In Defense of "Christian" Rock

Sufjan Steven’s new album “Carrie & Lowell” has sparked a good deal of discussion about whether it qualifies as “Christian" Rock.  In some of these essays there is an assumption that any music being categorized as such would be tarnished. 

Meanwhile over in Hip Hop land we have the new Kendrick Lemar record “To Pimp A Butterfly”. Lamar has been pretty outspoken about his Christianity. 

Both records catalog an artist struggling with belief. Both albums have profanity. Both albums are great. But just because the artists profess to be Christian does that make their music “Christian" Rock or Hip Hop? 

Let’s face it, contemporary "Christian" music has a bad rep for a good reason. It’s kinda amazing how bad most of it is. Listening to modern Christian radio is torturous, at least for me (not that I try it that often these days). It’s like every artist took the sound of an existing secular artist, made it worse then added something about Jesus. It just doesn’t work. 

But it didn’t used to be this way. Christian Rock used to be a lot weirder and better than it is now. Since I grew up listening to Christian (or Xian) Rock, I thought I might put the spotlight on a few of the better artists from the 70s and 80s. Back then Christian Rock was often as interesting as its secular counterpart. Here are some artists to check out. 

Larry Norman
Larry was the granddaddy of Xian Rock. His 1972 album “Only Visiting The Planet” remains one of my favorite records. He was something of the “Dylan” of Xian Rock, until Dylan took that position for a few years at the end of the 70s. He jumps from symphonic ballads to hard rockers like this track below. “6 O’Clock News”. 

Daniel Amos
Possibly the weirdest Xian Rock band ever. An Southern California band that started in the mid-70s doing concept country rock (seriously, check out Shotgun Angel) and then turning into a great new wave then synth pop then rock band. Led by the talented Terry Scott Taylor, Daniel Amos (or DA as they are known) put out an amazing 4 album “Alarma!” series in the early 1980s. Each album was distinct from the other but tied together something of a Pilgrim’s Progress narrative. I still return to these albums regularly. Particularly the third one, Vox Humana, which had this track "William Blake" below. I sometimes find their records filled under the “A” section at record stores. I try to help and move them to “D”. There is no-one in the band named Daniel Amos. 

The 77s (or Seventy Sevens)
The 77s were another California band and probably my favorite Xian Rock band all around. Their lead singer Mike Roe has one of the most versatile voices I’ve heard- he reminds me of Elvis a little in terms of stylistic range (don’t let that scare you away). The musicianship and songwriting is all very strong as well. At one point they were signed to Island and put out a great self-titled record in the late 80s. Unfortunately for them, Island had a hit on their hands with U2 and neglected promoting the record. It’s a shame since it still stands up as a great album. This song is from that album.

Want more? Sure thing! I put together a Spotify playlist "Gimme Christian Rock" with some more songs by these artists and other notable Xian Rock artists from the 70s and 80s. If you have any you'd recommend I check out, post a comment and let me know! Thanks, Jeb

ps- curious to know my thoughts on Christianity and all that stuff? Read my post-  
"(re)Building My Religion"

(re)Building My Religion

Some of my friends think it's weird I send my girls to a Catholic school. When I was in high school I was the only Protestant in a class of Catholics. I had fun going to war with my classmates over the virginity of Mary or some random epistemological minutiae. But I never really believed in what I defended. It was just youthful jousting. 

As I grew older I began to challenge my Christian heritage. I realized that my allegiance was more a cultural one than spiritual. I never believed, I just participated, like an actor playing a part. Breaking with my childhood religion was mildly traumatizing. Essentially I felt I was betraying my family and friends but on a deeper level I felt dishonest in continuing the act. I'm not a good actor.

I spent the following years stripping my beliefs like layers of paint. When the dust finally settled I was just north of atheism. I began calling myself an agnostic- one that does not claim to know whether God (or any deity) exists. It felt honest and I was at peace with it. 

Over recent years I have begun to rebuild my beliefs. I now believe there is some larger force or energy which is tied into our existence. I have never heard this force speak to me or present itself as a conscious entity. When people speak about a "personal savior" I cannot relate. The idea of salvation is foreign to me. Same with heaven or hell. In my opinion they are interesting fictions we have told ourselves to make sense of things.

I have come to believe that most of the attributes we ascribe to deity are essentially anthropomorphic. We are channelling our human condition into a non-human being. No wonder God seems to favor whatever culture he shows up in. But I also came to realize that I'd committed a baby/bathwater error. There are many good things to be found in the religion I worked so hard to discard. 

I have come to see organized religion as an excellent starting point. If you think of religion (or philosophy/law/etc) as an operating system then starting with an existing OS is much more effective than starting from scratch. The holy scriptures of this world are filled with wisdom and great advice. Who can argue with "do unto others as you would have them do unto you?" It's simple and perfect. 

But every good operating system needs to be versioned and personalized. Same with religion. I have come to believe that we must challenge the codes we live by to continually refine and improve them. We must make them meaningful and relevant to our individual and collective lives. Essentially I feel we should all be encouraged to build our own religions. I'm hoping that's what my girls will do as they begin to challenge their Catholic education. I'm sure their father will provide a little nudging.