Lord Have Mercy

Impoverished Christian pop fails to satisfy the pilgrims

The 230,000 fans that shuttled into Corona Park two weekends ago composed easily the most apathetic crowd ever to weather a three-day rock festival. The bands dutifully provided them with one thing, but the acrowd was here for another—the daily sermons by Reverend Billy Graham: a cardigan throwback, in the age of the megachurch, to the days of quaint televangelism, leading what might be his final Crusade revival meeting. Watching even the celebrated Christian acts that accompanied Graham was a bit like enduring the dull pageantry of an uninspired undercard simply to prove yourself worthy of witnessing the main-event prizefight. There on the stage were a succession of lightweights, miming superstardom.

And miming is exactly right. The major deficiency of contemporary Christian music, a shadow industry of imitative equal-opportunity pop, has always been its lyrical poverty. The melody of a typical Christian pop song is merely conventional, but the words are an excruciating marriage of the numbingly literal-minded and the distressingly vague. Sunday afternoon, before at least 70,000 listeners—an arena-rock fantasy of mass conversion—the platinum supergroup MercyMe sang, "I can only imagine when all I will do/Is forever, forever worship you."

There is not the faintest residue, in the formulaic pieties of MercyMe or Sunday headliner Michael W. Smith, of human suffering and redemption, the motifs that have characterized all of the best (mostly black) American religious music. If the Crusade concerts are to be believed, the preferred theme of the white contemporary Christian artist is assured salvation; the preferred mode not the cultural separatism that engineered CCM as an alternative to mainstream music, but the boastful, apocalyptic triumphalism of its ascendant political counterpart.

CCM veterans Jars of Clay were, believe it or not, what passed for a highlight.
Photograph by David Atlas
CCM veterans Jars of Clay were, believe it or not, what passed for a highlight.

CCM veterans Jars of Clay offered a modest archivist's alternative Saturday, reviving some traditional hymns with inventive contemporary arrangements—but this was one minor spark, extinguished by a three-day lineup organized, apparently, to avoid anything so radical as musical ingenuity. An agnostic observer might perceive a critical subtext in what became the mantra of the rambling Graham, whose sermons followed the morbidly derivative, ornamental performances. Formal orthodoxy, he kept saying, "is not enough. You must be born again." These zombies lack the spirit.

 
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