My first rock concert was Jars of Clay at Mama Kin Music Hall, a nightclub owned by the members of Aerosmith and situated behind the Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston. I was 19. I tended to go for bands like Third Day, who sounded like Hootie and the Blowfish on one album and Pearl Jam on the next. Or Jennifer Knapp, who sounded like Natalie Merchant. I browbeat my girlfriend to stop listening to the Cranberries, so she found Smalltown Poets, who sounded like Gin Blossoms. But Jars of Clay had layered folk music atop electronic beats, and you couldn’t say they sounded just like anyone else, and at the beginning, before they became some of CCM’s elder statesmen, listening to something different was important if you were an evangelical kid who needed to feel superior to other evangelical kids.
Jars of Clay were the sort of “Roaring Lambs” that Emmy-winning TV producer Bob Briner would later write about: Christians who “infiltrate and make an impact on their workplace and world with their faith.” In his book, Briner provides a list of yes-or-no questions to gauge a reader’s roar. One of those asks, do “I consider careers in the arts, journalism, literature, film and television to be as important for the kingdom as pastoral ministry, or foreign missions”? I’d get revved up hearing the Jars of Clay song “Flood” on Boston’s WXRV 92.5 The River while I worked my summer job behind the butcher counter at Yankee Food Market in Raymond, N.H. Millions of non-Christians were hearing frontman Dan Haseltine sing of God’s “casting down all waves of sin and guilt that overflow me.” This lamb was roaring! God had to be in that, right? When they played that song at Mama Kin, the acoustic power chords, thundering bass rhythm and gang vocals got so loud I had to block my ears, and I felt a cold breeze that built with the volume. I wasn’t sure if that was the Holy Spirit or the Devil or the kick drum or just some mysterious force of nature, but it was rock‘n’roll, baby! They even had a secular opener, Duncan Sheik, with his big hit “Barely Breathing.” So they were, you know, relevant.
Though Briner’s book came out after I had graduated from Cedarville College aspiring to become a pastor or a writer, a “Roaring Lamb” is precisely what my school, like so many evangelical universities, had been preparing us to be. Our faculty emphasized themes like “excellence” and “the integration of faith and learning.” We aimed to gain cultural power by doing our jobs really well and using our positions of influence to point people to Jesus. We’d have doctors and lawyers and politicians come to the chapel stage and tell us how they were doing just that.
At the end of my junior year, I won the first-annual “Cal Thomas Scholarship” for my potential to “impact the media for Christ.” Thank God, because I needed the 2,500 bucks to pay my senior tuition. But it didn’t feel quite right. I wasn’t particularly familiar with Thomas’ body of work, but I knew he was a “conservative” pundit, and that probably meant he said not very nice things about gays, abortive mothers, divorcees, Muslims and Socialists. Wasn’t there another model for a young Christian journalist? To be a roaring lamb, did you have to shout and stomp and wring your hands about the decline of American values?
I didn’t find a model in journalism. I found it in Contemporary Christian Music. Yeah, I know. Eeeek! But it’s true.
I wonder how this world would be
if I was never here
to drive this bus around
from Ashbury to Main
I’m just a bus driver,
And what do I know?
“Bus Driver,” Caedmon’s Call
My friend Chris discovered Caedmon’s Call in the spring of my sophomore year at Cedarville. Their self-titled major-label debut with Warner Brothers seemed to fit the “Roaring Lambs” model. Producer Don McCollister had also recorded the Indigo Girls, Shawn Mullins and Sister Hazel. Caedmon’s had college-radio credibility, and they were making a brand of aggressive folk-rock I hadn’t heard before, especially not in Christian music. They had three lead singers with majestic harmonies, a three-man rhythm section, and a rootsy, acoustic vibe to balance the slick production expected from CCM. Caedmon was a seventh-century saint who learned to sing through a supernatural vision; we were evangelical Protestants who traced our theology and practice back to the 19th or maybe the 16th century, so there was something subversive about following a band named for a medieval Catholic saint.
Caedmon’s Call had built its audience touring secular college campuses, which seemed like honest dues-paying compared to bands who had managed to get a hit song played on the radio. This sort of indie, DIY ethic resonated with my evolving faith. Hadn’t the Apostle Paul written something about “power made perfect in weakness”? One of their songwriters, Derek Webb, was tackling topics that wouldn’t play very well from the pulpits I’d sat under: suicide, eating disorders, the dignity of bus drivers – could a bus driver be a “roaring lamb” or did you need a stage and radio airplay? Our lives on earth really matter to God, Derek seemed to be saying, even if they’re filled with suffering, disappointment and crummy jobs.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham, N.C. He’s releasing a series a music videos that go along with excerpts from his spiritual memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. This pairing begins a sub-series drawn from his chapter, “I Will Sing for the Meek,” which explores what he learned from Christian musicians Caedmon’s Call, Rich Mullins and Over the Rhine about how to live out faith in a public vocation. These excerpts will appear each Monday in August.