Anyone who lived through the 90s into the early 2000s could tell you that Christian rock fails to be evocative.
There’s an old joke that Korn was originally planning to be a Christian Rock group until their agent told them there was no money in it. Evidently, monetary incentive was not the only thing Christian Rock lacked.
One need look no further than Creed and their breakthrough hit, Higher to see that the imagery used in Christian rock is weak. What some might fail to notice is that Creed never openly referred to itself as a Christian rock band, nor did they sign on to any Christian Music label. Yet they remain the most commercially successful modern band with a clear Christian slant. Most christian rock from this era was flat or pale imitations of Creed’s formula– some kind of loosely Post-Grunge (an already infamously loose genre) retooling of the words “And He will save us” over and over, usually relying on concepts such as “light” or a “Savior” both in subject and lyrical content. It tends to express itself in a way best defined as vague. Older Christian music, in the form of folk, country, revivalist songs also tend to keep things vague, focusing less on stories and more on the human experience of some God-given feeling involving human agency: “I saw the Light,” or actions taken by people in attempt at, or the act of worship: “Down in the River.” At times, these make light allusions to the bible or imagery of Jesus Christ, through occasional references or mention of the “Starry Crown.” It feels like the music comes from an iconoclast mindset. Modern (20th century and beyond) Christian imagery essentially has to be vague, by function, because to tap into its source would be treating it as inspiration in a manner fitting a mythology.
I would like to make a distinction here:
There is a difference between Christian imagery and Biblical imagery.
Biblical imagery can be deeply evocative. It’s rich, full of stories, prosaic and poetic. When I bring up biblical imagery in songs, I do not mean simple retellings or putting a story to music. I do not mean Sunday School songs about Noah and his ark. I do not mean campfire songs about Solomon threatening to cut a baby in half (but can you imagine?). Christian music — or perhaps it is more accurate to say “music with a Christian influence — ” is at its most evocative when it strays into biblical territory without being the Bible.
Two examples of artists who use biblical imagery would be The Mountain Goats, otherwise known as the sole consistent member, musician and writer John Darnielle; and PJ Harvey, a musician with a long history of collaboration and incorporating Christian and biblical images into her otherwise secular music. Neither artist is particularly famous on a level of being a common household name or emblematic of an era, or even clearly part of a large trend like Post-Grunge Both artists are secular in their focus, built on a secular fanbase, with no religious record labels, and yet they nail it.
Christian music has to, as previously mentioned, keep things vague and unclear. Any attempts to bring in specific stories could be seen as too overt in their message. They could veer propagandistic with the wrong outlook. Conversely, to turn such a holy text into song feels like the work of ages past–actions legitimated by their age. So how do John Darnielle and PJ Harvey’s songs differ– why do they work where things like Creed fail?
They work for the same reason they are rare: through being interpretations.
Rather than talking about unclear feelings one is expected to feel, or a confession of what one has felt in the presence of the Lord, Darnielle and Harvey paint a picture of a scene, or provide scenarios where one might not immediately see the connection, but can certainly feel it.
John has several songs titled after Bible verses, intended as representations of the verses. Every song on the album The Life of the World to Come is titled after a biblical verse. Another song from an earlier album is titled “I Corinthians 13:8-10.”
Psalm 40:2 (released 2009) is obvious in its allusion to the verse. The two are presented for comparison, here:
“He has fixed his sign in the sky He has raised me from the pit and set me high.” –The song
“He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.”— The bible verse
But of course the song goes beyond just rewording the verse. It is an evocative story of how this verse relates to someone on their journey. It paints a visceral and tangible painting of faith. It provides us with the line: “Lord send me a mechanic if I’m not beyond repair” –a line steeped in emotion. The song isn’t afraid to be rough and realistic with how it approaches a person’s faith. The subject, the narrated voice, is that of a complex and troubled person with an equally complex, and thus realistic and engaging relationship to their faith.
PJ Harvey takes a different approach. It borders on apocryphal but it requires no prior knowledge beyond the simplest understanding of the narrative of Jesus. One does not have to look back to hymns and psalms or read from the scripture to grasp any allusions. She begs a simple question: “but how did Mary feel in all of this?”
Mary lost her headAnd let it bleedCame crying back to meMy son.. Where’s he been?And don’t deny itAnd don’t you hide him
Her song, Missed (released 1993) centers on the narrative of Mary searching for her son upon arrival in heaven. And that really is the way to phrase it, “her son,” not The Lord, not Jesus Christ, for, to her–in that moment–what she seeks is the child she birthed and raised, not the savior of mankind he has become, which could be seen as irreverent. There is no biblical spin-off tale that centers on her exploits and feelings, from which this song draws its message. This is an interpretive and extrapolated work, and by virtue of that, has a perspective I had never encountered before. It made me wonder about Mary more than ever before. It begged me, heathen that I am, to empathize and feel her struggle. It made me realize that in the story of Jesus, the world loses a savior, sure, but she lost a son. Dozens of other thoughts and questions stem from that one.
In essence, nothing about seeing the light or going down to the river to pray has ever made me question faith or narrative,but not every song has to and perhaps that is the point. Those songs are comfy and secure. But they aren’t engaging. They’re nice and uplifting, but they don’t make me wonder about faith itself. And perhaps that is down to audience. I simply know which one I prefer.