At the Crossroads: An Insider's Look at the Past, Present, and Future of Contemporary Christian Music, Charlie Peacock, Broadman & Holman, 219 pp., $15.99
When I was a college sophomore, I purchased an extremely hip Christian record. The cover pictured a long-haired rock trio; one of the members had his foot on an elephant-foot trash can. I listened to the album once, scanned the lyric sheet for signs of religious life, and returned it promptly. In embarrassment and anger, I told the storeowner, "It doesn't even mention God or Jesus!"
Twenty-five years later, the issue of what constitutes "Christian" music is still hotly debated—especially as more and more Christian bands enter the American musical mainstream. The Newsboys recently had a song featured on Dawson's Creek, a top-rated teen TV drama. And Sixpence None the Richer's tune "Kiss Me" made the sound track of the hit teen movie She's All That (the band also sang the song on Jay Leno's Tonight Show). Videos by MxPx and Jars of Clay have shown up on MTV. Christian bands now pepper Billboard charts, with the category growing (or mutating) into a half-billion-dollar-a-year giant. Artists like Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, dc Talk, and Jars of Clay now pack out large auditoriums.
But is all this still Christian? That debate rages on in the contemporary Christian music (CCM) scene. For Charlie Peacock, the issue is but one of many on the CCM scene that have serious consequences for theology and discipleship.
Peacock is one of Christian music's most talented and respected artists, with nearly 20 years of experience in the industry as musician, songwriter, and producer. He formed his own label a few years back to nurture the creativity of young, talented Christian artists. Peacock has sought to stress artistic integrity over marketing and profits. At the Crossroads grows out of his musical passions and convictions. He writes,
Music is the soundtrack to the story we're telling through our lives and our communities. … Music is present when we learn our ABCs and when we graduate from high school, when we celebrate birthdays, baptisms, Christmas and Easter, when we first hear the gospel, when we share our first dance, our first kiss, and when we marry. Music is both a quiet song in our hearts and a thundering symphony that takes our breath away. … It is literally the sonic backdrop to life and culture.
As such, Peacock believes CCM deserves careful scrutiny.
In the early part of the book, Peacock evaluates the historical underpinnings of CCM, stressing both the strengths and shortcomings of today's Christian music industry. Peacock also confronts those who (like me in my early twenties) criticize Christian music when it doesn't come sprinkled with Jesus or other acceptable Bible words or phrases. "The contemporary Christian music community must begin to write music and lyrics from a kingdom perspective," writes Peacock. He means Christian songs should not only be about Jesus and salvation but also "all of creation," including such supposedly "worldly" topics as romantic love. Only in this way can Christian music demonstrate "the lordship of Christ over all of life."
His critique is usually gentle, but Peacock lets his impatience show when confronting "gatekeepers" (churches, youth pastors, and others) who want Christian music to be both explicit in its lyrics and "positive" in its message: "Positive and nice. Helpful and friendly. Hmm, sounds more like a description of the Ace Hardware man than music informed by a story … so real that it involves every action, emotion, and thought under the sun—a complex, bloody, beautiful, redemptive, truthful story."
Still, these gatekeepers feel just as passionate about ministry as Peacock does about artistry. They long for music that they can trust, that won't confuse, that won't preach drugs, sex, and cynicism.
I write an advice column for Christian teens that offers alternatives to mainstream music. I receive painful letters from young people who feel "obsessed by" and "addicted to" role models like Korn, Marilyn Manson, and Ice Cube. They are crying out for "cool music" that won't sabotage their values. I also hear from many teens who are thankful that explicitly Christian music spiritually nourishes them and helps them live out their faith.
Today's CCM, as imperfect as it is, fits the lyrical and musical bill as an "alternative" to much of MTV's standard offerings. In one respect, however, Peacock doesn't disagree. But he also wants some Christian artists to "express a larger, more comprehensive kingdom perspective."
As significant as these issues are, though, I worry that people in CCM sometimes take themselves too seriously. It's only pop music, here today and off the charts tomorrow. Even the best song entertains only briefly, and maybe gives listeners something worthwhile to think about.
All in all, though, Peacock's challenge to long-accepted biases that constrain "contemporary Christian music" is a healthy critique. His book reverberates throughout with a little phrase tucked into the end that makes a lot of sense: "In the kingdom, there are no small dreams for music."
Chris Lutes is the editor of CAMPUS LIFE.
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