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Christian Music, Contemporary

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, millions of Christians listened to contemporary Christian music (CCM), which they considered to be entertaining, inspiring, and worshipful. It is reasonable to assume that the music both expressed and influenced the way that many of these Christians understood and used the Bible.


The music being discussed in this article has gone by a number of names, including “Jesus music” (the most popular term in the 1970s), “Christian rock,” and “contemporary Gospel.” The label “contemporary Christian music” was first used by Ron Moore in a 1976 issue of Harmony magazine to describe the work of Richie Furay; it would become the dominant term in the 1980s when it came to be used as the title of an influential magazine devoted to covering the field. But what exactly qualifies as contemporary Christian music?

Institutional definitions have been offered. From time to time, the Gospel Music Association (GMA) has adopted criteria that songs, albums, or artists have to meet in order to qualify for the Dove Awards that they present to CCM artists. Such criteria are typically content based, indicating that CCM music by definition features lyrics that obviously or explicitly express a Christian perspective.

Audience-based definitions have also been recognized (and are preferred by this author). Thus, “contemporary Christian music is music that appeals to self-identified fans of contemporary Christian music on account of a perceived connection to what they regard as Christianity” (Powell, 2002, p. 13).

Audience identification of music as CCM is often based on appraisal of the lyrical content, but it may also derive from any number of other factors. Songs that are not explicitly religious are often identified as CCM when they are performed by an artist who is forthright about his or her commitment to Christianity and who performs other songs that testify to such faith in more obvious ways (e.g., “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer [1997], or “Live the Life” by Michael W. Smith [1997]). Conversely, songs that might be regarded as CCM because of their religious lyrics are not usually identified as such when they are performed by artists who are not known to be devout Christians (“Shine a Light” by the Rolling Stones [1972], or “Lake of Fire” by the Meat Puppets [1994]).

Contextual factors also come into play: an artist’s music may be regarded as exemplary of CCM when that artist performs at Christian music festivals or has a song played on Christian radio stations. Thus, in the 1990s, both Switchfoot and Creed were led by singer-songwriters who publicly professed to be Christians, but only the former was widely regarded as a CCM artist. This was because Switchfoot, who had almost no songs with explicitly Christian lyrics, was a mainstay of Christian radio and music festivals; Creed avoided those venues in spite of the fact that they wrote and performed a number of songs with explicitly Christian references.

Consensus is ultimately lacking, but there is a widespread convergence of opinion. In general, music that is regarded as CCM is that which (1) has a sound similar to one of the styles that are currently favored by fans of popular music and (2) bears an association with a particular subculture of people who profess Christianity in public and, often, enthusiastic ways.

Scholarship and History.

CCM arose as an identifiable entity during the Jesus movement revival of the early 1970s. Larry Norman, a pivotal figure in that revival, would later comment that the Jesus movement was falsely portrayed in the media as featuring mass conversions of pagan young people to Christianity. In fact, Norman contended, the revival involved conversions of Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, and some Jewish young people to evangelicalism. These conversions, furthermore, often involved changes in piety and spirituality rather than doctrine or basic religious commitment: millions of young people raised in formal, liturgical churches embraced the emotionalism and spontaneity of revivalistic Christianity. They often looked back on their previous religious experience with disdain, regarding the church traditions in which they had been raised as staid or lukewarm, preserving religious truth but failing to embody it in ways that effected authentic spiritual renewal.

So, these “Jesus people” (as they called themselves) craved music that would be spiritual but not religious, music that seemed novel, exciting, immediate, and relatively free of the strictures and structures that had caused them to regard church-as-usual as boring and irrelevant. The perfect medium for such music presented itself in the relatively new genre of rock music. The earliest artists favored the sound of pop bands (cf. Love Song and Phil Keaggy to the Beatles or the Beach Boys) folk groups (cf. Children of the Day to Peter, Paul, and Mary), and protest singers (cf. Barry McGuire and Larry Norman to Bob Dylan or Neil Young). Eventually, contemporary Christian music would branch out to include all of rock’s godchildren: punk rock, hard rock, ska, heavy metal, disco, new wave, hip-hop, and every other innovation.

The phenomenon of contemporary Christian music has not received academic attention proportionate to its significance. Only a handful of serious studies have appeared, including one that treats the CCM movement or subculture from a sociological perspective (Howard and Streck, 1999). Dissertations that focus on CCM have tended to be produced within the field of American studies rather than within specifically theological fields (Young, 2010).

Evolution of the field is apparent and somewhat significant for the topic of this article. In the 1970s, CCM (then called “Jesus music”) tended to be individualistic and expressive of personal piety, with a heavy emphasis on sentiment and emotion. The music was not well known but was generally associated with young people who testified to having a personal relationship with Jesus despite disinterest in traditional trappings of institutional religion.

In the 1980s, CCM became the music of a prominent evangelical-fundamentalist counterculture. It was, in fact, the product of a major industry, and “Christian rock” (though often disparaged) enjoyed enormous commercial success. The music was now touted as a godly alternative to “secular rock,” and it came to be associated with a conservative variety of Christianity that sought to impose its values on society as a whole.

In the 1990s, CCM yielded to the rebellious tendencies often associated with the genre of rock music. A new generation of artists went out of their way to defy expectations of the industry and of ecclesiastical gatekeepers. Most of these new artists were young adults who had been raised in conservative evangelical churches, and some of them were reacting against those traditions in the same way that their forebears had renounced unappreciated aspects of mainline traditions two decades earlier. In particular, CCM now eschewed the judgmental attitudes and triumphalism with which it had come to be associated; now, the most acclaimed artists tended to favor vulnerability and honest attempts at dialogue. The new CCM was also less overtly didactic and more given to metaphor, ambiguity, and poetic imagery.

The new millennium would see a continuation of these trends, with one highly significant new development: worship music became the dominant subgenre of the field. From the start, CCM artists had occasionally composed worship songs or even recorded entire worship albums, usually as side projects analogous to Christmas albums recorded by prominent mainstream artists. But now there were countless CCM artists who did nothing but music intended for adoption in contemporary worship services, and almost all CCM artists felt obliged to contribute something to this new, expanding repertoire. In this way CCM also expanded well beyond the evangelical subculture and came to be appreciated within a wide span of Christian churches and denominations.

CCM Songs about the Bible.

A handful of CCM artists have recorded songs that are about the Bible, that is, about the book itself. The most common theme in such songs is simple encouragement to read the Bible, believe what it says, and live accordingly. Examples would include “The Book” and “Get You a Bible,” both recorded in 1991 by the Christian rap duo P.I.D. (aka Preachas in Disguise), and “Get Back to the Bible,” a 1974 song on the very first album by the quintessential Christian rock band Petra.

In a more quaint vein, the song “Paperback Bible” (1975) by Phoenix Sunshine extolled the simple (even disposable) commodity that Jesus movement Christians treasured, with a sideways glance at the fashionable and expensive “designer Bibles” that many companies were trying to market at the time. In 1975 one could pick up a copy of the American Bible Society’s Good News for Modern Man (paperback New Testament) for just 25 cents; a leather-bound Thompson’s Chain Reference Study Bible was 40 dollars.

Other songs reveal why the Bible is so important. In “The Bible.” a 1976 song from the first album by the critically acclaimed and highly successful band Daniel Amos, listeners are repeatedly invited to “find peace in God’s word” when they are feeling down, depressed, harassed, or otherwise troubled. Over 20 years later, the equally acclaimed and successful group DC Talk was still echoing this theme: their 1998 song “Red Letters” proclaims that love, truth, hope, peace, and forgiveness can be found in the biblical words of Jesus (printed in red in some editions of the Bible). These songs faithfully convey a general characteristic of CCM: there is little emphasis on the authority of scripture (which may be simply assumed) but much emphasis on the appealing spiritual effects of engaging scripture.

Not to overstate this point, however, the Bible is also presented consistently as a reliable guide for life abundant and eternal. “Written in the Word” (1974) by Debby Kerner and Ernie Rettino says that the Bible contains “a message from our God” that is “gonna tell you how to get to the kingdom, the good life.” “Basic Instructions” (1998) by Burlap to Cashmere sets Bible verses like John 3:16 and Matthew 7:14 to music, presenting them as “basic instructions before leaving earth.”

Citation of the Bible in CCM Songs.

The most obvious and direct way that scripture is used in CCM songs is through direct citation. Many songs (especially worship songs) simply present texts of scripture with minimal or no commentary, setting them to memorable tunes that fix the words in the minds of listeners in a way that invites reflection. For the most part, theological interpretation is left to the listener, though to some extent interpretation may be suggested by the choice of a musical setting.

An example of interpretation that many found incongruous would be the song “If Any Man,” performed by the Maranatha! Singers in 1975. The words were taken directly from Matthew 16:24 (KJV): “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” These words were set to the tune of a festive march, and indeed the song was played by a marching band as though the context were a triumphal parade.

A more successful example of “scripture songs” from the same period would be “Seek Ye First” by Karen Lafferty (1974). This song was often sung at prayer groups in the 1970s, and it eventually made its way into countless hymnals through which it would remain a part of interdenominational worship for decades to come. In its original rendering, the song had three verses; these consisted of three Bible passages (Matt 4:4; 6:33; 7:7) presented almost word-for-word in KJV translation. The verses were set to a flowing, contemplative tune that lent itself easily to worship and prayer.

In the same manner, “Psalm 5,” written by Bill Sprouse and originally recorded by The Road Home (1976), set the KJV text of Psalm 5:1–3 to a flowing melody that made the song a favorite hymn in many churches not otherwise disposed to accepting contemporary music. Though originally intended as pop songs, Noel Paul Stookey’s “The 23rd Psalm” (1977) and Kim Hill’s “Psalm 1” (1988) would also lend themselves easily to liturgical usage. The master of this genre, however, would be John Michael Talbot, a former rock star who set dozens of psalms and other scripture passages to music appropriate for contemporary worship settings.

As time went by, less tame examples of the scripture-set-to-music phenomenon would appear. As early as 1983, U2 set three verses of Psalm 40 to music in their song “40,” a track that received considerable airplay on mainstream radio stations but was generally ignored by Christian radio and was not (at that time) adopted for use in churches. In 1999, however, a CCM band called Salvador would have considerable success with “Psalm 3,” a slow but driving rock song reminiscent of “power ballads” performed by hard rock groups. The song was used in many progressive churches, which, by that time, were employing rock bands to lead worship with full electric accompaniment. Also in 1999, The Insyderz presented a ska treatment of “Psalm 139,” rapping and singing Bible verses against an energetic backdrop of drums and horns.

The process of setting scripture texts to musical settings sometimes requires paraphrase, especially if there is any attempt to maintain a rhyme scheme. The song “Charity” by Kenn Gulliksen (one of the founders of the Vineyard denomination) was featured on an influential 1972 compilation album by Maranatha! Music artists (called Maranatha Two), and, like “Seek Ye First,” it became a staple of prayer meetings. At first notice, “Charity” appears to set the words of 1 Corinthians 13 to a memorable tune: most of the song corresponds closely to the biblical text, but a careful comparison reveals that Gulliksen did change some lines. “Love does not rejoice in wrong, but rejoices in the right” (1 Cor 13:6) becomes “love sings when Jesus prevails” (to rhyme with a previous line, “love never fails”). In the 1970s many Christians involved in the Jesus movement believed the phrase “love sings when Jesus prevails” was actually found in the New Testament, since Gulliksen’s popular song was widely known as a text of scripture set to music.

Other songs based on scripture passages seem to be only loosely inspired by them. “Psalm 72” by Big Tent Revival is a worship song addressed to Jesus, with several lines reflective of the biblical text referred to in its title. “My God You Are” by Out of the Grey starts out as a paraphrase of Psalm 22, sticking quite close to the biblical text for the first verse (= Ps 22:1–3), but it then develops into a more generic song of trust with only occasional reference to the psalm.

Furthermore, CCM songs sometimes allude to scripture in ways that only persons with some knowledge of biblical texts might recognize. In 1987, The Seventy Sevens had something of a crossover hit in the secular market with their folk-rock song, “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes, and the Pride of Life.” The allusion to 1 John 2:16 (KJV, RSV) may not have been detected by many of the song’s fans.

Choice of Bible Translation.

As indicated from many of the examples discussed thus far, the translation of the Bible used in early CCM songs tended to be the King James Version. The Living Bible paraphrase produced by Kenneth N. Taylor was also very popular with early CCM fans, but its explanatory renderings lacked the poetic quality that made KJV the Bible of choice for musical adaptation.

In the 1980s, the King James Version would be all but replaced by the New International Version (NIV) as the Bible most quoted in CCM songs. Indeed, the whole notion of corporate sponsorship entered the field of CCM in 1989 when the musicians DeGarmo & Key were chosen as official spokespersons for the New International Version of the Bible and their album The Pledge was co-featured in a national advertising campaign promoting both the band and the translation (“Take the Pledge—Read the Word”).

The influence of the NIV in CCM can also be detected in more subtle ways. One of the most popular bands of the 1980s called itself “The Seventy Sevens” after Matthew 18:22, where Jesus tells Peter to forgive his brother “not seven times but seventy-seven times” (NIV). But the band’s name would be only significant to NIV readers, since in other major translations of the day Jesus told Peter to forgive not seven times but “seventy times seven” (KJV, NASB, RSV). The members of the popular 1990s group Jars of Clay apparently found their name in an NIV Bible as well, since other translations of 2 Corinthians 4:7 refer to “earthen vessels” (KJV, NASB, RSV), “pots” (NJB), or simple “clay jars” (NRSV).

Reliance on these biblical translations would often give CCM somewhat archaic lyrics that seemed ironic given the performers’ desire to sound as modern as possible. This was most evident early on when CCM artists wrote songs that sounded (musically) like current Top 40 hits but were filled with words like “doth,” “hast,” “ye,” and “thou.” A switch to the NIV may have resolved this problem to some extent, but the problem would remain evident through a persistence of gender specific language (in biblical and other contexts) that was no longer typical of the culture at large. So, in 1985, Randy Stonehill would denounce materialism and hedonism as “The Gods of Men” in one song and insist that Jesus didn’t want his followers to be meek and mild but “Angry Young Men” in another. In both cases, the full context of the song suggests that the word “men” is meant to refer to people (male or female). The use of the term with that (archaic) meaning probably derived from the popularity of the KJV, the NIV, and other noninclusive language translations of scripture in the CCM subculture.

Application of the Bible to Modern Contexts.

CCM songs often suggest present-day contexts within which the ancient scripture text remains meaningful. This can be implied, but it is sometimes stated explicitly. When Jesus called disciples to follow him, Chuck Girard avers, “he was beckoning to you and me” (“Sea of Galilee,” 1975).

Such application may seem obvious or natural, but it inevitably involves theological moves that assume particular interpretations of the text. We may take as an example the song “Thy Word,” written by Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, two of the most popular CCM artists. The chorus to this song comes word-for-word from Psalm 119:105 (KJV): “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” In this regard, it is similar to “Seek Ye First,” mentioned previously, but now the scripture passage serves only as a chorus, and the stanzas of the song suggest contexts in which that passage might be meaningful.

The first verse suggests that the guidance of God’s word is particularly significant when one feels lost or potentially afraid; beyond that, it suggests that God’s word mediates the very presence of God (“you’re right beside me … you are near”). The second verse intensifies these points: the reason people need God’s word to guide them is that they are wayward (“my heart is forever wandering”) and the presence of God that is mediated through the scripture is now given a specific Christological interpretation (“Jesus be my guide”). Thus, Psalm 115:105 is essentially interpreted in light of John 1:1; the “word” that is a light unto one’s feet is not just scripture but Jesus Christ.

Patchwork Approach to Biblical Texts.

CCM songs often take a patchwork approach to scripture, stitching together lines, phrases, or verses from different parts of the Bible without any consideration of the original literary genre or historical context. This allows for “scripture to interpret scripture” (a standard Protestant, especially Calvinist, principle of hermeneutics), though of course it is the songwriter’s theology that determines which scriptures interpret other scriptures.

An early example of this phenomenon is the song, “Love Is” by Barry McGuire (1973), which juxtaposes Matthew 22:37–39 with 1 Corinthians 13:4–8 and John 15:13. Every line of the song is a straightforward citation from scripture, but the presentation of the verses amounts to a veritable theological treatise:

  • (1) the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor,
  • (2) loving God and neighbor entails behaving in the manner described in 1 Corinthians 13:4–8, and
  • (3) the ultimate expression of such love may be seen in the sacrificial death of Jesus.

Another example may be found in the popular worship song, “Open the Eyes of My Heart” by Sonicflood (1999), a piece that also illustrates the previously mentioned tendency to reference scripture through allusion rather than outright citation. The key line, “Open the eyes of my heart,” is inspired by Ephesians 1:18, but the reason for this plea is so that we might see God “high and lifted up,” phrasing that recalls Isaiah 6:1, and that God might “pour out” his love upon the worshipers with enlightened hearts, a thought suggestive of Romans 5:5. The result is that, although the song does not actually quote the Bible, every line alludes to some well-known Bible passage in a way that makes the entire composition sound scriptural.

This “patchwork” approach to scripture citation is nothing new; a number of the New Testament writers do this, patching together Old Testament quotes from several different books (Mark 1:2–3 conflates material from Isaiah 40:3 with Exodus 23:30 and Malachi 3:1). And, of course, the church has done this for centuries in its liturgical music.

Humorous and Satirical Engagement of Biblical Texts.

CCM often embodies the spirit of rock and roll by engaging biblical texts in ways that are intended to be amusing or fun. After all, most people listen to pop music simply because they find it entertaining, and many Christians listen to Christian pop music for the same reason.

In 1969 Larry Norman essentially gave birth to the CCM genre with a song called “Moses in the Wilderness,” a whimsical retelling of the biblical story filled with silly sound effects and corny jokes (e.g., Moses bugged the pharaoh and “used real bugs”). In 1985 Carmen’s “Lazarus, Come Forth” presented the deceased Lazarus in heaven with a collection of Old Testament saints, all talking about what God had done for them. Carmen relates these exploits with obvious humor, adopting different voices for the characters and lacing their descriptions with contemporary slang and wildly anachronistic references (Samson sounds like a stereotypical “dumb jock,” Ezekiel sounds like a mystical hippie, etc.). The climax comes when these persons want to know what God has done for Lazarus, but before he can answer, he hears the voice of Jesus calling him and must quickly return to his earthly life.

Such songs are almost like Sunday school skits, intentionally silly and more entertaining than edifying. Indeed, there is not always an obvious message. During his stint as a CCM artist, Bob Dylan wrote a song called “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” (1979), which simply rhymed the names of many different creatures with attributes they demonstrated when Adam encountered them. And, in a song called “Mimes of the Old West,” the band This Train speculates on how hard life would have been for a particularly ridiculous example of social outcasts referred to as “the least of these” by Jesus (Matt 25:40, 45): “they throw imaginary ropes around imaginary cattle … no one got beat up more often.”

Sometimes, of course, the humor does serve to underscore a point. Tom Stipe rewrote the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37) into a song called “Big City Blues” (1973), which retains the central message of Jesus’s story in spite of playful phraseology (“they knocked Willy in the head, split with all his hard-earned bread”).

An Expectation of Empathy.

CCM songs often depend on empathy with biblical characters in order to convey an intended interpretation. The just-mentioned song “Big City Blues” seems to encourage listeners to empathize with the hapless victim of robbers (the man in the ditch in Jesus’s original parable) who must wonder which of the passersby will stop to help him. It may be compared with Paul Clark’s “Which One Are You?” (1975) from around the same time period. Clark’s song tells the story of the Good Samaritan in a more straightforward fashion but interrupts the stanzas with a chorus that asks the listener which of the passersby they will be—the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan? Empathy with the victim (assumed in Tom Stipe’s song) is not presented as an option.

An assumption of empathy seems to lie behind most CCM songs about biblical characters. In 1981, the hard rock Christian band Barnabas recorded “Nicodemus,” a song that basically tells the story from John 3:1–10 with emphatic repetition of the line, “You must be born again” (paraphrase of John 3:3). At first this line simply recites what Jesus said to Nicodemus, but as the line is repeated over and over again, it seems to be addressed directly to the listeners themselves.

Likewise, in 1975 Honeytree told the stories of “Mary and Martha” (Luke 10:38–42) and “Ruth” in song because people could find value in empathizing with those characters and applying lessons learned by the biblical women to their own lives in the modern world. Negative role models can be found as well: in 1976 Annie Herring sang, “I don’t want to be the woman left at the grinding stone” (see Matt 24:41). Andraé Crouch’s “Take a Little Time” (1971) relates the story of the 10 lepers in Luke 17:11–19 and concludes, “Lord, I don’t want to be like the nine, but like the one who returned.”

Another example of empathy may be found in “Jesus Freak” (1995), one of the most popular Christian rock songs of all time. Here, the band DC Talk raps about John the Baptist, whom people dismissed as crazy (cf. Matt 11:18) and who was ultimately beheaded by the powers he threatened (Mark 16:14–29). The target audience for the song was teenagers who suffered ridicule and ostracism because of their faith; by inviting them to empathize with John, the song suggested that Christians who experience relatively trivial forms of persecution consider embracing the costly heroism of biblical characters.

Modern interpreters may recognize the reader-oriented hermeneutic that is being employed in such an instance. CCM listeners are essentially being told that the Bible stories are not just about people who lived a long time ago; they are about us. The significant point for interpretation of such stories is to determine which character we are and which we want to be.

Reader-response criticism suggests that empathy is generally of two types: realistic or idealistic. Chuck Girard’s “Sea of Galilee” (1975) insists, “We can be the same right now as Peter, James, and John were then.” The assumption seems to be that such emulation is not only possible but desirable: the listener ought to identify idealistically with these biblical heroes. But a song from the same period that was actually called “Peter, James, and John” (by Parable, 1975) focuses on how these disciples misunderstood Jesus and his mission: they thought he had come to rule, not to die, and the Resurrection was a complete surprise to them. The assumption here seems to be that listeners might empathize realistically with these misguided disciples and receive the more profound understanding of Christ’s mission the song offers as a correction of their own short-sightedness.

Songs do not always stipulate what sort of empathy is desired, and since empathy choices determine effect, multiple possibilities yield polyvalence. In Clark’s song “Which One Are You?” the listener who empathizes realistically with the priest or Levite may be convicted for a lack of compassion, while the listener who empathizes idealistically with the Samaritan may simply feel encouraged toward righteousness.

To continue with this example, however, a listener who empathizes realistically with the Samaritan might find the song reinforces tendencies toward self-righteousness and the harboring of judgmental attitudes toward the less compassionate. The problem with reliance on empathy to achieve a meaningful effect is that empathy choices are ultimately beyond the author or composer’s control. Thus, CCM is frequently prone to polyvalence, which can yield unexpected or undesirable interpretations. This is not unique, however: such potential is intrinsic to all forms of artistic expression.

Poetic and Symbolic Interpretation.

CCM tends to interpret the Bible in nonliteral ways that bring out the metaphorical meaning for present-day audiences. The meaning of the Bible is understood to be transcendent, not limited to application within original, historic contexts. For example, miracle stories are treated not as historical reports of remarkable events that happened a long time ago but as symbolic illustrations of what can be accomplished through faith today.

An example may be found in the song “Walk on Water” (1996) by Audio Adrenaline. The verses tell the biblical story from Matthew 14:22–33, focusing on Peter’s attempt to walk on water at the bidding of Jesus. The chorus, however, offers a contemporary application: “If I keep my eyes on Jesus, I can walk on water!”

This song serves to illustrate the point regarding empathy made previously. The effectiveness of the song depends on the listener thinking, “I am Peter—this is really a story about me.” But the song also illustrates the manner in which CCM frequently takes a poetic, nonliteral approach to the Bible. It seems unlikely that Audio Adrenaline or their fans believed that they might literally see Jesus some day when they were near a body of water and that, if they only kept looking at him, they would literally be able to walk across that body of water to him.

This manner of finding meaning in texts is extremely common in CCM. At a 1972 Christian rock festival, Johnny Cash openly embraced the new CCM music with a song called “I See Men as Trees Walking.” Based on Mark 8:22–26, the song treated the phenomenon of receiving one’s sight in stages as a metaphor for progressive enlightenment. Likewise, the 1995 song “Flood” by Jars of Clay treated the deluge at the time of Noah as a metaphor for feeling overwhelmed by things that one cannot control.

In both of the instances just cited, the artist did not treat the biblical event simply as something that happened in history but as a phenomenon that might happen to people today: “Jesus, I would like to see …”; “If I can’t swim after 40 days …” But, of course, Cash was not literally blind, nor were the members of Jars of Clay literally drowning. Lest this point seem too obvious or pedantic, we should note that CCM has traditionally found its largest audience among conservative evangelical Christians who reject interpretations of the Bible that regard miracle stories as purely symbolic or nonhistorical narratives.

In the 1940s Rudolf Bultmann taught that biblical stories like Jesus walking on water or healing the blind were to be regarded as “myths.” In the 2000s, scholars like Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan called these stories “parables about Jesus.” In either case, the assignation of genre (myth or parable) might be questionable, but the essential point was that the stories were literary creations intended to convey symbolic, spiritual truth for the present rather than literal, historical truth about the past. These scholars rarely gained a hearing among fans or performers of CCM; still, the interpretations accorded biblical stories in CCM songs often correspond closely to the interpretations provided by scholars like Bultmann, Borg, and Crossan.

An essential difference is that CCM treats the accounts as metaphorical in application rather than in substance. There is no reason to suspect that fans or performers of CCM songs question the literal historicity of biblical miracle stories; still, the point of those stories is not that these things happened but that they convey metaphorically what God continues to do for people today. Historicity is not denied; it is simply ignored.

In 1973 Andraé Crouch recorded a song insisting that the story of Jesus is “not just a story but reality” (“It’s Not Just a Story”). But songs that insist upon historicity of biblical stories have been rare. The most common songs of this sort would be ones that denounce the theory of evolution, presumably because the biblical creation narratives are to be read literally. So Geoff Moore ridiculed college professors who tell students, “your uncle was a monkey” (“Evolution,” 1993).

In general, however, songs that insist on historicity are hard to find, and, indeed, songs that depend upon historicity are almost as rare. This probably stems from the genre of poetry, which relies more upon metaphor than upon logic for effectiveness and which is generally better at evoking emotional responses than at convincing people of facts. So, somewhat surprisingly, the use of the Bible in CCM songs rarely depends upon a conservative, evangelical, or literal interpretation of scripture. More often it uses scripture in poetic, transcendent, and symbolic ways that are associated with more liberal expressions of Christianity.



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Mark Allan Powell

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