I became a Christian in 1973 in Centerville, Ohio. In case history is not your strong suit, this was the height of the Jesus People movement. And it was also one of the most tumultuous times our nation has ever experienced. Some wondered if we would make it another three years to our bicentennial. The music of the day expressed the angst our nation was feeling. I developed my worldview by the music I listened to. When I became a Christian, I wanted to find a way to express my newfound faith. I didn’t have to look too far: I found it where I lived: in music.
Music was my primary language. I listened to music every chance I could. This was in an era (are you sitting down? This could be shocking.) before iPods, before boomboxes, even before the Sony Walkman. If I wanted to listen to music, I had to be near my record player. Or my cousin Gary’s record player. So Gary and I spent a lot of time in our rooms, listening to records. He was more interested in the instruments and the mixing of sound. I was more interested in lyrics. Pop, or as we called it then, “bubblegum,” music did not interest me in the least. I was drawn to songs that told stories, stories that touched my soul. And once my soul was awakened, I looked for lyrics that spoke to what I was now—a child of the Master Musician.
The songs that I could relate to in church were the hymns. Choruses were nice, and gave me a bit of an emotional rush and were fun to clap to with my new youth group friends, but the words didn’t really speak to me. But oh! the hymns. One of the first things I would do when we were told what page in the hymnal to turn to was to look at the year it was written. I figured the older the hymn, the better it must be, as it had survived the test of time. My favorite hymns (then and now) were Be Thou My Vision and All Creatures Of Our God And King.
Songs that tell stories speak to me more deeply than spoken or written words ever can. As I am writing this I’m listening to some of my favorite story songs. With God On Our Side (the Buddy Miller version). My God by Jethro Tull. San Quentin by Johnny Cash. And the most powerful story song of all, Hurricane by Bob Dylan. In this, Dylan sings the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer accused and convicted of murdering three people in a New Jersey bar in the 1960s. Whether you believe he was wrongly convicted or not, the story as sung by Dylan is unparalleled in touching my heart. It awakens anger and sorrow and grief like no other story or song I have ever encountered.
This is who I am: A man whose soul is reached by story. The first Christian musical storyteller I came upon as a young believer was Larry Norman. His lyrics went beyond the “isn’t Jesus so fine” words I was hearing in other songs I played on my record player (or, gasp!, my 8 track player. Yes, I am that old.) or sang in church. Norman was expressing what many in the church at the time wanted to ignore: poverty, injustice, the morality of war. He presented Jesus, not as a nice addition to life, but as a rebel who would be shunned by most practical, upstanding people today. Just as Norman was himself. Some say he was an outlaw …
So I went to church with a soul hungry for story, and I heard it in the hymns. Oh, we were taught great lessons from Scripture in the sermons, but I often went away with a hymn ringing in my heart that spoke more to me than the sermon did.
Ok, Jeff, you say, this is nice history. But it’s history. What is in this for us today? And my answer?
I don’t know.
Where are the great musical storytellers in the church today? They are not visible, at least not to me. Christian radio doesn’t want story. They want three minute, thirty second songs with a hook that worship leaders will sing this Sunday so that you buy the song on Monday. When that song wears out its welcome, a new one will be released. Cynical? No. Realistic. Christian music today is a business. Not as big of a business as Christian book publishing, but a business nonetheless. And it uses the church to expand its business. And we let it. That is just the way it is.
There are a few Christian music storytellers still today, but they are marginalized. My favorite is Sara Groves. She is very real, too real for most churches. She champions justice, something that makes most very uncomfortable. And if there is one thing we can’t allow in our worship services, it is making anyone uncomfortable. Everything, from parking lot greeters to giving free coffee to keeping crying babies out of sanctuaries, is meant to make the worship experience a comfortable one. Sing a song that asks why we are not rescuing slaves or feeding the starving or caring for dying AIDS patients? No way.
So for me, church music is mostly an hollow experience. It’s like eating cotton candy. Yes, it tastes good for a few bites. But it doesn’t satisfy hunger. Maybe your church still sings the great hymns of old. Ours sings one or two hymns every few months. But words like “fetter” and “Ebenezer” are not fun words to sing because we don’t know them today, and we don’t want to be bothered with learning what they mean and the story they might tell us. We want fun and comfort and cotton candy.
So I listen to Mike Roe of the 77s and Daniel Amos. I listen to Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash, three of the greatest storytellers ever to live. I listen to Larry Norman and thank the Lord for his rebellion and his long hair. And I sing by myself,
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.