Discovering Mark Heard in the late 1980s was like mainlining hope itself. DJS on Christian stations rarely played the music of the man whom Bruce Cockburn would call America's best singer/songwriter. He didn't sing much about his "walk," or about "reaching out," or even about Jesus. No, he spoke of "red fires of war," and some "threat of annihilation" that "pounds at your door." No wonder I heard him only occasionally.

After my college years, in the midst of an aching search for something deep enough to sustain my shredded faith, I bought a best-of collection of Heard's acoustic songs. Never since has such a small investment yielded such amazing returns. His wedding in word and melody of raw confession, revealing observation, and restless probing far surpassed anything I had encountered by a Christian artist.

I was immediately in his debt, and Matthew Dickerson's new book about Heard, Hammers & Nails, reveals that debtors like me abound. Crafted more as a mosaic than as a textured biography, it offers an unprecedented chance to peer into the life of a man who displayed a rare and beautiful vulnerability, song after song. His albums now total 20 with Paste Records' production of a companion CD featuring previously unreleased songs Heard recorded in the late 1980s.

Heard aficionados will find the book (and CD) irresistible, but the story Dickerson tells has significance beyond the life of one musician. If the intersection of art, theology, and the market has any bearing on the future of Christianity in America, believers of all varieties will find something instructive, and perhaps ominous, in this story.

Born in Macon, Georgia, in 1951, Heard, we discover, was picking out songs on a piano before he was 4. By the time he entered ...

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