My decades-long interest in Larry Norman led me to an article that The New Yorker posted this week: "The Unlikely Endurance of Christian Rock," by Kalefa Sanneh. It's a pretty fair, even-handed summary of the genre, with some good outsider commentary thrown in. Worth a read. And it got me thinking a bunch.
This week, through an online Marketplace, I bought a guitar pedal from Brander Raven, the man who opened for Larry Norman in Burnaby back in 1992, my first Larry Norman concert. That concert influenced me a lot: although I was disappointed that he didn't have a band with him, I appreciated how Norman would talk to the audience, share his ideas and visions, and how he generally came off. It may have even been something that messed with my sense of how music should work, insofar as it conditioned me to think concerts were less formulaic than they usually are.
When I saw that Brander Raven was selling some gear, I had a chance to meet up with him. We sat at Tim Horton's and talked about life, relationships, faith, culture, Norman, education etc.. And I came out of the conversation feeling pretty reflective about my decade of listening to Christian music and leading worship at churches and with different para-church groups.
Growing up, we had music in our house all of the time. My mother listened to white Gospel music, artists like George Beverly Shea and Tennessee Ernie Ford; my father listened to 60s pop, doo-wop, and plenty of country and western. I spent countless hours sitting on the living room floor, playing my parents' records on the living room turntable. I enjoyed making mix cassettes and they were always eclectic, spanning whatever music I happened to like. And I liked a lot of music.
When I decided that I needed to be listening to Christian music, perhaps around 1991, I tried to listen to the usual rock directed towards me: White Heart and the like. I'd visit the Christian Book and Music Centre in Victoria and listen to their sample cassettes and try to find things I liked. But I didn't really connect with most of it. It seemed tinny and cheesy, even when I was 12 years old. It didn't have the same quality that I was used to on my parents' records.
But that changed when my sister brought home a CD copy of Larry Norman's In Another Land. That was a CD I really connected with. Its production seemed legit; the lyrics were poetic and conflicted; the CD itself was packed with liner notes that I could read for hours. I listened to it more than my sister did.
And it made me feel like Christian music could be legit, like it was a thing. Most importantly, along with the emergence of Tooth and Nail Records in the early 90s, it led me to other Christian musicians who could be considered artists: Michael Knott, Michael Roe, Gene Eugene, Terry Scott Taylor, Mark Heard, Starflyer 59, and (to a point) Steve Taylor. These and others were the usual music I consumed back then. I still have a few of each of their songs on my phone. When most of that sort of music has drifted into childish schlock, these folks were artists.
There was always a "secular" tension for me, though. When is music "Christian?" Is it about the label? The artist? The message? This was particularly interesting at Camp, which had an "only Christian music" policy, which allowed anything as long as it came from a Christian label. This seemed strange, of course. I mean, Starflyer 59 was on a "Christian" label, but they never mentioned God in their lyrics; Michael Knott was on Christian labels, but he talked more about his troubles than God's direction in life. And then what about the people who are Christians but on a secular label, like Pierce Pettis or Steven Delopoulos? What about U2? What about Larry Norman, who seemed to have genuine disdain for the Christian Music Industry and stayed independent? What about when Christians found their way onto secular labels now and then, like Micheal Knott did with the Aunt Bettys? Where did the line really sit? At camp, we never really knew, and although we often listened to Christian music on speakers, we'd listen to "secular" music in our cars, on our headphones. We were all blurring the lines.
But as a teenager, these sorts of arguments are the bread and butter of our "Christian walk" discussions. They were part of the pleasure of living as a Christian. We could wonder whether the music was true, right, and lovely, and it made for endless conversation. At one point, I destroyed my Aunt Bettys CD (even though I'd made a self-censored cassette copy), only to re-buy it a couple years later. The arguments were ridiculous, but at the time it seemed like this was a matter of eternal consequence.
By the time I entered University in 1998, things were shifting in the Christian Music industry. Music seemed to be getting more saccharine. Popular "edgy" Christian musicians were only as edgy as the latest devotional had gone. People would say things ("Christ is the Savior of the Broken," "Salvation is very precise") that they felt were pushing the envelope, but then I'd realize that I was hearing the same envelope-pushing at multiple venues, that it was a publisher-driven talking point, that edgy pastors merely rehashed their favorite theologian's latest themes. I found that, once bands like Delirious and Third Day took over the Christian market, most of the artful music disappeared under this umbrella of "devotion." Creative renegades left the industry altogether.
With the creatives out of the picture, the publishing houses and big market churches (Hillsong United, Vineyard, etc..) leaned hard into priase and worship, which is essentially Christian easy listening. Delirous and Third Day introduced crunchy guitars and backbeats into regular worship services; as a result, "devotional" music got watered down so much that I just couldn't handle it. In the Christian bookstores, the "rock" section kept on shrinking. I'd look for new rock artists, but they just weren't there, even at the bigger stores. And of the rock that was there, it was as empty as the worship music that filled the shelves.
This praise-and-worship market shift affected me directly, on a small scale. I had a band with some friends, but we couldn't maintain it in that culture. In regards to the tweet above, I was kind-of heartbroken when my fellow musicians went into the worship genre. For a bunch of teenagers, my friends and I were making some genuinely interesting music, filled with interesting chords and melodies and all that. But as they moved into the worship and praise realm, I just couldn't follow. I sung with a larger worship band for a bit in Victoria, but it wasn't really my thing overall. People would get all excited about the newest praise and worship CD or trend, and I couldn't feel it.
In a way, I'd been conditioned to the Larry Norman version of things, keeping my worship music low-key and simple, trying to aim for quality control without losing the intimacy needed for the seeming spiritual experience. I'd always felt that music that couldn't be respected by secular people wasn't worth doing, and I brought that sensibility into my worship leading. It was fun while it lasted, but it also left me quite alone. After leading music for IVCF in Victoria in 2002, I very rarely made any sort of music if I wasn't on my own. I had my vision and I stuck with it.
There really was no way around it. Standing in front of people, even with the agenda of worship, is performance. Chanting at a convent in order to create a mystical state... is performance. Tibeten bowls that aid in meditation are a type of performance. The idea that we weren't performing was a cognitive dissonance I couldn't maintain for very long.
I already wrote about this above, so that's enough for now.
Except for this: it's funny. It's funny that I spent so much time being so stressed out about whether music was Christian or not when... well... it was such a non-starter. It was an argument over nothing.
It reminds me of the following video from Seth Andrews, wherein he recalls his years working at a Christian music station. If you have a few minutes, enjoy it. Whether you're a believer or not, it's a great summary of how different cultures interact with and mimic one another.
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