What It Means to Love 90s Christian Rock—A Free Sample from CaPC Magazine

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So, tonight’s all about nostalgia, right?” Mike Hererra, who is best known for fronting the Christian pop-punk band MxPx, asked a roomful of mostly 30-something, mostly white evangelicals at a rock club in downtown Seattle a couple of weeks ago.

He was partly, or even mostly, right. We were there to see the people who were our heroes when we were fifteen. Perhaps for Herrera, playing this kind of show does not feel nostalgic: he has not stopped (for any significant period of time) making music, releasing albums, or playing shows in the last twenty years. The band he was opening for, Five Iron Frenzy, however, publicly and dramatically retired ten years ago and is in the middle of a triumphant reunion tour, fueled primarily by the nostalgia and disposable income of their formerly teenaged fans.

Nostalgia is an apparent sin in both the Evangelical and rock-and-roll worlds. We are admonished not to cling to an idealized past when, for example, Christendom was triumphant or Weezer was awesome. Fair points, both. Yet I feel a need to speak up in favor of the current 90’s rock nostalgia bloom – indeed, especially for the current 90’s Christian rock nostalgia bloom – and defend it not as mere longing for a simpler, romantic past, but as an attempt to remember and reclaim things that are right and good, things that we will carry forward.

We – and I say we, because if you are reading an article about 90’s Christian rock, you are probably one of us – we grew up in a time, place, and culture where personal investment in certain kinds of music was just not an option: whether for parental, spiritual, or cultural reasons, we did not identify primarily as fans of Nirvana, Green Day, or the Smashing Pumpkins. We may have liked those bands, but they didn’t shape our identities.

Instead of claiming citizenship in the Alternative Nation, we signed on to a genuinely ‘alternative’ culture, where we listened to Poor Old Lu, not Nirvana, MxPx, not Green Day, the Prayer Chain, not the Smashing Pumpkins, etc. We did not only listen to these bands; we absorbed them, internalized them, joined our longings and theirs. (Perhaps you think this is an overstatement; don’t you remember being a teenager?) Christian rock was ours in a way that ‘regular’ alternative music of the 90s was not. Nirvana belonged to ever American teenager; MxPx and Five Iron Frenzy belonged to a few hundred thousand. In a book I wrote on the subject (I am really into this stuff), I found myself likening 90’s Christian rock fandom to the feeling of being on a “team”: our subculture, with its small record labels, magazines, and concerts, was a safe haven, a home, a kind of church, even.

Perhaps this is what every music scene feels like. People fell into – and aged out of – punk, techno, emo, metal, and hip-hop scenes in the 90’s. Is Christian rock, and Christian rock nostalgia, so different? Do we pine for a time when all you had to do was drive to the Christian bookstore, consult a chart outlining exactly which bands you were allowed to listen to? Do we want to be sixteen, unjaded, in love with God, and “stoked” about youth group? Alternatively, do we want to poke good-natured fun at those years, to temporarily escape into a world of novelty songs with embarrassing lyrics (e.g., “I Luv Rap Music”)?

For me, the answer to all of these questions is mostly no. What I think we are beginning to realize is that this music we loved, or some of it, at least, was great, and even enduring. We’ve maybe been conditioned to dismiss it as naïve or dated, to see it as a part of ourselves that we need to leave behind – the same way some people feel about religious faith all together.

We’re learning to treasure some of these things in our hearts, though – the sheer depth and texture of records like Mercury and Sin, the prophetic wisdom of Rich Mullins, and the hard-won, weary faith of non-“Kiss Me” Sixpence None the Richer songs, to name a few. The beauty of these things is not in the past – they are still beautiful, they still speak to us. They can still be new each time we encounter them, or each time someone encounters them for the first time.

Even the ritual of a nostal-rock show is something more than longing to be the people we were fifteen years ago. When I decided to go see Five Iron Frenzy, I was certain I would be doing two things: 1) screaming “Buy! Take! Break! Throw it away!” along to “American Kryptonite” and 2) embarrassingly weeping to “Every New Day.” Reliably, I did them. Did I need to drive 200 miles to do these things? I had, after all, done them before.

But I wanted to do them again, even if I am not who I was the last time I did them, because there are things that I truly believe, parts of myself that I want to cultivate – and these rock shows, however infrequently I now attend them, help me to do this. “American Kryptonite” is shorthand – like the two buttons I bought at the anarchist bookstore across the street before the show, one with a black heart and one with a woodcut fist – that reminds me how much I want to resist consumer culture and entitlement, how much more important love is than money, how complicit I am in injustice. “Every New Day,” a song Reese Roper referred to as “a reset button,” a song about “God renewing and somehow making a new life in you,” gives me access to a vulnerability and openness to God I rarely feel. I need to hear songs like this. I need to sing them.

There is something of nostalgia in loving these songs and bands from our youth. Yet as much as they pull us back, they can also push us forward. The early punk band the Buzzcocks released the song “Nostalgia” in 1978 (two years before I was born), the chorus of which is not about returning home or to the past, but a “nostalgia for an age yet to come.” This, I think, is what I’ve been trying to say. To quote another pop-punk band, the Weakerthans (who are not a Christian band, but all pop-punk truth is God’s pop-punk truth): “I swear I way more than half believe it when I say that somewhere love and justice shine.” Music helps me to continue to believe this, and one kind of music that helps the most is the music that made me start caring about love and justice in the first place; yes, loving 90’s Christian rock means, paradoxically, feeling a nostalgia, and a nostalgia for an age yet to come.

Joel Heng Hartse is the author of Sects, Love, and Rock & Rolla book about 90′s Christian rock. 

Image Credit: Sofía Salom via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • Scott_Garbacz

    I have a hard time seeing Rich Mullins as 90′s CCM; when asked how he “got into the music industry,” he responded: “I’m pretty sure I brained a church organist in my previous life, and this is how God decided to punish me.”

    But I did have a similar experience listening to early Caedmon’s Call the other day. I realized that despite the enduring brilliance of songs such as “Suicidal Stones” and “Center Aisle,” Derek Webb had some of the same musical problems then as now: intense generalized ambiguity, oddly superficial operatic introspection, &c. But I also realized how healthy they had been for my spiritual formation. “This World” became the blueprint for my protest against the church as I so often and vividly experienced it, while pointing the way towards a deeper, suffering, engaged, non-fortress hristian ideal. (“And the least of these look like criminals to me / So I leave Christ on the street” or the sublime longing of the opening “There’s tarnish on the golden rule / And I want to jump from this ship of fools / Show me a place where hope is young / and a people who are not afraid to love.”)

    And yet, and yet. in general I can’t entirely resonate with this piece, probably because while Christian music has been important to me, the influences that actually were healthy were far from the center of Christian music. Meanwhile D.C. Talk, Audio Adrenaline, Supertones, (all of whom I loved) &c. became shibboleths of an isolationist, unloving Christian community that ruthlessly dominated the social scene where I grew up and was more concerned with its in-group members’ comfort and advancement than being kind and fair to outsiders. Listening to CCM rather than secular music meant being voted the head of the student body, being included in all the cool youth group trips, &c.

    So for me, most of what they listened to was tarnished by association. Where I looked for “spiritual songs” was in protest pieces; Ballydowse calling America to repentance for our support of Guatemalan death-squads, Jars of Clay pitting the melancholy, reflective sound of their debut CD against the clannish cheerfulness of so much Christian music, Rich Mullins chain-smoking and unapologetically cursing while living a life of purposeful poverty and self-sacrificial mission. Theoretically, I should have been on the side of Supertones; after all, we both loved Chesterton, we both loved Jesus, and I loved their sound. But in my more reflective moments, I just kept thinking, you don’t get it. Your hearts may be in the right place, but from where I stand, your music is used as little more than whitewash, applied liberally to hollow tombs.

  • wisdomhunter

    I was more of an 80′s kid; for a big chunk of the 90′s I was an atheist. When my faith returned, I looked back at the 80′s acts with mixed feelings. Some–embarrassingly bad. Some–still wonderful, and deeper than I remember. And a lot just “meh”.
    Kind of like the rest of the music scene, “the secular” scene.. A few gems, a few imitators of the greats that did pretty good, a few really stupid, stupid things; and a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t remember or even care about, except for the fact I associate it with a certain time in my life, and the music is evocative of that time.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Is it just me, or is it kind of funny for a bunch of 30-somethings to be sitting around pining for the “old days” of the 90s? I mean, when I think old, I think… you know, like “Johnny B. Goode” or something like that. Same thing when people talk about “old Disney.” I’m like “Oh yeah! Bambi. Sleeping Beauty. Wait, do you mean the newer stuff?”

  • Esther O’Reilly

    BTW, typo here: “Nirvana belonged to ever American teenager”

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Funny you should mention Rich Mullins. I know he’s often painted as a “rebel” type against the Christian music establishment. There’s no question he was an odd bird who broke a lot of stereotypes. Yet he came from a Quaker background. If you asked him what his earliest, most basic source of musical inspiration was, he would instantly say “Hymns.” Really kind of a quiet guy.

    Sometimes I think we need more colorful categories for people. Instead of this bland bifurcation of “uncool Pharisee” over here and “cool rebel” over there, what if we expanded our thinking a little bit? When I think Rich Mullins, I don’t think “hippie, anti-establishment, rebel, etc.” I think “Interesting guy, folk musician, steeped in hymns and scripture, a little more vulnerable than most, Catholic bent…” I find that much more interesting than figuring out who’s “in” or “out” of a particular subculture. I’m looking for good music and solid people. I love Rich Mullins, but I still find value in a lot of the so-called “establishment” music of the 90s. I think Twila Paris wrote some of her strongest stuff. I think Steven Curtis Chapman was still going strong and did some mighty fine guitar work on Signs of Life. I learned a lot about what makes a good pop song by listening to Scott Krippayne. I think Phillips Craig & Dean had a great sound (wait, maybe they don’t count because it’s come out that they’re modalists—anyway, you get my drift.)

    All those folks I just listed might be “whitewashed tombs” to you, but that’s because you’re lumping everyone together instead of considering each artist on an individual level. If pop music isn’t your thing, great. It’s not for everyone. Just don’t jump to conclusions about some people who might have been a bit more talented (and genuine) than you’re giving them credit for.

  • Alan Noble

    How old are you?

  • Esther O’Reilly

    My soul is a hundred years old my friend. A hundred years old.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    What are some Christian 80s acts you like in retrospect? I like some of the stuff the Imperials did in the crossover from 70s to 80s. I mentioned SCC in a different comment for his 90s work, but I think some of his best songs came out of the 80s once he began to hit his stride. If you look at his early work there are a lot of false starts, but then you hit upon a little gem like “I Will Be Here,” “His Eyes,” or “My Redeemer is Faithful and True.” Also, call me cheesy, but I still dig me some Amy Grant. Really, for 80s pop music it wasn’t half bad. Similar to Karen Carpenter.

  • Scott_Garbacz

    Thanks for your reply.

    First of all, I need to clarify what I wrote. I never said the guys I listed (DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, Supertones) were whitewashed tombs. I said they were used as whitewash for tombs. It’s not about them–it’s about the uses their music was put to.

    I suppose I could have been more obvious about this. I think “Colored People” and “What if I Stumble” remain, when I listen to them, thoughtful and orthodox songs. “Bloom” actually strikes me as a rather skillful album, and a lot of what Supertones wrote was quite good. But to me, in high school, what those CCM rock bands said and believed wasn’t as important as how they were misused. They became the soundtrack for a culture that was, for all its virtues and beauties, flawed in some significant ways. And that culture often shaped the way those artists formed my spiritual life–which was negative. I suppose I have a similar reaction to a lot of CCM that a recovering druggie would have to Pink Floyd; it is associated with some sinful elements of my past, and I can’t always disassociate the two. “If your right eye causes you to sin, cast it out,” as Jesus said–but that doesn’t mean the eye is itself sinful.

    I didn’t listen to Twila Paris and never quite got into Steven Curtis Chapman, and definitely didn’t listen to Scott Krippayne, and it may very well be that I missed out on some great and beautiful songs and genuinely skilled artists. I did listen to Stavesacre, though, and Mark Solomon’s anguished line about “Ten thousand staring eyelids that can only see / The show the smile the face I love / How many more break between the surface” has resonated with my experience of P&W music artists, some of whom feel very concerned about the effect of certain forms of evangelical CCM music. I personally have always preferred hymns, even perhaps when I should have theological objections, because they thoughtfully break with modern preconceptions and tend to have more substance than most (not all) modern compositions.

    I also definitely want to agree with you that these bands are more than their stereotypes. Even my favorite Rich Mullins songs show how very complicated he can be: “Creed,” “Jacob and 2 Women,” “Hard to Get,” “Surely God is With Us,” “Sometimes by Step,” “The Howling,” “Here in America,” &c. And of course I’m drawn towards the darkly contemplative, self-questioning and even doubting sides of Rich Mullins; there are songs he wrote that I don’t really love, that other people do. Just as there are songs by Newsboys that I find moving, even though most of their stuff strikes me, now that I’m mature, as horrible, cliched corruptions of profound truths.

    But at the end of the day I have to talk about what I have seen and heard, as a Christian growing up in the small, bizarre, Bible-belt town of Wichita Falls, TX, where certain forms of loud CCM rock music were associated with a particular form of Christianity, though not always and not with everyone. If we’re going to be nostalgic, if we’re going to look back on the Christian music of the 90′s, I think it’s good to recognize the full force, for good and evil, that it had on different people in different cultures. For me, CCM was a very mixed bag; and if my term “protest” was perhaps a bit misleading, at least I meant to point out there were some people who were temperamentally outside of Christian youth culture as I knew it, and who were therefore able to help me grow up in a more healthy and Christ-like manner.

  • Scott_Garbacz

    Finally, I think Rich Mullins seemed “rebel” to me precisely because of his Quaker background. The Anabaptist tradition, above any other Christian tradition I know, is exceedingly skeptical about the type of marriage between Christianity and cultural power that I witnessed in my local Baptist church. There is an immense difference between Anabaptist and Evangelical ideas of how culture and power does and ought to function. Not all “cool rebels” actually help us get beyond our cultural blind spots, and a lot of the punk mentality strikes me as incredibly immature and not useful. But Rich Mullins helped me divorce my Christianity from my culture precisely because he had something different to say.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Thanks for the good long response. I think we would probably end up disagreeing a good bit about the relative merits of evangelical culture/political engagement, but I totally agree with a lot of your comments. Similarly, I disagreed with some specific statements Rich made, but I admire him overall as a person, somebody who I think was truly dedicated to Christ.

  • Jon Sicotte

    Great read Joel! Being that I started working at a Christian rock radio station when I was 15 (1993), I have become the “old guy” at my now 5th Christian radio station in my career that whines about the lack of spins for Third Day and would rather play my Bronzspondi sampler or Sometime Sunday’s debut (now both burned onto an iPod) while still showing off the “please play us” letter from P.O.D. or still having a demo (on cassette tape!) from Sixpence. LOL
    Yeah, I’m happy to be stuck in the 90s. If I stay there, One Bad Pig is still screaming at me, Gene Eugene and Mark Heard are still alive and Dakota Motor Company is still strummin’ “Grey Clouds” and “Wind N’ Sea”.

  • wisdomhunter

    My favorites were Terry Taylor (Daniel Amos), The 77s, The Choir, Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard and Steve Taylor. I also liked some of the more “pop” artists, like Amy Grant. Also, I don’t know if you’d call them CCM, but I love Michael Card, John Michael Talbot and Rich Mullins. My favorite modern acts (apart from the same artists listed who are still living) is probably the David Crowder Band.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Some good choices in there. Randy Stonehill was unbelievably gifted. Though I was saddened to read some documents from Larry Norman’s lawyer that showed he was, well, a womanizing jerk. Norman was always very good to him though.

    I put Card, Talbot and Mullins in CCM, sure, same as I would put someone like Fernando Ortega. I think of CCM as a big umbrella. BTW, you should look up Dan Fogelberg if you want to hear where Card’s sound came from.