As she pulled into traffic, Elaine Benes turned on her boyfriend's car radio and began bouncing along to the music.
Then the lyrics sank in: "Jesus is one, Jesus is all. Jesus pick me up when I fall." In horror, she punched another button, then another. "Jesus," she muttered, discovering they all were set to Christian stations. Then the scene jumped to typical "Seinfeld" restaurant chat.
"I like Christian rock," said the ultra-cynical George Costanza. "It's very positive. It's not like those real musicians who think they're so cool and hip."
Notice how the lords of Must See TV stuck in the knife and gave it a sneaky little twist, noted rocker Charlie Peacock, who has two decades of experience in both the secular and sacred markets. Contemporary Christian music -- or CCM -- is "positive," not "cool" or "hip." It's nice, meek and safe. After all, these aren't "real" musicians.
"Positive and nice. Helpful and friendly," writes Peacock, in his upcoming book "At the Crossroads," about the identity crisis in the thriving CCM industry. "Sounds more like a description of the Ace Hardware man than music informed by a story so ... real that it involves every action, emotion and thought under the sun - a complex, bloody, beautiful, redemptive, truthful story."
Since Christendom is built on a story that is literally larger than life, Peacock's wonders why CCM is smaller than life. The Bible is full of sin, death, doubt, love, hate, anger, war, lust and other messy subjects. The faith of the ages wrestles with the bad news before reaching the Good News. Yet many Nashville executives would agree with the "Seinfeld" gang that CCM products must be tamer than the "real" pop, country and rock albums they mimic. Truth is, no one expects CCM to appeal to many listeners who aren't already true believers.
This is, noted Peacock, a mighty strange strategy coming from people who say one of their main goals is evangelism. He also wonders if it does believers much good to consume only "positive" messages that please them, comfort them and appeal to what marketers call their "felt needs."
Some critics go even further. Writing in the New York Times, critic Nicholas Dawidoff said CCM is simply "mediocre stuff, diluted by hesitation and dogmatic formula, inferior to the mainstream popular music it emulates." But he added: "There's no reason why contemporary Christian performers, if they allow themselves to explore their talent and emotion more completely, can't successfully combine virtuosity and moral virtue."
Mark Joseph of the MJM Entertainment Group in Southern California, has dug into sports history and found an even more provocative judgment. "As with baseball, strange bedfellows have colluded to keep musicians with Christian beliefs in the modern-day equivalent of the Negro Leagues," he wrote, in Billboard. This arrangement allows Christian companies to lock up their artists, while the biases of the secular marketplace remain unchallenged.
On the other side, some purists say CCM is soul sick because its artists crave mainstream success and respect. This camp claims that it's time to return to a strict "ministry" model in which performers stick to the biblical basics - recording only explicitly Christian songs -- and stop seeking to "crossover" into secular charts.
The bottom line, said Peacock, is that gifted Christians make all kinds of music -- from classical to jazz, from pop to edgy rock -- and it doesn't help anyone to enforce one narrow definition of "Christian music." People who run CCM companies must learn to reach the ears of unbelievers as well as believers, he said. This will, at the very least, require radically different marketing techniques and a more real-life-oriented approach to lyrics.
This would even allow some Christians to successfully write songs that appeal to non-Christians, even if that breaks the CCM rules and might, in the short run, seem unprofitable.
After all, noted Peacock, "an audience of 100 Satan punks and 10 Christians does not constitute a CCM consumer base. An audience of 95 Christians and five Satan punks does. If you're thinking something doesn't add up, you're right. Whether it adds up or not depends on whose math you're using."