Christian Rock and disillusionment

Every once in a while, the Internet casts up on its shores some poor soul who used to be an evangelical but now has rejected Christianity altogether or who has become a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Or even heretic. And often, CCM is part of the story. At some point, this person woke up and realised that life wasn’t all happy and cheery, that it was complicated, and that the opponents of belief, whether atheists and agnostics or Christians opposed one’s own particular belief, aren’t idiots, but are actually quite articulate. And many of them are really nice.

But Christian rock seems to tell us a different story at times.

At least, it feels that way.

That the story told in a lot of CCM is one of unending triumph. Of mountaintop to mountaintop. And some people seem to think this is about as deep as Christianity goes. That Christianity is a religion about moralism, about resisting temptation, or simply about saying ‘the sinner’s prayer’, and that Christianity is about telling other people what to do and confronting them about it.

Life, of course, is messier than this. And, while I think a lot of CCM is written to actually help people through hard times, a lot of people find songs like the popular worship song, ‘I’m trading my sorrows,’ to be unhelpful and even harmful, neglecting the rock-bottom truth that we are all fundamentally broken.

I, personally, didn’t become disillusioned with Christianity when I started to become disillusioned with Christian rock. My personal disillusionment was a twofold cynicism, no doubt with a certain amount of personal pride. As an undergrad, I was actually exposed to a lot more contemporary mainstream music than as a teenager. And a lot of Christan music didn’t add up. On top of that, I felt what I’ve expressed above — that very little was engaging me at a deeper level.

I want either to be entertained — so VeggieTales’ ‘The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything’ poses no problems for me — or challenged/engaged a deep level. There is a lot in the evangelical subculture that leaves me unsatisfied on both counts, from Left Behind novels to most Christian films.

This disillusionment really began when I bought a Third Day album and didn’t like it. At all. I don’t know why it took so long for the disillusionment to set in — I’d bought a few disappointing albums as a teenager. But no, it was this particular encounter with Third Day.

Instead of questioning my own faith or Christianity, rather than rejecting the Christian religion as an easy-answer faith for people who don’t really know what they’re doing, two things happened. One, I started to become a bit proud. I — I told myself — was more sophisticated than a lot of other Christians. I didn’t enjoy Left Behind (although I read the first). I read Godric by Frederick Buechner. I read Aeschylus and Homer. I read St John of the Cross. I didn’t listen to Five Iron Frenzy (I don’t even know if they’re any good, that’s how little I listened to them). I listened to opera and symphonies. I prayed the Prayer Book. Well done me. I was a deep Christian. Sophisticated.

On the flip side, because of this alleged ‘sophistication’ (I think John Cassian calls it ‘vainglory’), when I became disillusioned with the Christian culture I met around me, it was not Christ with whom I became disillusioned. It was not Christianity I found wanting. Christ and the faith founded in His Name are more than rock’n’roll, more than cheap novels, more than poorly-acted films, more than shallow platitudes. I already knew that.

And I knew where to look. I had my Prayer Book. I had heard of devotional masters like St John of the Cross. I really got into St Francis at this time as well. My faith was multifaceted, by the grace of God. Disillusionment with one expression of Christianity did not mean either a rejection of the faith on the one hand or a need to move beyond orthodoxy on the other. With companions like C S Lewis, G K Chesterton, Martin Luther, John Calvin, St John of the Cross, St Francis of Assisi — as well as a few living folks like my immediately family and friends, and John Michael Talbot — I was prepared to stay with Christ.

Perhaps this is what makes my siblings and me different?

People often ask how it is that the four of us are all active, professing Christians who attend church regularly and even identify as Anglican, dwelling within the bounds of 39-Articles orthodoxy, to boot. Perhaps it’s because our exposure to the Great Tradition kept us safe. Our household was, indeed, steeped in Christian music when we were youths — but we did have a share of classic rock and classical music. But we were given opportunities to lead in worship, ministry, mission. We were given Prayer Books. We were exposed to church history in all its glorious and gorey variety. Our household was equally friendly to Baptists and to Catholics.

By the time any of us was old enough to become disillusioned with Christian pop culture, we had already lived through a certain amount of pain, anyway. And we had met Christians of a wide variety of traditions. We had sung traditional music in choirs. We had prayed Compline in the dark hours of the night. We had raised our hands to Graham Kendrick songs (or not — we’d certainly sung them). We had had long conversations with our parents about life, about orthodoxy, about Anglicanism, about the central truths of the faith. Learning that people thought our music was bad would have little effect on a faith filled with such variety and open to the Great Tradition.

Perhaps that’s the problem with filling our youth with fluff to keep them coming back to youth group and church?

When their faith is tested, where can they turn for something heavy enough to ground them?

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Christian Rock

I belong to a group on Facebook called, ‘It’s True, Young People Do Like Traditional Liturgy.’ It draws a lot of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans/Episcopalians, as well as the odd Lutheran or even Presbyterian. Today, someone posted this sublimely beautiful video of Russian chant in four-part harmony:

I’ve heard a lot of Russian chant, and am kind of in love with basso profundo, but there is something sweet and, as I say, sublimely beautiful about the music in the above recording. As I continued my Internet wanderings — which consisted of typing up a post for 11 months from now (Guerric of Igny on Candlemas — I’m sure you can’t wait!), I played a recording called ‘Medieval Russian Chant.’

Shortly, my eldest brother was inquiring over Facebook as to whether his younger siblings were acquainted with Steve Taylor’s latest album (actually, Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil), Goliath. I admitted to never having heard of it, let alone having heard it. So I  pressed Pause on my Russian chant and trotted over to YouTube to meet Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil — seeing that two of his bandmates are Peter Furler of Newsboys fame and Jimmy A (for Abegg). Here’s “Moonshot”, where Taylor’s mouth freaks me out somethin’ fierce:


I went on to listen to a bunch more of Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil via YouTube — this eventually transitioned into Steve Taylor music videos from Squint, his 1993 album. As Michael said on Facebook, this sounds a lot like Squint but rocks harder and faster. I also agree that this is ‘prime Taylor.’ I, myself, once owned two Steve Taylor tapes, Squint and Liver (as in, more live, not the organ/food; it’s a live album); Michael has owned a lot of Taylor tapes, as well as the Squint video (as in, VHS).

I enjoy this music.

I have not been part of the whole Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) thing for many years. At some point in undergrad, my music purchases narrowed to classical and folk plus a bit of classic rock. Occasionally something happens to break these boundaries, like me buying three Coldplay albums that one time. Or I catch wind of something Christian that I approve of, like Steve Bell’s Devotion or John Michael Talbot’s Worship and Bown Down. But on the whole, when I buy music, it tends to be classical or folk. CCM mostly appears through nostalgia — playing my own Guardian, dc Talk, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline albums — or a flurry of activity on Spotify. Not actual purchases.*

Frankly, I stopped enjoying a lot of the music. I found much CCM musically, theologically, lyrically, devotionally unsatisfying. Nonetheless, I still like some of it.

As I sit here, listening once again to some Steve Taylor & the Perfect Foil (right now, “Standing in Line“), I want to share some honest thoughts about Christian rock, of varying degrees of objectivity and subjectivity. Since I am the sort of person who belongs to a Facebook group about traditional liturgy, who listens to Renaissance music, swoons at the sound of Russian chant, and would rather hear Vittoria’s music for the Passion on Palm Sunday than witness a poor dramatisation — someone who writes this blog, after all — it should come as no shock that I am not sold on rock music at Sunday worship.

But since I don’t feel like getting dragged into the Worship Wars, I will say only this — whatever music you prayerfully and meditatively choose for Sunday mornings, it must be doctrinally and biblically shaped, and I hope it upholds why we go to church in the first place:

to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his [God’s] hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul. (BCP, preface to Morning Prayer)

And, if Eucharist is being celebrated, to encounter the living, ascended Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of His Most Holy Body and Blood. Oh — and, traditionally, Anglicans go to confess their sins. These are the objective purposes for which Sunday morning gatherings should transpire.

Rock music exists largely to be consumed through recordings, although there is something excellent about a live performance. But it was born in the recording age, and it was radio that made Elvis so big. This means that even if we go to a traditional worship service on Sunday, we still have access to recorded music and music videos in the comfort of our own homes and our cars.

I think there’s room for some Christian rock in our homes. I mean, this blog doesn’t exist to promote what little I know on the subject. Frankly, I’d just go around promoting Steve Taylor, dc Talk, Audio Adrenaline, and PFR alongside less rockin’ CCM like Rich Mullins, John Michael Talbot, Steve Bell. Maybe Third Day sometimes. Petra’s album Wake Up Call. Stryper all night long. That sort of eclecticism that reflects my teenage years. And no, Stryper was not around when I was a teenager. I’m not that old.

But I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past years with the Greek and Cypriot Orthodox. And I’ve been reading the likes of St John Climacus, St Bernard of Clairvaux, St John Cassian, St Theophan the Recluse, St Porphyrios, St Augustine of Hippo, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Ephrem the Syrian, Lancelot Andrewes, and others in my devotional readings. Since stopping the buying of CCM, I’ve discovered Tallis, Striggio, Bach’s choral works, and more. I have spent a bit of time with the works of Anthony de Mello. I have prayed the Jesus Prayer with a chomboschini.

There can be devotional importance in Christian rock. Some of it is good music, and beauty, whether the Sistine Chapel or the Beatles, is always a glimpse of the Divine. Some of is good poetry — likewise. Some of it is theologically profound. Some of it expresses truths we all need to face about life as a Christian in this world, which is probably where it’s greatest devotional importance lies, as in Steve Taylor, “Jesus Is for Losers”:

But we need the silence. Our lives are cluttered. Facebook, TV, radio, movies, Instagram, phones at our hips, ads on every available surface, etc, etc. Music is in the background everywhere — as we clean, as we walk down the street, as we fly across the ocean, as we make love, as we eat at a restaurant, as we ride an elevator — whether chosen by ourselves or others. Christian rock is part of the noise (but so, I am aware, can be Haydn’s Die Schoepfung).

Transfiguration -- Sozomen'sOnce upon a time, I went on a bus trip to the Troodos Mountains with my friends Fr Ioannis and Fr Andreas. Fr Ioannis is an iconographer. We visited the famous “painted churches of Cyprus” — and I loved it. I learned a lot about Orthodoxy and Cyprus and iconography and all manner of things. I beheld such beauty in these churches. I should tell you more about this trip sometime.

As we travelled along, one of the Orthodox faithful asked Fr Ioannis what he thought about Christian rock. Fr Ioannis gave an answer that has always stuck with me ever since. When you listen to rock music, can you pray? Fr Ioannis feels that this kind of music is not conducive to setting your heart in quiet as prayer needs.

And we are called to pray without ceasing by St Paul.

My sister has a friend who plays drums in a band, and she says that you can tell that his drumming is something of an ecstatic experience of worship for him. So, yes, one can worship and pray to rock music.

But we need to remember Elijah, as echoed in the Brian Doerksen song, who heard the still, small voice.

As I’ve blogged before, I sometimes have anger issues. It has not been Stryper or Petra or Steve Taylor who has calmed my spirit. Today I am less prone to anger than I was two years ago, and this is because the Lord’s grace has touched me whilst praying the Jesus Prayer.

In the secret, in the quiet place. In the stillness, He is there.

Sometimes, we need to turn the music off, not up. And we need to sit in the stillness and the silence. And pray.

I’m willing to allow a place for Christian rock. I can do without it, though. None of us can do without silence, stillness, and solitude, for it is there that God has made Himself known to many a believer since at least the day Moses ascended Sinai.

*As a side note, you should buy albums (digital, CD, vinyl, whatev) of artists yo u like because they make almost no money off Spotify. In fact, they make not so much from iTunes, either, so CD or vinyl is probably to be preferred.