I gave up on Christian music years ago. Let me explain.
I came to faith in Christ in the mid-'80s. Christian Contemporary Music (whatever exactly that is) was really coming into its own. Up to then, other than hymns or gospel music, I’d never even heard of such a thing. A whole new world was opened up to me and God used it in my life in a powerful way. Artists like Margaret Becker, Michael Card, Harvest, Twila Paris and many others drew me into worship and spoke to my life experiences in my newfound walk with God.
After the excitement of this radical way of looking at the world had begun to wane, after I’d gotten used to the idea that everything I had ever learned about everything was wrong, after I got used to being an adopted child of the Creator of universe, after getting used to the idea that my life and life in general had a purpose and a plan, after all these things had become a familiar comfort instead of a vertigo-inducing confrontation with reality that turned my life upside down and then right side up again . . . after all that, I found myself in the first spiritual crisis of my new faith. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, how even the reality of God intervening in a human life can somehow grow old?
And then I discovered Keith Green:
My eyes are dry My faith is old My heart is hard My prayers are cold And I know how I ought to be Alive to You and dead to me
What follower of Jesus hasn't felt this way at one point or another? "My Eyes Are Dry" became the cry of my heart. Despite the bad grammar, ‘I Don’t Wanna Fall Away From You’ became the raw prayer of my soul:
After all the things that You have shown me I'd be a fool to let them slip away And doing things I know I shouldn't do Well I don't wanna fall away from You
I felt that I'd been gifted and cheated at the same time, as I learned he died just a few years before I came to Christ.
As time went on, I enjoyed music from many Christian artists. But it was quickly becoming clear to me that while my church friends knew and listened to much of the same music, my friends and family outside church had no idea who these artists were. And while I accepted the reality that non-Christians might not be interested in the specifically "Christian-y" types of songs, there were songs that expressed the general desires and struggles of life, and that anyone, regardless of religious belief (or lack thereof), could enjoy.
Jars of Clay came along, and I thought they were the answer. Here was music cool and catchy enough to play on "real" radio, and with lyrics that anyone could relate to:
Lift me up—when I'm falling Lift me up—I'm weak and I'm dying Lift me up—I need you to hold me Lift me up—Keep me from drowning again
And for a while, it was so. Songs like "Flood" (above) and even "Liquid," with its more explicit lyrics ("Arms nailed down, are you telling me something?") were everywhere! Finally, my friends were going to be introduced to some of the wonderful music that I’d been enjoying for years!
But something happened after that. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was a glutted market, now that Jars had opened the way. But it seemed everything began to sound the same. The same jangly guitars, the same worn-out choruses, the same overused metaphors. A new twist was the always-uplifting lyrics that never seemed to speak to those places in between, the seasons of life where God seems a million miles away and your prayers seem to go no farther than the ceiling.
At some point, I stopped listening.
Fast forward some years. My life had become a Keith Green song, and not in a good way. Sometimes, depending on where I was living, my radio was unable to catch the signal from my local Christian station. (Don't ask me how the internet never came to mind. Rumor has it you can listen to nearly any station in the world through your computer. It's like magic!) But even today, when I do get to listen in, my mind is not challenged and my soul is not fed.
Then I heard—or rather, heard anew—a song by Bruce Springsteen. And it hit me. He knows the Bible better than I do.
Little girl down on the strand With that pretty little baby in your hands Do you remember the story of the promised land How he crossed the desert sands And could not enter the chosen land On the banks of the river he stayed To face the price you pay
I'd heard the song countless times before. I knew every word of it. And at this point in my walk, I'd certainly read the Bible all the way through, several times. I’d heard countless messages on this passage. But this time the line caught me and I ran to my Bible to see where he'd gotten it wrong.
Only he didn't get it wrong. He got it perfectly right:
This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, "I will give it to your offspring. I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there." So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. . . . (Deuteronomy 34:4-5)
Moses was prevented from entering the land because he struck the rock to provide water for the people, instead of speaking to the rock as God had instructed him to do.
How could I have not noticed this major Old Testament event when I’d read the account many times? Maybe I didn't want to notice it. Maybe it was too painful to notice it. One of the best known and beloved characters in the entire Bible, a man who had to put up with such difficult circumstances and people for so long, and in the end, he didn't get the happy ending.
This realization caused in me a crisis of faith of sorts. Maybe that's too strong a term. But it did hit me hard, and I have never forgotten it. My music listening and my Bible reading have never been the same.
Bruce Springsteen grew up with a Catholic background, but as far as I am aware, he does not profess religious belief today. This song is explicitly biblical in the way that it talks about the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Yet the vaguely rebellious tone is inescapable as well, as if wrestling with the idea that maybe the consequences are worth it, as long as you get to do what you want. It doesn’t say that outright, but you can feel the tension, the desire to run.
All of this made me think at the time, and it still makes me think today. I've long ago lost track of even my favorites in Christian music. I am not saying this is a good thing. There is still good music being made. Modern worship leaders like Chris Tomlin and Darlene Zschech provide a vital service to the Body by creating music that is both biblical and musically edifying. But they seldom make me think the way Springsteen does.
Take another Springsteen song, "Jesus Was An Only Son." This time, he doesn’t get theology exactly right.
Jesus was an only son As he walked on Calvary's hill At his side his mother Mary In the path where his blood spilled
But that’s not the main point being made here. The main point is that within the Incarnation and His mission on earth, Jesus was very much an "only son," on a level that no other mere human being will ever be able to comprehend.
How about this final verse? Is Springsteen denying Christ's divinity here, hinting that Jesus and God the Father are two separate beings? Is he preaching some sort of pantheism?
Jesus kissed his mother's hands And said, "Mother, still your tears Remember, the soul of the universe Willed a world and it appeared."
Only Springsteen knows. Or maybe he doesn't. But while a "Christian song" may have gotten the specifics exactly right, this song focuses on the humanity of Christ in His relationships, and yet the distance from them that He must’ve felt as He walked this earth. It paints an image in broad strokes and the result is a desire to keep thinking about it in order to bring it into focus.
Why does the music of a man who does not profess any religious faith challenge both my thinking and my faith, when multitudes of songs by committed, faithful brothers and sisters in Christ do not? Could it be that those still spiritually searching are able to tap into that darkness and bring it to light? Could it be that they are used to seeing some of the harder things in life while we, redeemed and blessed as we are, have gotten used to sweetness and light?
Is it too uncomfortable to be reminded that even after being forgiven by Christ, our sin costs us dearly, and that even as we walk with Christ, experientially, we sometimes walk alone?
Maureen Cruz is a music aficionado in Chicago.
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