The Quest for Contemporary Christian Music that doesn’t Suck

One of the great things about teaching a class on pop culture and religion is you can find out who’s good at writing about certain subjects, and then exploit their work. With that in mind, I’m happy to introduce Benjamin Griffin as a contributor to this blog. Benjamin is in the thesis stage of his master’s work at Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology here at our fair Berkeley consortium, GTU. But what he really loves to do is rock out to Christian bands that know something about theology and music and wouldn’t be caught dead on K-LOVE. With that, enjoy his exploration, along with links to the sounds and video, of some of the best Christian bands you’ve possibly never heard of, but should have.

BENJAMIN DREW GRIFFIN: It just might be impossible to discuss contemporary Christian music (CCM) without acknowledging the ever-looming stigma of saccharine sentimentality and ubiquitous hand-raising. From the openly faithful joy of Amy Grant to the gratingly dodgy posturing of Creed, there seems to be a stereotypical understanding of Christian music consisting of either mega-church mentality or watered down rock wannabes. One of these categories, however, is perfectly acceptable. For many of the faith, there is powerful praise to be found in eschewing the organ for an acoustic guitar (there is, however, no such allowance for fans of Creed). For many others, CCM can either be a hindrance or simply an annoyance when it comes to their worship. Whether it’s preference for the old-time hymns or simply a matter of musical palate, it is undeniable that for many CCM is not how they would choose to “Shout to the Lord (all the earth, let us sing…).”

Aside from our traditional chants or hymns, where is the new music for the rest of us? Are we simply left to glean whatever spiritual resonance we can from the general human experience transmitted through “secular” music? Or is it better, after all, not to bother with the ‘devil’s music’ and leave the world to its own devices? Well, what if I was to tell you that Christians are everywhere making every single type of music you can think of? Do you love the Norwegian variety of death metal but ain’t too comfortable with the whole Satan-worshiping/church burning nonsense? Well, why don’t you check out Zao, Becoming the Archetype, or numerous others belonging to the massive and massively metal Christian label, Solid State?

YouTube/Becoming the Archetype: How Great Thou Art

Now, keep in mind, I am not talking about artists simply aping styles for the sake of CCM.  Although such trends occur (prompting in me the desire to find CCM’s Nikki Minaj…), I am talking about earnest artists attempting to create expressions of fully embodied praise through art, CCM free. Musical exploration, honest self-expression, and, yes, spiritual devotion all wrapped up in packages many would never recognize as Christian if they weren’t told or didn’t pay close attention.

Take for example indie rock’s darling genius, Sufjan Stevens (featured image, above, left). Too many times have I encountered articles or conversations that discuss his “Biblical allusions” as if his preoccupation with spirituality equates simply with his love for literature. But, let’s be honest here, he wrote a love song from the point of view of Christ for his close friend (and occasional musical partner) Reverend Vito. This wasn’t simply a matter of congratulating a friend; it was a matter of creating a deeply affecting and beautiful theological reflection on what it means to give every ounce of your being to Christ.

YouTube/Vito’s Ordination Song, from Sufjan Stevens’ 2003 album, Michigan

I must make it known that I have no real qualms with CCM. I was personally quite a fan when I was younger (for a brief time, at least). Above, I commented on how CCM often riffs on various popular styles, existing as an amorphous attempt at capturing popular attention in the name of Christ. When I was in high school, I worked at a Christian bookstore for the express purpose of the delightfully robust music section they offered. During my time, I found an absolutely fantastic band that was, for all intents and purposes, a Christian version of 311. As an avid fan of 311 myself, I was overjoyed to stumble upon a group of Christians who took their love for that particular brand of reggae-rap-rock and utilized it to praise God.

Perhaps the most well known examples (and one of my childhood loves) are Christian superstars, dcTalk. Perhaps you’ve heard their Nirvana-aping hit “Jesus Freak.” Well, did you know they began as a rap group? Oh yes, awkward early 90’s ‘decent Christian’ rap. I am not questioning the veracity of their faith nor challenging their right to evolve musically, but there is an argument to be made for their existence as what amounts to a Christian boy-band. Three lead singers, backed by an ever-evolving session band, shifting from rap to grunge to soft rock, dcTalk were undeniably Christian mega stars but were not necessarily the most original musicians. Sure, Toby McKeehan went on to explore some interesting rap/dancehall solo records (since evolving into more pop-power rock) but, as dcTalk, they embody the sort of CCM that I do not wish to explore: over-produced, pop-culturally malleable, evangelistic music. Once again, not to say that there isn’t a lot of earnest beauty to be found in such music (dcTalk’s song ‘Red Letters’ still tears me up), there’s just a more fascinating and challenging realm out there.

An artist who exemplifies what I am suggesting is Derek Webb. As the former guitarist/singer of CCM mega-stars Caedmon’s Call, these days he’s finding it hard even to get his music into Christian stores. He went from standing before packed churches, preaching to believers about the confessions of their hearts to touring the smaller, perhaps decidedly more liberal churches. What happened? Well, it seems when you stick up for the love of your brothers and sisters whatever their sexual orientation, some Christians just can’t suffer to stand by love. I even once had the absolute pleasure of watching him piss off a large crowd of Georgia conservatives by being decidedly anti-Bush and anti-war because, gasp, Jesus seems to have a thing about not striking back. Whether it’s embracing the word “whore” to describe our fidelity to God or rallying against government corruption, Derek Webb is exactly the sort of theologically challenging and musically diverse artist many simply don’t know exists.

YouTube/Derek Webb: What Matters More

Again, the musical range is nigh infinite.  There have been musical movements such as Christian hip-hop, punk, indie, and the Christian parallel of the ska-boom in the late 90’s typified by bands like O.C. Supertones and Five Iron Frenzy. Instead of merely adapting to the popular sound of the day, these were bands that appeared as earnest representations of the movement. While the Supertones were known to break out the acoustic guitars at shows for some good ol’ hand-waving Jesus praisin’, Five Iron Frenzy wore their love for Christ on their sleeves right along side their disparaging distrust of American patriotism and disturbingly prevalent Christian homophobia (these aren’t the only themes that mark the Christian alternative, I promise). While the Supertones might lean more towards evangelism of which I previously mentioned, FIF certainly buck against the CCM stereotypes.

YouTube/Five Iron Frenzy: Anthem

So, let’s be honest here: I’m a Christian ‘hipster’ (*shudder*). What I wish to highlight is an alternative take of what many consider Christian music. There are contemporary Christian musicians that evangelize for the fringe, wave the flag for the weird, and extol the theologically challenging. Like Christ’s table itself, the Christian music world consists of the sinners, the irksome, the angry, and, of course, the doubters—music that doesn’t simply sing love songs to our Lord Up Above but rather those that seek to be consumed by that love here below. Whether they’re alternative, mainstream, or just plain weird, everyone’s invited to the table and everyone’s welcome to bring their instruments along.

Categories Music

Benjamin resides somewhere near Austin, Texas. When he's not working as a hospital chaplain, he's looking for God in whatever art his heart stumbles upon.