Toward the end of his new book Hear No Evil, Matthew Paul Turner describes a conversation with a Christian rock musician he calls James. James has decided to leave the Christian music “industry” and its mecca, Nashville and move to Los Angeles where he will reinvent himself as a musician and a spiritual person – probably to become a Buddhist because Lord knows there aren’t any Christians in LA, they all live in Orange County.
James is tired of the industry, tired of pretending to be something he’s not, tired of the “gatekeepers” who tell him his songs aren’t “Jesusy enough.” James tells MPT* that he is tired of the hypocrisy of proclaiming his virginity onstage when he no longer seems to believe in the benefits of abstinence and is only a virgin on a technicality:
“I’ve never—you know—done the deed. Signed the papers. Parked in the garage. Put my offering in the plate….Because the pig never got in the blanket, I’m ‘technically’ a virgin.”
This post isn’t about abstinence, nor is the book, but it illustrates how phony and bankrupt the industry has become. An industry that has sprung up around music that is ostensibly to glorify God and lead young people to Christ now appears to be leading them into a life of false promises and unclear expectations.
First, I must offer a disclaimer or two. As any of my fervent readers will know, I myself struggle with my Christian identity. On a good day I call myself a “Christian But” meaning I’m a Christian but I’m not [fill in the blank]. In the example listed above you could say I’m a Christian but I’m no longer sold on the concept that sex outside of marriage is always evil. That’s a topic for an entire post, of course, but I’m too lazy – OK, chicken to write it. On a bad day I’m not even sure I can claim the title Christian. On a really bad day, usually after an alleged Christian leader like Pat Robertson has said something really boneheaded, I don’t want to claim the title.
My second disclaimer is that I gave up on Christian music back in the 80s, back when I was more comfortable in my embrace of Christianity and still a virgin myself (and not on a technicality either, I mean that pig never got near the…oh, never mind). Influenced by some books like Addicted to Mediocrity and What’s Gone Wrong With the Harvest, I decided way back then that what had come to be known as Contemporary Christian Music was no longer reaching the “lost” or influencing the culture, it was just preaching to the choir. So I come to this book with some baggage. Well, a lot of baggage. OK I’m towing a freaking U-Haul trailer behind me all right?
Also, I’m aware that some of you may not be familiar with Contemporary Christian Music as a genre. I won’t go into a history here but the source of all truth, Wikipedia, has a couple of articles that may be of interest. At the time I’m writing this, the article on Contemporary Christian Music is a bit skimpy. The article on Christian Rock is better.
Hear No Evil is MPT’s follow up to his 2008 book Churched which I reviewed last week on Le Blog. MPT grew up in an extremely legalistic Baptist church where the only music that was considered sanctified was Gospel choirs and quartets, and drums were considered to be Satan’s instrument of choice. In spite of his church and family’s sheltering of him, young Matthew was exposed to the mind altering, forbidden sound of (are you sitting down?) Sandi Patti. Finding out that there were other Sandi Patti fans in the congregation was a relief to MPT, an adult at the church once confided to him, “You’ll be happy to know we’re not alone. There are others like us at church.” One can only imagine the secret handshakes and clandestine meetings where they would sit in a darkened room listening to the unholy vibrations coming from Make His Praise Glorious.
From Sandi Patti it was a short step to the harder stuff, Amy Grant. While Sandi Patti never pretended to be more than a gospel singer with a preternaturally high voice, Amy Grant was a Contemporary Christian artist who wanted to *shudder* cross over into the mainstream. She actually did with the album Heart in Motion, an album that was so controversial that – between his mother discovering that he had it, and his own bouts with guilt – Matthew ended up buying it and throwing it away four times.
To make the long and enjoyable story short, MPT eventually found his way to Nashville and for a couple of years was in the thick of the Contemporary Christian Music scene as the editor of the magazine CCM. His story of his interview with Amy Grant and his publisher’s outrageous reaction to it are the heart of the book, and I won’t spoil it for you except to say that it had me laughing and wanting to punch this publisher’s nose at the same time. One of my few criticisms of the book is that I wanted more stories like this in it, stories from the inside of this industry.
MPT may not agree with me that the Contemporary Christian Music industry is bankrupt, that even the fact that there is an industry is an outrage, but where there is money to be made in Jesus’ name there will never be a shortage of people lining up to make it. Even artists and writers with the simplest faith and noblest of intentions can get caught up in it. It has always been this way, since the days when Jesus turned over the tables of the people who were trying to make money at the temple. He does drop in quite a few pointed barbs though: “The odd thing about Christians pursuing fame is that they do it while pretending not to be interested in fame.”
Now, admittedly, I’m standing in judgment of an industry that I haven’t followed or cared about since 1986. For me, Christian rock is old school stuff like Larry Norman, Daniel Amos, and Resurrection Band. My discovery of U2 and the fact that you could have a band out there touching hearts and being Christian without pandering to the insular, preaching to the choir, Christian music scene was the first nail in that coffin. Then of course you have the fact that even with secular music I have little interest in keeping up with what the kids are listening to these days. I’m 51. Popular culture peaked in April 1989 with the release of Doolittle by the band Pixies.
So as far as truly “contemporary” Christian Music, I’m aware that there is a tobyMac (who apparently is an artist, not the latest Apple computer), a DC Talk (which apparently is a group, not a Beltway radio station), and a Newsboys (apparently also a group, not the guys who always throw the paper into the rose bushes).
I kid! I kid because I love. Well, not really.
So, admittedly I’m out of it. Maybe things are changing, maybe all the above gentlemen (and ladies, I just couldn’t find any with funny names) are happy to be virgins (or happily married and procreating), happy to be giving Christian youth, as an aspiring Christian rocker once told MPT “a safe outlet for them to rock out to.” And maybe Jesus is tapping his toes and playing air guitar right along with them, smiling down on them and scowling at me and my cynicism. How would I know?
I know that the magazine that Matthew Paul Turner wrote for, CCM, has stopped publishing and is now online only. I know that there are bands like Switchfoot, The Fray, and Evanescence that contain artists who are Christian and write about Christian themes, but eschew the title of Christian Band. To me, that’s a positive step.
But what about guys like James? Driven out of Nashville and the Christian scene because he no longer wants to pretend. Why can’t he be honest about his sexuality? Why can’t gay artists be Christian and be honest about their sexuality? (I guarantee you that there are a few out there who are staying in the closet because the two greatest sins in Christianity today are being gay and/or being a Democrat.) Why can’t we be honest period?
Like I said in the previous review, Matthew Paul Turner is one of today’s Christian writers who is honest, and this is a very honest book. I just wish there had been more of it.
Legal stuff that I have to put in the post lest I be flogged:
This book was provided for review by the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group.
To learn more about or purchase this and other books at RandomHouse.com: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400074723
* I call him MPT because I think it’s cool to turn all three of your names into initials like JFK.