So, I’ve been awake since 3:10 this morning. And for those of you who got emails from me sometime between 4:00 and 8:00, wondering why in the world I was emailing you so really…now you know. It’s not that I was awakened by a fire alarm in the building or anything. No, nothing that simple. Heck I’d have been happy if it had been Maggie or Cricket – my dogs – complaining that they wanted to go out on patrol in the wee hours of the morning.
I just couldn’t get my brain to shut off. I’m not sure why, but I woke up completely cognizant, and…I guess the best term is “spiritually restless.” Funny how that term also applies to how my life’s been these past few weeks. Kind of how animals can sense when a storm is coming, I’ve felt…attuned…to a shift in my life coming. To be sure, some of the things I want to do would seem like insanity to many, and I think I’m just being prepped for the time of WHEN the shift will occur, not IF. I don’t know if any of this makes sense – partially because it’s so difficult to nail down in precise words an emption and a feeling…but also because I’m bloody tired and I’ve not had my requisite 87 cups of coffee today.
Of late, I’ve been listening to a lot of mid-to-late 80’s/early 90’s music. But not the type of music you might think. No, nothing so artistic as Oingo Boingo or Wham! I’ve been listening to a lot of older Christian music.
[insert gag reflex here for a great many of you]
Yes, it’s true: the synthesized drums and the layers of keyboards are musically cheesy enough to induce a panic attack for the lactose intolerant. The hair – oh, the hair – and the clothes make me want to burn all the old photos of me and my friends (hi, Wooley) as we would do our best to dress in similar fashion. And no, not everything that was churned out during this decade and a half qualifies as a thing of artistic beauty.
But there were some true gems to be found in this time. And not from the CCR mainstays, either. Yes, “everyone” knows Michael W. Smith. Amy Grant. Wayne Watson. Twila Paris. Steve Green. Margaret Becker. DeGarmo and Key. Petra. White Heart. The Imperials. And “everyone” knows the – for lack of a better term – hit songs and albums that these people produced. …and the way that they were played to DEATH on the radio, in churches, and in multiple youth group retreats.
For me, I come not to bury these songs or artists, and not really to mock or praise them either. To be sure, there were some clunkers (“Boycott Hell.” Eddie. Dana. Guys. WHAT were you THINKING?). But for every song called “Get On Your Knees and Fight Like a Man,” there was a “More Power To Ya” waiting in the wings to validate music with a Christian message as being musically and lyrically solid.
And for me and my friends? Yeah, we knew the mainstay artists and songs listed above, but the ones that stuck me and have stayed with me for LITERALLY over half my life were the songs and the artists who were…storytellers. Whose music and lyrics were hauntingly beautiful and inspiring: Dighayzoos. the choir. Daniel Amos/DA/da/Swirling Eddies. Absence of Ceramics. Breakfast With Amy. The Throes. Mad at the World. Mark Heard. Randy Stonehill. Phil Keaggy. Kim Hill. Ashley Cleveland. And God’s court-jester himself, Steve Taylor.
Storytellers. People who spoke about the struggles of life, and didn’t try to candy-coat faith or reduce Jesus to a mantra of “verse-chorus-verse” just to get airplay on a CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) MOR (middle-of-the-road) station, the equivalent of what the kids call an “adult contemporary” station these days – or, the stations that people listen to at work in an office environment. The artists listed above – for the most part – NEVER got airtime, because the frankness and complexity of their songs would probably have sent many listeners to the local Christian AM stations into toxic shock. It would be like hearing Phil Collins followed by Henry Rollins.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: That was not meant to rhyme. I blame the insomnia.]
Now, there are some modern Christian artists whose music seems to be cut from the same cloth Larry Norman used – Relient K springs to mind immediately. Mute Math. Flyleaf. Until June. Derek Webb for SURE. And others of this caliber. But…(and here’s where these ramblings seemingly tie together)…my little stroll down nostalgia lane has made me wish that today’s popular Christian music was a little less vertically focused and more towards the horizontal.
See, while I can appreciate and do have a thankful heart for the great worship awakening ™ that has taken place in many contemporary, emergent, or emerging or post-modern churches…I miss the bemoan the fact that bands like The Innocence Mission or Over The Rhine must be relegated to background music or “focus songs” if they are even used at all. Anyone who has ever experience the group sing-along of songs like “More Than Useless” or “Latter Days” can testify that some of these experiences can be just as powerful as anything Matt Redman has ever penned.
Maybe it’s just me, but I love the storyteller aspect of songs. Musically speaking, I can appreciate just about anything, provided it has some intrinsic musical worth. I can appreciate the music, but nothing sparks my soul like hearing a story come to life in a song.
Maybe it’s time we dusted off a few of the “gems” of bygone eras and cover them. The cycle is hitting for hymns, so maybe it’s time for Russ Taff’s self-titled album to be reissued. Or for Leslie/Sam Phillips to be welcomed back to our fold.
Parables were good enough for Jesus, after all. And I personally enjoy asking people about their life story as much as asking them, “So, how do you worship God?”
Makes for a less awkward pause in the conversations at dinner parties as well.