Guitarist Mark Lee (and the rest of his Third Day bandmates) and Brad Stine met for the first time at a barbeque joint in Kansas City when Brad was breaking into the Christian community as a comedian who’d previously worked only in the mainstream. And though he may be a renowned comedian and the author of "Being a Christian Without Being an Idiot" who’s also been a guest on major market radio shows, The New Yorker, Promise Keeper events and more.
Brad’s not all about the laughs when it comes to discussing what goes on in the Christian world. A rock guitarist and a comedian are certainly in two different worlds, but we’re sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much these two have in common as we listen in on their recent phone conversation.
Brad: I came out of the comedy world, but I was always a Christian. But I didn’t commit myself to that world. We often “dumb down” our opportunity for what entertainment can be when it has “Christian” attached to it. That was my purpose in making myself available to that world. But I was concerned because I’m not doing it the way they’re used to seeing it done.
Mark: For a lot of people, when they go from being a musician to being a Christian musician — or go from being a comedian to a Christian comedian — there’s a stigma there that they have to change what they do because the audience is different.
Brad: What I discovered is there’s a difference between adapting and compromising. I, as an artist, made a living as a headliner in comedy clubs throughout this country. I had to compete against comics who were using the “f” word every other second, and then here I’d come on. As you know, the people who precede you set the tone of the room. And suddenly, it was 100 percent curse free with no sexual references. The interesting thing about it is that so many people would talk about how hard it must be to be so clean. That always fascinated me because, to me, the fun and joy of art is in the creativity, and I didn’t see creativity in crudeness. It shows what your worldview is. What makes you valuable and purposeful shades the way you communicate with people. Why wouldn’t it be more fun, as a comic, to not use the words that are going to get a laugh — that aren’t in and of themselves creative? The template I always give is: If you tell a joke with curse words in it, and you take the curse words out and the joke isn’t funny anymore, the joke wasn’t funny in the first place.
Mark: There are probably people in churches who are in conference meetings, wanting to do exactly what you’re talking about doing. [They’re saying,] “We’ve gotta figure out a way to get out and be in the world.” And it sounds like you’ve been doing that for years. We’ve found that as musicians and songwriters. God has chosen us as a way to reach other people. Whether it be writing songs or performing or getting up onstage and doing your show, God is using that to reach people. I think a lot of times we try to add on other things. We’ll say, “We’re doing Christian music, so we’ve got to try and say this, this and this …” If you just be yourself, the audience needs that connection.
Brad: The buzz word at the moment is authenticity. It’s the idea that when Christians become real, they become relevant. People need to see that my soul is saved, but my flesh will continue to be corrupt until I don’t exist anymore. By taking the approach — and I do it through comedy and you do it musically — of saying, “I am flawed. I do struggle with the same things you do,” is much more relatable and much more of a synergistic attachment to that other person. Then, the sense of “I’m saved, and everything’s perfect” is not the case — and we all know it’s not the case. But we’ve created a tradition of being afraid to expose ourselves on the journey.
Mark: If you’re on the outside looking in, people will say, “Christian music is good.” Or they’ll say, “I’ve got a cousin who likes Christian music,” like it’s something that’s not for everyone. But I think what you’re saying is maybe not the reason but a reason why that happens — because we’re creating something everyone can’t relate to. And then you’re creating this parallel universe, and you have “Christian” art as opposed to regular art.
Brad: My take on that is that we’ve created a monster. We defined it that way. Look, I’m in the entertainment industry, and I still have interests in the mainstream. They see me as a Christian comedian. They’re going to put you in a box in a way they can understand or marginalize you. As the anti-Christian bigotry in this country drives so much of the liberal ideology, the more they can marginalize and compartmentalize us where it's like, “Oh, that’s nice for you but has no relevance for the rest of us” is really just a way of censoring an idea.
In Europe, for example, I don’t think they have Christian radio stations. They have radio stations that play music, and there are Christians who get on them simply because they offered up a song the station found appealing. No one sits there and says, “This is inappropriate.” It’s simply judged based on the context of it as opposed to the content. But we get to America, and we feel we have to get into a genre to sell it. But I’ve never met an artist who hasn’t had the desire to have much more visibility in the mainstream. But they’re often stuck. I wonder if you find yourself in the same position of feeling you have a creative element to share but don’t have a place at the table.
Mark: As an artist, you want what you create to be heard by as many people as possible. It can be frustrating at times when we’ve made a record, and we’re thinking about, yes, reaching our Christian audience, but spilling over into other areas. But the powers that be will say, “No that doesn’t make sense because you’re Christians, and you have your Christian audience.”
Brad: You find you’re still unable to leverage your strength as artists in our business to say, “Look, we want to go over here, so make it happen.”
Mark: I think the best songs have a chance of being played on the radio. But it’s set up so that it has to be a hit in Christian radio first. So automatically it has to be a certain type of song to be played on Christian radio; but to be carried over to be a single on a mainstream station, it’s already gone through this Christian filter. That’s a challenge.
I always go back to Johnny Cash. He went to Billy Graham and said, “I think I need to change and start writing Christian songs.” But Graham said, “No, you’re able to reach certain people I’m never going to be able to reach.” I think so many people get confused when they start talking about Christian music versus mainstream music.
Brad: If you could chose one song that would fit in mainstream radio, what would that be?
Mark: We had a song called “I Will Always Love You,” and I think that message is something anyone could hear. It’s universal, something anyone could relate to. I keep thinking, “What message would I want everyone to hear?”
Brad: That’s great because, as Christians, our ultimate purpose is to leave a legacy of our art because God gave it to us. And He expected us to deliver it. But something that bothered me is that a guy would do something cool, and everyone would clap. But the guy would stop everyone and say, “No, no; it’s for the Lord.” Of course it is. But it feels false to me because, as artists, we’re not allowed to acknowledge our fans and appreciate what we’ve done. Don’t you think, as Christians, we should assume they understand that we are giving this gift to them via God’s placement within us?
Christians are constantly “tap dancing” through every answer because somehow every answer we give is going to be construed as “I’m not being modest” or being more concerned with whether it’s a No. 1 hit. I don’t know that it’s necessarily the best way for art to evolve and develop into a more interesting — and even dangerous — place that forces the listener to deal with this moment. How many unresolved psalms were in the Psalms? Why not leave it with: I believe You, God, but I have no idea where You are right now? I believe in You, but right now, I’m in the valley of the shadow of death; and I’m going to leave you, the listener, for a while so you can think about how this applies to your life. Do you find yourself constantly concerned about how you’re going to be perceived?
Mark: Oh, constantly. We’re a rock band, so we like to, well, rock. As you’re doing that, there’s this perception that, “If I’m doing this rock thing, isn’t that kind of self-absorbed? They’re not really worshiping.” I think people are more concerned with our thought process than giving us the benefit of the doubt that because we’re a Christian band, we’re seeking God every day. If people could trust each other that, “Well, maybe they’re not doing this the way I would’ve done it,” there would be a lot greater freedom.
Brad: One thing I always say in my show is that the message of Jesus never changes, but the messenger does. What I’ve oftentimes seen is that Christians have a habit of judging content over context. They’re more concerned about what you say than what you mean. The value of communicating through words is what you mean! I wish there was more grace given, which is supposed to be our mantra as Christians because we’re all sinners, we’re all flawed, none of us deserve it, and we’re saved in spite of ourselves.
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