christian music

Exit 251. An unfortunate tendency to worship fads.

Sorry for the hiatus.  Life got really busy, and I knew this next post would be a big one, and I needed time to process.  I was also writing stories for my other blog during that time.

Former pastor Joshua Harris recently made an announcement that he and his wife of almost 20 years were divorcing, and that he no longer considered himself a Christian.  While I would be sad in any case of someone renouncing the faith, this one hit me a bit more personally.

As any long-time reader of this blog knows, or as can easily be discerned from searching the archives of this blog, I have some rather strong opinions about Mr. Harris’ teaching, particularly concerning his 1997 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye.  This book, and others he wrote later, make the point that dating is un-Biblical and prepares people for breakup and divorce. Instead of spending time alone and giving into temptation and being fake with each other, Christian singles should spend time together on “group dates,” getting to know people in groups to see who they really are.  Then, eventually, through a mechanism I never understood, two of them will choose to prepare for marriage.

I became a Christian (or at least started taking what I believed seriously) about a year before this book was published.  No one ever taught me in childhood or my teen years how dating and relationships worked. I didn’t really see my parents doing coupley things very often; their relationship isn’t really like that, at least not in front of me (which is ok, there’s nothing wrong with that, everyone is different).  So after hearing a few talks at Intervarsity about not rushing into relationships and waiting until one is ready, and then learning about Harris-ism shortly after, I just assumed this was how all Christians lived. I didn’t know any better. So I really didn’t go on dates in college or my young adult years (except for a couple of awkward experiences which I thought were dates and the girl didn’t, but that’s another story for another time).

Mr. Harris’ books seem to be written for an audience of people who date frequently and even promiscuously, with selfish and un-Biblical intentions, but have now found Jesus.  (I should give the disclaimer that I never finished IKDG because I could tell about 100 pages in that it was crap, and I didn’t read any of Mr. Harris’ other works.) The main idea of IKDG seems geared toward explaining what is wrong with that aforementioned lifestyle, and replacing it with something at the other extreme that avoids the temptations therein altogether.  It seems to not even allow the possibility of the existence of someone like me, someone who wants to go on dates without having those selfish intentions.

If I followed Harrisism exactly as written, given who I was at that age, it would have looked like this: I’d meet a girl and eventually realize, for whatever reason, that I was into her and wanted to get to know her better.  I wouldn’t say anything, because Christians don’t date and that would be inappropriate. I’d hang out when our groups of mutual friends were doing things, but I wouldn’t be able to talk to her, because I’m an introvert, and I can’t just jump into a conversation without it being awkward.  I don’t read nonverbal communication well, so I would never get to know her, so the intended effect of hanging out in groups would never happen. She would end up together with someone else, because she would never know that I was interested in her. And I would never really get to know her, because I’d never have time alone with her where I really see people for who they are, and they see me for who I am.  According to Mr. Harris, this would cause us to be selfish and not real with each other, but my personality is just the opposite. I don’t look to be selfish when I’m alone with a woman, not at all. I’m just me.

Now if you followed Harris-ism and found a spouse and you’re still together, good for you.  I’m glad it worked for you. It worked better for you than it did for Mr. Harris himself, after all.  But not everyone is like you. Not everyone relates to people in the same way. And the Bible says nothing about the process of dating itself, so you have no right to judge people who don’t approach the world of dating that way.

Also, by the way, I predicted this in 2002.  In one of my other creative projects, I shared a story in which the character really likes a girl, but she read this book that is clearly supposed to be IKDG, and won’t date because of it.  The character later gets a chance to meet the author of the book, who goes on to explain how he followed his own advice and never dated his wife before he asked her to marry him. The character asks how that works, and the author and his wife end up in a huge argument when they realize that they don’t know each other at all, because they never dated.  They divorce.

A few years ago, Mr. Harris himself renounced his writing and apologized, saying that he never intended his writing to become a set of rules, the kind of legalism that has always infected the church to some extent.  And there have even been entire communities built around recovering from Harris-ism, and a documentary made on the subject. That’s a first step. At least he is aware of how his writing affected an entire generation negatively.  But I still feel cheated out of opportunities because of this artificially created fear and restriction. The satire news site The Babylon Bee did a great article on this, about people demanding reparations for all the dates they missed out on because of Mr. Harris.  I have never felt a satire article so deeply in my soul. Granted, I wasn’t good at dating to begin with, but I feel like I missed my chance to even try because of the way so many around me were brainwashed with Mr. Harris’ teaching.

I also don’t fit in with the communities of people who have vocally rejected Harris-ism, in terms of the kind of dating they look for now.  My views fall somewhere in between theirs and pure Harris-ism, opening myself up to rejections from both sides. Many single Christians today who have rejected Harris-ism now have views at what I would call the other extreme.  They would say that Harris-ism and purity culture in general don’t value women and treat them as objects. Women should be free to explore their sexuality, because society judges women more harshly than men on these matters. The Bible doesn’t really mean what it says.  One shouldn’t idolize virginity, and everyone sins and Jesus forgives so sex isn’t really that big of a deal. I don’t believe any of that. The Bible certainly does mean what it says. Purity culture doesn’t treat women as objects, it teaches that our bodies aren’t our own because we belong to God.  Women are precious children of God, as are men. Society shouldn’t give women a free pass to be promiscuous; it should also be unacceptable, at least in Christianity, for men to be promiscuous as well (but being judgmental and gossipy isn’t ok for anyone either, of course). And the Apostle Paul specifically writes against using divine grace as a license to live a life of sin (Romans 6:1).

The biggest problem here is that Christians have an unfortunate tendency to worship fads, rather than the Almighty God Himself.  Some new Christian book, musician, celebrity pastor, whatever will come along, and all of a sudden all the churches wanting to be cool and relevant latch on to whatever this is, without even considering whether this new fad shows an appropriate level of spiritual maturity around which to build one’s life.  It should be pointed out that Mr. Harris was 22 when IKDG was published.  Fads come and go, and a few years later these people will latch on to something else. But I’ve seen many examples of former Christian celebrities renouncing their faith.

There was an episode of South Park that explored this topic, where some of the boys formed a Christian band because they thought it would be easier to get a big following as a Christian band than as a secular band.  It’s been years since I’ve seen this, but there was one scene where someone told them they needed to play a big Christian music festival. Someone said, “Just tell Christians what music to like, and they’ll buy it!” After hearing that line, I said, “That would be highly offensive if it weren’t so true.”  Christian music is full of flashes in the pan that disappear after one or two big albums.  I heard it pointed out somewhere that there are no Christian oldies or classic rock.  It’s not that uncommon to see kids born after 2000 wearing Beatles, AC/DC, or Nirvana shirts, but you never see Christian kids born after 2000 wearing Petra, Stryper, or Jars of Clay shirts, because everyone who listens to Christian music has moved on to something else (except me, occasionally; I still have a ton of Jars-of-Clay-era Christian music in my collection) (and, case in point, I still have never heard Petra or Stryper because the Christian world had already moved on from 1980s Christian music by the time I started listening to Christian music in 1996).

If Christianity is going to stay culturally relevant, we’re going to have to move away from this mentality of fad-following and start following Jesus instead.  It sounds simple, but one would be surprised. We’re also going to have to get away from this mentality of legalism. Sure, there are some absolutes in the Bible, but putting too many narrow rules on exactly what one should and shouldn’t do to honor God draws one’s eyes away from God and toward the pride in oneself for following the rules, as well as idolizing those who follow the rules.  And as for Mr. Harris saying he isn’t a Christian anymore, that’s between him and God. We should be praying for him.

So is it too late for me?  By the time I realized that Harris-ism was not the only way to honor God with one’s relationships and sexuality, it felt like I was in a place where there were no single Christians left my age.  So I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve been through some stuff since then, and I don’t even know for sure what I’m looking for anymore. But being angry and demanding reparations, as the Babylon Bee article said, isn’t going to help at all.  

Exit 232. Pray that God will sort everything out.

I’m not as much into Christian music as I used to be, but I still play Christian radio on Sunday mornings on the way to church, to get myself in the right frame of mind.  This song from 2012 comes on sometimes.  Casting Crowns was never a band I really got into.  I was at a Christian music festival in 2004, and I heard someone from this band telling a story between songs about when he was a kid, and he said that algebra class was of Satan, so I decided at that moment that I didn’t like them.  But this song is really powerful.

And, to be honest, this is something big that I have always struggled with.  Even though I always knew that this wasn’t the point of Christianity, part of the attraction of Christianity for me when I started taking my faith seriously in my late teens was that these were people who also didn’t get drunk or do drugs or sleep around.  And that kind of mentality makes it really easy to be judgmental toward those who don’t have lifestyles like mine.

But that isn’t going to help the rest of the world know Jesus.  Telling people that they’re wrong and that they’re going to hell is not a way to recruit people to your cause.

It’s a difficult balance to strike.  Sin is real and should not be taken lightly.  But love is also real, and all of us are sinners and need to be treating each other with love.  And, of course, these days, with society so polarized, there are debates over what is and is not sin in the first place.

Like I said, it’s easy to be judgmental.  It’s a very real desire to want to be part of a group where I can feel like I’m living life the right way and not like the other people.  But all of that is so different from everything that Jesus promised.  That sounds more like the words of the religious leaders that Jesus condemned so harshly (Luke 18:9ff).

So how do I handle this?  When do I call out someone’s sin?  I don’t know, and there probably isn’t a universal answer.  All I can do is pray for wisdom and discernment, to know what to say to whom when.  And more importantly, I can just love everyone and pray that God will sort everything out, that God will speak to all of us about where we still fall short and how we can grow closer to Him.

 

Exit 190. I’ll find you when I think I’m out of time.

One interesting thing about having a huge collection of music is that every once in a while, I’ll have all of my thousands of songs on shuffle, and I’ll rediscover a song from my past in a way that speaks to me all over again in the present.

Jars of Clay is a Christian rock band that was popular during my college and young adult years, when I was first discovering Christian rock (and first discovering what it meant to be a Christian, for that matter).  Their song Flood, off of their self-titled debut album, was a major hit in 1996, crossing over from the Christian niche into mainstream music and charting on the Billboard Hot 100.   I’ve seen them live at least three times, most recently in 2006 with Vega the Nice Ex.  (Some of the popular Christian bands of that era I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen live, since I went to some festivals and other large events where many bands were playing.  I know I’ve seen them at least once at a festival, and twice as the actual headliners of actual concerts.)

Jars of Clay never really replicated that early mainstream success.  They experimented with different sounds over the years, and although I have all of their first seven studio albums, their self-titled debut will probably always be my favorite.  But there are some good songs off of their other albums (as well as some recent work which I haven’t heard at all; maybe I’ll have to check them out one of these days).  The song “The Eleventh Hour,” from the 2002 album of the same title, came up on shuffle recently, and I hadn’t heard it in a while, and it had probably been even longer since I had actually paid attention to the lyrics.

 

The English phrase “the eleventh hour,” which like the phrase “jars of clay” is derived from a passage in the New Testament,  refers to the last minute, a time in which it is almost too late.  (Some modern translations use modern methods of timekeeping in that passage instead of the words “eleventh hour”; the NIV, for example, says “five in the afternoon.”)

The song says:

Rescue me from waiting on this line.
I won’t give up on giving you the chance to blow my mind.
Let the eleventh hour quickly pass me by.
I’ll find you when I think I’m out of time.

Sometimes I feel like I’m out of time.  Sometimes I feel like my best years are past me, having been wasted drowning in fear and self-doubt.  Sometimes I feel like I could have been happy and had a more fulfilling life if I had done things differently in my younger years.  Sometimes it feels too late to be successful financially, or too late to meet that special someone and find a family, or too late to find a place where I belong.  God, rescue me.  I won’t give up on you.  I can still find God, and he can still do wonderful things with my life, even if I think I’m out of time.

As I’ve been writing this, two other Jars of Clay songs came up on shuffle.  Maybe God is telling me he approves of my topic for this week, or that one of my readers needed to hear this.

Don’t give up on God.

Exit 172. But it isn’t pretty.

As a new Christian and a youth group leader in the ’90s, I listened to a lot of Christian music.  Since 2001, when I was no longer working with youth, that has tapered off, to the point that I do not recognize many Christian songs anymore other than the ones I hear at church.  There are a number of reasons for that.  I don’t have a social group at church that purposely introduces me to new Christian music.  I have also matured to the point of realizing that some Christian music just isn’t very good.  I can’t reverently express to Jesus how much I love him when singing or even hearing others sing phrases like “Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss.”  (Besides, didn’t you people tell me back in the Josh Harris era that kissing was bad, because it leads to temptation and babies and stuff, so I shouldn’t even think about kissing until my wedding day?)

But, as unfortunate as this is, another part of the reason I haven’t been as much into Christian music is because sometimes I feel like I can’t relate.  A lot of Christian music is just too overly sappy.  Sometimes I’m feeling angry at the world, and there is very little angry Christian music.  I’ve even been told my some ill-informed Christians that the reason for the lack of angry Christian music is because anger is not a Christlike emotion.  (Right… I’m sure Jesus was feeling all happy and cheerful when he turned over the tables.)

The other day, I was in the car, and I heard a song that I realized sums up my history and experience with Christianity pretty well.  But it isn’t pretty.  And it isn’t a Christian song.

This isn’t a new song; it was released in 1991.  It isn’t a new song to me either; this was a huge hit when I was in high school, and it was on MTV all the time back when MTV still played videos for part of the day.  But apparently it has taken me over a quarter century to really appreciate the song.

New blood joins this earth
And quickly he’s subdued
Through constant pained disgrace
The young boy learns their rules

Late ’90s.  I’m a new Christian, and that’s great, but I’m quickly scolded by peers for telling dirty jokes and having lustful thoughts.  I learn the rules… there are cliques within the group.  Sometimes, from my point of view, the people who go serve Jesus in other countries during the summer seem more respected than those of us who don’t feel that calling, for example.

With time, the child draws in
This whipping boy done wrong
Deprived of all his thoughts
The young man struggles on…

Early 2000s.  I’m in small groups at Church I With The Problems where pretty much all we do is confess our habits of masturbation and looking at porn and talk about ways to stop that from happening, or have long discussions about exactly what minute of the night we should leave our significant other’s house so that other people don’t see us there and think that we’re having sex.  When I share my thoughts that maybe there are more important things we should be concerned with, everyone just tells me I must not be mature in my faith.

They dedicate their lives
To running all of his

A few years later.  I’m at Church II With The Problems, where everything I say or do feels micro-managed, and every slightly socially awkward behavior or comment is treated like a sin I have to repent from.

He tries to please them all
This bitter man he is

After I move in 2006, I spend the next decade trying to live the good Christian life, but only becoming more and more bitter, as I see others who didn’t live the way I was taught find happiness and success, and my own life leads me to be more and more of an outcast.

Throughout his life the same
He’s battled constantly
This fight he cannot win
A tired man they see no longer cares

This has been going on for many years.  I’ve been looking for a place where I can find other people who live the way I’ve been trying to.  But I can’t win, I’m not going to find one, because I’m not 20 anymore.  There isn’t a youth group for 41-year-olds.  I don’t know how to live in my current situation, and I’m becoming more and more tired and bitter about it.

The old man then prepares
To die regretfully
That old man here is me

And this is the direction my life is heading if nothing changes…

What I’ve felt
What I’ve known
Never shined through in what I’ve shown
Never be
Never see
Won’t see what might have been

What I’ve felt
What I’ve known
Never shined through in what I’ve shown
Never free
Never me
So I dub thee Unforgiven

Unforgiven… ironically, that is the complete opposite of the gift that Jesus Christ gives us.  Am I unforgiven?  Have I not truly received the grace of Jesus Christ?  I don’t think so.  But I might be looking for the wrong things.  I might be trying too hard to do all the socially acceptable right things instead of just living in the grace of Jesus Christ.

But that is not who God made me to be.  I don’t want to fit in that box.  But I need to figure out how to do that.  I need to look to Jesus, not church culture.

And if I’m now hearing God speak to me through Metallica lyrics, I suppose I’ve taken a step out of the box already.

Exit 119. What do these songs have in common?

“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” by George Jones (1980)

“Touch of Grey,” by the Grateful Dead (1987)

“Kokomo,” by the Beach Boys (1988)

“Cryin’,” Aerosmith (1993)

“It Won’t Be Like This For Long,” by Darius Rucker (2008)

“Get Back Up,” TobyMac (2010)

All of them were major hits.  Kokomo went to #1, the last of four Beach Boys songs to do so.  He Stopped Loving Her Today and It Won’t Be Like This For Long were both #1 on the country chart.  Touch of Grey, while only reaching #9, was the highest charting single in the Grateful Dead’s long career.  Cryin’, while not Aerosmith’s highest charting single, did reach #1 on the rock chart, and it seemed like it was on MTV all the time my last couple years of high school, during the era when they still played music videos for at least part of the day.  And Get Back Up, while not very well known in the mainstream, went to #1 on the Christian music chart, and it was around that time when I decided that TobyMac’s solo work wasn’t all bad like I found his early albums to be.

But there is something more significant that these songs, among others, all have in common.

They were all performed by band members and/or artists who were at the time in their 40s.

I have turned 40 since I wrote my last post.  In the months leading up to this, I was feeling a bit down about approaching 40.  Typically, fortysomethings aren’t seen as young anymore.  I have friends my age who have adult children already, and I’m nowhere close to having children.  I feel out of touch both with the people around me, who tend to be a lot younger, and with people my age, who tend to have very different lifestyles, of the sort considered to be more mature.  Sometimes I feel like life is passing me by, leaving me with nothing but regrets.

But it does not have to be this way.

I don’t have to listen to anyone telling me what I should be like at this age.  I have a lot of people who care about me; my friends at my birthday party this weekend reminded me of that through their actions, as did the students and coworkers at the school where I teach on my actual birthday.  I still have a lot of life left, and more adventures to come.  And, as demonstrated by all of the musicians above, I can still accomplish great things beyond 40.  (While researching this article, I discovered that guitarist Bob Weir was only 39 when Touch of Grey was released, but I don’t think that takes away from my point, and the other four band members were in their 40s.)

Here’s to a great upcoming year.

Exit 50. There’s something in the water, but it isn’t Jesus.

The other day, I was in the car listening to the radio.  For you young kids, that’s this thing that old people use to hear music for free; it’s kind of like satellite radio, except it’s free.  Anyway, I was flipping around channels, and I heard this song on a Christian station.

Except then I realized it wasn’t that song.  It was this song.

I don’t have a problem in general with cover songs.  The problem I have here is that this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened.  A popular artist records and releases a song with a strong Christian influence in the lyrics, and it gets ignored by Christian media; then, just a few months later, a “Christian artist” covers the exact same song, it gets played heavily on Christian radio, and Christian music fans talk about how great it is.  The problem isn’t stealing; Ms. Underwood was properly credited on Point of Grace’s recording, and I’m sure the necessary royalties were paid.  The message being sent here is that the Christian music world is telling Carrie, “Hi, sorry, your song is great, but you’re a secular artist, and playing your song might send the wrong message because you have other songs that don’t glorify God.  So we’re going to have one of our more Godly people re-record the exact same song.”  Does this sound like nonsense to anyone else?  Has the body of Christ really gotten so crazy and so arrogant?  There’s something in the water, but it isn’t Jesus.

And this is not the first time this has happened.  Remember this one-hit wonder from 2004?

Somehow this is inappropriate for Christians, but again, the same song is just fine when covered by a “Christian artist.”

Same song, same music, same lyrics.  The only difference is who is singing it.  If we are judging whether or not music is “Christian” solely based on the past career of the artist, we’re completely missing the point and descending into dangerously closed-minded legalism.  This music is acceptable or not acceptable based on some arbitrary label that is depends on other things besides the content of the music.  That doesn’t make sense.

But I think all of this misses an even bigger point.  I’ve known people who have actually come out and said that Christians shouldn’t listen to secular music.  I feel sorry for those people, honestly.  They don’t have any music to express emotions like anger, sadness, and betrayal, which they all feel too.  I hate to say it, but part of the reason I don’t listen to Christian music as much as I used to is because it all started sounding the same eventually.  Can’t the Christian music industry do better?  These people who take pride in only listening to Christian music, instead of opening themselves up to the wide range of cultures and beliefs out there in the world, shut themselves in a Christian bubble and make rigid rules about what is and is not okay, then self-righteously spend their time talking down to other Christians who don’t agree with their rules.  Maybe they should spend their time on something else, like feeding the poor or telling those outside the church about the life-changing message of Jesus… you know, the things Jesus told them to do.

I used to be one of those people, to some extent.  After I became a Christian, I started listening to Christian music, and I didn’t buy any secular music for about three years.  I used to pride myself on listening to different music from people around me, although I didn’t seal myself off from secular music completely.  I still listened to secular radio, and my TV and movie watching habits didn’t really change.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with choosing not to watch certain movies or listen to certain kinds of music.  After all, I have made a choice not to watch Fifty Shades of Grey or listen to Justin Bieber.   But it is not your place to say what someone else can and can’t listen to, especially when it is based on a semi-arbitrary label of what is “Christian” and what isn’t.  And that line can be fuzzy sometimes, as I’ve written about before here.  Can’t we just let music and art be music and art, and make decisions about individual works rather than grouping things into labels and genres?  I’ve often said that the best music defies labels and genres (to which a musician friend once replied that great music creates genres, but that’s another topic).

And one final thought: Those of you who know me in person know that I have this uncanny ability to hear randomly chosen songs at the most hilariously and ironically appropriate times.  Some time, maybe next week, I should make my entire post be stories of times when this kind of thing has happened.  Anyway, so here I am, sitting here, with my music on shuffle, typing an article about legalism in Christian music, and people’s opinions on what Christians should and shouldn’t be listening to, and what should come on?  A song that was condemned by the Catholic Church and other Christian groups, of course.  I’ll leave you with that.