Secular, Sacred, or Both
- Monday, February 14, 2005
As a college freshman, I was introduced to, and subsequently transformed by, Steve Turner's seminal treatise on Christianity and the arts, Being There.
Although it was published almost eight years ago, Turner's essay has maintained its relevance, proving as fresh and enlightening a read now as the first time around. In a prelude to his later, full-length book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Being There challenges evangelical Christians to remove their heads from the sand of their own subculture and become active participants in developing mainstream cultural life.
Sound controversial? It was—and still is. In his very first paragraph, Turner argues somewhat cantankerously that mainstream culture lacks a noticeably Christian contribution "because there are no distinctively Christian people contributing."
When Turner wrote these words in 1998, he was making only a minor overstatement. While Jars of Clay had recently charted with "Flood," few Christian artists had even attempted what we now call a "crossover"—an effort to bridge the perceived divide between "sacred" music and secular.
But in the years since Turner's little booklet, things have changed. Christian artists are not only selling records in the mainstream, they are making active efforts to engage it on its own terms. Whether they've read his pamphlet or not (and many have), more and more musicians of faith are participating in the wider world of mainstream music, from quiet folk to hip-hop to indie rock.
Some of them, like now-independent singer-songwriter Sarah Masen or former Vigilantes of Love frontman Bill Mallonee, are in the mainstream as refugees from CCM—not because they "crossed over," as with a band like Switchfoot, but because their music overstepped industry boundaries. Most of these artists, however, admit they never found a place in CCM in the first place.
Take, as the prime example, Sufjan Stevens. He is a Christian college graduate. His lyrics are explicitly confessional. Mainstream critics agree that if the lyrics on his Seven Swans CD (2004) were sung by anyone else, they'd belong on a worship album or as the rallying cry at a youth group jamboree. Stevens seems like a shoo-in for CCM stardom. Yet he never caught the notice of the industry's executives—let alone that it never even occurred to Stevens to darken the doorstep of Nashville offices or studios. He dove headfirst into the gritty New York music scene, and emerged, to everyone's surprise, as the darling of the same indie rock critics who generally disdain such overtly religious lyricism.
What drew Stevens to the world beyond Christian music labels? Surely it was more than the creative freedom often lacking in CCM publishing—although Stevens' occasionally morbid subject matter and unusual performance-art leanings might have been considered off-putting, in the same way that Flannery O'Connor would have had a difficult time getting her novels published by the Christian Booksellers Association.?
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