The six virtuosos who make up Britain's Iona are confounding contemporary Christian music stereotypes, delighting both churched and unchurched audiences around the world with their broad musical and theological vocabulary.
Most of the band's U.S. performances are at Christian events, like Chicago's Cornerstone Festival. Back at home, Iona plays at such events as England's Glastonbury Festival, which is awash in paganism and pot.
But whether they are leading believers in joyous worship or challenging unbelievers to reconsider the relevance of the ancient faith, band members mix devout intentions with muscular musicianship.
"One of the main negative points about [Christian music] is when bands try to copy what is going on in the 'mainstream' music scene rather than try to be original," says Joanne Hogg, whose crystalline vocals soar over the band's sometimes dizzying mix of progressive rock and serene, Celtic melodies. "We're not interested in sounding fashionable, but we are interested in sounding innovative, emotive, passionate."
In the band's fifth and latest album, Heaven's Bright Sun, the music alternates between bold swells (featuring blistering electric guitars and pounding drums) and melodic lulls (with harp, flute, and uillean pipes). The band members' musical influences range from French impressionist composer Claude Debussy to jazz great Jan Garbarek and rock iconoclast Captain Beefheart.
Iona's lyrics focus on the transcendent reality of God, the centrality of the gospel, and the duty to worship God and serve humanity.
A CELTIC REVIVAL
For several years, Ireland and all things Celtic have experienced an unprecedented popular revival. And a profusion of new Christian recordings show that contemporary Celtic music may be the next "CCM."
But Iona is not cashing in on a craze. The band was founded in 1989 shortly after one of its members visited the "Holy Island" of Lindisfarne, the Celtic monastic site located off the east coast of Northumbria. Founded in 635, Lindisfarne was an important center in the re-Christianization of Europe.
The band's members have a deep reverence for the rough and rugged Celtic spirituality that flourished in Britain between the fourth and ninth centuries and fed the fires of learning and evangelism during these otherwise dark ages. They have repeatedly journeyed to Iona, seeking inspiration for their work, fellowshiping with the Christian community now based there and performing a concert that was filmed for a British Broadcasting Company program.
The band's five albums—Iona (1990), The Book of Kells (1992), Beyond These Shores (1993), Journey into the Morn (1995), and Heaven's Bright Sun (distributed in North America by ForeFront Communications Group)—could serve as a hip soundtrack to a course in Celtic Christian history, complete with references to Saint Patrick and his evangelistic monks, the devout artists who painstakingly created the beautiful Book of Kells, and others who spared no expense to preserve and spread the Christian faith.
AN EXEMPLARY CHURCH
"I am beginning to see the importance of looking at the Celtic church in relation to how we should be as a church today," says Dave Bainbridge, guitarist and keyboardist, who, like other band members, supplements his minimal Iona income with studio and touring work. "I see just how far away we are from God's ideal of his body, but how near in many respects the Celtic church was," he says. "The church of that time was united in a goal to see the light of the gospel shine brightly over the whole of these islands, with a zeal that has rarely been seen since. There was a love and a thirst for Scripture, for living a holy and simple lifestyle, a deep respect for nature and for people. Their way of evangelizing was by getting alongside folk, understanding them, and preaching by the example of their lives."
Call them idealists, but Bainbridge and the other members of Iona believe their work can help inspire a return to the ideals of earlier believers. He says, "It is my hope that the music of Iona will help to break down some of the barriers that exist between the church and those who see the church as irrelevant, and yet who are searching for meaning in their lives."
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