Christian music that deals with life as it is

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(UPDATE: A hearty endorsement of Shaun Groves from Michelle of GetRightOK in the comments: "I took my three daughters to the Shaun Groves concert the last time he was in Tulsa. The concert was wonderful. He's a funny guy, and his music is great. He has a song called Twilight that is a favorite of my kids (it's my favorite SG song too).")

About a week ago, I received an e-mail from Shaun Groves. He said he was a Christian recording artist and KXOJ was bringing him to Broken Arrow for a show this weekend. He was looking for ways to get the word out about the concert and came across this blog.

I wrote back:

Thanks for writing. To tell the truth, I'm not a big fan of CCM [Contemporary Christian Music], mainly because so much of it is theologically shallow and musically dull. But I will have a look at your site, and if I like what I see and hear, I'll give you a plug. How's that?

In his reply, Shaun said, "You and I share that beef with CCM in general," and he pointed me to a recent post on his music blog about profaning the name of God. He points to Ezekiel 36, which talks of how God's people dishonored His name with their actions.

Shaun goes on to talk about how some CCM profanes God's name, drawing from his experience as a suicidally depressed Christian teen. He describes listening, with friend who was also depressed, to a program of Christian music that his church youth leader had recommended:

I turned to it wanting to feel better. I remember feeling angry instead. What I heard was music I couldn’t relate to at all, what sounded out of touch with reality, written by happy people who’d never been where I was, who’d never felt hopeless before. No words I could put my heart behind and sing to God. The messages in the broadcast, to me, were clear: God doesn’t care and good Christians don’t have problems.

That anger became a driving force in his songwriting:

That night made me mad enough to write about it. It was the first poem I ever wrote in fact and so, I guess, that anger I felt at Christian music that night is partially to credit for me becoming the song writer I am today. That poem even won some contest back in Texas. But it did more than that. Not only did that poem begin for me the habit of funneling my emotions through a pencil onto a page, but it also gave my creativity a purpose.

That purpose is why I moved to Nashville - to write music that supports the spiritual health of Christians, that encourages through honest discourse, acknowledges the good and bad in life, that reminds us all that a life spent knowing God and not also making Him known is only half a life, a life without meaning and prone to depression and anxiety. I moved here to write songs that hometown station of mine wouldn’t broadcast when I needed them to all those years ago....

My career... has always been about saving listeners from the misery I languished in for so long - desperate to hear a sermon, read a book, or tune to a song that touched even a little of the pain I dealt with daily. The goal is to meet people where they are by being honest about where I am and where I’ve been, and from there, walk with them out of the despair and into a life full of purpose and hope.

All victorious music all the time sends the wrong message:

You see, when God is ignoring your hurts - which is what I felt when listening to sermons, Sunday school lessons and songs as a teen - we begin to suspect that God either doesn’t exist or He’s some sick twist who gleefully ignores our woe. And the Enemy wins. We believe his lie: God isn’t good. That’s where always happy gets us....

The best weapon I’ve found in the battle against this powerful lie is honesty. Honesty about the greatness, the laughter inducing, the breathtakingly miraculous, the sweetness of life. Honesty about the tears and fears and hurries and worries we all have in common.

That’s human. That’s Christian. That says God is good, He knows you hurt, He hears you, He’s sent this song, this book, these words to tell you you’re not alone. We’ve been there too. And we and our God want to meet you where you are and help you from there. There’s so much good stuff about life and God you might have forgotten about and we want to remind you of all that. Trust us. We’re just like you. If I’d heard that kind of music when I was sixteen I wouldn’t have been cured, not with one listen, but I may have tuned in again, I may have bought that CD, gone to that concert, gotten out of bed, opened up to someone sooner, felt a lot less dysfunctional and strange and unChristian.

Instead, he turned to music that spoke about the pain he was feeling -- nihilistic music like Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails -- but which offered no hope, only commiseration. In the end, he was brought back to faith by a girl (who came to be his wife), her father (a pastor) and family. They were willing to be honest about their struggles, about their mistakes, about their sins.

My wife’s honesty, and her family’s, brought me back to life. I found in them a safe place to be myself, to ask questions, to beg for prayer. A place I wanted to spend the rest of my life. By sharing their wounds mine were healed.

Shaun goes on to issue a challenge to Christian radio stations, to be willing to play music that's good, that's listenable, but which may not be "all happy all the time."

Even if his music weren't good (but it is), writing that essay alone is worthy of a plug and a link here.

Shaun Groves's Broken Arrow concert is Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Church at Battle Creek. (That's just north of the Broken Arrow Expressway -- OK 51 -- on 145th East Ave, aka Aspen.) Proceeds go to the poverty relief program Compassion International.

Now, some personal reflections on Shaun's essay:

(1) Just as Shaun was alienated by uniformly happy, victorious Christian music which didn't speak to the pain he felt, I have always felt alienated by "The Power of Positive Thinking," Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar, and all the other rah-rah motivational speakers. That's why my favorite self-help book is a slender volume by Ben Stein (you know -- the monotonous economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) called Bunkhouse Logic. He doesn't start with happy. Stein opens the book by painting in vivid terms the crushing hopelessness he felt at his job as a federal bureaucrat, and then he begins to trace for the reader the steps he took to escape to a more fulfilling life, none of which steps involved working yourself into a positive emotional frenzy. It was never a bestseller, but I'm sure it spoke to many people like me who share Ben Stein's temperament and couldn't connect with the standard happy-clappy stuff. It's not a Christian book, but it speaks to me in ways that many Christian motivational books haven't.

(2) I'm happy to be part of a church where the leadership is striving for the kind of authenticity that Shaun describes. Our senior pastor, David O'Dowd, often says that his job "is to insult us all the way to heaven," to remind us that we need to cling to the promise of the Gospel, rather than trusting in our own strength and virtue. He won't let us get away with pretending that we're all right when we're not. In fact, in a recent sermon (MP3, sermon outline and discussion questions), drawn from Exodus 28-29 on the nature of priesthood, he touches on a similar idea to that which Shaun draws from Ezekiel. As a "royal priesthood" (I Peter 2:9), we incorrectly mediate the Gospel to non-believers when we give the impression that it's all about living up to some standard of morality. "New Testament 'believer priests' don’t protect morality; we protect the gospel which is the only message which takes God’s holiness seriously enough, for it demands both Christ’s substitutionary atonement and human hearts made new."

(3) The way the transparency of Shaun's in-laws drew him back to faith in Christ reminded me of someone else who is demonstrating God's grace by her willingness to talk openly about her past, including her suicidal depression and her promiscuity, and her ongoing struggles. I'm sure that, through her blog and her book and the talks she's giving on her book tour, Dawn Eden is giving hope to many with similar experiences, to people who can't identify with Christians who have seemingly flawless lives: If she can find forgiveness and healing and community in Christ, they can, too. Just as Shaun started writing lyrics because he didn't hear anything that spoke to his experience, Dawn has said that she wrote The Thrill of the Chaste because there wasn't another book that addressed chastity from the perspective of someone who hadn't been chaste in the past. That's a very approximate quote, and I couldn't find the quote I thought I remembered, but I did find this comment about her book on another blog, which makes the point quite well:

There are so many sickening books about chastity, and the thought of another sacharine-sweet "we love living chastity" American book did initially fill me with horror. Normal kids (in our country with the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe) are not going to fall for any "because God said so" arguments. This book is wonderful because it is so courageous and she speaks about her transgressions, and what she has learnt from them in hindsight, with great clarity. It is also well written (Alleluia!)....

If you have fallen into the traps that are so easy to fall into, read this book. It is non-judgmental and realistic and makes you realise that however stuck in a rut you seem to be, it is always possible to start again. There is always forgiveness, after all, and we are all searching for truly loving relationships! It is never too late. Innocence may be lost, and innocence can never be regained, but St Augustine became a great saint. Omnia in Bonum.

(Here's the quote of Dawn's I was trying to find, from an interview in Radiant magazine: "There is, as far as I can see, no book for women who are where I was and want to get to where I am. Other books about chastity are generally directed toward virgins, telling them to 'stay pure.' When the authors of those books address non-virgins, if at all, they're usually writing from the perspective of one who really doesn't know what it's like to change from one lifestyle to another. I've been there, so I thought I would have something new and valuable to say.")

(4) We may not all have such dramatic struggles to relate or a calling to tell them to the world through a book or a song, but we're likely called to share them with someone, just as Shaun's in-laws did. As a churchgoing kid and college student, I had the idea that being a good witness a Christ meant living as visibly perfect a life as possible, keeping my flaws, fears, anger, foolishness, and hurts to myself. I think in fact I was a false witness, because I gave the impression that Jesus was not for sinners but for those who had it all together.

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Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

Very good one, Michael, I have an entry from a day or two entry "Concerning Character" that contains this quote:

"...That's why I like to go to a good church. I like to attend a church that’s not founded on Mega Hyped up American Materialism, complete with jiggling “praise” dancers, coffee bars and smoothies and such. The church I like to attend wouldn’t be a church promoting itself or others with notions like “8 Steps to Happiness,” or “14 Steps to Blessing.” Having a relationship with God isn’t a step program. These kinds of notions will only get you as far as the next “step book” or the next screaming preacher service...Not that I have attained it, but I press toward the goal, as Paul might say."

That was a good entry, Jeff, but you forgot to link to it! (I also liked your "Day in the Philippines" entry, and I look forward to the next installment.)

Michelle said:

I took my three daughters to the Shaun Groves concert the last time he was in Tulsa. The concert was wonderful. He's a funny guy, and his music is great. He has a song called Twilight that is a favorite of my kids (it's my favorite SG song too).

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