Monday, March 7, 2016

Why Knock Christian Rock?

I recently sat down with a friend and watched the film version of Donald Miller's book Blue Like Jazz. I didn't expect the film to be extremely faithful to the book (the book being largely philosophical, rather than a narrative), but I'd been interested in it because of the director, Steve Taylor, who had been one of my favourite musicians in the 1990s. Subsequently, I decided to check in on what Taylor had been up to since the film wrapped and discovered he'd founded a new band: Steve Taylor and the Perfect Foil. This was quite a surprise, as Taylor hadn't recorded an album of his own for 20 years (being a director/produce/songwriter in the interim). Naturally, I bought his band's new album Goliath and over the last week I've listened to it repeatedly. It's very much in the same vein as the music he made in the 90s, and that's a good thing to me. Taylor's arch, opinionated observations about life have always struck a chord with me.

Bringing up Taylor to my brother led him to compose two blog entries related to the subject of Christian rock and his thoughts have caused me to think back on the entire phenomenon. Although I listened to a tremendous amount of Christian albums in my teen years, it's only in the last few years that I've trepidatiously returned to the genre.

It certainly helped my teenage self to see the Christian music industry as a "safe" alternative to what literally all of my peers were listening to. But like all things which have held my interest for any length of time, collection mania set in. It became about the having, not the value of the thing. I built a massive library of Christian rock albums, yet many of them received but a single audience with me before being set aside forever. It wasn't so much that I idolized the artists as I idolized the albums.

Shame of that may have played into my turning away from Christian music at the age of 20, the year in which I went to college in a new city while my family moved far to the east of the country. I broke up much of the collection before moving out and I think even the remainder (the albums I liked - notably DC Talk, Newsboys and Steve Taylor) held a modicum of shame at my old mania. I was also using the internet for the first time and had access to nonstop Old-Time Radio programs, which became my constant listening pleasure. Finally, being in college in a new city I, like so many others, wanted to develop a new identity for myself.

Part of that new identity played into my churchgoing as I deliberately turned away from the "low church" environs I'd previously preferred and into something more "high church" where the only music was traditional hymnbook with organ accompaniment. Perhaps something of secular culture had changed my thinking about Christian music; after all, non-Christians think hymnal music is, at worst, dull; but they think Christian rock is, at best, lame.

It was many years before I ventured back into a more relaxed church, the one which is my home parish today (to the extent that it was a factor in choosing where my new house would be). My church today is far less traditional than any other Anglican church I've been part of and initially the unfamiliar songs left me uneasy. But as the people - and the songs - of that church became familiar, I began to feel at home. While I can still appreciate a good hymn, I've enjoyed having a bit of Christian rock back in my life. And as I became more comfortable singing along with tunes like "My Lighthouse" (presently my favourite ditty), I began to add a few albums to my collection. I'd begun listening to music again (instrumental, either classical or film soundtracks) and found a bit of the (still-going) Newsboys or Rend Collective gave me a bit of worship time in my home.

But while the Newsboys have essentially become a worship band not too unlike the one which my able friend Rob leads, with Goliath I'm back to the sort of album I would have bought in the 90s. And while there is some nostalgia in hearing Taylor belt out tunes with his wonderfully nasal delivery, I'm finding his songs don't speak to who I was in the 90s - they speak to who I am now.

Cut down
I'm a debaser
I can't stop
It's human nature
I'm run runnin' down
Every little thing you say
'Til I get my way
-"Sympathy Vote"

It helps that Taylor has always felt free to criticize. As I said, Christian rock in the 90s was "safe." You weren't going to get exposed to harmful ideas or mores, right? But in "Smug" I heard a song about Christians with superiority complexes; in "I Want to Be a Clone" he mocked the idea of Christian conformity; and in "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good," he dared to tackle the hypocrisy behind people bombing abortion clinics. That's what "safe" music looked like to me and it expressed the idea that it was okay to comment on the unhelpful/harmful things my fellow Christians do, rather than the "Go Team Christ!" attitude seen in most places. Taylor's music did some good things for my worldview back in my teens; I'm pleased he's still got something worth hearing.

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