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Jul 27 2006

Andrew Beaujon | Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock

Bodypiercingsaved

Da Capo Press sent us an interesting new book written by Andrew Beaujon, who has also written for Spin Magazine, The Washington Post, and salon.com.  The book, titled Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inisde the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, is an outsiders look (with input from insiders) at the history of contemporary Christian music.

What makes this book a fascinating read, other than the fact that the subject of Christian rock music is of interest to us and the fact that Andrew Beaujon is a gifted writer, is the fact that Beaujon is not a Christian  He does not profess faith in Christ, and explicitly disavows being a Christian in the book, yet does not come across as one who harbors personal animosity against Christians in general.  He seems genuinely curious about CCM and writes as one objectively trying to understand contemporary Christian rock music, and those who like it.  The result is a book that is more revealing and authentic than it might be if written by an insider with a bias towards showing only the good side of the industry, either subconciously or intentionally framing the subject positively to preserve relationships or an income stream.  And since Beaujon does seem sincere in wanting to understand this culture and music, he also avoids coming across as one bent upon the destruction of everything Christian.  The result is a somewhat balanced look at the Christian music industry from someone who may be about as neutral as one could be.  It’s also helpful to see the CCM scene from the eyes of one who comes from the contemporary culture many of us are trying to reach with the gospel. 

The book provides both a history and current snapshot of Christian rock music, bouncing around and at times recovering similar ground in multiple places.  Beaujon writes with humor and the book hardly reads like a history lecture.  One of the overriding sentiments is that Christian music is subpar when compared to its mainstream counterparts, an opinion that one may or may not agree with depending on one’s definition of good music and the specific era in question.  So while I was expecting a variety of personal opinions on the musical quality of various bands, I was not expecting to learn much about the music industry or the people who make it run.  This book delivered both.  At times it is apparent that Beaujon’s musical tastes differ significantly in places from mine, and as is always the case when evaluating music, at some point we have to acknowledge that in any evaluation of popular music, personal musical tastes come into play to some degree.

Was the CCM music of the seventies and eighties really that bad?  Well, yes, I suppose it was it was, and though I was never a "Christian music only" kind of guy, I did also enjoy the Rez Band, Servant, the Daniel Band and others back in the early 1980′s although admittedly they weren’t on the same level professionally as the Eagles, .38 Special, Journey, Boston, or even KISS.   Perhaps there was something about the rawness of the music and the bold preaching that came along with some of it that was appealing at the time.  Recently I picked up a CD of the Daniel Band recorded live at Cornerstone a few years ago, and it was such a disappointment (it was in the bargain bin, after all, which should have been a clue).  To my ears today it sounded like a struggling, over-amped garage band in any local neighborhood (or evangelical youth group, perhaps?).  What happened?  Were they really that bad back then but I didn’t know it?   Possibly.  Did they just get old and out of tune with age?  Maybe, but Jon Bon Jovi is still sounding as good as ever.  Perhaps the sound wasn’t working quite right that day and just wasn’t set up properly to record a CD?  Did I just get old?  Or maybe I just grew up?  Fast forward to 2006.  Is today’s Christian music still subpar?  Some of the newer bands Beaujon mentioned and discussed were groups I had never heard of, and just a few minutes of checking them out via iTunes had me reaching for the advil and longing for a quiet walk in the woods without my iPod.  At the same time, others in the CCM music scene are as good as anything I am hearing anywhere else, but then again, I outgrew MTV about the same time Guns N’ Roses disappeared from the channel.

Anyway, off of the soapbox and back to the book.  Several of the chapters are interviews with "lifers"–those who have essentially grown up in the Christian music business.  The first is with Doug Van Pelt, founder of Hard Music Magazine in the 1980′s, who recounts his journey to Christ and into the music scene.  Next up is Steve Taylor, one of the early pioneers in the "Jesus music" of the seventies and eighties.  Also interviewed is Jay Swartzenruber, editor of CCM magazine, who talks about the magazine and how he came to be its editor; Bill Hearn, President of EMI Christian Music Group; and Mark Salomon, an eighties Christian rocker who now just makes music, rather than "Christian" market music.  All of the interviews are an interesting read, and reveal more than the typicaly PR type interview one grows accustomed to reading.  And there are other informal stories in the book as well that are based on interviews and informal conversations.  For example, we read how David Di Sabatino came to serve as editor of Worship Leader magazine even though he thought most worship music was "horrible…crap" and "not theologically correct," how Tooth & Nail records came to be, and what the deal is with CCLI.  And we read about how David Crowder got connected with Louie Giglio as the Passion movement was birthed and gathered steam.  We also laughed out loud at some of Beaujon’s humorous descriptions of several artists’ appearance and musical styles.

Other chapter titles in the book include:

  • I Swear
  • No More LSD for Me (I Met the Man from Galilee)
  • More Than Just a Song
  • The Baffled King Composing Hallelujah
  • Clarity
  • Drinking Blood Out of Skulls, Living High in the Kingdom of Death, and a New Way to Be a Christian
  • Salt and Light, Inc.
  • If We Are The Body
  • Black and White in a Gray World
  • To Be Mad For My King
  • Just Like Heaven

Beaujon’s introduction to "CCM" as a high school student will sound familiar to anyone who was around Christian music in the seventies or eighties:

I’d done enough research to know that the Christian music was far better than when I was in high school and "saved" friends tried to get me to come to a Christian youth group called Young Life by dangling ski trips and the works of groups like Stryper and Petra, whom they assured me were "just as good" as the hard rock groups I liked.

Beaujon’s take on the modern worship movement is discussed.  Early in the book, he describes what he believes most people outside of evangelical America think Christian rock is, writing about the ads for the Time Life Worship Together Collection:

…shows a bunch of dorky concertgoers freaking out like Beatles fans at Shea Stadium in 1964 as some of the worst music you’ll ever hear blasts out of the arena’s speakers.  The songs are a blend of folk-rock, country, and singer/songwriter blahness spiced up with the odd sampled beat.  The first time I saw it, I wondered if the audience had been paid.

and:

Worship music is the logical conclusion of Christian adult contemporary music–not just unappealing but unbearable to anyone not already in the fold.  Every song follows the same parameters…this isn’t music to appreciate; it’s music to experience…Worship tunes tend to evince an adolescent theology, one that just can’t get over how darn cool it is that Jesus sacrificed himself for the world…All of which I could bear, or at least imagine defending, if all the songs didn’t sound the same.  Now, I don’t want to be a total bully here.  Obviously, worship music means a lot to a lot of people, and there are worship songs that stand up on their own, as music–I left Nashville humming one called "Blessed Be Your Name" for weeks–but they’re in the minority.

Those who have been around the Christian music scene for awhile…and I mean a long time…will enjoy the walk down memory lane as Beaujon describes the birth of "Jesus music" in the 1970′s when most evangelicals feared charismatics and hippies almost as much as they feared the communists.  The 1980′s an 1990′s are covered, as well as several of today’s bands.  Groundbreakers and early figures like Lonnie Frisbee, Chuck Smith, Larry Norman,  Amy Grant, and bands like Love Song, 2nd Chapter of Acts, Daniel Amos, the Seventy Sevens, the Resurrection Band, Vector, Stryper, and others are mentioned.  No early history of CCM would be complete without including Keith Green, about whom Beaujon writes:

…he [Green] was the last significant Christian artist for a long time to be both a critical favorite and a bestseller.  After Green, music that some unkind souls call "Christian mush" began to dominate the Christian mainstream, while a loosely organized underground of misfits began to haunt the corners of the ’80′s Christian experience

Beaujon also delves into contemporary record labels and artists striving to be good artists, rather than "Christian" artists.  As mentioned earlier, there’s an eye-opening look at Tooth & Nail records, and it’s founder, Brandon Ebel, and another fascinating and lengthy look at what makes Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan tick, a guy who seems to be a series of walking contradictions, as Kris Kristofferson once said about Johnny Cash.  And we learn that the lead singer for the band mewithoutyou, Aaron Weiss, has been known to eat food out of trash bins to avoid wastefulness.  OK.

Another chapter is devoted to Mars Hill Church in Seattle, where Beaujon marvels at the success of a church with cool, liberal-friendly music and traditional, old-school Bible theology as epitomized by pastor Mark Driscoll.  Two more chapters chronicle the author’s time spent at the 2006 GMA awards in Nashville, as he critiques and describes the music, personalities, attitudes, and culture he encounters.  We weren’t there, nor did we see the broadcast, but those who were may have additional insight into Beaujon’s observations after comparing their version of events with those of the author.    Yet another chapter is devoted to the Rock For Life movement, led by Erik Whittington, where youth from a variety of backgrounds and political persuasions agree on the sanctity of human life.

Beaujon wraps the book up as he describes what seems to be something of a budding appreciation for David Crowder, which takes place during the time that Crowder’s pastor Kyle Lake died tragically while performing baptisms.  Speaking of Crowder, Beaujon notes that he is one of the few explicitly Christian bands whose music he actually enjoyed and whose music "marked my conversion to, or at least the end of my enmity to, worship music.  Here’s a guy surrounded by rabid fans who’d have done anything to get close to their worship leader…consciously removing himself from the spotlight.  There was only one star at that evening show, and he hadn’t been onstage at all."

In addition to the musical styles, Beaujon seems to agree with Jay Howard and John Streck cultural observations, whom he quotes from Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music.  Howard and Streck’s book "divides Christian music into three camps: Separationist, Integrationist, and Transformational."  Separationists are those typically played on mainstream Christian radio stations and whose music is predominantly oriented towards those already in the faith and living in the American Christian sub-culture bubble, isolated from the real world and associated real problems.  Integrationists are those like Switchfoot and P.O.D who enjoy some measure of success in both the Christian and mainstream markets.  Transformational artists, Beaujon writes, produce "music for misfits, people who struggle with their faith but still attempt to bring ‘salt and light’ to the world."  These bands are largely unheard of on Christian radio and a few don’t seem to know if they are Christians or not. 

If Jesus walked on earth today we doubt he would have been recording second-rate music in a bubble of Christian isolation hawking goofy merchandise to the modern day Pharisees, and we’re also equally doubtful that he would he be on stage swigging vodka and repeatedly using the "f" word via words and music.  One begins to wonder if some in the CCM world haven’t gone from one gospel-perverting extreme to another.

It would have been interesting to read some profiles of the "fans" of these types of music, to get some insight into the people who make some of these bands—both the cool and the uncool, the churchy and the unchurchy—popular and successful.  Just what motivates those who follow 4Him or Pedro the Lion?  What else do they listen to?  What are their lives like?  What do they believe about Jesus and theology? Interviews with some representative individuals—assuming there even is such a thing and that they could be identified as representative—would have been helpful for both believers and unbelievers trying to understand the CCM scene.  However, such a foray in this volume that would do justice to the subject would also have made the book entirely too lengthy and muddled the focus of the book.  Perhaps the author will venture into that territory in a future project, if he hasn’t already had enough of us.

If you’re looking for a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of CCM, the music industry, and some bands and personalities old and new, you’ll find the book interesting to at least thumb and skim through.  That said, it probably isn’t for your Mom, your sixty-something pastor or your Ned Flanders-type neighbor.  You probably won’t find this volume in your local Christian bookstore, and our online sales affiliate does not carry it; nonetheless, the perspectives presented in this book are not without merit, and it is helpful to see the industry through the eyes of one who is outside the faith, whose view of Jesus is largely influenced by those involved one way or another in the modern (or post-modern?) CCM industry.

(c) 2006 Josh Riley | worship.com

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