David Swartz gave a lecture at Gordon College last month entitled, “Evangelical Left: Oxymoron or Opportunity,” in which he tells the story of a failed attempt to coalesce a movement in the mid-eighties and current thinkers who might signal a renewed opportunity for political engagement by Evangelicals. The Culture Wars have left many Evangelicals disillusioned if not disgusted, but, as Swartz has argued for the political sphere, there is reason to believe Christian music has a more hopeful chapter ahead.
Having just taught a class on the rise and fall of Christian Contemporary Music last spring, I couldn’t help but see parallels to the stories of Lonnie Frisbee, Randy Matthews, and David Hackney to the organizers of Peace Pentecost. Lonnie was a closeted hippie who dropped acid to find the Holy Spirit and helped spark Calvary Chapel and the Jesus Movement. Randy taught us that a CCM artist can lose far more than Bob Dylan did by breaking from acoustic rock to spread the gospel. And David proved that a trio of black brothers from Detroit can beat the Ramones to the punch, even if they would join the vast majority of African Americans on the outside looking in at the flawed and dated label of “Christian music.”
If there is hope for an Evangelical Left on the horizon, the ideals of its musicians might prove valuable tealeaves to read. As with politics, the Religious Right had a distinctive relationship with music as it waged its Culture Wars, and it’s a fair bet the same will be true of the postwar landscape. After all, songs have been a microcosm of culture throughout history, so why should we expect this time to be any different?
One challenge with recognizing the group Swartz describes, as well as the artist whose work will reflect their ideology, will be assigning them a label. Evangelicalism is not a monolith, but actually encompasses a broad range of perspectives, including some who are equally associated with Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, and Mainline Protestantism. While we don’t yet know what label artists might adopt, we can safely assume CCM will prove insufficient. Still, the use of labels will be necessary in order to talk about this group.
Following the failure of a black and white approach of subculture, it’s reasonable to expect its successor to be much harder to define. The identity of artists whose work speaks to this ideology will be marked by message, not agenda or even perspective: a utilitarian, commoditized view of the arts will hopefully give way to one that transcends marketing and labels. Social responsibility will be valued above the market share, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see supporting artists viewed in the same light as supporting missionaries. Just as David Swartz pointed to contemporaries who embodied some of the ideals espoused by the Evangelical Left, here are a few artists worth considering.
Shara Worden, former Sufjan Stevens collaborator, is taking aim at the high/low divide with her music that alternates from hard rock, like Be Brave, an Indian Rain Dance in response to global atrocities, to her most recent work, a Neo-Baroque opera entitled You Us We All with a closing aria that is an open letter to Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen about how we are all split from one chromosome, striving to put the pieces back together. The essential virtue here is transcendence of self, resulting in the awareness that we are all connected. It bears noting that the German painter Gerhard Richter once asserted, “Art is not a substitute for religion: it is a religion. The Church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means to a sole provider of religion.” Transcendence isn’t an exclusively evangelical virtue, or even an exclusively Christian one. This represents a potential common ground among a myriad of religious and artistic practices that will be especially attractive to post-Culture War artists who reject the notion that Evangelicalism has cornered the market on truth.
As compelling as David Bazan was when he considered himself a believer with questions, his songs from the perspective of former believer are no less so. Regardless of where you find yourself on the faith spectrum, his album Strange Negotiations asks questions worth considering. Eef Barzelay (of the band Clem Snide) has lived an amazing story as an artist who found success, lost it all, and rediscovered a new identity writing songs and playing directly for fans. His songs from the perspective of the skeptic and the believer humanize every vantage point of faith. He’s notoriously elusive as to his own faith, making him the perfect host for conversations about belief. The growing number of artists who hide their faith under a bushel will continue. Just as the credibility of journalists depends upon objectivity, we should expect some artists to seek the same freedom of perspective if they so desire.
The last, and least likely artist I would point to is Amanda Palmer. Beyond her TED talk illustrating a humbler, more Christ-like relationship with her fans than a traditional one, she is one of the only major artists to record a song about a girl who has an abortion. Despite being the litmus test for both political sides, abortion seems to be the third rail of art, a topic equally off limits to either side of the political aisle. Even in an age when people like Billy Corgan claim God is the future of rock, artists are silent about abortion, but this will change. I wonder if by avoiding the topic, one side succeeds in dehumanizing the child and the other succeeds in dehumanizing the mother for their own political simplicity.
As the hope of this movement becomes reality, those of us who remain invested in the Evangelical church should take heart in the fact that we are part of an ongoing story that did not end with the declaration of the Culture Wars. No one knows the pain of this war more than those who live within its fiercest battle zones. If you want a unique look at the pain of the far right swing of the past decades, you can find it quietly resting among Baptists in Central Texas. You’ll meet those old enough to remember what it meant to be Baptist before 1980, and who have retreated from places all over the South to a state that prides itself on not being told what to do. You’ll meet former Hippies who never lost their passion for social change and the Savior who called them to stand up for it. It’s as if they have found sanctuary in the eye of the Texas-sized storm. My only hope is that they will live to see the opportunity of which David Swartz speaks become a new reality instead of a distant memory.
Mark Aaron Humphrey
After several years in high-profile worship ministry in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Mark Aaron now chairs the Music Department at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor (umhb.edu) and is the founding director of C3: Conversations about Christianity + Culture.
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