Once I started, after that fateful Jaci Velasquez album, listening to contemporary Christian music, I learned quickly how divisive music can be within evangelicalism. Not because of CCM itself, but because of how I saw people interacting with the industry specifically and pop culture generally.
I learned how important the smallest details of lyrics, band names, and personal preferences allegedly were to upholding the kingdom of God. I learned how to be careful which bands I admitted liking around some friends. I learned how to not cause my brother to stumble by listening to more worldly rock — like TobyMac or Pillar or even Steven Curtis Chapman in songs such as “Live Out Loud” — while certain families were visiting our house.
I learned the politics not just of the big bad culture war, but also of a subculture war, where you can become the enemy without even realizing it by listening to the wrong song in front of a friend’s mom. Because a band being CCM isn’t always enough — sometimes it has to be the right kind of Christian music, with the right chords and the right beat. And yes, there is a right beat and a wrong.
I don’t want to overstate the awful trauma of CCM inter-subcultural battles, because, yeah, it’s not genocide or abuse or some supervillain’s scheme to rule over all humanity; there are certainly bigger issues in the world. But I do think this is worth recognizing and discussing, because many children are raised in a Christianity that wastes a whole lot of energy in these little catfights when our faith is supposed to be transforming souls and fighting oppression. The music itself focuses on how important that is, yet it becomes just another medium to channel holier-than-thou-ness. So many CCM lyrics told me to be strong regardless of what those outside the church would think of me, but what I too often learned instead was to be careful of what other Jesus Freaks would say if I wasn’t Jesus Freaky enough.
Music was a battlefield, and we were all in the trenches whether we wanted to be or not. This was a weird thing to navigate as a kid. As an adult, I understand the nuances of some of the following anecdotes: older generations’ associations with certain genres or parents’ good intentions to protect their children. But that didn’t necessarily translate at the time, and those intentions were sometimes exaggerated or universalized. What I understood, though, was that the stakes are high in a holy war.
I remember: Switchfoot being criticized because their band name was based on a surfing technique instead of, like, the Bible. “What kind of witness is that?” it was asked, and “Don’t they take their faith seriously?”
I remember: The controversy that would erupt, mothers horrified, when a secular song (with a very few exceptions like “Cotton-Eyed Joe”) would start playing at Christian Skate Night. Some teen would request the DJ play “Bye Bye Bye,” rolling rebelliously into the rink, and oh the commotion! Parents marching over to the music booth and demanding it stop. Not the Backstreet Boys, those bleach-tipped heathens. Not in our children’s ears.
I remember: The few times I went to Skateland not on Christian Skate Night or with my homeschool co-op, how the music was more diverse and had a better sound but I had to pretend to not like it, because that’s what being a Jesus Freak meant, didn’t it? Standing up against secular music? A civilization-shaking revolution of not listening to love songs or hip hop?
I remember: My friend whose dad didn’t allow her to listen to Sixpence None the Richer because in an interview Leigh Nash said they didn’t care if people considered them a Christian band or not, and that meant they were ashamed of the gospel and denying Christ.
I remember: My cousin trying to convince my aunt to buy her the soundtrack to A Walk to Remember. “The main band on it is Switchfoot, and the main song is called ‘Only Hope,’” she explained enthusiastically, including as many Christian-sounding words as possible in her argument, “and the main line is ‘So I lift my hands and pray.’ ‘PRAY,’ mom!”
I remember: My dad laughing to my uncle about how I’d requested a KJ-52 CD for my birthday. “’Christian rap,’” he chuckled, incredulous. “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
I remember: Playing my new grunge rock CD by a band whose name I don’t remember now. “This sounds like getting-high music,” my mom said. “Is this really about God?”
I remember: Passionate debates about whether to classify Jaci Velasquez as a CCM artist, because she did some secular Spanish music. If her songs weren’t all about Jesus, did she really deserve to be called a Christian musician?
I remember: Hushed conversations about whether it was okay to listen to Amy Grant, because she’d divorced her husband — and produced a love song or two.
I remember: Even quieter conversations about whether it was okay to listen to Jennifer Knapp after she came out. It was out of the question that we should listen to her new, post-confession work, but what about her old CDs? Should we just throw them away? Were we supporting the gay agenda by listening to “All Consuming Fire”?
I remember: A mom literally covering her ears at a Christian bowling event. “I hate this music that goes boom boom boom. It doesn’t seem very … wholesome.”
I remember: People at church sneering about those other Christians, the self-righteous ones, who don’t listen to even classic rock music. “That’s just stupid,” they’d say. “It’s not like The Beatles are sending me to hell!”
I remember: A field trip to a pops concert matinee at the community college where the band played a bunch of popular songs. There were students from a few public schools there, too. One mom afterwards said, “I’m so proud of our kids for knowing the patriotic songs, but not even recognizing The Simpsons theme song — what a witness!”
This is part of a series for Dianna Anderson‘s #PlanetCCM synchroblog, exploring our experiences with Christian music. My first post was “Does this nonconformity make me look cool?” The last part commemorates some of the albums I loved most.