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Watching ‘The Jesus Music’ Is Like Being a Stranger in a Strange Land

Watching ‘The Jesus Music’ Is Like Being a Stranger in a Strange Land September 29, 2021

The guitar logo of the film The Jesus Music
‘The Jesus Music’/Lionsgate

So, Christian Contemporary Music. What do I know about it? After watching The Jesus Music, in theaters on Oct. 1, more than I used to. But, before that? Not much.

I’ve spent my entire adult life dealing with the entertainment industry in one way or another, including as a nationally syndicated journalist, so I’ve heard of lots of people. Also, I’ve loved rock, pop and folk for decades, but the whole Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) subgenre appears to have eluded me.

UPDATE: It hasn’t eluded a lot of other people, as the film did very well in limited release during its opening weekend.

The Jesus Music Is the Latest Effort From the Erwin Brothers

The filmmaking Erwin Brothers, Andrew and Jon — who mined CCM for two hit movies: I Can Only Imagine and I Still Believe — have gone the documentary route for The Jesus Musicthe latest film from their Kingdom Story Company shingle at Lionsgate.

(Actually, come to think of it, the first time I heard the song I Can Only Imagine all the way through — and not just in late-night ads for Christian-music CDs — was at the end of the movie. And I Still Believe is the story of singer Jeremy Camp, whom I’d never heard of before the movie was announced.)

From the “Jesus People” to Lauren Daigle

The Jesus Music begins with the “Jesus People” movement of the 1960s, and works its way through Christian rock and pop, with clips and interviews with musicians like Amy Grant, Stryper, Michael W. Smith, Kirk Franklin, Stephen Curtis Chapman, DC Talk, the Newsboys and Lauren Daigle.

Other than Amy Grant, whom I did know, I did learn about some of these folks while writing about faith-based movies, such as those from the Erwins, but others were new to me.

What’s interesting is, I was familiar with some African-American musicians in the movie, such as Franklin, and have heard many gospel groups and songs. I’m also well acquainted with traditional hymns, like The Old Rugged Cross, Will the Circle Be Unbroken or Down to the River, often performed by country or bluegrass artists.

But, I don’t think I’ve heard more than one song of those featured in the film.

Now, CCM may all be very good, but this is likely a testament to how separated this world has been from the mainstream entertainment industry I covered.

Crossing the Christian Cultural Divide

Also, I’m a Catholic, and this worship-music culture grew largely among Protestants, especially Evangelicals (although the word “Evangelical” is never mentioned in the film), and in the modern megachurch movement.

With Spotify, Pandora and other services democratizing music today, even if young Catholics don’t hear these songs at Mass (and they probably hear some of them these days), they may be way more familiar with “worship music” than the radio/vinyl/CD/MTV generations.

There are even a few Catholic CCM artists, such as Matt Maher, but none of them is mentioned in The Jesus Music.

The film features another interesting segment that looks at the racial divide in CCM, with a clip showing Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous observation that Sunday morning is among the most segregated times in America.

Now, for various reasons, some Catholic parishes are heavily populated by one ethnic group or another, and the Church has confronted the same racial issues as the rest of the country. But, in the many places I’ve been to Mass — Honolulu, Washington, D.C., Vancouver Island, B.C., New York City, Los Angeles, even Beverly Hills — the Communion line looks like the family of man.

Of course, the traditional hymns and Mass settings featured at Catholic Masses in the U.S. mostly have European or North American origins. But, the sounds of the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America and Asia are also increasingly part of our worship.

I attended a gorgeous Mass in Los Angeles featuring the Missa Luba, a Mass setting that originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard at the L.A. Religious Education Congress was a Vietnamese hymn.

So, watching The Jesus Music was like a trip through a strange land that has existed right alongside mine, but of whose existence I was only peripherally aware.

Is The Jesus Music Worth Seeing?

It’s a well-made, handsome film, but, like the previous Erwin Brothers films I mentioned, it takes for granted that the audience knows this world and the people in it, and cares about this music.

After watching, while I now have a bit more historical perspective, it still feels like I only barely know this world. And, I’m not sure whether there’s anything in The Jesus Music that compelled me to want to know more.

If I want a little God in my music, I’m still going to turn to Mumford & Sons, U2, Gregorian chant or a great gospel song.

But, there’s definitely an audience for The Jesus Music, and if you’re curious about the genre, you might want to check it out.

Image: Lionsgate

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is an entertainment journalist, Social Media Content Manager for Catholic production company Family Theater Productions and a screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.
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