Power in the Roots
Thanks to some stodgy old hymns, contemporary Christian music is becoming surprisingly good.
By Katherine E. Willis Pershey
I never thought I’d give another dime to the purveyor of many a WWJD bracelet, the source for Max Lucado greeting cards, the haven for lovers of all things Thomas Kincaid. But I recently reactivated my frequent shopper card at my local Christian bookstore, and for a reason I never would have foreseen a few short months ago—their Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) section.
I have a not-so-soft place in my heart for CCM. Back when I was a born-again seventh grader, Michael W. Smith and the Newsboys (Christian-) rocked my world. Indeed, when I responded to an altar call with my youth group in October 1992, I was blinded not by the Light of Christ but by the spotlights reflecting off of Carman’s vinyl pants. I trust that other folks who received pamphlets of the Gospel of John that night experienced a real and lasting spiritual conversion. I did not. For the next few months, I threw myself into a Christianity that was all about T-shirts, arguing with my biology teacher about evolution, and fervent prayers that America would repent and start requiring fervent prayers in its public schools.
I do not think that conservative evangelical Christianity is shallow, but I do know that I was an extraordinarily shallow conservative evangelical Christian. I didn't read the Bible; the sacred scriptures of my born-again faith were the lyrics to DC Talk songs. In "Jesus is Still Alright with Me," TobyMac rapped, "Back in place, and I’m all up in your face/ With a rhyme that I embrace, like a mother to her child/ I’m kickin’ it Jesus style/ To the ones that think they heard/ I did use the j word/ Cause I ain’t too soft to say it/ Even if dj’s don’t play it."
I kicked it Jesus style for all of five months, and spent the next five years thinking that Christianity was a superficial joke.
Suffice to say that when I finally meandered back into a relationship with Jesus, I had zero interest in reestablishing my relationship with the CCM industry, which struck me as theologically monotone and artistically derivative.
But there has been a subtle shift in what’s coming out of the CCM industry. While I’m not ready to afford the Christian radio station one of my few preset buttons, I have a growing collection of albums from the likes of Amy Grant, Jars of Clay, and Bart Millard. The common thread binding all of these recent albums is that they’re hardly Contemporary Christian Music at all—they’re folksy Americana arrangements of stodgy old hymns. And they’re good.
Amy Grant released “Legacy… Hymns and Faith” back in 2002, and followed it up with “Rock of Ages… Hymns and Faith” (2005). These albums are the shiniest of the bunch; they are as wholesome and irony-free as Grant herself. Jars of Clay’s “Redemption Songs” (2005) is by far the hippest of the class, with bluesy renditions of old school church music. There are a few odd spots in which the JoC boys sound a little too happy and/or bored to be singing about the blood atonement of Jesus on the Cross. In their defense, though, I only realized the emotional dissonance when I was singing along at the top of my lungs. It just seemed a little too well with my soul that Christ hath shed blood for me.
My favorite neo-hymn collection is Bart Millard’s “Hymned” (2005). Millard usually hangs out with MercyMe, a band that is, by all accounts, just the kind of CCM dreck I like to avoid. But his first solo project is a Southern Gospel masterpiece. Among superbly interpreted versions of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” Millard inserts a lone original song: “Mawmaw’s Song,” which also recasts “In the Sweet By and By” as a refrain. The song is a heartfelt apologetic for the whole project—a sweet remembrance of a grandmother whose passionate faith was manifested in song. The song is rife with enough nostalgia to make this objective reviewer pull her car over to grab a tissue.
But it isn’t just nostalgia that fuels Millard to pilfer his Mawmaw’s hymnal for inspiration. He recognizes that her religiosity was a wellspring for his own. One of the impulses behind my own reluctant return to the Christian faith was the whole ancestral thing: my people have been Christians for a long time. There was something very compelling about rediscovering the beliefs that had sustained my grandparents and their grandparents. It’s a classic appeal to Christian tradition, played out in the family tree.
There are a host of motives for the CCM fixation on hymnody. I’m willing to bet that recording songs in the public domain keeps the production budget nice and cheap. The Postmodern/Emerging Church obsession with all things retro certainly has something to do with the trend. But on some level, I’d like to believe that the folks involved in these projects are encountering and honoring the unique spiritual inheritance of American Christianity.
So these days I’m in a bit of a paradox. The hymns on these projects reflect the theological narrowness of their era. Jesus is strictly a personal savior whose blood washes away the sins of believers. As a mainline pastor educated in the annals of liberal theology, I’m keen on inclusive language and feminist re-visions of the atonement. I can’t sing “The Old Rugged Cross” without wondering if everyone would love it so darned much if it were “The Old Rugged Electric Chair.” The same theology in an ordinary CCM context never would have wooed me back into the Mecca of Christian consumerism. There may be, as Lewis E. Jones wrote, “power in the blood,” but there is also power in the roots.
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Katherine E. Willis Pershey is a pastor ordained by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She blogs at any day a beautiful change and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her last essay for SoMA was The Real Heartbreak About "Brokeback."
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