So I've Been Listening to Contemporary Christian Rock—And I Like It!

​I didn't see it coming at all. It snuck in through a briefly opened portal and has affixed itself to my consciousness, redoubling in strength every time I listen.
Publish date:
March 30, 2016
christianity, music, faith

A few weeks ago, I was having an extremely emotional and turmoil-filled night, and I had to leave where I was and get home urgently. It was around 2AM and an Uber was ordered for me, which came swiftly. I opened the door to get in the car, doing my best to honor my feelings without shame or judgment, but also not wanting to fully break down bawling in an Uber at 2AM on a Saturday night. Tears were in effect, but I had a relatively short ride ahead of me, and I felt I could hold it together.

I slid into the backseat, and was immediately aghast at the presence of a third party in the car, along with the driver and myself. It was Jesus.

Jesus was EVERYWHERE. He was in the large hanging air freshener that bore his portrait and name, he was in the decorative wreath with candles I hoped were never lit that rested on the dashboard, and, most notably, he was in the music.

His name was on the extremely emphatic lips of the singer whose voice was pounding from the sophisticated sound system of the driver's very nice sedan, and I was taken aback at the pure churchiness of it all.

When the driver turned around and greeted me, I became briefly convinced that I was being pranked in some elaborate way. Since I hadn't ordered the car myself, I didn't see the driver's picture that pops up in the app, so I wasn't ready for a model-pretty female driver to turn around and greet me with a beatific "Amen!"

I sat there, stunned, making mental notes for an essay about how I'm a person of religious faith who still bristles at how much religion is present in day-to-day life. I imagined an atheist or someone of a non-Christian faith innocently ordering a car to simply get home and winding up in this vehicular tabernacle, being stared down on all sides by Jesus figurines and being greeted with an "Amen!" when a simple "Hello" would do.

I thought about the annoyance of living in the hypocrisy of our country's professed secularism. The US claims the separation of church and state, but God is on our money, in our pledge of allegiance, a core element of most political campaigns, and is likely to be thanked first by your favorite pro athletes, actors, and musicians in times of great achievement.

There's a grocery store near me that exclusively plays a contemporary Christian rock music station over the PA, and I find it so obnoxious. As much as I choose my religion, I respect everyone's right to choose their own, or none at all, and people should have the basic ability to pick up some produce or cold cuts at a public store with no ostensible religious affiliation without hearing "Jesus is coming" piped in, and in stereo.

Preaching to people against their will is part of the centuries-old corruption of what I personally see as a healing force, and although I do believe that sometimes that Word might be needed, and possibly help someone who didn't even know they wanted it, I'm not willing to prioritize that possibility over the certainty that many people want to live their lives without Christ, and that's just fine.

However, that night in that Uber, a strange thing happened. All of my indignant opinionatedness faded away, no match for my sadness and emotional fatigue in the moment, and I really heard the music that was playing, and I cried out loud.

I cried honestly and openly as the voice in the speakers told me it would all work out because He had a plan for me. The next song came on and the tears continued as I was advised through song to give all my troubles to Him; he'll carry them. The messages continued, coming in loud and clear, and the driver quietly sang along in a pretty soprano tone, only speaking to me minimally in what I chose to view as respect for the relative privacy of whatever I was visibly going through.

What I was going through was a transformation. My tears continued to fall, but utter despair was morphing into a simpler acknowledgement of a truly sad event and mourning a loss, which felt like more manageable sadness, and therefore a kind of relief. The music was not some instantaneous balm, but it reminded me that I'll be OK, even if I'm not sure exactly how or when, which got the emotional and cognitive ball rolling on actually feeling better.

"We all needed something to cling we did."

So sings Alanis Morissette on her 1995 anthem "Forgiven," a song that I love, and that has stuck with me all these years. Not only does Alanis sing her face off on the track, but the lyrics form a perfect narrative of what happens when organized religion (she's singing about Catholicism) fills a void in a manipulative or exploitative way, as it so often does.

I've heard certain atheists put down organized religion, and Christianity in particular, by insinuating that we're fools who cling to a fictitious guidebook for life because we can't govern our own lives or comport ourselves in civilized society without an immortal man in the clouds, or a mortal man sermonizing in a robe, telling us what to do. And I get what they're getting at.

But what happened in that Uber was the best-case scenario of faith, which is what I always strive for. In the most unexpected and honestly pretty tacky of circumstances, the faith that was already in me was stoked and reignited, and I've now added contemporary Christian rock to my arsenal of entertainment and inspiration, in heavy rotation.

I've sung in church choirs in the past, and performed classical liturgical music, Gospel, Spirituals, you name it. I've always seen a place for so many genres of faith-based music, except contemporary Christian rock, which always seemed to me like it worked best as the butt of a joke.

I also relegated it to the same lane as other contemporary Christian entertainment, rehashing the same one story over and over again and raking in millions because churches charter buses to take congregations en masse to see movies we'll barely notice starring actors we've never heard of, earning them box office receipts to rival a star-studded summer blockbuster. There's tons of money to be made in Jesus' name, hallelujah!

But now that I'm listening regularly, I dig it. When Natalie Grant's song "In Better Hands" comes on and she sings, "It's hard to stand on shifting sand..." I say to my speakers you bet your sweet ass it is, Natalie! Hearing a sentiment like "I'm down but I'm not out" elicits an AMEN from me that helps me move through the "down."

You know I hate empty platitudes, but music alone can be extremely moving when it speaks to your soul, and genuinely solid musicality can carry lyrics that might not apply to one's own life 100% but may still resonate. I know plenty of people with no interest in going to church who still love Gospel music when they hear it, and some of you may remember the odd moment in pop culture history when the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo do Silos' chant CDs were flying off the shelves right next to Britney Spears and N'Sync.

In fact, every few years a Christian artist crosses over into heavy mainstream rotation, and their background is often treated like a dirty little secret. I'm old enough to remember Amy Grant's (no relation to the aforementioned Natalie Grant) megahit "Baby, Baby," and I recall some pop music lovers feeling somehow duped upon finding out she was a "Jesus freak."

I used to get my alt-rock groove on to "Meant to Live" by similarly-secretly-Christian-musicians Switchfoot, and I think they crossed over because they were able to sufficiently come across as cool. Ultimately, rock music has to be cool, and many people think that nothing is as uncool as Christianity, despite the new wave of hipster preachers' best efforts to convince them otherwise.

I'm not saying you can't be a cool Christian; I personally do alright in the coolness category, but when you try really hard to prove how young and hip you are, it generally has the opposite effect.

The best of Christian rock seems to be comfortable being potentially uncool; it strives to deliver the Message over a solid beat, and that's it. The beats are jiggy enough, and the lyrics rarely actually reference God, Jesus, and Co. by name. The slogan of the radio station I've been streaming the most, K-LOVE, is "Positive. Encouraging." Yay! I'll take that.

I often chuckle as I listen when I'm reminded of the interchangeability of most love song lyrics with songs of devotion, as is creepily and hilariously illustrated when Denise Richards' character in Drop Dead Gorgeous sings "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" to a stuffed Christ figure on a crucifix on wheels.

So desired is coolness in Christian music that many churches perform contemporary rock and hip-hop songs, slightly altering lyrics or even leaving them intact and simply insinuating that the "him" or "power" or "love" in the song is a Godly one. I've always been against this, since I'm a stickler for old school churches. The old Anglican/Episcopalian snobbery in my DNA scoffs at the sight of a drum set anywhere near an altar or a sanctuary. And tambourines? NEVER!

But if it enhances someone's experience of their faith, maybe it's not so bad? Similarly, if Christian artist Chris Tomlin croons "Your love is like a waterfall" over a driving snare-led beat on his song "Waterfall," it's simply a beautiful image, certainly addressed to God in the first line, but mostly about being immersed in love from all sides.

Of course, just when I'm be-bopping along to some vaguely inspirational whatever, a blatantly God-filled track comes along to break up the party, like "I Will Lift My Eyes" by Bebo Norman, which opens with him singing plainly, "Oh God, my God, I cry out..."

It's not that I want my Christian rock with the Christianity on the side, but, as with anything, I enjoy a little nuance. On "You Are More" by Tenth Avenue North, the refrain of "You are more than the choices that's you've made, you are more than the sum of your past mistakes..." could be secular encouragement as much as Gospel. Then the repetition of "you've been remade" and references to Him and what He did sweep the listener up in full theology in bloom (if theism is something they subscribe to).

I think often about that Uber driver, and about how I had wanted to say something to her to express my gratitude, but that words lost the battle to tears that night as I got out of the car. I think about how she's the only female Uber driver I've ever had, and that part of letting my guard down and really letting the music in was probably because I wasn't with a man. I couldn't see her feet pressing the pedals, but I imagined she might be driving barefoot under there, like one of Quentin Tarantino's fetishized angels, and I absolutely feel that God sent her to me.

A non-faith-having scientist might be able to trace the algorithm and mapping vs. Uber availability that led her to be my driver that night instead. And we would both be right. And I remain grateful.

Promo image credit: Sean MacEntee/Creative Commons