Sacred Cows: Does Christian culture owe Amy Grant an apology?

Sacred Cows: Does Christian culture owe Amy Grant an apology? May 2, 2018

Photo used via Fair Use.

I don’t get starstruck easily. When I was a reporter, I had the opportunity to interview filmmakers and actors I greatly respected. Although I was nervous sitting across a table from Rainn Wilson or chatting with Danny Boyle, I was a professional who did my job and didn’t let my fondness for their work get in my way.

This weekend, I had the chance to briefly meet Amy Grant, possibly the epitome of the ‘80s and ‘90s Christian music scene. And my friends, I was starstruck.

There’s a whole story behind what brought my podcasting partner, Joe, and I to a small performing arts center in Brighton, Michigan, last Saturday night — and don’t worry, we’re going to talk all about it on our next episode. But suffice to say, Joe pulled some strings from his own CCM days and got us not only tickets a few rows from the stage but entrance into a photo opp/meet-and-greet before the concert.

I’ll be completely honest and say that just a few months ago, I probably would not have considered attending an Amy Grant concert, at least without my wife. It’s absolutely nothing against the music; in fact, Amy Grant provides the majority of the soundtrack to my Christmas season. But outside of her holiday music, I hadn’t listened to an album or song of hers in decades. I’d moved on to other artists and relegated her with other CCM icons from the day; people I had fond memories of but who fell out of my rotation when I discovered rock, punk and other genres.

That wasn’t always the case. In fact, I believe the first album I ever received was a cassette tape of Grant’s 1982 release “Age to Age” one Easter, although it had to be post-1985 by the time I received it because we used to torment my sister by changing the words of “El-Shaddai” to “Ashley Died.” To the joy of all Good Christian Fun listeners, I was a fan of “Fat Baby” as a kid. I knew Amy Grant’s version of “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” long before I knew that Rich Mullins had written it or before I even knew who Rich Mullins was. “Thy Word” was a youth group staple. And, like I said, it’s just not the holidays at our house until I hear those opening notes to “Tennessee Christmas.”

So I wasn’t prepared for how much of a jolt I got when I realized I was standing face-to-face with the person who’d wrote those songs; who had, in a very real sense, been my introduction to Christian music and an emotional anchor to the holiday season. It was surreal. The closest example I can even come to in my life is when I had the opportunity to interview Ernie Hudson a few years back. I was five minutes into the phone call when I suddenly realized “I’m on the phone with a Ghostbuster” and my inner child gave me a high-five. I didn’t know what to say and didn’t want to move.

Thankfully, Joe made a fart joke — and she made one back (that’s all you’re getting on that. Tune in to the podcast on Friday).

But as I sat through the concert, listening to songs I didn’t know and other ones that transported me to my childhood, I had the thought that maybe the Christian community owes Amy Grant an apology.

“Baby Baby”-gate

See, here’s the deal: One of the reasons I stopped listening to Amy Grant’s music is because my parents made me.

I was young, so maybe I have some details wrong, but here’s the scene as I remember it. It was the early ‘90s. My parents, along with many of their friends, had children who were going to be entering the teenage years very shortly. They were nervous about the MTV influence and the music their children would consume. And so, the Contemporary Christian Music scene — which, thanks to Grant, Michael W. Smith and a young group called dc Talk, was showing great promise — was a godsend. Literally. Their kids could listen to music that sounded just like what their friends were listening to, but with a Biblically safe message.

And then Amy Grant put out “Heart in Motion.”  

In 1991, the singer who had been best known for her praise and worship tunes unveiled an album of songs that were full-on pop, very little overt mention of Jesus. I guarantee that if you go to Spotify and listen to that album right now, you’ll think it’s a nice little piece of bubblegum. You wouldn’t for a second think of it as controversial. It’s G-rated through and through, perfect for the teenage audience Grant was courting at the time.

But let me tell you: for many people, it was the CCM equivalent of “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

It wasn’t just that Grant sang love songs. “Baby Baby” seemed to be a song of infatuation; not something some people thought a married woman should be singing about. Even more, in the song’s music video, she was holding hands with and hugging someone who was definitely not Gary Chapman, her husband at the time. People complained that she was too sexual, and said the world had enticed her (it’s worth noting that I don’t remember these same complaints when Michael W. Smith’s own pop album “Change Your World” was released one year later.) Amy Grant had sold out, people exclaimed, trading in the glory of God for mainstream success. It felt like a betrayal. When she and Chapman divorced in 1999, it seemed that people’s fears had come to pass, and when she married Vince Gill in 2000, there were (unfounded) rumors of an affair (again, it’s worth noting that when Chapman was married later that year, few people batted an eyelash).

And so my parents — whose favorite bands, it should be noted, included Chicago and Queen — forbade me from listening to her “secular” music, just as many of my parents’ friends did. And Grant, to her credit, pushed on undeterred. She found success as a country-folk singer-songwriter, and is considered by many to be Nashville royalty. At this past weekend’s concert, many people clapped and cheered along with her songs, and I’m sure many of those were past detractors who had buried the hatchet.

And as she played her music, and I listened to the lyrics, I came to the realization that maybe Amy Grant is the epitome of what Christians should look for in their artists.

Lived-in songs for a lived-in faith

Near the start of the concert, Grant commented that she knew a lot of people were there to see her play the hits; some had even requested them at the meet-and-greet beforehand. She said she didn’t come out there with an agenda to “play the hits;” she just played what she felt like playing, the songs that meant something to her.

She did a very intimate show, stopping to talk about the inspiration behind many of the songs. I enjoyed many of them, even if I was unfamiliar. In my recent years, I’ve developed a fondness for more traditional country music (not the arena ‘Merica country) and folk songs. Amy Grant’s bubblegum days are long behind her and she’s matured into an affecting, talented folk singer. Her songs feel lived-in and true. They are thoughtful songs about growing older, being married, living with challenging family dynamics. She did “Baby Baby,” of course, but the most memorable parts of the show were the songs that dealt with the beauty and challenges of life.

She’s long past her CCM days, but I get the feeling that what many saw as abandonment was really just her maturing as an artist. She grew beyond the boxes that the Christian industry wanted to keep her in. Where some people thought that Christian music should be “all Jesus, all the time,” she chose to write songs about all of life. Love, struggle, family, aging. And when it wasn’t theology or easy praise songs, people got mad. That still happens, but thankfully it happens less and less these days.

A few months back, I had the pleasure to speak with switchfoot’s Jon Foreman. We were talking about a project he did where he sang around his hometown of San Diego for a day, and he had moments where he’d sing on street corners, on the beach in the middle of the night or on a mountaintop at sunrise. He talked about our tendency to under-spiritualize these moments, to not realize that God’s goodness and presence is in these times.

Grant’s songs may not overtly mention Jesus, but they brimmed with faith and joy. They were lived-in songs, for a faith that is lived in and experienced. The older I get, the more I realize that the greatest spiritual growth these days comes not from intellectual exercises or pouring over theology, but from living a life where that faith is engaged. It’s in diligently going to work each day, playing with my kids, drinking wine on the back porch with my wife, or watching my grandparents show love to each other in their final days. The richness of faith is seen not in how much Bible we know but in how much we choose to see God in our day-to-day life. And Amy Grant’s songs brimmed with that.

That’s not to say that she ignored her CCM roots. She capped off the concert with “Thy Word,” “El-Shaddai” and “Sing Your Praise to the Lord.” And friends, being in the room when Amy Grant sings “Thy Word” or “El-Shaddai” is a spiritual experience. I got chills. And I got the sense that these songs weren’t pandering to an old audience. They still meant something to her. And it’s a faith that helped her gain the perspective to write her other songs.

Maybe the Christian community owes Amy Grant an apology. At the very least, they owe it to themselves and catch up on what they’ve been missing over the years. She’s one of the best.

Sacred Cows is a monthly piece in which I write about Christian pop culture. Previous articles include:

About Chris Williams
Chris Williams has been writing about faith, culture and film since 2005. His work has appeared in the Source and Grosse Pointe News newspapers, Local Celebs magazine, Patheos, and Christ and Pop Culture. He is the co-host of the podcasts “CROSS.CULTURE.CRITIC.” and “It’s My Favorite.” Chris lives in the Detroit area with his wife and two children. You can read more about the author here.
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