CCM as Lenten practice: Finding Larry Norman in the desert

Lent is a season of justice – it is a season of deep reconciliation, of bare bones truth-telling, a redirecting of hungers and longings that have gone astray, but it is essentially a season of justice.  As I will tell students as we enter Ash Wednesday that they are called to remember along with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19 that they too will “return to the ground from which they are taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Yet going back to the beginning of things – our dustiness – also means that we can allow new things to take root, to grow into full bloom, and perhaps bear fruit in ways we never would have expected.  As an exercise of justice, I challenge students to remember that Lent is a call to justice in three vectors:

– justice within ourselves,

– justice in relation to our neighbor,

– and justice with God.

Much of the focus in contemporary Lenten practice revolves around the first turn of justice as a move within ourselves and challenging the priority of the hungers/distractions that have taken us away from our true nature.  This is the call to fasting – be it from food, coffee, alcohol, Facebook, television, what-have-you – that people will take on board as a way to refocus on who we truly are before God and others without these things.  It is a good practice and an important spiritual discipline to be sure.  However, without the call of justice to and with our neighbor (found in renewed acts of generosity, service and hospitality) and in relation to God (found in renewed commitments to deep reading of Scripture, prayer, community worship and fellowship) then merely fasting from caffeine or American Idol doesn’t really amount to much.

One area that I have challenged myself with during Lent has been to scroll through my CCM back catalog and see where God might show up in ways I just don’t expect.  For those who know some of my journey, I have had a strange relationship with CCM – the genre known as Contemporary Christian Music – and have come to the point of closing off my imagination to the possibility that God even speaks (let alone stutters) in anything found in the racks of Christian bookstores.  I make a point of ‘heresy hunting’ in CCM lyrics as I sit in worship services and struggling constantly with the poor theology found in much of what passes as ‘praise music’.  But this year I was confronted by the reality that perhaps my heart, akin to the Grinch, was three sizes too small and when I hear the Whos down in Whoville singing to Chris Tomlin, Stuart Townsend, Matt Redman, TobyMac, David Crowder or whomever, I need to explore what is behind this joy rather than steal all the Hillsong CDs from under the trees in the dead of night.

So I have gone back to my CCM tunes in the dusty recesses of my iPod (filed under ‘Gospel and Religious’ or ‘Religious’ or ‘Inspirational’ genres) and started to listen a bit each day as a form of penance, of desert wandering, and a form of reconciliation.  True, some of the music I am finding is fairly cringe worthy in both form and content – the 80’s electronic strings that soar in the third verse is an example – and yet there is still something going on that I have to admit is striving after God in ways I have dismissed.  Perhaps is it a sign of my age, but I actually am finding that some of the old Jesus Music stuff from the mid 1970s (Larry Norman, Keith Green, Randy Stonehill) and the Gospel numbers from the early 1980s (Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mavis Staples, Shirley Caesar, Fairfield Four, Blind Boys of Alabama) hold up and frankly musically bury a lot of what is being sold today.

One gem that I had completely forgot about was Larry Norman’s “The Great American Novel” from his 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet. On the song, Norman plays the role of the 60s flower child wandering through 20th century history and watching as history turns a blind eye to justice in favor of the complacent and the powerful:

And when I was ten you murdered law with courtroom politics,
And you learned to make a lie sound just like truth;
But I know you better now and I don’t fall for all your tricks,
And you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth.

You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter,
Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water;
And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on,
At every meal you say a prayer; you don’t believe but still you keep on.

And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.

The song pulls no punches and has a ferocious, all-consuming commitment to seeking real justice and reconciliation in the realm of lived politics – things that effect real people in real life.

As I scroll through CCM recorded in the 80s and 90s let alone the first decade of the 2000s, I will admit being struck with how… dare I say it… bland… the music seems to be.

Where is the strong, clear, pointed concern for the poor and marginalized?

Where is the longing for justice and the seeing of Christ in the face of the downcast?

Lent is indeed a season of justice.  It is a season of reconciliation.  It is a season of going back to beginnings and finding what might have been overlooked and needs to be attended to. Sometimes, it means finding in CCM… of all places… a calling to justice and seeing the world anew.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s