Finding the Cool in Christian Rock

ByAndrew Beaujon

— -- When I decided to write a book about Christian rock, my friends' reactions were generally along one line: better you than me. Christian rock has a not entirely undeserved reputation as the least cool music on earth. That has something to do with its lyrics, of course, but a lot more to do with the fact that for many years, the Christian music industry responded to any innovations in pop music with a "diet" version of whatever had become popular. Like Hall & Oates? Enjoy DeGarmo and Key instead. Like Toto or Air Supply? Check out WhiteHeart or Petra. Like Aerosmith or Bon Jovi? Actually, you could check out WhiteHeart and Petra again-they changed their sound with pretty much every album.

But like certain recessive genetic traits, innovative Christian music seems to have skipped the first generation of hippies who laid down their bongs and took up crosses in the '70s. For a long time, Christian rock was basically a lifestyle accessory for people who'd left behind their days of hedonism but still wanted to rock. But for their kids, Christian rock became just another way to express themselves, a filter to make sense of all the music they've heard on MTV and the Internet. Many of today's Christian rockers aren't as willing as their parents to listen simply to songs' messages-they want to hear stuff that's out in front musically, too.

One of the best groups I heard while I was researching this book is a group from Philadelphia called Mewithoutyou. The first time I saw them, at a Christian rock festival in Bushnell, Ill., I was struck by how much their emotional live show reminded me of punk gigs that I used to see when I was high school. The group's singer, Aaron Weiss, is still trying to square his Christianity with his music; "I don't think this is where Jesus would be if he was living today," he told me when we chatted at another Christian event. Mewithoutyou plays only a few Christian festivals every year, and it probably spends way too much time enduring taunts of "Satan rules!" in secular venues, but Weiss and his bandmates aren't content with entertaining audiences who share their faith-they want to cast their net a little wider, as it were.

And the thing is, they're not the only one. In the past few years, bands such as P.O.D., Switchfoot, and Underoath have established careers in what Christians call the "general market" without compromising their faith. The fact that those bands' spirituality isn't a big deal to non-Christian artists is a shining beacon to the Christian music biz: Christian bands don't have to suck.

That's not to say many Christian groups don't suck-most of them do, just like most non-Christian bands, frankly. I'm not a Christian, so I approached the music I listened to for this book from the perspective of judging musicians' artistry rather than their ministry. I came away really digging a few Christian acts beside Mewithoutyou: Pedro the Lion, Mute Math and the David Crowder Band are going to stay on my iPod for a long time to come. That's not because those artists take pleasure in challenging tenets of their audiences' faith (though at least two of them do) but because their Christianity defines their worldviews more than it does their music. And not only is that interesting, it also beats the pants off listening to an even less offensive version of Air Supply.

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