The Day (Christian) Music Died

How elevating message over art destroyed "Christian music."

When I was a teenager, Christian rock was almost my religion. I don’t remember picking up the Bible of my own volition, but an entire wall of my bedroom was plastered with five years’ worth of magazine clippings of my favorite Christian band. And I don’t think it was all that wrong, to be honest. I needed something to revere, and these bands got me thinking about all kinds of ideas that I needed to be thinking about, and stuff that still matters to me to this day—love, mercy, justice, death, life, hope, joy, God—so I’m not really worried this was sacrilege. Yes: I was a Christian rock fundamentalist.

I hadn’t heard of record labels like Kill Rock Stars or Sub Pop, but could rattle off the name of every band on Tooth and Nail or Five Minute Walk. I bought Poor Old Lu (not Nirvana) records, read Seven Ball (not Spin), and listened to a syndicated radio show called Z-Jam (not Z-Rock, which was just down the dial). Rock and roll was part of a package that included church, teen study Bibles, youth group, prayer and evangelism. Yet for all that, I don’t think I was ever a Christian fundamentalist, because I don’t see myself in those stories—sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking—by the long list of thirtysomething artsy, writery types who grew up fundie and had the spiritual rug pulled out from under them the minute somebody asserted that maybe Adam and Eve weren’t literally the first two real human beings. Everything is thrown into doubt, and cynicism and atheism follow close behind. Though my understanding of Christianity has changed over the years, that is not my story. I did not “lose my religion.”

But I can remember the exact moment I lost my faith in Christian music.

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In the 1990s, if I was at a Christian concert, it’s a good guess that Audio Adrenaline were the opening band. I’m not sure why they remained a warm-up act for so many years, but I saw them open for dc Talk and the Newsboys about a hundred times each, tour after tour. ForeFront Records played up Audio Adrenaline’s rock-rebel image; a genius move was releasing a live AA album under the title Live Bootleg, the cover of which displayed a maximum rock-and-roll-style black-and-white photo of a band member headbanging in a totally righteous way. There was nothing bootleg whatsoever about this record—it was a legitimate release on a major label. And Audio Adrenaline didn’t even have a drummer on their first two records, but they were marketed, at the time, like an ultra-rebellious grunge band. If you had to compare them to a regular rock band (and, yes, you had to), you probably would have called them a “Christian Spin Doctors.” Their ubiquitous Christian radio hit, “Big House” (about heaven, not jail), had the same sloppy four-chord party vibe as the Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes,” right down to the goofy scatting.

Audio Adrenaline concerts in those days were heavy on jumping around and shouting, especially on their Christian party anthem (yes, “Christian party anthem”) “We’re a Band,” the chorus of which is: “We’re band! We’re a band! We’re a band!” Audio Adrenaline were, without a doubt, a band. And so their betrayal hurt worse than almost anything I can imagine a Christian band having done.

I don’t mean to place the blame squarely on Audio Adrenaline. This story could be repeated with almost any mainstream Christian rock band in the 1990s, at any concert. But here’s what happened: In the middle of a show, after 45 minutes or so of sweaty headbanging and singing about how They Were a Band, Audio Adrenaline called for a time-out to talk to the audience about Jesus. This wasn’t at all uncommon at Christian concerts—the Christian kids in the crowd happily tolerated it, even though we rarely went up for altar calls. But when one of the band members stepped up to the mic, my life changed. And not in the way the band intended.

“I just want to tell you something,” he said. We got quiet and reverent. “This music that we play—it’s a trick.” He went on to explain that the only reason they played rock music was to get our attention and tell us about accepting Jesus Christ as our personal savior. Jesus loves you, he said, and He wants to have a relationship with you. The music is secondary, not the point; it’s a trap. It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter.

I was stunned. It doesn’t matter. The stuff I care about most doesn’t matter.

I was confused, then angry. How dare you make me care about this music so much, then? How dare you, everyone, Christian record labels and radio and bookstores and bands and youth groups, how dare you make me fall in love with rock and roll and then tell me it’s a farce, tell me that the only reason it’s marginally OK that I’m listening to it is that behind it all is the Right Thing to Believe. I already believe it! Can I just have the music? And you, Audio Adrenaline, you  said—you just said, a few minutes ago, in a song, over and over and over, that you were a band. A band!

I had tolerated many lame subcultural trappings for this music I loved, but I would not tolerate a band lying to me. This was the beginning of the end of my teenage love affair with Christian rock—but I’m not bitter. This was a push I needed, a felix culpa that would eventually open up a world in which God could be experienced in a thousand places that were not a church and a thousand songs that were not praise choruses. Once, I didn’t think such a thing was possible.

I suspect many of us have reached that realization, at one point or another. And you might have a similar story. My story continued as I developed ears to hear traces of the holy in everything from Jeff Buckley to Sunny Day Real Estate to Blackalicious to Sigur Ros. And in a way, I guess, I owe it to a band who insisted, for a moment, that they weren’t a band. Even though they totally were.

Have you had an experience like this? Where do you hear traces of the holy?

Joel Heng Hartse has written about music for Paste, Geez, Blurt, Christianity Today, Beliefnet, the Stranger and Killing the Buddha, among other publications. His new book, Sects, Love, Rock and Roll, from which this is adapted, is available now from Cascade Books.

261 Comments

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Pjamesmmvi commented…

They saw themselves as utilitarian -- merely a means to an end. I feel that music, like praise is an end in itself. We don't praise so we can feel better; we praise because God deserves and wants to be praised. Praise is an end. Feeling better is not garunteed, we sometimes do though. The same with music.

84,932

Jason 0047 commented…

Normal Christian contemporary rock music that has a positive clear message and positive tone is for worshipping God. Christian heavy metal or hard rap (with no discernible message and a rebellious tone to them) is not of God. Christian heavy metal and or hard rap is still stuck to the beat of a fallen world. In fact, even many agnostics think this type of music is satanic in nature. Anyways, Christian contemporary rock music is an essential tool in worshipping and praising our Lord God. I love praising and worshiping the Lord with Chris Tomlin and Lincoln Brewster among many others. As a matter of fact, I have deepened and enriched my understanding of God's Word with the "Music Inspired by the Story" album, too. It is a collection of songs sung from the various important people mentioned within the Scriptures. So the Christian rock can be a very invaluable tool. As long as you are using to get closer to God.

Stephen Bradley

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Stephen Bradley replied to 's comment

So much contemporary Christian rock music is about how God makes us feel warm and fuzzy and is hardly challenging or biblical. Even worship songs can often sound more like worldly love songs.

Whereas the Christian rap I listen to is actually way more theologically correct. Try listening to a song like Passion & Purity by S.O. and then tell me that it has no discernible message when it is overtly clear it's about sexual purity. Perhaps then listen to False Teachers by Shai Linne and see if the message is too bland to hear.

The idea that one genre (contemp. rock) is holy while another (rap) is not, is completely ludicrous. Fifty years ago you would have been saying that the idea of contemporary Christian rock was "not of God" and that only hymns and organs are holy. Surely a genre specific view on Godly music is entirely influenced by your culture rather than scripture?

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Anonymous commented…

the bottom line is, if your a "Christian" anything , than anything besides Christ is secondary haha I mean seriously, the focus, or rather what SHOULD be the focus is IN THE NAME , I think that's just from a basic understanding of word meaning in the English language, whether your a Christian or even a church goer, or not. Far too many bands are Christian bands by title only, they use a specific label to market their product to a certain audience type but other than that they are about as Christian as Skrillex is country music. Perhaps its just that they were not honest with you up front about their goal, and so you felt betrayed or tricked, but its not like Audio Adrenaline was some sort of worship band posing as a secular rock group to trick people into hearing about Jesus, now THAT would , to me, seem hypocritical and a bit of a betrayal

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MusicfaninKC commented…

Every musician and artist , christian or non, has a message. The point of the art is to convey that message. This is an incredibly shallow writer.

Jacob Hamm

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Jacob Hamm commented…

While I certainly don't share the writer's love affair with Christian rock or any "christian" music at any point in my life, I do LOVE music and just about everything about it. I have never related to the mainstream christian music scene in the same way I don't relate to most mainstream music in general. I do see a problem in saying you didn't appreciate the musicians saying the music was a vehicle for their message about Jesus. Why take offense to that? Surely he could have put it more delicately, but I am sure most christian musicians would say the same thing if prompted with the same question. Their music glorifies the LORD, and you coming and singing along and getting into it with all your heart glorifies the LORD.

So leaving that aside, I enjoy finding true Christian messages in other music. Stories of redemption, stories of struggle, stories of seeking and searching, etc. These songs aren't always positive, and they aren't "Worship songs" in the sense that we think of them, but they are Christian songs none the less. David wasn't always positive in Psalms, so why must we be with our music?

Mumford and Sons have a lot of songs like this, as do the avett brothers. Many folk/roots/blues songs contain christian messages. The album "Though the deep dark valley" by the Oh Hello's is the best Christian album I have ever heard to date, yet I don't think it will get play on contemporary christian radio. To be quite frank as a musician myself, the level of songwriting in modern christian radio has dropped so low it is downright sad. The same blandy bland formula seems to infiltrate every song, making it all sound the same to me. I can't just get by on inspiring lyrics without interesting musicality behind it. If I just wanted the words/lyrics I would much rather just read the Bible. Psalms 33:3 says "Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy". In this man's opinion, we have lost the middle part of "playing skillfully" and instead have played blandily.

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