CCM Backbeat: Lyrics That Were Not Afraid

Someone once asked me, “What is one topic that you know way too much about that has nothing to do with your career or education?” My immediate answer was, “80’s Christian music.” Actually, it goes back further than the 80’s. I am a collector of classic Christian vinyl records, and I listen to them regularly as well. As I write this, the Keith Green record in the picture above is filling the house with songs about the Christian life.

I owe a great debt to the Christian artists of the past. They were the soundtrack for my growth in Christ. They challenged me when I was complacent, and comforted me with the gospel when I fell short. I am no expert on the topic of Christian music, but I do enjoy talking about it. With that in mind, I will be starting a new feature on this blog called The CCM Backbeat. These will be occasional posts about the Christian music of the past. We will look at its successes and failures, review albums, talk about the artists struggles, and even take a look at whether an artist has remained strong in the faith or wandered away. All of this will be done with the intention of encouraging us in our fight of faith.

In recent years, there has been a steady decline in Christian music other than in the worship music genre. There are still some great artists out there doing great things, but there is a reason why radio stations like Air1 had to switch formats to more of a worship style. It is because there is not nearly as much good non-worship Christian music being produced.

Our culture is changing. This is why I believe it is worthwhile to highlight some of the music from the past. Sometimes, simply looking back only 30 or 40 years gives us a good benchmark to see how much society has changed. Some of those changes are for the better, and some of them for ill.

Christian music of the 70’s – 90’s was not perfect. There was plenty to lament even back then. As an example, I recently pulled out an album by Petra called Beat the System, as I was listening to it, I thought, “this is quality classic rock.” Then I remembered that when it came out, it was about two to three years behind the musical trends of the day. There were some trendsetters, as we will explore, but being a day late to the game was a common feature of much of the Christian music of the past. There were exception, of course, but we regularly wished for more quality music with better production value. As that came to fruition in later years, however, I believe we began to lose something even more important in much of the music: the message of the songs began to bow to our politically correct culture. Even if we do have better production value today, I am afraid we did not get what we wanted. I will talk about the exceptions to this statement in future posts, because Andrew Peterson and several other current artists need to be thanked for their contributions.

With this post, I want to take a look at a distinctive feature of the CCM music of the past. It was often fearless in speaking the truth. Sometimes it was done well, and, other times, it was done poorly. Sometimes the theology was strong. Other times, it was weak, but it rarely failed to make an attempt. Sometimes, the messages where so strong, or done with such a daring that the artists had their music kicked out Christian book stores; Larry Norman and Steve Taylor come to mind. That thought alone is hard to believe when we look at all the heterodox materials that are sold in many Christian bookstores today.

Let me close this inaugural CCM Backbeat post with a few examples of lyrics that would have never made it passed the cutting room floor today. As you read these lyrics, realize, you will never hear anything like this on a Lauren Daigle album.

Let’s start with the lyrics for a song called, Oh Buddha, by the Imperials, featuring the legendary Russ Taff, where they address false religions.

Well, Old Buddha was a man
and I’m sure that he meant well
But I pray for his disciples
lest they wind up in hell
And I’m sure that old Mohammed
thought he knew the way
But it won’t be Hare Krishna
we stand before on The Judgment Day

No, it won’t be old Buddha
that’s sitting on the throne
And it won’t be old Mohammed
that’s calling us Home
And it won’t be Hare Krishna
that plays that trumpet tune
And we’re going to see
The Son not Reverend Moon!

-The Imperials, Oh, Buddha

Or how about this song by Steve Taylor where he addresses churches abandoning the faith because they have itching ears and become nothing more than discotheques.

Sunday needs a pick me up?
Here’s your chance
Do you get tired of the same old square dance?
Allemande right now
All join hands
Do-si-do to the promised boogieland
Got no need for altar calls
Sold the altar for the mirror balls
Do you shuffle? do you twist?
’cause with a hot hits playlist, now we say

This disco used to be a cute cathedral
Where the chosen cha-cha every day of the year
This disco used to be a cute cathedral
Where we only play the stuff you’re wanting to hear

The song comes to a conclusion with these lines:

Sell your holy habitats
This ship’s been deserted by sinking rats
The exclusive place to go
It’s where the pious pogo
Don’t you know

-Steve Taylor, This Disco Used to be a Cute Cathedral

These artists were not afraid to address us when we grew lukewarm. I will never forget the the conviction I felt the first time I heard these lyrics by Keith Green

“oh, bless me, lord!
Bless me, lord!”
You know, it’s all I ever hear!
No one aches,
No one hurts,
No one even sheds one tear
But, he cries,
He weeps,
He bleeds,
And he cares for your needs
And you just lay back,
And keep soaking it in
Oh, can’t you see such sin?!
’cause he brings people to your door,
And you turn them away
As you smile and say,
“god bless you!
Be at peace!”
And all heaven just weep,
’cause Jesus came to your door,
You left him out on the streets

Oh, can’t you see such sin?!
The world is sleeping in the dark,
That the church just can’t fight,
’cause it’s asleep in the light!
How can you be so dead?!
When you’ve been so well fed.
Jesus rose from the grave,
And you!
You can’t even get out of bed!

-Keith Green, Asleep in the Light

Let me end with these lyrics by Larry Norman. Norman had a direct audience with the rock and roll drug culture. This was a regular cause of consternation for many Christians of the 70’s and 80’s. Here are the lyrics he wrote after spending some time with Janis Joplin.

Sipping whiskey from a paper cup
You drown your sorrows till you can’t stand up
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf
Yellow fingers from your cigarettes
Your hands are shaking while your body sweats
Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer

He then turns his focus to those living the cheap sex and drug lifestyle. After reading these lines you will understand one reason why evangelicalism distanced themselves from him (parental guidance suggested).

Gonorrhea on Valentines Day
And you’re still looking for the perfect lay
You think rock and roll will set you free
You’ll be deaf before your thirty three
Shooting junk till your half insane
Broken needle in your purple vein

Why don’t you look into Jesus, He’s got the answer

-Larry Norman: Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus

We will end here, but I hope this is enough to whet your appetite for future posts where we will look more in depth at these artists and albums. There are so many to talk about, but in the meantime, let us not be afraid to be bold with the truth we have been called to proclaim.

-D Eaton

What are some of your favorite Christian songs or albums of the past? Let me know in the comments.