Keeping Up With the Amish
Copyright 1999 by Christianity Today Magazine
For my birthday, an old friend from college days takes me to the Michael Card concert. Card, long a voice of theological and intellectual integrity in the Christian music industry, opens with a few songs, followed by a tongue-in-cheek apology: "Some of you may have come expecting to see lasers and a light show," he remarks, "or at least a hair piece." But this is a no-frills concert: jeans, T-shirts, a bald head, and a lot of music. Glitter and glam didn't draw this crowd. We came for the promise of potent reflection on the meaning of the Word in our time.
More than three hours and many songs later, my friend and I seem reluctant to depart from the concert hall, unwilling to leave while we still feel the concert's residual glow staving off the night. Standing in a foyer, we continue our running conversation about Christians in the arts and the contemporary Christian music industry - CCM, as it is known - which exerts a sizable presence in our country. Triggered by the emotion of the concert, I find myself verging on passionate as we make our way toward the subject of Rich Mullins, a Christian artist who had died in a car wreck the previous summer. I had just read that according to Reed Arvin, his producer, Mullins kept an extensive journal of musings and confessions that rarely made it into the lyrics of his recorded songs; among these, said Arvin, were things Mullins "couldn't say in the Christian music world." Industry demands, tied as they are to (perceived) consumer taste and sensibility, quarantined more searching reflection and expression.
Learning this struck me deeply. I had admired Mullins as a singularly gifted man, a pilgrim who at times ushered listeners to the edge of the profound. His lyrics often carried the scent of the medieval monastery, unusual in CCM, or anywhere. How might his ability to evoke mystery and image the real have been heightened by a more accommodating artistic climate, I found myself wondering, trying to imagine songs and albums left unwritten. Subjected to this editorial surveillance, Mullins could only offer - so long as he chose to work under the auspices of CCM - a guarded glimpse of himself, a publicity shot retouched by executives thinking more like advertisers than honest brokers. That glimpse we caught of the questing sojourner, it turns out, was a bit too polished and slick.
My anger peaks as my friend and I exchange reflections on the consequences of this barren modus operandi. Like me, he as a youth immersed himself in the music of CCM artists like Mullins, hunging for the meaty fruit of honest encounters with God and self. Mullins stood high above many of the others with whom we spent so much time and energy, people to whom we looked for sustenance, inhabitants of an alternative universe that paralleled the poisonous world of mainstream popular music. We listened for an echo of our own experience in their arts. The older we grew the less we seemed to hear it. At first we heaped blame on ourselves for a spirituality that in this light seemed shabby; gradually, we came to sense that the image being delivered by CCM was not everything. The music and message that once seemed vital and genuine began to sound tinny and hollow. CCM, driven by the measure and ethos of the mass market, had found itself by the mid-1980s comfortably nestled on a procrustean bed, taking a stable of artists and legions of fans along with it.
Our conversation moves naturally from Mullins to Mark Heard, a veteran of the CCM world for whose work both my friend and I have developed a deep affinity. Like Mullins, Heard's life came to an unforecasted end. After a remarkably productive career, in which he recorded 14 albums in as many years, he died in 1992 of a heart attack, 40 years old. Of the many Christian artists who fell under the influence of Francis Schaeffer during the 1970s and '80s, he had been the one who perhaps most energetically embodied Schaeffer's call for a theologically rooted social criticism wedded to scrupulous standards of artistic integrity. But by the mid-1980s, Heard and the magnates of CCM were heading toward divorce. Unwilling to adjust his work to the musical and theological standards of the industry, and frustrated with the pietistic bathos of the broader subculture to which his contractual obligations bound him, he struck out on his own as an artist and producer. With Dan Russell he formed an independent label, Fingerprint Records.
Between 1990 and 1992, Heard recorded three records on his Fingerprint label that unfailingly arrest the imagination, some of the most poignant artistic expression and theological reflection done by any Christian in the last half of the twentieth century. His profoundly American music, folk-rock in the Appalachian vein, was so highly regarded by his peers that following his death, Russell compiled a double-CD album of 34 artists performing renditions of Heard's songs, largely taken from these last three albums; in 1995 an abridged version of the project, Strong Hand of Love, garnered a Grammy nomination. Artists ranging from CCM veterans Julie Miller and Phil Keaggy to rockers Michael Been and the Vigilantes of Love to singer-song writers Pierce Pettis and Bruce Cockburn paid tribute in song. They saw in Heard an artist whose ability was enormous, vision was profound, and commitment to honest self-revelation unparalleled.
Like Mullins, Heard's faith shaped his art, and in a remarkably uncliched way. Like Mullins, he felt the squeeze of market demands as he struggled for self-expression and theological integrity. Unlike Mullins, Heard mounted an audible protest against these working conditions and the subculture that sanctions them; his last records became his testament of another way. On his final album, the white-hot Satellite Sky, Heard included "The Big Wheels Roll," a rollicking song in which he told the seemingly autobiographical tale of one man's long struggle to live out his calling in the context of corporate America. At the end of the song the man unleashes his rage:
Damn the cool-headed and the setters of goals
Who can feel no evil, no heat, no cold
Who wouldn't know passion if it swallowed them whole
To whom true love is a left-brain risk
For whom the giving of life is a needless myth
Who cover their graves with monoliths
Cool heads prevail, and we'll become extinct
Mutants too unfit to wish
That's the fallout of our fingerprints
By his life's end, Heard had come to believe that the regime of the market moguls represented not only a threat to his own vocation as an artist, but also to our very ability to live truly human lives. A harsh critique, to be sure, especially when etched so starkly. But is it accurate? Does it hit somewhere near the mark?
Just one randcid cluster of sour grapes, the Christian "realists" might retort, or, more charitably, the unfortunate downside of an economic system that has for the most part served as well. But tonight an opposite conviction gains strength inside of me, fueled by the concert and this conversation. I see embattled prophets denouncing bad-faith compromises with principalities that war against a more Godward vision of the created order. We are ceding ground that is rightfully his, with precious little protest. Nothing countermands these bottom-line dictates, no church, no theology, no god. Some might consider this a useful definition of idolatry.
Now outside the cloakroom, the conversation finally winding down, I feel a touch of guilt for my overly righteous dismissal of the world of CCM, which has indeed, these criticisms aside, served as a conduit for much that is life-sustaining and good, as our experience at this concert attests. But the stories of Mullins and Heard testify of a darker side of the curtain, where a demanding director with overweening authority sits. Theological reflection and honest confession, particularly in the potentially powerful form of art, are being misshaped and falsified.
The market yields a theology shaped not in the image of God but the "niche" to which it shamelessly panders. In this scheme, instead of imitating God, we mainly succeed in reproducing ourselves, our stature ever diminishing. Those so skilled at discerning consumer appetite would do well to heed evangelical social critic Os Guinness: In working out our own callings, we are to perform for one audience, the audience of One. The market must not be master.