Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

While recording his "Beyond Nature" album, Phil Keaggy spent many hours doing three things -- playing acoustic guitar, taking long walks in the woods and reading books by C.S. "Jack" Lewis.

"I took all that in and it influenced the music, which was quiet and contemplative and that fit with that moment in my life," said Keaggy, in a recent interview. "All of that was connected. … I think you can feel a spirit behind that music."

So it isn't surprising that this 1991 classic included song titles such as "Brother Jack," "Fragile Forest" and "Addison's Walk," referring to a Magdalen College footpath that Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Oxford friends often walked while discussing literature, faith and life.

While "Beyond Nature" was an instrumental recording, the liner notes included this Lewis quote: "Nature is mortal; we shall out-live her. … Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects. And in there, and beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life."

So this was a "Christian" album, one inspired by the apologetics of Lewis? That's the kind of question musicians often hear after recording instrumental music during an era in which "Christian music" debates almost always focus on lyrics.

"I just play," said Keaggy. "I don't try to analyze all that."

In recent years, Keaggy has recorded a series of instrumental albums with keyboardist Jeff Johnson, who -- like the guitarist -- has for decades mixed folk, rock, jazz, classical and Celtic music into a style that writers struggle to label. Both record most of their music in home studios on their own terms. Both draw the attention of critics outside the "contemporary Christian music" niche.

The duo's latest work, for Johnson's Ark label, is "Cappadocia" -- taking its name from an arid, volcanic region in what is now Turkey. Early Christians hid in this isolated haven during persecutions and the Apostle Peter addressed his first epistle to "exiles" in several places, including Cappadocia.

Johnson visited this region in 2017 and was stuck by remnants of Christian life, from pieces of frescos and engravings to a rose-shaped window in a sanctuary carved into a hillside. Thus, the disc includes song titles like "Chapel of Stone," "Parousia (A Presence)" and "That Which is Hidden."

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

When newcomers arrive at a megachurch these days, they face an obstacle course of challenges -- from deciding how much to tip the parking-lot guy to tricking their normal children into looking like cherubs.

Finally, loaded with visitor swag -- donuts, coffee, official church water bottles, snappy Christian t-shirts, the pastor's new book -- they head into the flashing lights, dry-ice fog and pounding pop music inside the auditorium.

Now what? The bottom line: Look spiritual.

"On the powerful choruses, lift your hands high with abandon. On the subtler verses, tone it down a touch," advises the snarky narrator in the new book "How to Be a Perfect Christian," by the duo behind The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website.

After the guitar solo, there will be a "bridge" that worshippers sing over and over and over: "Go for it with both hands and a feigned expression of emotion on your face. Sway side to side like a tree in the wind. If you open one eye at this point, you'll probably notice that people … are staring at you in awe that they're in the presence of one so holy."

The book's goal isn't to mock Christianity, but to help believers understand that many churches have evolved into self-help supermarkets defined by trends in mass culture, said Bee founder Adam Ford. Often, faith turns into another "niche" product.

"We push back against the commercialization and 'celebritization' of so many aspects of the church," noted Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. "Get a famous pastor with a lot of Twitter followers, host the most carnival-like 'church services,' make sure everyone is as comfortable and entertained as possible, preach a Zig Ziglar-style message, and you'll get more people to come to your church. Like churches are circus franchises or something, with the ultimate goal being more butts in seats."

Ford wanted to become a pastor, but veered into the more private world of digital publishing ( He founded the Bee in 2016 and recently sold the site, in part because of the hot spotlight caused by its success and a run-in with Facebook over content.

Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

Larry Norman: Trapped in Contemporary Christian Music walls he helped create? (Part 2)

When Larry Norman died in 2008 there was one thing the critics -- secular and religious -- agreed on: The controversial singer and music maven helped create the "Contemporary Christian Music" industry.

For Norman, that was not good news.

"In China, if you become a Christian, you may be imprisoned," said Norman, offering a cynical aside during his last concert, in New York City. Seven months later, his fragile heart failed one last time.

"In India, your parents may disown you. In the Middle East, they might execute you. But in America, if you become a Christian, you just have a broader selection of Christian CDs to choose from."

Norman lived to see the fiery folk-rock style he pioneered in the early 1970s -- part "Jesus Movement" evangelism, part social-justice sermons -- evolve into a suburb-friendly genre in which "Christian" was attached to safe versions of old fads in mainstream music.

The album Norman considered his bravest -- "So Long Ago the Garden" -- infuriated many "CCM" consumers because of its symbolic, mysterious language. Then there was the semi-nude, Edenic cover image of the singer.

While writing his Norman biography, "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music," philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury dug into the singer's papers and found an impassioned defense of that album, in a letter to angry fans.

"All of the songs I write are Christian songs, because I am a Christian," wrote Norman. "Is a man any less a Christian because he is a car mechanic instead of an evangelist? … Some people are so conditioned that if a song doesn't have some religious clues like 'blood of the lamb' or 'the cross,' they are unsure of its spiritual qualification."

Part of the problem, said Thornbury, is that Norman had "a glorious way of speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He never wavered from his desire to write Jesus songs. …Yet at the same time, he was constantly blasting Christian music people about making music that was propaganda -- with no art, or poetry, or mystery at all. …

"Larry thought you could be very, very clear on Jesus and the Gospel and, at the same time, go way out there on the edge in terms of art."

Alas, it was hard to be a commercial, secular success while doing both those things.

Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over 'Christian' music and art (Part I)

When Larry Norman released "Upon This Rock" in 1969, its rock-star sizzle and blunt faith put the album in the soundtrack for millions of lives as the "Jesus Movement" revival surged onto the cover of Time magazine.

Music industry pros were used to hearing The Beatles on Capitol Records. Now there was a longhaired guy on the same label belting out: "Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation to every man and every nation. Sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation and let the people know that Jesus cares."

Norman's work did more than shake up church youth meetings. His early success convinced some Gospel music executives to turn up the drums and guitar solos. Soon, "Contemporary Christian Music" grew into a billion-dollar industry with its own written and unwritten rules.

Now it was time for Norman to freak out Christians as much as he did secular-music people in the early years when he shared concert bills with Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Who and others. What were Christian radio stations supposed to do with "The Great American Novel," a song that addressed racism, war, poverty and other hot-button topics?

"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," sang Norman. "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."

Norman "overloaded lots of people's circuits" and, eventually, even his own, according to philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury, author of a new biography named after one of Norman's most famous tunes -- "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" The subtitle hints at future darkness: "Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock." Norman died in 2008 at the age of 60.

Thornbury calls Norman the "Forrest Gump," a true "holy fool," of American evangelicalism. The scholar — and guitar player — doesn't hide Norman's struggles in business and his private life, adding a painful backstory to a career that put the singer shoulder to shoulder with everyone from the Rev. Billy Graham to President Jimmy Carter, and lots of colorful people in between. As a young man, Vice President Mike Pence was born again at a Christian rock festival -- headlined by Norman.

Life after CCM, the remix

The first time Jay Swartzendruber held a compact disc, he wondered if music fans would miss the artwork, readable lyrics and other goodies that came inside old-fashioned album covers.

Years later, industry insiders started talking about selling music online and it was deja vu all over again. The voice in his head said, "Fans will forgo CD art and packaging altogether? You seriously believe that?"

Swartzendruber also likes reading magazines he can hold in his hands, especially when it's the one that he runs. But that's changing, too. After 30 years of defining a subculture it helped create, CCM Magazine is facing its last press run. After April, it will appear online -- period.

"On one level, this is just part of what is happening everywhere," said the 40-year-old editor. "Lots of magazines are moving online. But there's more to it this time and everybody knows it. This is part of even bigger changes in the whole Christian music business."

For decades, CCM stood for "contemporary Christian music," while executives debated precisely what that meant. It helps to know that Nashville is a place where judgments about the state of an artist's career can be based on theology as well as sales.

In the beginning, CCM meant pop tunes that youth choirs could sing in church. But over time, some artists ventured into heavy metal and alternative rock, while others dug back into country and rhythm and blues.

During one identity crisis a decade ago, the Gospel Music Association -- focusing on lyrics -- struggled to establish criteria for its Dove Awards.

"Gospel music," it proclaimed, "is music in any style whose lyric is: substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible; and/or an expression of worship of God or praise for His works; and/or testimony of relationship with God through Christ; and/or obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view."

Industry leaders predicted a bright future. They cited huge Soundscan sales numbers in 2001, but that included mainstream records -- such as the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack -- that sold in Christian as well as mainstream stories.

Those numbers looked great, but a revolution was taking place backstage. Bands like P.O.D., Sixpence None the Richer, MercyMe, Chevelle, Switchfoot, The Fray, MXPX, Mute Math and others were jumping into the mainstream. Some artists ignored the CCM scene altogether or fought for their legal right to escape.

Realists could see several trends by 2003. The first was that sales were falling for the "adult contemporary" artists -- such as Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant and Steven Curtis Chapman -- whose success had defined the CCM industry. Meanwhile, sales were rising for Christians who reached the mainstream. And finally, Christian stores were selling truckloads of "modern worship" CDs containing the explicitly religious "praise music" that bands play Sunday after Sunday in megachurches across America.

When CCM asked its subscribers what they wanted to read, they requested more coverage of "artists in the mainstream" and "modern worship artists." So Swartzendruber and his team redesigned their magazine last year, focusing on a wider spectrum of music and artists.

In a letter to readers, the editor stressed: "We're going to start mixing indie and general market Christians in with those who have Christian label affiliation on a more regular basis. In other words, we're going to stop perpetuating the myth that what is and what is not 'Christian music' is based on where the music is sold. (If you think that last sentence sounded confessional, you're right.)"

The bottom line was that the old CCM label had become "out of date and marginalized." So the editors changed the name to "Christ. Community. Music."

But it was too late to save the magazine, in its old form. The work of redefining the familiar CCM label will continue online, said Swartzendruber, at an expanded website that will include daily coverage, blogs, podcasts, digital music and other signs of the times.

"What we learned is that contemporary Christian music was perceived -- by people in our subculture and people in the mainstream -- as music made by Christians, for Christians," he said. But what readers are saying now is, "We want to hear more about the artists of faith who are having an impact on our culture, not just artists who are preaching to the choir."

FM radio reality in church

The clock is ticking and soon Jeff Crandall while face the challenge of selecting the right music for the Christmas services at High Desert Church.

This will be tricky, because Christmas is what the 70-member staff at this megachurch calls a "federal" event. This means that these services will unite worshippers from the three radically different services that are held week after week at this booming congregation in Victorville, Calif., about 90 miles outside of Los Angeles.

"Christmas may be the only time when people want to hear traditional music, no matter what age they are," said Crandall, the church's 46-year-old "worship pastor" and the former drummer in a rock band called the Altar Boys. "Even kids who are totally into hard rock what to hear a few carols, which makes it easier to put together a service that pleases everybody. ... We try to do the same thing during Holy Week and Easter."

In recent decades, many churches have been shattered by the intergenerational strife that researchers call the "worship wars." If you want to split a national church, change its teachings about sexuality or salvation. But if you want to split a local church, you toss the hymnal, hire a drummer, unleash the teen-agers or make some other musical change that rocks the pews.

But High Desert Church is the kind of church that has turned this equation around. Its goal is to build a multi-flock ministry that unapologetically offers all rock, all the time, but with bands that appeal to different packs of young people, as well as bands for believers from an earlier g-g-g-generation or two.

Now, this nondenominational flock is poised to become the poster church for this FM-radio-dial approach to worship, after being dissected in the hallowed pages of the New York Times.

"When you start a church, you don't decide who you're going to reach and then pick a music style," senior pastor Tom Mercer told America's newspaper of record. "You pick a music style, and that determines who's going to come."

On one level, the music divides this church. But on another level, the music is at the heart of worship services that create zones of comfort for people who have been raised in a culture in which consumers define themselves by their musical choices.

Thus, High Desert Church offers a "Classic" service for Baby Boomers and others who came of age during the "Jesus rock" explosion in the '60s and '70s. This service offers a softer brand of acoustic rock -- think Byrds or the Eagles -- that is easier on the delicate and even damaged ears of older worshippers, said Crandall.

Meanwhile, other musicians focus on the "Harbor" service for people between the ages of 30 and 50. It features the kind of soaring, inspiring rock that most people would associate with U2 and classic bands from the 1980s. Then the "Seven" service cranks things up another notch, with what Crandall described as a "dark" and "moody" mix of postmodern music for the young.

The bottom line: Church leaders use different technology to create different music for different generations who choose to attend different services.

The music unites and the music divides. The challenge for church leadership, Crandall said, is to unite these flocks around a common vision when doing evangelism and missions -- primarily through 18-person cell groups that focus on fellowship and prayer. Then there are those "federal" events that take place several times a year.

There are still Protestant and even Roman Catholic churches that are trying to create "blended" worship services that appeal to all ages at the same time. "Blended" is the term used to describe a mix of traditional hymns and rock music, switching back and forth between a pipe organ and those electric guitars.

Their intentions are good, said Crandall, but the results are guaranteed to offend people whose musical tastes are simply not compatible. Thus, he believes that "blended" services drive people away rather than pulling them together.

"This is reality," he said. "Everything is about the music. When you go to the mall, you can even tell what kind of people are supposed to be shopping in the different stores just by listening to the music that is playing. Can you imagine kids wanting to shop in a store that is playing the music that their parents listen to? No way."

Catholic choirs, alive or dead?

Lucy E. Carroll has never actually attended a Catholic Mass in which a cantor belted out, "He'll be coming 'round the altar when he comes! He'll be coming 'round the altar when he comes!" At least, that hasn't happened yet.

"I know that some people have used Stephen Foster music in a Mass," said the musical director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia. "I've heard about people using the melody from the waltz scene in 'Beauty and the Beast' for the 'Gloria.' And I've heard more than one report about people singing the 'Agnus Dei,' which means 'Lamb of God,' to that old song 'Send in the Clowns.' "

In many parishes, she said, pop songs and the modern hymnody inspired by them have all but replaced traditional hymns and, heaven forbid, ancient chants and actual Catholic anthems.

This is old news. What many outsiders may not realize is that many Catholic parishes have, in the past decade or two, followed the lead of Protestant megachurches and now feature plugged-in "praise bands" and worship-team singers -- complete with solo microphones -- who sway in the Sunday-morning spotlights.

Legions of Catholics like this music, admitted Carroll. But many do not, including some younger Catholics who are drawn to candles, incense, sacred art and the mysterious melodies of ancient chants. In many parishes, she said, it may be time -- as shocking as this may sound -- to start a choir.

Carroll is an unrepentant choir director. She believes there is more to being a Catholic musician than the ability to play some guitar chords while singing, "Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord? I have heard You calling in the night." She can speak words like "Victoria" and "Palestrina" without flinching.

"Most people who lead music in our churches today are not trained to be liturgical musicians," said Carroll, an adjunct professor at the Westminster Choir College at Princeton University. "They do not understand that there is music that is sacred in nature and then there is music that is secular in nature. There is Christian music that would be totally acceptable at a revival service or a youth rally, but it is not ... acceptable in a Catholic Mass."

What should someone do if they want to start a choir? Carroll recently published a list of tips in the conservative Adoremus Bulletin ( that included:

* Obtain the full support of the priest, including a pledge that he will praise the choir from the pulpit and cooperate with its efforts.

* Find a choir director and an accompanist. It helps to have money to hire someone and the person must understand worship as well as musical notes on a page. Carroll suggests that parish leaders search at local high schools and colleges, perhaps even seeking out talented students seeking practical experience.

* The best way to find singers is by personal contact. Do not, she emphasized, advertise with phrases such as "Do you like to sing in the shower?" The goal is to find choir singers, not soloists whose volume control is cranked up to "water buffalo." Avoid people who say, "I'll be there for Mass, but not rehearsals."

* Start slow, perhaps singing at the same Mass once a month. Resist the temptation to hide your fledgling choir under a wave of instrumental sound. Train the singers to handle some traditional, a cappella (voices alone) music.

* Start with unison music then let the choir sing "antiphonally," with women singing one line and men the next. Then attempt canons and rounds, such as the anonymous "Dona Nobis Pacem" that congregations have enjoyed for generations. Eventually, the director will learn who can sing soprano, alto, tenor and bass. At that point, the choir can try two-part chants and then easy anthems from a traditional Catholic hymnbook or by modern composers who write sacred music for use in Mass.

The goal is for the choir to become a close-knit family of musicians who lead the church family in worship, said Carroll. She is convinced that soloists with microphones inevitably turn into performers.

"We have to get away from the rock bands and the folks groups and the polka players and everybody else," she said. "We need to stop entertaining our people and get back to our own worship tradition -- which is leading our people in the worship of God."

Worship for sale, worship for sale

In the beginning, there were the Jesus People.

They had long hair and short memories and they emerged from the 1960s with a unique fusion of evangelical faith and pop culture. They loved fellowship, but didn't like frumpy churches. They trusted their feelings, not traditions. They loved the Bible, but not those old hymnals.

So they started writing, performing, recording and selling songs. The Contemporary Christian Music industry was born.

And, lo, the counterculture became a corporate culture, one that was increasingly competitive and relentlessly contemporary, constantly striving to photocopy cultural trends. Out in the mega-churches, the definition of "worship" changed and then kept changing -- Sunday after Sunday.

Even though this industry "makes claims for musical diversity among its ranks, it is primarily a reflection of current folk, pop and rock styles," noted veteran pop musician Charlie Peacock, speaking at a recent conference on "Music and the Church" at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "Even today's successful modern worship music is composed of these and does not have a distinct style of its own."

The "bandwidth" of worship music today is actually quite narrow, he said, even if black gospel and "urban" music is included. This reality is especially obvious if the industry's products are contrasted with the dizzying array of church music found around the world and across two millennia of history.

Today, the bottom line is almost always the financial bottom line.

While believers lead the companies that dominate Christian music, secular corporations now own these smaller companies, noted Peacock. Clearly this is shaping the "Christian" music sold in religious bookstores and mainstream malls. But this corporate culture is also affecting worship and the heart of church life.

"The industry cannot be expected to always have the best interests of the church in mind," Peacock told nearly 500 scholars, musicians, entrepreneurs and clergy. "Christians within the companies may. But the overriding ideology of the system is to serve the shareholder first."

Serving the shareholders means an endless stream of new products, fads and artists -- just like in the secular world. The new always vetoes the old and the saints don't use credit cards or own stock. Thus, CCM is dominated by pop, rock, urban and new worship music. Classical Christian music is below 1 percent on the charts.

Most worship leaders are trying to blend these radically different musical elements, reported pollster George Barna, describing a survey of Protestant worshippers, pastors and "worship leaders." Sometimes the easiest solution is to have different services for different audiences -- a strategy the Barna Research Group found in three out of four churches.

Thus, the GI Generation attends a different service than the upbeat Baby Boomers or the mysterious young faithful of generations X and Y. The result looks something like an FM radio dial.

"What we know about Americans is that we view ourselves first and foremost as consumers," said Barna. "Even when we walk in the doors of our churches what we tend to do is to wonder how can I get a good transaction out of this experience. ... So, what we know from our research is that Americans have made worship something that primarily that we do for ourselves. When is it successful? When we feel good."

And sometimes people feel bad. According to the pastors, only 9 percent of the surveyed churches were experiencing conflict over music. But it's possible to turn those statistics around and note that 90 percent of all church conflicts reported in this study centered on musical issues.

Is peace possible? Peacock concluded that it will be up to ministers and educators to argue that there is more to worship than the niches on a CCM sales charts.

The industry can play a valid role in shaping the content of Christian music, he said, even in "contributing to the congregational music of the church. Still, the industry is at the mercy of a consumer with narrow tastes. Until this changes, it can't possibly function as a definitive caretaker and should not be asked to.

"This means that the stewardship of Christian music from the Psalms, to Ambrose, to Bach, to Wesley, to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and more, belongs to the church and the academy."

Romeo and Juliet, born again

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- It's hard to imagine "Romeo and Juliet" with a happy ending.

But what if William Shakespeare had been preparing his manuscript for sale in stores linked to what used to be called the Christian Booksellers Association? What changes would he have been pressured to make?

"The lovers would meet, just as before, and the parents would still disapprove. Probably one set would not be Christians at all, providing a convenient subplot of salvation," said novelist Reed Arvin, in a rollicking lecture at the 2002 Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing.

As newlyweds, Romeo and Juliet would strive to evangelize those lost parents. Shakespeare would manfully struggle to build tension, but "the fix would be in," with a happy ending assured, said Arvin. In the final scene, Romeo's parents would be converted and, as Juliet's father leads them in prayer, the sun would break through the clouds over Verona. Amen.

"I thank my God that William Shakespeare did not write for a CBA publisher, because that version of 'Romeo and Juliet' would have been forgotten 15 minutes after the marketing plan ran out of money," said Arvin.

But Shakespeare, rather than "making his story end like an episode of the 'Love Boat,' taught us about power and young love. ... Above all -- in messages profoundly Christian -- be taught us the importance of forgiveness and showed us how the sins of the fathers are visited on the next generation. The people were real, the situation was real and the stakes were real."

Arvin's lecture on "Why I Left the CBA" was a curve ball at a conference that drew a wide array of Christian publishers, editors, writers and entrepreneurs. People listened, because he was a force in the CBA before he chose to exit. In addition to his books, Arvin is a skilled pianist and producer -- known for years of work with singers Amy Grant and the late Rich Mullins.

But a not-so-funny thing happened when Arvin sought a Christian publisher for a legal thriller called "The Will." He said his friends liked the book, but were sure that it would offend a key CBA audience. Everyone warned him not to anger the "little old ladies."

What Arvin learned is that writers can address issues of sin and salvation, but that certain sins are more offensive than others. In Christian bestsellers -- such as the omnipresent "Left Behind" series by writer Jerry Jenkins and preacher Tim LaHaye -- characters commit a variety of unspeakable acts of evil. No one claims that the authors have endorsed these actions. But authors go to "literary purgatory" if they violate CBA standards on sex and bad language.

"The Will" was a perfect test case, said Arvin.

The key, he explained, is that he is writing about characters that are quite normal, from a secular point of view, which means that they are messed up, from a Christian point of view. Thus, when writing about a high-strung, morally confused lawyer from a Chicago mega-firm, Arvin faced the question of what this character would do -- in real life -- if he fell in love with yet another hot female. The logical question: "Would he have sex with her?"

"Because I am writing a work of fiction and not propaganda, I don't ask questions such as, 'What should I have this character say next in order to lead people to Christ?' Or, 'What should I have this character do in order not to offend someone?' ... Only this: 'What would he say next? What would he do next?' "

There is a happy ending to this story. Arvin took his manuscript to Scribner and the powers that be at Simon & Schuster. They were not worried about its strong Christian sub-plot or that it mentioned Jesus by name -- in the context of salvation, as opposed to cursing. Then Paramount bought the film rights.

"What I am finding out is that there are major, major companies in places like Hollywood that are actively searching for stuff that will speak honestly about spiritual issues and even appeal to Christian audiences," said Arvin. "But it has to be real. It can't be fake. We have to write real stories that speak to real people."