Mark Joseph’s fascinating third book in a trilogy about the difficult and oftentimes damaging relationship of Christian musicians with the worlds of mainstream secular music and Christian music.
I’m a friend and colleague of Mark Joseph, so when he asked me to read his book and give an honest review, I was a bit worried. I’m always worried in these cases because I face a potential conflict: If the book is good, no problem. If the book is bad (or worse, boring), I won’t lie and say it’s good. I owe that to God, the writer, and the public. But if that’s the case, then I worry about my relationship with my friend whose book I’ve just trashed.
So I just pray that it’s good and hope that they prefer honesty to boot-licking.
Whew. Rock Gets Religionis not only good, it’s excellent. It’s a well told tale, or rather an episodic series of entertaining tales about some of the most popular musicians in mainstream music and their struggles with integrating their Christian faith or background into their music.
We’re talking the likes of Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Lacrae, Chance the Rapper, Megadeath’s Dave Mustaine, Kendrick Lamar, Avril Lavigne, Kay Perry, Miley Cyrus and others.
That’s right, fascinating details about the spiritual journeys of some who I never realized were Christians, and others who have, shall we say, somewhat altered their beliefs after becoming famous.
But there are also many insightful stories about so-called cross-over artists who were able to bridge the gap into the mainstream with their music despite their explicit “Christian” expression: Mercy Me, Switchfoot, Stacie Orrico, Evanescence, Mumford & Sons, The Fray and others.
Full disclosure, I was raised on the original Christian Rock of the 1970s and early 80s: Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, DeGarmo and Key, Stryper, Daniel Amos, Steve Taylor. But I lost interest in that world in the 90s and have not kept up with any Christian music beyond the popular worship songs that show up at my church. I saw some of the changes going on but I just haven’t cared much about it. Not for any spiritual reason. I just changed in my musical interests.
But what I found fascinating about Rock Gets Religionwas how author Joseph chronicles the very important philosophical/religious/moral struggle that artists go through in bridging those worlds of faith and music.
Sure, he addresses the moral fall that so often accompanies the consequences of success within the mainstream world of secular entertainment. And the all-too-common loss of faith exhibited be some of those very artists listed above.
But more importantly, this book wrestles with the philosophical struggle of what it means to integrate your Christian faith into your art, without being compromising or propagandistic. Every Christian artist knows this struggle.
One quote sums up the insightful exploration of this generational struggle well:
“If gospel music was birthed in the fields of suffering, as noted earlier, where African-American slaves toiled and sang to God, Christian rock came from the 1970s Christian subculture that was animated by books such as The Late Great Planet Earth and teaching about the “end of days,” which held that the return of Christ and the end of the world was imminent. This mentality had ramifications across the board, including in education, art, and politics, and in the case of art, sometimes gave artists an overwrought sense of mission that made their work urgent, dogmatic, and insistent, instead of artistic, understated, and challenging.”
The world we live in often shapes our expression of our faith, and today is no different.
Joseph explains how sadly, the “Christian music” world has approached the issue of applied faith with a separatist attitude of “holiness” and separation from the world, that results in the isolation of what I call the “Christian ghetto” where the very ones who need the message don’t get it.
But he also acknowledges that the secular world has been an accomplice of suppression with its own bigotry against Christians and their faith, guilty of deliberately ignoring successful Christian music like they used to ignore Country and Western.
This is not a black and white issue. It’s complex and nuanced.
If you are a fundamentalist, you will not like this book. It is much too honest with our human weakness and struggle. But if you want an authentic insight into sinners saved by grace who struggle to make Christianity mean something in a hostile or dismissive world, then you will find this book very helpful.
It is a very balanced, honest and biblical look at a very messy and gray world, where Christians are imperfect, make mistakes, and even fall morally, but cannot be dismissed or written off as without spiritual merit. There really are no easy or pat answers.
Some of these artists, like Katy Perry, are spiritual tragedies, but others, like Chance the Rapper, are simply Christians who are not perfect, yet seek to by transparent with their failures and their honest journey with God. It is their humanness that we most connect with and find inspiration.
I don’t even care about the music world and all its celebrity, but as a Christian artist, the book was both inspirational and educational.
The book’s only weakness to me was its stress on criticizing the separationist mentality of the Christian community without acknowledgement or exploration of the legitimacy of a calling to that community. Look, I know Mark, and I know he would fully accept that some Christians may be called by God to perform for the Body of Christ. I’m just saying that the stress on the negative created a false impression that “Christian art” as a category is a less legitimate genre for music (art). I do not believe this was intentional.
I speak as an artist who has engaged in both “secular” or mainstream art and “Christian art.” I have struggled all my life with seeking to integrate my faith with my art in a way that is both authentic and communicates truthful existence to a godless world. And I confess that I have had a condescending attitude toward the genre of “Christian art,” precisely because I do not do “Christian art,” I am simply an artist that communicates my worldview like any “secular” artist.
I also have a reputation for criticizing most Christian movies as being bad. But I have come to learn and admit that there is a place for this niche, just like any other niche. And sometimes God actually calls individuals to do that kind of stuff.
The genre of “faith-based” or “Christian” is just as legitimate as “gay and lesbian” genre or the “feminist” genre. The problem with Christian movies has not been the genre, it’s just that they’ve been so poorly written, directed, acted and produced that they denigrate the craft in the name of God. And it doesn’t help that secular critics pan even the good stuff, because of their prejudice and discrimination.
Again, I know Mark would agree with me on all this, so perhaps what I see as a shortcoming may have been addressed in his previous books, or if not, perhaps a fourth one for a quadrilogy???
Rock Gets Religionhelps you navigate an understanding of how the Christian faith can be integrated with your art, by those who have failed at it, and by those who have been successful. But all of them have been different.
Our God is a God of true diversity—of calling.