CCM: Praising God Intelligently
Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD!
Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time forth and for evermore!
From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised!
Praise the LORD! -Psalm 113:1-3, 9b
Many have no regard and less respect for Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), because, they claim, it is vapid, heretical, profane, unoriginal, and inappropriate. There is much within the genre that deserves such criticism, but there is much within CCM that offers Christians the opportunity to praise God with intelligent, thoughtful lyrics that do not offend orthodoxy. Much of this intelligent CCM may not be appropriate for the Holy Mass, but it is better than much of what is being played every week around the country. Due to the brevity of a blog post, we'll cover a few examples with the encouragement to explore CCM yourself.
Prior to being given Third Day's 1999 release, Time, by a friend, my only experience with CCM was the very weak offerings of the early and middle 1980's, including a Petra concert that I thought had turned me permanently against the genre. Third Day, formed in Marietta, GA, however, was different. The band was not simply trying to "Christianize" the lyrics of secular hits nor were they the very amateurish acts that had populated the album racks. Time featured excellent musicians who seemed to understand that the medium can destroy the message. The lyrics were grounded in Sacred Scripture and actual experiences. The song, "Can't Take The Pain," for example, from the second side of the album had a lyric of such substance, it forced me to take a new look at the CCM that was coming out at the time. The song takes us to the encounter of Jesus and St. Peter on the beach in the last chapter of St. John's Gospel from St. Peter's perspective. The song draws us into the immense remorse St. Peter felt. Before we know it though, St. Peter's remorse has become our remorse for our own sins. Never have I known a song with such power and it got me hooked. Third Day's subsequent offerings have been equally as intelligent and compelling. From the unimaginable despair turned to hope in "I Need A Miracle" from Miracle or the raucous, spiritual-inspired celebration of salvation in "Lift Up Your Face" from Move, Third Day's music has continued to be, arguably, the best the genre has to offer.
Named after a Seventh Century Anglo-Saxon priest and inspired by Rich Mullins, this Houston-based band offers a more folk-inspired sound with lyrics that address the challenges of living out an authentically Christian life and how we fail, when Christ is not at the center. Younger than the members of Third Day, the members of Caedmon's Call, though, write very mature and challenging lyrics, that are able to inspire one to further action or convict one of sloth and lack of charity. Again, much of the imagery in the lyrics and the lyrics themselves are taken from Sacred Scripture. "Love Alone" from Long Line of Leavers, is a beautiful song and unique in the way in which it weaves in images from Sacred Scripture to add power and substance to the fairly light music accompanying the lyrics. "This World," from Caedmon's Call includes a creative play on words in a thoughtful musical restatement of Christ's admonition to be in the world, but not of it. In interviews the members of Caedmon's Call appear to be very joyful, even playful, young men and women truly in love with Christ, a welcome relief from the self-important posing seen in mainstream music these days.
Todd Agnew's music came to me through a local Christian music station. Now living in Austin, TX with his wife and children, Agnew's adoptive parents provided the Christian foundation reflected in his music. His reinterpretation of the classic hymn, "Amazing Grace," "Grace Like Rain" from Grace Like Rain, gains its power from Agnew's voice, an instrument, whose rough edge pierces the lyrics straight into listeners' hearts. The simple, triumphant realization of the effect of that grace stated in the chorus of the song was the element that made it a favorite of mine. Not many songs state faith so clearly. Agnew's "My Jesus" from Reflection of Something reveals his rejection of the pop culture's depiction of Christ and his own struggle with following the Christ of the Sacred Scriptures. The song brings to mind the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his call for radical discipleship. Musically, the song sounds rough, even harsh. There is very little or no post-production work done on it. This is intentional. The grating music makes concrete the dissonance between the Christ we create for ourselves and the true Christ. Agnew uses his music to tell the story of working to conform his will to the Will of Christ. His is a powerful witness.
There are many bands and musicians in CCM who are worthy of respect and consideration. Take a listen to NeedToBreathe, Matt Redmon, Kutless, Cloverton, Rich Mullins, Mumford and Sons, Matt Maher, Six Pence None The Richer, Ten Shekel Shirt, David Crowder Band and Sanctus Real. Again, while playing "Strong Tower" by Kutless as the recessional hymn may not be the best choice, this is music for the praise and worship services every Catholic parish in the United States should be holding, if the youth are not to be lost. The lyrics these bands and bands like them are writing are so much better, engaging, challenging, and orthodox than the "hymns" from the 1970's and the 1980's that are being played every Sunday in our parishes.
Give it a try. What do you have to lose?
Father Damien Ference offers his picks for best Christ-haunted music of 2014 at Word On Fire.