Mark Allan Powell is professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is the author of 17 books and over 100 published articles on theology and the Bible.
Powell is a leading scholar in study of the Gospel of Matthew, has done influential work in understanding the Bible as literature, and has been a primary researcher in study of the historical Jesus. With his latest book, he changes gears to look at how figures such as Larry Norman, Stryper, and Aretha Franklin have contributed to the body of Christ. Powell's Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music (Hendrickson) is a 1,067-page collection of reviews, discographies, and critical summaries of artists—from household names to the obscure. As Powell writes in the introductions, "They're all here: the pilgrims, the pious, the outcasts, the hypocrites, the prophets, the heretics, and the martyrs. Rock & roll is a beautiful thing and it is my contention that the history of rock cannot be understood without consideration of the square pegs and misfits who inhabit the pages of this book."
Christianity Today's Todd Hertz spoke with Powell about why he wrote the book, the importance of obscure musicians, and the theological merits of rock.
Why did you write the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music?
I worked as a general market rock journalist and critic over 30 years ago [for The Houston Post]. In 1970 I became part of the Jesus movement revival at the time of the very earliest contemporary Christian music artists. The music was very meaningful to me.
As I became a professional theologian and I learned to think of things in what are supposed to be sophisticated and nuanced ways, I have never forgotten how much that music meant to me and how important it was to my faith development.
This book is an odd addition to a list of theological works including Jesus As a Figure in History. What has been the reaction from your peers?
In general, this music has not been taken seriously by the church and by theologians. My peers in a good-hearted way think this is a fluke. I often get asked "Why are you wasting your time in something that is not any more important than this?"
When I was pitching the book, an editor of a publishing company told me, "I can't understand why this stuff is important when I don't know anything about it." When I hear that attitude, it smacks of elitism. The church's intellectuals want to say this music, that is so meaningful to literally millions of people, cannot be important because it doesn't appeal to us.
So why would a theology professor care about contemporary Christian music?
These musicians are examples of what some theologians call "living human documents." As scholars we need to pay attention to not only texts but also people upon whose lives God continues to write his word.
I view the artists in my book as amateur theologians and take them very seriously in that light. They are everyday Christians sharing their lives of faith. They represent the people of the church for whom I am supposed to be doing my theology in the first place.
In addition, if we take seriously a doctrine of the Spirit, then sometimes we have to yield our understanding to theirs. I learn from what God has done for them. I believe it has always been in God's nature to reveal his truth not to the most educated people in the world, but those who are serving God with their whole heart. I sometimes sense more of the insight into God's truth from some of these amateur theologians than I do from many of my professional colleagues.
Granted, I am not going to print the words out to this song and prize them as some profound theological statement worthy of comparison to Bonhoeffer, but something about that song on the car radio just touches my heart.
In some mysterious way, it bonds my heart to Jesus and helps me love him more. It does so in a way that theology books rarely do.
What role does this music play in a person's faith?
In my teaching I use faith as the umbrella term and say that two aspects of faith are theology, which can be explained as matters of the head, and piety, which is matters of the heart. I usually call this the prose and poetry of faith. Theology is the prose, and we need good theology to know what it is we believe and know how to articulate what we believe.
Piety is the poetry of faith. In it, we pay less attention to precision than to honest expression. Contemporary Christian music needs to be theologically sound, but its real strength is in the realm of piety. It touches the heart, it's relational, it's empathetic and it's emotional in a way that is completely appropriate for a holistic understanding of faith.
How did you go about discussing the bands in the encyclopedia, and how were they chosen?
This is a critical work, but that doesn't mean negative. I review albums and the music by the artist, but tried in every entry to focus on what they do best and the contributions they made. But I am not averse to pointing out shortcomings.
I have a broader focus than some people in labeling contemporary Christian music. In a narrow sense, it would consist of artists who make music for Christian music fans, who record for companies that are owned by Christian businesses, and whose music gets reviewed by the Christian media.
Of course, I include all those people in this work, but I am also interested in the roots of rock & roll in gospel music. So I have entries on people like Sam Cook, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green.
Other artists have more of a tentative relationship with Christian music and perhaps even with Christianity. So I have entries on Creed, U2, and Collective Soul—bands that have obviously tried to touch on matters of Christian faith.
What all these people have in common is an intersection of Christian faith and popular music that reveals something about the inter-relationship of religion and culture in the last 30 years in America.
I wanted to include everyone I believe made a significant contribution. That was always the question. Did they do something significant for Christ and his church? If so, I put them in my book.
The book includes a lot of bands that many listeners may have never heard of. Why are even the obscure bands important?
My guess is that there are people around today for whom they are still important. They touched lives. You may not have ever heard of this artist before, but there may be people in the church today who would not be if not for this artist or band and what they did. I don't think I included anybody in this book that would not be significant to someone.
In the book you quote a Rolling Stone editor who called Christian music a "parallel universe." Is it?
That is generally accurate, meaning that contemporary Christian music is a world unto itself. Christian music has its own radio stations, its own magazines, its own award shows. It is possible and very common for Christian artists and fans to have very little contact with the general market.
The reasons for that are somewhat complex. On the one side, there has been a certain discrimination of Christian artists on the part of general market. It is an indisputable fact that there are many very talented contemporary Christian artists who would have never been heard in the general market. That necessitates a parallel market where their music can be heard.
On the other hand, the CCM industry is guilty of perpetuating a type of isolationism and of encouraging music fans and artists to limit themselves to that world.
At the same time that Christians are trying to get people in the world at large to recognize their subculture, they need to be careful that they don't become so bound by that subculture that they don't notice the world at large.
The existence of these parallel camps is unfortunate, but both parties have to take some of the blame. The CCM industry is aware of this. There is a widespread feeling in the world of contemporary Christian music that there is a need to embrace culture in general.
Does discrimination against Christian artists continue?
There currently seems to be a trend of greater acceptance of faith-oriented artists in the general market, but discrimination is still a reality.
A likely reason that the general market will become more accepting is that Christian music is generating sales over a billion dollars a year. dc Talk regularly outsells R.E.M. and the Rolling Stones. They will be taken seriously.
There have been other CCM books recently with an almost encyclopedic feel to them, such as John J. Thompson's Raised by Wolves and Mark Joseph's Rock and Roll Rebellion. Both use the format to prove a point. What theme does your book have beyond cataloging bands?
A message that I want to communicate is that what the people in contemporary Christian music have done in the last 30 to 35 years is important. First, it is an important part of the history of popular culture. Most of your books that are out now on the history of rock & roll completely ignore most of what is in my book. I contend that you cannot understand the history of popular music without paying attention to it.
Second, in the last 30 years, this phenomenon of contemporary Christian music has been an important part of the history of Christianity in America. But I think the church and especially theologians and scholars have not paid adequate attention to it.
Saying that is something that I can do that perhaps someone within the CCM industry cannot. You expect an editor of CCM magazine to say, "Stephen Curtis Chapman is really important." But when a theology professor says it, I hope different people will listen.
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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