“Originality’s a ghost town
And it’s oh so hard to get to, and when you do
Then people start to hate you
They scream at you, ‘Believe out loud’
In a crowd, people will hate you.”
— Relient K, “Wit’s All Been Done Before”
During high school, I briefly played lead guitar in a Christian metal band. My job in said band was to plug my screaming red Epiphone SG into a 65-watt amp, crank the distortion to unholy levels, and deliver wailing pinch-harmonic solos and chugga-chugga breakdowns in drop-C tuning. It was the most fun I have ever had standing in front of people, and it was also, for me, a genuine expression of worship.
But when I go back and watch videos that my loving parents shot of our shows, I am reminded of the other facet of rocking out for Jesus: We thought we were hot stuff. We all seemed fully confident that our shiny guitars, rock ‘n’ roll power stances, and ability to induce moshing made us irresistible to a certain kind of girl. Some songs I played for the glory of God, others for vanity. That’s what it’s like to be a Christian in a band. That’s what it’s like to be a Christian with raging teenage hormones. That’s what it’s like, in one form of hubris or another, to be a Christian. Our motives are rarely pure. May God have mercy on us all.
Fast-forward to college. I had just set up the biggest interview of my budding music-journalist career, and all I really wanted was for the singer to say that Jesus is the only way to Heaven.
The interview was a phone conversation with Aaron Weiss, the vocalist and esoteric lyricist of a post-post-hardcore band from Philadelphia called mewithoutYou. I had devoured his records since high school, watched his songwriting mature through the years, and delighted as I discovered that some of his more trenchant metaphors were lifted straight from the Bible. But I was troubled by the group’s latest record at the time, the cumbersomely titled It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright, which saw Aaron borrowing parables from a Sufi mystic and singing a campfire song about “Allah” — which I knew was just the Arabic word for God, but still, it gave me pause. To me, there were significant theological differences between Christianity and Islam. So was he a Christian or what?
Maybe you’re having a hard time understanding why the question of the faith of a man I’d never met was so important to me. This was the fall of 2009, and I had just started my junior year at a big Southern public university, where student ministries were as important in some social circles as binge-drinking at football games. The group I had attached myself to — a flock I would soon abandon — had its own video production team and a worship band that played rock music every Thursday night in a dark, crowded sanctuary. As a proselytization tool in freshman dorm buildings and the student union, we would carry around a deck of cards with tight-cropped, Instagrammy images on them and ask students to answer quasi-spiritual questions about them. (You think I am exaggerating, but I am not. It was called Soularium. We sometimes thought we were too hip for our own good.)
This was all normal, more or less. My generation of evangelical youth-group kids was born into a perceived culture war, and we readily took up arms. We were on a mission to hijack all conversations with nonbelievers, all biology textbooks, and all art for the purpose of evangelism, and we hardly batted an eye at the idea of power chords in church. Christian ska? I could skank to Five Iron Frenzy all day. Christian death-prog-metal? Blast away, Becoming the Archetype. Christian crunk dance music? Type “Family Force Five” into your Google search bar.
To my circle of suburban middle-class headbangers, it seemed like Tooth & Nail Records was releasing a spiritual piledriver of an album every month. The Seattle-based label was the home of Underoath, Project 86, and mewithoutYou, bands that we shelled out lawn-mowing money to see at all-ages shows in dank, smoky bars. While Tooth & Nail never came out and explicitly said they were a Christian label — I remember scouring their website on multiple occasions to see if they made prospective recording artists recite the Apostles’ Creed — they did seem to attract a lot of bands that sang about Jesus in an indirect, angsty sort of way. Balking at the saccharine adult-contemporary fare on Christian radio, we latched onto these bands as the voice of our (Christian) generation.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the first band to make it big on Tooth & Nail was MxPx, who started out playing skate punk in the early ’90s and have produced a steady stream of two-and-a-half-minute joyrides ever since. From the get-go, they were not a preachy band, and in fact most of their songs were about girls. At age 13, I remember spotting an MxPx patch safety-pinned to an atheist friend’s bookbag and thinking to myself, “Little does he know…” I knew in my heart of hearts that this band was taking every chance they got to preach the Good News to the guys from Rancid when they toured together.
So what was I to make of the Cootees, the sloppy one-off band that the members of MxPx formed in 1997, when they recorded a song with lyrics including “We’re at the beach / The chicks are neat / I’m feelin’ swell / I say, well, what the hell”? There was no ignoring it: They had used the H-word in a non-literal sense, and they had almost, kind of hinted at a casual attitude toward extramarital sex.
I gave this an embarrassing amount of thought. These sorts of infractions made for hours of lively debate with my friends and on internet message boards: Are they still a Christian band? Should Tooth & Nail excommunicate them? A fellow Christian punk would later tell me that he had given up hope for MxPx when they told the moshers at an outdoor music festival to “screw the police and just have fun.” Shocking behavior for a punk band, I know.
They seem petty now, these heretic hunts. If a Christian music blogger managed to get an interview with a member of a band with religiously ambiguous lyrics (“Is he singing about Jesus or a girl?”), the deity question always came up, and I’ll admit I probably read most of those interviews.
It was in this spirit that I interviewed mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss, the indie Christian Allen Ginsberg, whose caterwauling delivery and playfully dense lyrics had so profoundly influenced both my aesthetic tastes and my understanding of the Song of Solomon (“Good God, please! Catch for us the foxes,” he wailed over a Fugazi-inspired guitar line, and I finally got what the wise old king must have meant about his vineyards being overrun). I had literally prayed his lyrics on several occasions.
When I interviewed him, my question was worded casually, as if someone at the office of my college newspaper had suggested that I bring it up, but it was really the only one I wanted him to answer: “There’s a lot of talk about the spiritual content of your songs. What do you believe about God, and how does that direct your music?”
Looking back, I’m surprised Aaron answered me at all; it was an awfully impertinent thing to ask a stranger. I sat Indian-style and leaned forward on the creaky bed in my apartment, unsure what to make of his reply as he weighed his words carefully on the other end of the phone line.
“Please forgive me, Paul,” Aaron continued, “because I don’t mean to be evasive or noncompliant, but I’ve tried so many times to answer something like that question, and it never came out right ‘til I realized that the reason it’s not coming is that it’s like if someone would ask me to explain the highest order of calculus — you know, why does this add up to this and calculate to that? Having no idea, really, I would make something up, just hoping they didn’t know either, you know, and they’d just kind of nod at me and say, ‘Wow, he seems to know about calculus,’ if I spoke with any air of confidence. And it’s even more than that if we’re talking about the God of all.”
I am not much older than I was when I interviewed Aaron Weiss, and I can’t account for whether I have become any wiser. I have at least learned a few things about Christian bands — or Christians in bands, as the phrasing so often goes in those horrid confession-booth interviews.
It is safe to say that most of them didn’t get into music to become role models. But I remember as a young man wanting so desperately for them to be worth looking up to. It was a funny set of expectations I had for my rock stars: I wanted them to echo my youthful disaffection, but I also wanted them to point me toward God and holy living. I wanted them to be the book of Ecclesiastes to me, dismissing the theatrics of high school as chasing after the wind while exhorting me to remember my Creator in the days of my youth.
I remember in high school wanting to talk about relationships with Matt Thiessen, the smirky lead singer of my favorite band, Relient K. He was the one who penned those immortal words, “Let’s get emotional girls to all wear mood rings/ So we’ll be tipped off to when they’re ticked off/ ‘Cause we’ll know just what they’re thinking.” Surely he, of all people, could give some sage advice on how to maintain a godly relationship with my girlfriend.
Of course, the only good advice I have ever received has come from folks who never picked up a microphone or thrashed a guitar in the name of the Lord. It came from quiet people, the ones who didn’t seek to impress me with an edgy theological presentation: the philosophy student who prayed without ceasing, the married couple running an after-school program on the south side of Chicago, the fry cook who lived with integrity and worked two jobs to provide for his family.
I don’t keep up with the new Tooth & Nail bands anymore. When I talk about contemporary Christian music, I often catch myself wincing, and I’m not sure I like that about myself. Have I grown cynical to people who just want to sing earnestly about their convictions? Lest I forget, I once fancied myself a Christian rock star.
It has become unfashionable among some of my Christian friends to rave about overtly Christian artists. We are enlightened listeners, favoring the whimsical compositions of Sufjan Stevens and the doubt-laced musings of David Bazan. The latter sang frequently about the hypocrisies of the modern church before finally renouncing his faith altogether and setting it to song on his 2009 album Curse Your Branches.
Bazan did not beat around the burning bush. After the years I had spent parsing lyric sheets trying to determine who was in and who was out, here was the death of faith set to music. It was worse than all the legendary godless rock bands. Here was one of our own shaking his fist at the heavens and walking away.
I bought the album, cried while listening to it for the first time, and never played it in its entirety again. I haven’t met David Bazan, but when I listened to the songs, I felt betrayed, and I mourned.
Derek Webb, one of my favorite singers who talks directly about Christianity, wrote on his blog once that he doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as “Christian music.” He argued that when we apply “Christian” as an adjective to anything other than a person, we are reducing the word to a marketing term.
I don’t know about all that. Certainly there are songs written for the edification of the church and the corporate worship of God, and I think it’s a stretch to call them anything other than Christian songs. But I take his point. The Christian music industry is an industry, just like the country music industry, the oil industry, or the adult entertainment industry. Some of the artists have reasonably pure intentions, but the ultimate goal of any industry is profit.
Christian artists, like Christian roofers, are fully capable of moral failures and deeply flawed theology. I don’t lose sleep over it. I’ve learned to pick my heroes more carefully.
Tim Lambesis, lead singer of the seminal Christian metalcore act As I Lay Dying, was arrested recently after allegedly trying to hire an undercover cop to murder his estranged wife. While I was appalled by the news, I filed it away in the same mental cabinet as the fact that Martin Luther was a horrible anti-Semite. It’s a good thing our authority comes from somewhere other than the pulpit or the microphone at a sweaty rock club.
Still, I will always hold that thrashy death metal is the best genre for songs about the Second Coming of Christ, and hip-hop is the perfect vehicle for trenchant social commentary. As a young man, I was profoundly challenged by rock vocalists who, like Derek Webb, railed against the lie “that Jesus Christ was a white middle-class Republican.”
So, what does it mean to be a Christian and an artist? Probably the same thing it means to be a Christian and an accountant: You do your job with pride and integrity, as unto the Lord. You work to provide for your family, your church, and the poor. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Thessalonica, “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands.” And whatever you do, don’t read the message boards.
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