Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Confessions of a CCM junkie

Hi, my name is Brook, and this evening I stepped foot in a ... a christian bookstore (like Ren confessing "I...I was NICE today" with a look of grave, nearly horrified concern on his face...). I don't normally do that sort of thing, but I used to practically live in that world, and so, despite the fact that it is so very foreign to me now, at the same time it will also probably always be a part of my life in some way or other, that CCM / CBA world of commodified holiness. There's a lot of fluff and nonsense in those places, but if you know where to look, there's also the occasional "real deal". I was buying the latest book by Margaret Becker, as well as a book w/ audio CD by A.W.Tozer (both for whom I still hold the utmost respect). Wandering around the isles, looking at all the "christian" product, got me thinking about what a strange looking animal the christian subculture is. Over the years, I've seen that scene get into bed with some odd partners - like Precious Moments porcelin figurines, or more recently Extreme Sports (I won't even go into the whole novelty item thing -like "Testa-Mints").

There was a time in my life, however, when I lived and breathed that subculture. Mostly as a teenager and young adult, probably well into my mid-twenties (at which point I discovered a whole other "christian subculture" out in the real world that changed my life forever). There is something innate in most of us, some desire or longing, to want to be a good person, to do the right thing, and the christian (marketing) subculture plays to and on that instinct for all its worth, getting you to believe that buying "christian" product is the "right thing to do" (just like Wilford Brimley does with oatmeal). The terms "secular" and "christian" come to serve as a rallying point of "us -vs- them" mentality, getting the "christian" consumer to place a moral weight on what they are buying - a morality that has nothing to do with "fair trade" or "ecological" considerations or that sort of truly biblical morality, and everything to do with which label has been placed on which product ("christian" or "secular"). There is this unwritten, unspoken belief, it seems to me, that the more products you purchase and consume labeled "christian", the better Christian you are (and therefore the better chance you have of getting to heaven because you are following the right path, doing the right thing, and all of that). This concept reached ridiculous proportions at a certain point (including christian mortgage companies, car dealers, clothing, etc), but in my own personal experience, it mostly focused on the music we were listening to, the books we read, and the company we kept, with the primary focus put on...Music. Entertainment, in general, seemed to me to be the earmark of whether one was living a holy, devout, christian life. Not whether I fed the hungry, clothed the naked (who I wouldn't want to be near anyway because of the sexual immorality implied by their state), visited the sick and imprisoned, or any of that other unmarketable stuff, but rather what kind of music was I listening to ("feeding my spirit" with would be the correctly understood terminology), and was it "christian" or "secular"? (THE most important question one could ask regarding what one was engaging in). Those qualifying for something akin to sainthood would be those who got rid of all their (possessions? to give to the poor and follow Christ? no...) SECULAR ALBUMS and listened to only christian music...

I could go on and on, bitching about how screwed up all this line of thinking is, and I will at some point I'm sure, but for now just suffice it to say that this was the mentality that I was immersed in for a good amount of my young adult life. And to tell you the truth, I don't know that I would change those years much for anything. Granted, I've had to do a whole lot of unsticking myself from the cultural mess it entangles, seperating the truth from the trappings and baggage, but CCM music (Contemporary Christian Music, for those who might not know what CCM means, and who will probably rightly ask why would anyone use the word "music" after the letter that stands for "music") played a very important part in my life, and I do believe there can be a legitimate place in a genuine Christian's life for CCM. At its best, christian music helps keep one's mind and thoughts focused on the truths of their faith, on the God they serve, on Christ and His life, and what that means for their life and how to live it. CCM can serve as a catalyst for worship, or even just as a positive aural environment in which to allow oneself to soak in. It can be a common ground upon which relationships with fellow believers can be strengthened or discovered. There is nothing wrong with music that focuses on the various aspects of Christian faith. It can be very good, in fact, a calming and healing element for the soul, an anchor in the midst of times of confusion. And, probably best of all, it has the potential to lead one (to point in the right direction at least) towards a truly authentic life of faith, inspiring deeper study of the scriptures and deeper thought on how to apply these things to one's life. Some of the best artists are simply confessional singer/songwriters, sharing their life of faith and their struggles, providing something of a light and example for their listeners to follow or share in, to feel they are not alone (while some, at their didactic and condesceding worst, are simply making teaching tapes set to music, or propaganda even, with all the lack of artistic integrity that entails). Some of it is Inspirational, in the truest sense of the word. and some of it... well, some of it is just damn good rock and roll, whatever you might happen to believe.

Some of the best, and most genuine Christian artists I have come to know and love over the years include artists like Rich Mullins, Kieth Green, Rez Band (with Glenn Kaiser, whose life and example was probably the single biggest influence on my early Christian life and thought), Undercover (whose song "Build a Castle", as well as the albums Branded and Balance of Power in general, probably had the single most significant influence on my life and thought later on in college - an awareness of death and an understanding of the importance of relationships that has profoundly influenced me to this day), Daniel Amos / Terry Taylor, Mylon Lefevre (who seems to have flipped his boat since then and gone all looney cliche' charismatic), Margaret Becker, Kim Hill, Charlie Peacock, Amy Grant, Larry Norman (the grandpappy godfather of christian rock), etc. etc... There are countless others whose music I have loved, but these artists and more like them have had a deep impact on who I was (and still am), and how I thought about and lived my life of faith. In recent years, artists like Nicole Nordeman, Carolyn Arends, and Jennifer Knapp have continued to provide a spark of hope for signs of life in the christian music subculture to me, artists who seem (to me) to be the genuine article - that is, more concerned with their faith and the struggles and sacrifices it entails than with their CCM image as product (I would also mention artists like Sarah Masen or Sixpence None the Richer, but I generally think of them not as a CCM artists - which, despite all the nice things I just said about it above, would be to degrade the kind of artistic expression of faith that they create - but rather I like to think of them as among those genuine artists, akin to Sam Philips, who may have roots in CCMland, but live and move and shine their light in the real world, in ways the CCM world can't quite understand - or, worse yet, can't "market". No one's quite sure what's happened to Jennifer Knapp, but I'd like to hope she's about to head in that direction herself - turn in her resignation to the CCM marketing machine and follow Sam Philips' footsteps right the hell out of that ghetto)

Though I've outgrown that confining world of CCM culture, it's still a part of who I am, and there's enough goodness and life to have come from it that I don't wish it were otherwise. I've developed some of my closest friendships out of that era of my life, and I'm still living on the life of faith I found there (though it looks nearly unrecognizably different from what it was before), still struggling towards a genuine understanding of God and my relationship with who He is, still struggling towards a genuine expression of that faith in my everyday life.



Andrew said...

You and I were on a CCM wavelength the day you wrote this. I was appreciating that my Ipod was connecting the tracks to Fireworks Live so that it flowed seamlessly. It was the first time I had played that recording through in its entirety in about 15 years. Fireworks was the first album I got for my stereo.

I spent the rest of my workout time with Mortal and was thinking through a blog entry where I would thank each of the artists who impacted me in my teen years. I would agree with your mourning of Mylon, who was very influential and yet presently I would contradict most of all.

Carrie said...

Andrew has an Ipod??? Wonderful!

Victor said...

These words resonate. Good thoughts.

LittleBird said...

it's always humbling to read something like this and be reminded of the journey of others and the contrast with one's own path.

i didn't encounter evangelical subculture - certainly not the USA kind exported to UK/Ireland - nor had even heard of CCM or any of the artists you mentioned here 'til i was 18. by which time i was already going to gigs in Dublin's music bars, pretty much weekly. so i never had the pressure of not listening to secular music - my life was filled with it.

plus, i was increasingly surrounded in what i now call a my sub-sub-sub- faith culture by musicians that we all knew were unlikely to or never going to pass muster to be signed by a CCM label.

all that definitely impacted how i received 'Christian' music. or didn't. i think i was predisposed to be drawn to the artists who were on a conscious faith journey that didn't seem to fit the CCM tag because the wider evangelical subculture felt so 'other' from the get go. so i wasn't really interested in anyone but the rebels in it.

so in reading your own story, i find your thoughts in this post really convincing. perhaps because you're so honest in it - about what you left behind but also what you want to keep with you. it's got a great deal of integrity to it.

really glad i read this.