I Hate Christian Rock
What's to like? The music is mediocre, the message is obnoxiously pious...
By David Nantais
I am about to make a big confession. I am a Christian. I am a rock lover. And I hate Christian rock!
My aversion for this dubious musical genre goes back to April of 1992, when I attended a live performance by the classic American progressive rock band, Kansas. Now, as Kansas had been around for`ages, I expected to see six doddering old men, but instead I was astounded by a tight, talented group presenting the best of American heartland rock and roll.
I was hooked! Prior to this show, I was familiar with two Kansas tunes, “Dust In The Wind” and “Carry On Wayward Son.” After the show, I purchased Kansas’s entire catalogue on CD. As I dug deeper into their oeuvre, however, I wondered why the line-up of the band had changed significantly from 1980 to 1992.
After doing some research, I discovered that soon after Kansas assembled to record their 1982 album, “Vinyl Confessions,” lead singer and keyboardist Steve Walsh left the band. Rumor had it that he was fed up with guitarist and songwriter Kerry Livgren’s incessant Christian lyrics, which had been slowly and insidiously creeping into Kansas’ music.
Livgren had recently become a born-again Christian and naturally had to communicate that earth-shaking news to the world. Once Walsh left, Kansas started auditioning new singers and, lo and behold, Christian vocalist John Elefante suddenly appeared. Livgren eventually left Kansas to start a Christian rock band called A.D., while Elefante went on to record contemporary Christian albums, and Kansas began what would become a two-year sabbatical, before Walsh’s return in 1986.
Kerry Livgren’s departure from Kansas was a rare event--one of the very few times before or since that a mainstream rock musician left the secular rock and roll world to pursue a career in Christian rock. I have a problem with this. What troubles me is not Livgren’s personal choice, which he was free to make, but rather his decision to proclaim his newfound Christianity in his music and leave behind the “godless” domain that Kansas now represented.
Another thing that bothers me is that the more Christian Livgren became, the more the “cheese-factor” increased in his lyrics. For his first Christian solo disc, “Seeds of Change,” released in 1980, Livgren recruited none other than the man who was just about to start fronting Black Sabbath after Ozzy, Mr. Ronnie James Dio, to sing on a couple of tracks. Yes, that Dio—the guy who put a picture of a satanic demon fishing a priest out of a raging body of water with a chain on the cover of his album, “Holy Diver”!
Livgren asked Dio to sing a song called “The Mask of the Great Deceiver,” about how Satan tries to tempt people. Of course, Dio came through, belting out the tune as if his soul depended on it (Livgren may have told him that it did), but just look at these lyrics:
He will fill up your ears
Maybe it’s my own spiritual cluelessness, but I don’t see how it is God’s will for a musician to release mediocre material in the name of Jesus. Most Christian rock that I have heard reminds me of the music on the old Donnie and Marie Osmond show: it’s campy, saccharine, and insufferably bland. Worse, its obsession with getting an obnoxiously pious message across becomes more important than the quest for musical excellence and integrity.
I often wonder if a number of Christian rock bands were formerly secular bands who, when they couldn’t get noticed by David Geffen, experienced a “conversion” and, voila, were suddenly signed by Holy Spirit Recordings. To paraphrase the band Jethro Tull, If Jesus saves, then he better save himself from those who match Hallmark card versions of his radical message with mediocre rock music.
Like so many Christian rockers, Kerry Livgren fell prey to the misguided notion that in order to be “pure” and “truly Christian,” he had to shun the evil secular world. But what about the spiritual discipline that asks us to try to find God in all things, as St. Ignatius Loyola posited? What about looking for God in everyday life, instead of only in allegedly “holy” and “sacred” places?
In the history of philosophy and religion, the issue of dualism has sparked centuries of debate. Dualism is a black-and-white dictate with one simplistic message: Spiritual stuff—Good! Material stuff—Bad! The things of this material world are not to be trusted, for they lead to sin. The flip side to this, though, is that there are many Christians out there who embrace the world as good. In his “Spiritual Exercises,” Ignatius Loyola invites the reader to reflect on the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit, looking down upon the earth and viewing humanity and all of the beautiful and horrible things human beings were doing. The Trinitarian God is filled with a love for creation and decides to send the second person, the Son, Jesus Christ, to live among human beings and show them just how much God loves them. Notice that Ignatius does not deny that humanity is capable of terrible actions and abusing the gifts of the earth. But the love of God, he reminds us, is unconditional. If it were only dispensed upon good behavior, we would all be in trouble!
Interestingly enough, some of the best music containing traditional Christian themes like love, redemption and suffering comes from more mainstream artists that wouldn’t be caught dead in the Christian music bin at Tower Records. Steve Earle’s work is often a brilliant meditation on death and resurrection. Bruce Springsteen, who was raised Catholic, has released some of the most sacramental, world-affirming music in rock history. Both of these artists have arguably done more to promote Christian values than Christian rock ever could. Is it ironic or just inevitable that when Bob Dylan was “born again” he wrote some of the worst songs of his career? And that when he finally shook off his conversion like a bad hangover, he started making great music again—songs that, like Earle’s and Springsteen’s, touch upon the beauty and sadness of humanity? What could be more Christian?
Contemporary Christian rock suffers from the same flaccid, uncreative lyrics that marred it two decades ago. It’s a genre that has not evolved, perhaps because most fundamentalist Christians don’t believe in evolution.
I looked at Christianity Today magazine’s list of the top 10 Christian Rock albums of 2005 and randomly chose two CDs. Jars of Clay, probably one of the best-known Christian rock bands due to their pop music crossover disc of a few years back, released a collection in 2005 called “Redemption Songs.” One of the songs on this album is called “Nothing but the Blood,” which sounds a bit goth, but is actually about the blood of Christ.
Oh precious is the flow
First, who talks like this?! Second, the singer goes off on a self-flagellating tangent about his need to be made clean and pure. All human beings are sinners, according to Christian belief, but some Christians seem to enjoy wallowing in it rather than acknowledging that human beings, as one of God’s greatest creations, are fundamentally good.
The second disc, called “The Far Country” by singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson, includes a song with lyrics that string together verses from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, along with the book of Isaiah and Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. Talk about an exegetical nightmare! Peterson has no shame about rhyming the phrase “Gates of Hell” with “things will be well,” comforting platitudes that leave me feeling like I just watched a Mr. Rogers marathon.
The classical music composers of old had it right—the best Christian music doesn’t need words; the musical component alone elicits a spiritual response in the listener. Let’s face it: few of the untold millions of us around the world who enjoy Gregorian chants understand Latin. And even when it comes to a work like Handel’s “Messiah,” the title of which immediately brings to mind lines about Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, one could argue that the words are secondary in importance to the music. Unlike CCM, which is primarily about the words and is too often stilted and forced, Handel’s works endure because they flow in a natural, organic way from true spirituality.
When confronted with a problem or challenge, many Christians love to ask, “What would Jesus do?” When it comes to music, I believe Jesus would be rocking out t cfinely crafted music written by artists who truly understand the core of his message—that human beings, warts and all, are worthy of love because they are God’s beloved creation.
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A former Jesuit, David Nantais is director of the “Magis” program for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Midwest. His last essay for SoMA was Not Your Typical Love Story.
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