In Defense of Christian Rock

Growing up in Oklahoma, I heard a lot about what it takes to be a Real Christian. Real Christians dress like this, Real Christians talk like that, Real Christians don’t dance because a few years ago some teenagers were killed in a car wreck on the way home from a dance and it gave the whole town PTSD. Okay, that last one is the plot to Footloose but you get the idea. It was an incredibly restrictive interpretation of Christianity that was much more concerned with the way the message was delivered than with the message itself. 

As I got older, I began to see the ideal of the Real Christian for the unattainable lie it was and I had to spend the majority of my adult life unlearning everything I had been taught about Christianity. My religious re-education took many forms—friends, books, movies, podcasts—each exposing me to experiences that differed from my own and challenged my worldview. I am indebted to such innumerable people and works of art that it would be impossible to pinpoint each individual source of inspiration. However, I can trace my initial desire to search for more fulfilling answers to one unlikely source—Christian Rock.

That’s right, Christian Rock. 

I know that’s hard to believe because, like the Star Wars prequels and the entire CBS primetime line-up, Christian Rock is almost universally understood to be a joke. But the thing is, the Star Wars prequels gave us podracing, Darth Maul, and Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi and CBS gave us Early Edition. So I don’t buy the argument that all Christian Rock sucks. Now, if I ask you to picture a Christian Rock band, I would undoubtedly agree that whatever you’re picturing in your head sucks because we all have the same embarrassing idea of what Christian Rock looks like. It’s this weird nu-metal esthetic but with clean guitars, a ton of reverb, and permanently set in about 1998. Even if you’re not thinking of that type of Christian Rock, you’re thinking of Stryper, which is laughable more for spandex related reasons than anything else. 

The problem with that view of Christian Rock is that it is more accurately described as Christian Worship Rock. These are the kind of bands that are played on Christian radio, get gigs at church camps and massive worship retreats, and pretty much exclusively play in churches. It’s not merely preaching to the choir, it’s the choir preaching to itself. Their images are squeaky clean, their songs all fall under the thematic heading of “God is Good”, and they sound like whatever was popular in the mainstream five years ago. 

Christian Worship Rock is a genre of music meant for a specific type of person. In many ways, it is the tofu of music because it creates a wonderful litmus test: if you’re complaining about it then it’s obviously not meant for you. Christian Worship Rock is meant for people who grew up in Christian homes, people who primarily surround themselves with other Christians, and people who learned the word “edifying” at an extremely young age because their parents insisted that art was only worth consuming if it was “edifying”. In other words, people like me. 

Growing up, there were two things I was allowed to listen to: Christian music and Weird Al Yankovic. I’m not really sure how/why Weird Al got a pass, but he did and I’m thankful. Given those options, you can bet I listened to a lot of Weird Al, but I also listened to a ton of Christian music like The Newsboys, DC Talk, and Jars of Clay. All bands I would classify as Christian Worship rock. And that was fine for a long time. Eventually, though, I got to the point where all of it sounded the same to me. I understood that, yes, God is good and we should worship him, but a big part of me wondered: Is that really all there is to sing about? Why would God create this wonderful language of music and then dictate all music should be about him? I doubt my nine year old self would have articulated it quite that way, but it was clear I wanted something more.

Admittedly, that desire for something more had just as much to do with the sound of the music being played as it did the existential questions it created. Christian Worship Rock bands like to dabble in rock but they can never fully commit to it. So I would listen to whatever their most rock-like song was, with the loudest guitars and the fastest drums, and think “Man, I want this but, like, for a whole album”. Unfortunately, I was only nine and while it was never explicitly stated that listening to non-Christian music was buying yourself a one way ticket to Hell, it was pretty heavily implied. Since I did not want to push my luck by listening to the radio, I had no way to seek out the kind of music I wanted. 

Luckily, older brothers come in handy for that kind of thing.

In 1999, my family took a crazy road trip out to California. We drove from Tulsa, down to San Antonio to see my cousin perform in the Alamo Bowl Halftime show, and then drove all the way out to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl Parade. That’s a lot of hours in the car. At the time, we had one of those giant vans with the kind of set up where you could play a cd and plug head phones in the back so multiple people could listen without bugging whoever was driving. So we took turns listening to various Christian albums and I’m sure many Weird Al albums. Then my brother Ryan put on MxPx’s Slowly Going The Way of The Buffalo and changed my life. 

When I heard those first few power chords hammer through the headphones, the realization burned into my brain that this is what I was looking for. It was such a profound moment for me that to this day, whenever I hear that album, I picture myself sitting in the van, driving through the desert somewhere between El Paso and California. 

MxPx introduced me to the other type of Christian Rock bands. These are the bands that are Christian in the same way that Cap’n Crunch is vegan—technically yes but it’s more of a happy accident than the intended purpose. Sure, some of their songs include references to God and Christianity but they also have…regular songs. You know, songs where they talk about girls, parties, movies, and, oh, did I mention girls? Because here’s a thing people don’t talk about enough: Christian Worship bands don’t have songs about girls. At least not in the way we’re used to, where it’s a guy singing about liking a girl or how a girl broke his heart. Christian Worship bands have songs about girls but they are all cautionary tales about how “she’s going down a dangerous path” or whatever. They don’t do love songs to girls, only love songs to Jesus.

I think Christian Worship bands don’t talk about relationships because it’s seen as some kind of gateway. If they sing about a relationship between a boy and girl, it’s going to make the listeners start thinking about boy and girl relationships, which will make them start thinking about sex and that’s a sin. So they just avoid the subject altogether. 

For the kids who grow up only allowed to listen to Christian music, that’s a pretty big subject to avoid. I remember starting to notice girls and thinking that something was wrong with me; that I shouldn’t be wanting to ask a girl out because that’s not the Christian thing to do. Keep in mind, my sex education was pretty much Don’t Even Think About The Opposite Sex Until You’re Ready To Get Married, which, in retrospect, probably explains why I knew so many kids from youth group who either ended up pregnant or got someone pregnant. When it comes to relationships, Christians spend a lot of time defining what not to do (i.e. be gay or get an abortion) and very little time holding up examples of what good, healthy relationships look like. Which is why listening to MxPx and hearing them sing about girls was incredibly refreshing. It was the first time I’d really seen that you were allowed to be a Christian and have romantic feelings. It was this huge revelatory moment of “Oh I’m not weird”.

For a while, that little bit of reassurance that I wasn’t weird was enough for me. I didn’t immediately go out and buy a denim jacket and start loading it up with back patches. Rather, I held on to my safe, familiar Christian worldview, which meant I kept on listening to a lot of traditional Christian music. Only now I had MxPx to help take the edge off. I remember at that time we had a five disc cd changer in our living room and, while four slots saw a heavy rotation of various Christian Worship bands, MxPx’s The Ever Passing Moment didn’t leave that player for probably two years.

That was the Golden Age of Christianity for me, when belief was easy because I could happily accept whatever I was told. I had no reason to doubt that God was a benevolent, bearded man in the sky who watched over us and kept score of all our sins. It was a good, simple time so a simplistic form of Christianity made sense. 

Unfortunately, Golden Ages never last.

Mine ended abruptly in 2001 when my older brother, Roger, died in a car crash two weeks after the terrorist attack on September 11th. A few months later, my parents split up. That was a lot for an eleven year old to process. 

Suddenly, the form of Christianity I’d been surrounded by in church and at youth group felt unsatisfying. There was simply no place for the kind of tragedy I had experienced in the Christianity that I had learned. What I had learned was a shallow Christianity of appearance. It was the kind of Christianity that leads innumerable people to tell an eleven year old whose brother just died that “God has a plan”. 

Yeah, that wasn’t good enough for me. 

I needed a belief in God that could handle the realities of the real world. Since I wasn’t getting that from the people in my life, I turned to music. Upon doing so, the “God is Good” choruses of the Christian Worship Rock bands rang hollow and I quickly realized that my one MxPx album was not going to cut it. My first order of business became acquiring the entire MxPx discography. I still remember how shocked I was when I heard the grungy, fast paced punk of their early albums when until then I had only been exposed to the more produced pop punk sound of Slowly Going The Way of The Buffalo and The Ever Passing Moment. 

After I got my hands on every MxPx record I could, I still wasn’t satisfied. In fact, it just made me hungry for more music and I became desperate to find more bands like them. Unfortunately this was the early 2000s and I couldn’t just search them on Spotify and find similar artists. Hell, I couldn’t even pull them up on MySpace and see what bands they had in their Top 8 (a very underrated way of discovering music that I desperately miss).

At the time, the best way for me to discover music was by going to a Mardel Christian Bookstore. It’s kind of hard to explain the concept of a Mardel Bookstore to the uninitiated. Basically, Mardel took the business model of making sure your aunt never runs out of little angel figurines and grew it into a huge company with over thirty locations in seven states. If you’ve ever wondered where people get those shirts that look like the “Reese’s” logo but instead of “Reese’s” it says Jesus—it’s at Mardel (Full disclosure, in middle school I owned a shirt that looked like an Abercrombie & Fitch shirt except it said “A Bread Crumb and Fish”). At Mardel, they sell everything a good midwestern Christian needs: Bibles, Christian books, Christian apparel, Christian decorations, Christian Homeschool curriculum, and—most importantly—Christian music.

As bonkers as the rest of the store was, Mardel had the best environment for buying albums. They had a bank of CD players on one wall and three or four individual listening booths, which I assume they kept in case Clark Kent was browsing the shelves and needed a place to change into Superman. Every album on the shelf had a demo cd—an already opened cd that you could listen to on one of the CD players or in a Superman booth before making your decision to buy it—a truly invaluable resource when buying Christian music because you can never tell by the cd art what you’re going to get. An album cover depicting the apocalypse might be a folk band and an album with a flower and puppies could be a metal band.

Given the wide variety in sound, I needed a way to narrow down my search. I learned that MxPx was on Tooth and Nail records and that seemed as good a place to start as any. So when my mom would go to Mardel I would tag along and when we got there I would head straight to the CD section to start checking the backs of CDs, looking for any other bands on Tooth and Nail. I would grab a stack of 10 or more records and keep listening until my mom dragged me away from the bank of cd players. That’s how I discovered bands like Ace Troubleshooter, Project 86, Ghoti Hook, Hangnail, Ninety Pound Wuss, and Anberlin. It never mattered what the album art looked like or what the bands sounded like, I had carte blanche to get any album I wanted because it was on the shelves of a Christian store. That came in pretty handy because even artists like Comeback Kid, who I think were classified as Christian because one band member went to church one time and probably on accident, were stocked at Mardel. 

All those hours spent at Mardel listening to demo cds, discovering new bands, that was church to me. It gave me a level of comfort that no amount of “God has a plan” could come close to. It was a time when I desperately needed guidance in my life and those Christian Rock bands gave it to me. 

The lessons I learned stuck with me more than anything I heard at youth group or church camp. They taught me that faith is about more than a list of rules you have to memorize. They taught me that belief is than more looking the right way and talking the right way so you fit in at an Oklahoma church. They taught me that Christianity was merely one aspect of who I was, it did not define me. To an eleven year old going through the hardest time in their life, Christian rock bands were not a punchline, they were lifesavers.