Keith Green... I don't like to speak ill of the dead, but he was a horrid man...

Wow, that shocked me. I was listening to Keith Green right around the time he died, and he seemed to be regarded in an almost saintly fashion then. Granted, I've been out of the loop for a long time - did something come up in the intervening years that I don't know about? Or was there always another side that I never heard about? I'm incredibly curious.

Yeah, I had some friends who really liked Phil Keaggy. And I still see his name crop up on some lists of great guitarists. I never clicked with him. I mean, people would mention him in the same breath as Hendrix. I never got it. I mean, we're talking about Jimi. Keaggy may be able to play the guitar pretty well, but the overall package - vocals, songwriting, atmosphere, artistic depth, etc. - wassn't even in the same ballpark. Hell, it wasn't even the same game.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

I hope the move went well, with as little disruption as could reasonably be expected.

So, Daniel Amos was sort of like a Moby Grape kind of thing?

I don’t know if Keith Green would have liked you referring to him as saintly. You’ve never heard of his Catholic Chronicles? Apparently, he fancied himself as some kind of theologian. My problem with him was that tiresome crap.

Yeah, I’ve heard people rave about Keaggy. From what little I’ve heard, he sounded like someone you’d more rightly compare with Al DiMeola than Jimi Hendrix.

cowboyangel said...


Wow, so Keith Green wound up as some kind of Jack Chick? How utterly sad. I didn't know any of that.

I personally didn't regard him as saintly - I meant that others seemed to regard him that way. Early death always helps.