Hymnody

“Can’t you see? You’re not making Christianity better. You’re just making rock ‘n’ roll worse.”
Hank Hill

billy_graham_1979To begin, a confession: When I was fourteen, I listened to Petra. You probably don’t remember Petra, but ask any other Evangelical who lived through an early-90s adolescence, and she’ll tell you. Petra, man. Sanctified rock ‘n’ roll.

But that is insufficient. If I’m being honest, I didn’t just listen to Petra. I loved Petra. I had over a dozen Petra tapes. And concerts! I must’ve seen Petra three, four, five times. But this doesn’t end with Petra. I saw everybody from dc Talk to Jars of Clay. There were arena shows. There were music festivals. I kept ticket stubs in my neon velcro wallet. I went with my friends. I went with my youth group. We were all there, packed together with our youth leaders and assorted chaperones. We went in droves—fleets of church vans in the parking lot of Six Flags or the Georgia Dome. All of us in our Umbros and tight-rolled jeans, t-shirts with slogans like “body piercing saved my life” and “in case of rapture, this shirt will be unmanned.” All of it. There were giant speaker towers, the occasional stage-diving, grand spectacles of laser-lighting. Maybe that sounds like the concerts you went to when you were fourteen and not Evangelical, minus the clever t-shirts. But I’ll bet you didn’t have altar calls.

You see, our rock stars came up in the school of big tent revivals and Billy Graham crusades, so when they saw the assembled adolescent masses rocking out before them, they did what any good revivalist would do: They stopped the music to try to save our souls. Years later, now a father myself, I entirely understand this instinct.

It was a kind of boilerplate ritual. A little more than halfway through the set, one of the big-haired rockers, glistening with sweat and rock ‘n’ roll, would sit on the stool that materialized for this purpose, and he would tell us about Jesus. We knew already, but we listened. We even knew the basic format of the conversion story he would tell, but still we listened, rapt. The rhythm guitarist kept thrumming under this, slow riffs. It climaxed in the altar call—he called us to leave our seats, to come to the front of the arena where we could pray to receive Jesus. I must have heard hundreds of such calls over the years, variations on the theme, a theme we Evangelicals adopted a couple generations ago on muddy riverbanks and in sagging canvas tents straight out of Flannery O’Connor. A few times I went forward, and when I didn’t I felt guilty for not going. Nevermind that I was already among the flock. Nevermind that I read my Bible daily, debated with my unbelieving friends—and invited them to events where they, too, could be called to come forward. I felt that I should walk to the front, kneel on the concrete, come again to my Jesus. (We even had a term for such repeat conversions: recommitting our lives to Jesus). Once, at a small event, I remember every soul in the place going forward, kneeling on the stairs and on the stage. And why not? It was transcendent, it was home.

At the larger concerts, we gathered around the stage into something that was a kind of inverse mosh pit—perfectly quiet, perfectly still, but thrumming with energy. Sometimes we knelt, sometimes we stood. We prayed right up next to the speaker tower, and the energy grew and grew. Even we Presbyterians were made Pentecostal by it. At the perfect moment, then, the band would launch into the power anthem. We cried, and sang, and those of us who weren’t Baptist danced. Our ears and our voices didn’t work right for days.

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But was the music terrible? Of course it was. Most music sold to Evangelicals begins with the formula of the hit du jour and looks for a way to repackage it for a Christian audience. So, yes, by and large, the music was atrocious. The theology was watery at best. The methodology was manipulative. All true.

Why did we listen? Well, one way to answer that is that we listened because we were afraid and our parents were afraid. We were afraid that, if we listened to Poison instead of Petra, Limp Bizkit instead of dc Talk, Smash Mouth instead of Newsboys, we would begin down a path that led away from the faith. Fear of the world, paired with an unwillingness to actually go without the trappings of the over-culture, is a driving factor in the Evangelical sub-culture, and it is where much of Evangelicalism falls off the rails. But at fourteen, I didn’t know that I was afraid of the world. I didn’t even know that the music was terrible. I just knew that I liked Petra. On one level, this is probably not much different from you at fourteen when you were into *NSync, or Insane Clown Posse, or Alanis Morissette, or whatever. I liked Petra because they spoke in a language native to me. Because there among the Umbros and power chords, I was not alone.

But even that answer doesn’t satisfy me now.

I stand now on the other side of these questions. As adolescence wore on, I gave up Petra, along with concerts that climaxed in altar calls and many of the other trappings of the Evangelical subculture. But I did not give up my faith, and now I am left thinking about my daughters. They are a long way from fourteen, but those intervening years will go quick. I do not want them to be afraid of the world when they are fourteen though I will probably be newly afraid of it on their behalf. I hope they will see the world for what it is. I hope that they will see the darkness clearly, and that they will see the light that pours through it, around it, glowing the edges and speaking God in the fragments.

There is a hymnal in their bedroom alongside the Winnie-the-Pooh books. After I tell them a story, after we pray together, I open it and I sing. My favorite these days is a 17th century Scottish setting of the 23rd Psalm. It is in a minor key, strange and sad, serene but unresolved. I sing it again and again as the room goes dark, as the breathing of my girls falls into the ocean rhythm of sleep. I sing the old words, the old tune. It is the song of my people, the song of our rest, and I am giving it to my girls, this heritage, my heritage. My hope. The only light I have to offer. I am trying to sing my faith into them. It is a nightly altar call for my toddlers, droning on and on into the dark, calling them to rest in the arms of our Shepherd God.

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