Friday, September 16, 2005

Enter Pastor Man

I promised earlier in the week (two weeks ago - sorry!) to tell my own story about the whole "sacred vs. secular" thing... esp. as it applies to music. If you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, start by reading Enter Church History Man (and the connecting link to Scott's story).

Anyway, back to my personal corner of the Cultural Wars.

I grew up listening primarily to classical music (my folks bought a lot of classical records), show tunes (my mom loved musicals) and jazz (primarily Dixieland, with a bit of
Dave Brubeck mixed in.) It wasn't until I went to work for my dad the summer following my sixth grade year that I heard much of that crazy animal the kids call "rock'n'roll".

For ten cents a bottle, I cleaned & sterilized glass bottles by hand... and at the end of the summer, I had enough money saved up to buy my own stereo. It had a turntable, a AM/FM radio, a cassette player and an 8-track tape player. (Anybody else remember that "ka-thunk" noise every time an 8-track changed sections?) My mom bought me Eddie Albert's Greatest Hits (still wonder what she was thinking).

One of the guys who worked for my dad gave me some old 45's he had... so my formative years were spent with the Doobie Brothers & the Steve Miller Band. Mike, the older kid across the street, let me listen to his favorite albums - Led Zepplin, Kiss, and the Beach Boys.
K-Earth, L.A.'s longtime "classics" station, played a steady diet of the Beatles, Yes, Moody Blues, ELP, and the like.

Mom didn't particularly like the music I listened to, but as long as I wore the headphones and didn't irritate the rest of the family with it, it wasn't any big deal.

My first "Christian rock" albums came courtesy of my friend, Keith, who gave me his copies of Petra's
Come & Join Us and Keith Green's "So You Wanna Go Back To Egypt." (Ba-manna bread!) I played these albums for my mom, who responded to Petra's cover of God Gave Rock'n'Roll To You with an exasperated sigh and a crack about the difference between God's perfect & God's permissive will. (Evidently, Bill Gaither is God's perfect will, Keith Green less so, and Petra was "right out.")

That was the beginning of creating a very large collection of primarily (but not exclusively) "contemporary Christian music." At the same time I was soaking up stuff like Whiteheart, Sweet Comfort Band & Leon Patillo, I was also buying albums from ELO, Rick Wakeman, and Jethro Tull. (I still have a very strong memory of listening to Pink Floyd's "The Wall" for the first time in my good friend's bedroom... all of us very serious and deep as only teenagers can be about "we don't need no education.")

I managed to avoid the whole "
backward masking/subliminal message" hoo-ha that permeated some conservative church circles in the late 70's/early 80's... oh, I heard about it, but it didn't really make any difference to me. Frankly, it didn't (and still doesn't) make sense... Something that's played backwards goes into my subconscious backwards. What good is that to Satan or anybody else for that matter?

College brought a whole new set of bands to my attention. I traded a Sandi Patti tape to a guy in my dorm for the
77's "Ping Pong on the Abyss"... and the same guy is the one who first let me hear Prodigal (a long extinct art rock group with some excellent ideas.) Meanwhile, my roommate was introducing me to Alan Parsons Project, and one of the Christian magazines I got was breaking the news about this cool new band from across the Atlantic named U2.

My musical tastes continued to range across the map. Thanks to another roommate, I was introduced to the incredible writing & music of Stephen Sondheim. Around the same time, I found and bought all 4 releases from a new Word label - Broken Records. (That would be Youth Choir - later
the Choir, Ojo Taylor, Altar Boys - whose lead singer would later lead worship for my mom & dad's Sunday School class, and Crumbacher. Man, I miss Crumbacher... talk about your 80's synth-pop bands. Of course, when I went hunting for a link for this post, I found out that they've not only released a demo/b-sides album in the late 90's but they also just played a live reunion show with the rest of the Broken Records bands in August!)

I found the Talking Heads one evening when looking for someting to try out on the campus library's new CD listening stations. And this was about the time that...

...but my musical history isn't really the point, right? So we'll fast forward to 1991, as I struggled with how to teach kids to make wise decisions about what they put in their heads musically. As a part of that process, I decided that it was time to ditch my non-Christian tapes... and so we sold 200+ tapes in a yard sale. I'm not sure what it said to the kids (that was a pretty turbulent period in my ministry), but it was a big step for me to walk away from the music that I enjoyed. For the next few years, I didn't buy any non-Christian albums... not out of hatred of "secular" music, but in an attempt to walk closer to God.

Over time, I realized that the primary reasons I'd chosen to renounce "secular" music were others-based... sometimes the healthy thought of the power of my influence, sometimes the poisonous stew of people-pleasing & faking church that's so easy to do when you're paid to be a professional Christian. When Shari & I finally chose to buy a CD player and begin replacing my extensive tape collection with CD's, I rather cautiously began buying non-Christian CD's again.

Oddly enough, the book that inspired me most during this re-acquisition phase was written by one of my favorite fiction authors, Stephen Lawhead. Back in 1985, he wrote a book on engaging pop culture entitled Turn Back The Night. (I'd link to it, but it is so seriously OOP that no one even has a picture of the cover.) In it, he proposed four "boxes" to use in sorting out art:
  • good art, good message
  • good art, bad message
  • bad art, good message
  • bad art, bad message
Good art, good message is the sublime intersection of talent & timing & the breath of God that results in albums like Steve Taylor's Squint, Charlie Peacock's The Secret of Time, U2's The Joshua Tree or Rich Mullins A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band. (This is the easy one to define: both the quality of the writing, production, and performance is high as well as the message lining up with the life & word of Jesus Christ.)

Good art, bad message is that odd & difficult place where the incredible skill of the artist is used to say something that does not reflect the truth of God... Prince (the artist formely known as) is a classic example of this for me, as is much of Stephen Sondheim's work on the Broadway stage.

Bad art, good message is, unfortunately, where much of CCM (contemporary Christian music) lives... welding the Gospel of Jesus Christ to poorly produced rehash of what was popular last year. Cheesy writing, inadequate production, overblown performances... you get the picture. I'm flashing on "Dear Mr. Jesus" and "Touch of a Master's Hand" right now. (Now, I don't intend to tar & feather all of CCM with this indictment... just that all too often, the excuse "The message is good" acts as a cover for mediocre art.)

Bad art, bad message is also pretty easy to spot. The message is bad and so is the quality of the production. Most of this kind of stuff disappears quickly - anybody besides those guys doing "rock'n'roll is evil" videos actually remember Black Oak Arkansas?

And, of course, the grid isn't just for music - it works great with any kind of pop culture/art piece.

A short note on truth: a good message (well, a "true" message) does not have to be evangelistic and/or explicitly reference God or the Bible. Truth is true even without a chapter & verse reference. The question is, "Do these lyrics reflect Biblical truth?", not "Do these lyrics sound like they were written by a Southern Baptist preacher?"

Well, that's where I live now. Most of my non-Christian additions to my collection now are either:
  1. highly recommended artists with profound things to say (David Wilcox, Ben Harper)
  2. 80's music I remember fondly (the Hooters, Asia, and, yes, even Go West's greatest hits)
Party on, dude.


Anonymous said...

It wasn't Eddie Albert -- it was Eddie Arnold that I bought you -- and it wasn't that bad!!


Anonymous said...

Your "good art good music" list is very good. But CRUMBACHER? Yikes.

--someone who used to work in Christian music

Nord said...

Where is the box for guilty pleasures? Every now and then I need a nostalgic fix of 80s hair metal ;-)

GodFix said...

Rock on Mark!

Bill Cleary said...

Thank you for a very enjoyable read. I even remember the 8-track ka-thunk happening in the middle of songs.