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 lable, but they never mentioned God; 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? 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 talking points. I found that, once bands like Delirious and Third Day took over the Christian market, most of the art 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 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.
I was kind-of heartbroken. For a bunch of teenagers, m 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 once a month for a bit in Victoria, but it wasn't really my thing overall.
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.
Noisey posted this documentary on December 1, 2016, I Saw The Light. I watched it today. It's a well-made little film about Christian evangelical culture's relationship with music.
I attended a few Christian festivals with my church youth group: Sonfest in Abbotsford and Jesus Northwest in Vancouver, Washington, both in the mid-90s. As a Christian teenager, I had a good time at those festivals. I admit that I enjoyed the concert elements far more than preaching or "worship," so perhaps I didn't get the full experience as described in the documentary. But I remember feeling really good and meeting lots of other Christians who introduced me to really great music. I still listen to some of that music, even 20 years later, even after my faith has long gone.
A few days ago, I was filling up a couple booklets with CDs for my car. Going through the old CDs—all on spools at this point—I was a little bit floored that I had such a significant Christian music collection: Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Daniel Amos, Starflyer 59, etc.. I'll probably keep those CDs forever; they're an essential part of my collection.
Funny thing is, I've had The Hold Steady's "Chillout Tent" running through my head for the last few days, which tells a very different music festival story. Enjoy:
Should I feel guilty about enjoying this lovely, melodic, narrative drug-trip song? The Ottawa School Board might think so.
Makes me wonder what the Shewens are up to these days.
Today, as I rushed through Abbotsford to a job interview, I saw this sign for what appears to be a razed Bar and Grill: "JESUS IS LORD OVER ABBOTSFORD." Even though I was in a rush to get to the interview on time, I felt that I needed to talk about this one. So I did (embedded below).
Seriously. God's obsession with human politics in the Holy Land is absurdly provincial, weirdly local, and entirely irrelevant to people today, or even then. Clearly, the Old Testament is a political text intended to propagandize for particular political ends. As I mentioned in the video above, this bugged me while I was growing up. It was a strange contradiction to me to see how God seemed so political on such a small scale while he also happened to run the entire universe. The largeness of God and the minuteness of his prejudices were a contradiction that I never really sorted out, no matter which apologetics I adopted.
What God cares about these sort of politics? From Judges 3,
It just seems unnecessarily petty for a God of the Universe to use tactics like this.
Or how about this, from 1 Chronicles 11 in the KJV?
This is a whole bunch of political jibber-jabber. Why does God need to be involved in any of this? The answer is that He doesn't need to be there. All the characters would do just fine without the presence of a provincial, political, warrior god.
Again, it seems rather peevish of God to care about this. Such an omnipotent God wouldn't be very concerned about who smiteth who, or who rebuilds a city, right?
I love maps and pored over the maps in my Bibles for many hours in my youth. What about this map?
There we see a line dividing two nations. At some times, God liked one of them; at other times, God liked the other one. There's no way to get around the politics of this: clearly the writers of the texts would have a bias towards their own nation. Note that Jerusalem is on the "Judah" side of the line; guess which nation was usually favoured by God? And wouldn't the omnipotent God understand that political borders constantly shift, that they're arbitrary delineations of human tribal social organizations? I'd like to think that God wouldn't even notice our borders, but instead look directly at our hearts.
Again, this bugged me. And it still does. It seems strange to think that political decisions in the United States of America are often based on an interpretation of a 2000 year old political text from a different continent.
No matter what a person believes, I think it's important to have a clear idea of what type of a being they're worshipping. I, for one, was never at peace with the provincial god who takes sides in battles and sends "his people" to be slaves in other countries. This made it easy to adopt more "ecumenical" approaches to Christianity, ones that focused on unity and personal religious experience. Unfortunately for my faith's sake, that made my faith so subjective that I couldn't seem to reconcile aligning myself with the organizations any longer.
Even though I don't believe in that God anymore, the God I once worshipped was way bigger than the God of the Bible.
It's Easter morning at my parents' house. I'm a little anxious as they get ready for the day. Later on, my children will run around and collect Easter eggs in the back yard. Right now I'm kind-of waiting for them to go to church.
There are very few things I miss about attending church. I didn't like most of the people; I didn't like putting on a show; I didn't like the gossip-in-the-name-of-spiritual-health. However, I miss getting to play music to an audience every week; I miss having a place to meet people and make friends; I miss spontaneous getogethers started from some church service or activity. Overall, I'm glad to have left it behind me.
But here, this morning, I'm getting an important reminder of why I've been glad to leave church behind me: time. Church took an enormous amount of time out of my day, out of my weekends, out of my Sundays. It sure feels good to get to use my Sundays as I wish.
Church is an odd beast because it is treated like the pinnicle of spiritual devotion, as the most obvious sign that you're on the right track, or at least trying, to be a good Christian. Even if your life is a mess, as long as people see your face in their community every Sunday, they'll be able to believe that you're on their team.
However, church is boring and artificial. It's easy to attend church when you're not really into it. It's easy to hold on to a community even when you have nothing in common with them. And as an artificial entity full of people putting on a show, it needs to maintain itself.
That's where "para-church" organizations—summer camps, youth groups, college Christian clubs—come in. They're often created under the guise that they will bring people into the faith or keep people involved when they're away from home. I took part in oodles of them growing up: Young Life, IVCF, a summer camp. They were certainly a force that helped keep me connected with "the fold." They did their job. Sort-of.
The problem with these para-church organizations is that they are far more organic and effective than church itself is. The summer camp where I worked from 1996-2001 regularly reminded us to make sure we told campers that church wasn't as fun as camp, but it was very important; when I was part of IVCF at UVic 2001-2003, we were regularly told that we were there to "support the local churches" and that people shouldn't treat IVCF as a church replacement. However, the Christianity at camp made sense at camp, but didn't really make sense in the real world; the Christianity at IVCF was a group based around peers of activity (students) and age bracket, so it was far more relevant than any church service could be.
Perhaps it might have been different if I was ever a large-church attendee. But apart from attending The Place, which took place on Sunday nights, I was always a small-church person. I felt comfortable in small churches because I could be both cagey and private. Perhaps if I attended a larger church, I would have been surrounded by more beautiful women or more fun people. But I didn't, so church could never hold a candle to the joys of para-church activities with my bona fide peers.
Not to mention, these organizations always had activities that were far more convenient than any sort of church service. They took place on Friday nights... like at times when you might go on a date, and they'd end early enough to go do other things. But a Sunday morning service? No way. You have to get up on Sunday morning, wait for the service to start, and by the time you get home, half your day is done.
At least that's how it felt to me.
When I moved out on my own, it was easy to skip church because I lost most of my contact with those organizations. And since the local churches were filled with people who were "not my people," their pulls' artificiality hit harder than it had before.
As I see people getting ready for church, it reminds me of how much I didn't fit in to that context, how much time I tried to spend being a good Christian when really I was something else. I was an unawares agnostic who simply hadn't the guts to admit to his atheism.
And I'm sure glad to get to choose what to do with my Sunday mornings now. And I can skip the tedious special services, like the Easter service, which was invariably the same as any other Easter service. Sure feels good.
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