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J. Shane Mercer, Published January 22 2009

‘Christian band’ definition gray

In the mid-1990s, the driving, acoustic guitar-powered single “Flood” by Jars of Clay was, in the words of allmusic.com, an “enormous mainstream hit.” However “there was something of a backlash” when it became more widely publicized that the band was a Christian act.

Christian pop music has often been the shunned family member at the popular music Thanksgiving dinner.

Of course, as Christianmusic

today.com editor Russ Breimeier says, when it comes to what exactly a Christian band is, it’s “all gotten very gray.”

For example, Anberlin, which is coming to town tonight, has often been thought of as a Christian band. But when I asked Christian McAlhaney, rhythm guitarist for Anberlin, if that was so, he took a deep breath and said, “That’s always such a tough question.”

Like the band’s lead singer Stephen Christian, he questions the very category of “Christian band.” One’s faith comes through in one’s lyrics, McAlhaney says, but he doesn’t see Anberlin as a “mouthpiece for their faith.”

“I don’t think I would say that Anberlin is a Christian band,” he says.

Whatever a Christian band is or isn’t, it seems that the label does carry some stigma. Part of the reason for that would seem to be quality control.

“For a long time – especially in the 1980s and early ’90s – much of Christian music wasn’t very good and, frankly, didn’t ‘deserve’ much cred,” says Mark Moring via e-mail. Moring covers pop culture for Christianity Today magazine. But while he says around the mid-1990s Christian music began to improve greatly with bands such as Jars of Clay and later Switchfoot (which has said it is “Christian by faith, not by genre”) and P.O.D.

“The old adage ‘Christian music sucks’ never died among many people – people who were at one time mostly right, but later were very wrong,” Moring says.

The genre has improved greatly in terms of quality, though there are still cringeable points. And, often enough, the lyricism can be pretty unimaginative.

Anberlin’s Stephen Christian laments a lack of innovation that he sees in the genre, saying, “It’s a copy of art. And that is never going to get you any credibility.”

But is there more? Luke’s Gospel records that Jesus said he came to bring division. And John’s Gospel records his words to his disciples: “As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

So is it really reasonable to expect that a genre that expresses Jesus’ teachings (and, yes, we could debate the extent to which CCM does that) would really be embraced by society?

I am reminded of the words of Chuck Gutenson, a professor from back in my seminary days. He says the cross is to be the “expected end of a life lived in abandonment to God.” He adds that sometimes God is gracious and it doesn’t go there, but that that’s the proper expectation.

Overstatement? Maybe. But it underscores the fact that Christians shouldn’t be surprised at the rejection of their message and its carriers – even if the packaging rocks.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734 or smercer@forumcomm.com