My favorite Christian artists are the ones who could care less about the label. They are kind of yesterday’s news, but the Irish progressive rock band Iona has been making outstanding music for fifteen years that is unabashedly Christian and drop-dead beautiful. Try to buy one of their CDs in a Family Bookstore ®, though. The clerk will give you a blank stare and ask you what kind of music they play. If you describe Iona’s music you will probably be steered towards Caedmon’s Call or Rebecca St. James, both of whom are to Iona as a lightning bug is to a lightning bolt.
Ditto for Steven Bazan of Pedro the Lion, or Sufjan Stevens, or Danielson Famile, all of whom are wildly creative and deeply Christian. You get the feeling that their art isn’t a matter of “letting their light shine”, but of letting out a force that might do them irreparable damage if suppressed.
I’m trying to remember how the Christian ghetto got started. When I was a child and a young adolescent, we were all of us “Christians” and most of us Sunday School kids. Our churches were very nice places and had music by Bach, Mendelssohn, or Schubert as introits. The sermons were twenty minutes, timed, and usually contained references to racial integration, or neurosis, or existential anxiety. Those were the days of the hegemony of the Seven Sisters of the National Council of Churches, liberal Protestantism at flood-tide, the inheritors of Christendom, and, along with the Academy and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, guardians of the high culture of the West
We had friends who went to other churches, a little more thread-bare. The music wasn’t as elevated. Some of them couldn’t afford an organ and got by with a piano, or a guitar. The preaching (never a sermon, mind you) was embarrassingly direct and personal. There were bookstores in my town that catered to those churches, full of books that didn’t appeal to anybody who didn’t go to those churches. Most of the books were about the Bible; how to understand the Bible, or what the Bible said about this or that subject, about the errors of evolution or “the problems of youth” as seen in the light of the Bible.
Now, this was the status quo circa 1964. The President had just been assasinated, and the Beatles had just appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. The deceptively placid fifties were about to plunge headlong into the ferocious whitewater rapids of the mid to late sixties, and the whole brave liberal Christian experiment just evaporated like a morning fog. Most of my Sunday School colleagues lost themselves in the drugs and sexual libertinism of the sixties and the seventies, and emerged as secular entities, with little or no connection or allegiance to Christ or Church.
Another subset of us were harvested by the so-called “Jesus Revolution” in the last gasp of the ‘sixties and the early ‘seventies. This was an outbreak of revivalistic Evangelical Protestantism among young people that injected countercultural memes into the marginalized Evangelical Protestant culture of that era, and it was wildly successful as a marketing ploy, if not so much as a spiritual movement. When I was a student at a Pentecostal Bible School in the mid ‘seventies, there was a sharp division between the “Church Kids” and the “Teen Challenge” ex-hippies, even though we composed about one third of the student body.
The music though, was always marketed to us “just like Led Zeppelin, or Jethro Tull, but its about Jesus, man!” We lapped it up, rejoicing every time a mainstream musician like BJ Thomas or Bob Dylan “accepted Jesus” and came into our increasingly isolated little bubble, until their record sales improved and they left.
It never dawned on us that the reason to listen to Ian Anderson and John Fischer was the same; that they were competent artists with something to say. The shame is that once you disappeared into the ghetto, anyone outside of it wasn’t hearing you, unless, like Sixpence None The Richer or Evanescence, you managed a crossover success story that allowed you to escape the youth rally circuit and appeal to a wider audience. Usually, though, the tradeoff was that you’d forgo using that awful J-word.
Which brings me full circle to Iona, to Sufjan, to Daniel Wilson and his wonderful family. They are so talented, or so quirky, or so lovely, that they command attention by appealing to our common humanity, but they speak or sing openly and directly about Jesus as if He were the most natural thing in the world to talk or sing about.
Which, of course, He is.
And to Rebecca St. James’ credit, I heard that she spent a whole night at a CCM conference with her skirts lifted dancing on a table top to the tunes of Catholic merrymakers Ceili Rain . You go, girl.