Christian contemporary music gets a bad rap nowadays (ironic, since Christian rap is one of the bright spots). Why? Let’s start with the “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs from artists straddling that barbed wire fence between secular and Christian. Ever since Debby Boone said “You Light Up My Life” was a love song to God, Christian artists have bottled sentimental syrup for mass consumption. Cultured observers despise CCM for sacrificing artistic integrity to copy the world’s art and create a subculture. The theologically astute find CCM nauseating for its lack of precision, its fallback into heterodox clichés, or vague, spiritual-sounding phrases.
All these criticisms have some merit. But I’m increasingly grateful for the CCM that was the soundtrack during my teenage years. In recent weeks, I’ve revisited some dc Talk songs, since this is the year their acclaimed album, Jesus Freak, turns 20. As I’ve listened, I’ve been impressed by how fortifying their songs were. This was a group who put unabashed lyrics to the in-your-face bluster of rock and rap, and the music was hellbent on keeping you from hell and all its effects.
Free at Last, for example, sought to give Christian kids a narrative that was counter-cultural and cool, especially when it came to issues of morality. “Luv is a Verb” tried to rescue the word “love” from meaning “sex,” whereas “That Kinda Girl” and “I Don’t Want It” were anthems promoting abstinence and chastity. One might chuckle at how over-the-top they sound today, but there’s something endearing about the earnestness. “Socially Acceptable” gave the strongest commentary on American culture, warning against “justifying” sin, turning everything to “gray,” and “synchronizing to society’s ways.” Decrying the “plunge” of “decency” and relativism, the song goes on to ask “in whose sight?” are today’s sins socially acceptable.
If sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll are the unholy trinity of the lost, then dcTalk was determined to use rock-and-roll to turn the tables on sex and drugs. By the time Jesus Freak was released, the band had shifted to a mix of rock and rap while maintaining their social commentary. “So Help Me God” was a cry for help in the midst of being “bombarded” by “philosophies that satisfy the surface.” “Colored People” sought to redeem a racial slur in order to showcase the power of reconciliation through embracing God’s creative intention of a multi-colored humanity. Meanwhile, “What Have We Become” invited the listener to recoil with horror at the “self-indulgent people” we’ve turned into.
But the most popular dc Talk songs were about the adventure of daring to challenge the world. “Jesus Freak,” the signature song of the group, became the anthem of a generation of young people who were coming to terms with the fact that the Christian life will be increasingly “freaky” to a lost world. The song struck a chord with teenagers because it captured the angst of “not fitting in” and wondering what everyone else will think. By 1998, “Into Jesus,” the lead single from Supernatural, had resolved the angst. Those of us singing along weren’t asking “What will people think?” anymore, but instead declaring our identity, “Hey you! I’m into Jesus. I’ve seen the truth, and I believe.” No longer is the unassuming teen worried about being seen as a “Jesus freak;” he’s an evangelist calling other people to join him.
The success of dc Talk caused some to wonder if the band would go “mainstream” and sacrifice their Christian identity. “My Friend (So Long)” answered those rumors with a defiant “Never!” It was the group’s reaction to a fictional member of the band betraying their Christian calling and compromising with the world. The song bounces back and forth from anger and sadness, with a declaration of the band’s unfailing love for the compromiser, but also a firm recommitment to never join him in seeking the world’s popularity. The message rings loud and clear: “We will always love you, but we will never compromise.” Reflecting on “My Friend (So Long),” I can’t help but think about some of my youth group friends who’ve left evangelical Christianity. Some pivoted to a raucous libertarian hedonism of the right, while others fell for “Emergent” and wound up emerging out of the church altogether. Relistening to this song makes me wonder how it may have shaped my response to friends who walked away.
Not all of dc Talk’s music was “bold” and “in-your-face.” The quietly introspective “What if I Stumble” opens with Kevin Max’s quote from Brennan Manning: “The single greatest cause of atheism in the world is Christians who confess Jesus with their lips and then deny Him with their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” The song then captures the inner struggle of a young person who worries about the consequences of falling into sin. Will their sin lead others astray? Will they let down their friends and family? Listening to the plaintive lyric and melody today, I wish that dc Talk had been more gospel-grounded in their answer to that question. The gospel isn’t for those who never stumble, but for those who do – again and again, and rise in repentance. Still, when placed within their overall body of work, I see how it functions as another “fortifying song.” It urges the listener to consider what stepping into sin will do to one’s reputation and the cause of the gospel.
dc Talk doesn’t need to make a comeback. They’ve already taken over CCM. Kevin Max became the lead singer for Audio Adrenaline, Michael Tait for the Newsboys, and TobyMac has had success as a solo artist. In their recent songs, one still sees the “fortification” aspect of their music. For example, the Newsboys song “We Believe” begins with a context of “desperation,” “doubt and fear,” before launching into a strong confession of faith in salvation through Christ alone.
1990’s CCM, for all the faults of its corny creativity (many of which are even more glaring and obvious as time goes by), was successful in one key sense. It gave me and my generation a different narrative. It was a sub-culture, yes, but no matter much some may sneer, it was a culture, and cultures are formative. Twenty years later, it’s the element of “fortifying faith” in so many dcTalk songs that has stuck with me. And for that, I’m grateful.