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Subversive Christian Music

By Brian Chase

I recently went to a concert at the Roxy, a club space in the Theatre District. Like other concerts, there were two opening bands before the main act. Like other concerts, the opening acts only existed to make the headliners look good (and to prove that all lyrics sound the same shouted though a bad microphone). Also like other concerts, the sign of the devil (index and pinky fingers raised) was highly visible. Like other concerts, there were certain people everyone else looked down on.

However, there were several things that made this concert unique. The girl walking around with a tray of shots got no takers. Along with the horns, some people just pointed to the sky. The line before the doors opened included groups from some of the area churches. And the people everyone looked down on? It wasn’t because they were high or drunk, it was because they were kids, four feet tall. But I guess that’s to be expected when a Christian band like Switchfoot comes to town.

Some of you just read Christian Band and Switchfoot in the same sentence and probably went “Huh”? This is because of the faulty definition of “Christian Band” in today’s music world. To many, a Christian Band is one like Jars of Clay, one that sings about God, Jesus, and peoples’ relationships to Him. Switchfoot is obviously not that kind of band.

But, that doesn’t mean it’s not a Christian band. All of its members are active Christians, and while most of their songs don’t explicitly mention God, almost everything they sing expresses Christian values and themes. No wonder its concert audiences are replete with church groups and parents trying to earn cool parent points by bringing their kids.

It is ironic that in the last few years a number of bands and artists like Switchfoot, who sing as Christians but not about Christianity, have gained popularity in mainstream music. Popular music has gone from “Cocaine” and “I Want to Rock and Roll All Night” to Switchfoot’s “Meant to Live” and “More to Life?” by Stacie Orrico, which talks about there being more to life than temporary highs. The Rolling Stones are probably rolling in their … jumpsuits. These “hidden” Christian groups have messages at odds with a lot of current music, too, but judging by their popularity, many music fans have no problem with the hobgoblin of little minds.

As a Christian and a singer in the Cross Products, the Christian a cappella group on campus, the phenomenon of bands like Switchfoot is at once a source of discouragement and hope. Discouragement because it’s sad that the only way to reach mainstream popularity is for bands to hide that they’re Christians.

To be fair, many times I think people don’t realize these bands are Christian simply because they don’t want to realize it. When Switchfoot sings “spirit take me up in arms with you” in 24, it’s hard to imagine interpreting the lyrics meaningfully without God coming into it (of course, mine isn’t an unbiased perspective). But if this is you, and you’re going to stop listening to the band because you know the truth, please forget I’ve said anything. I’d rather you listen and not realize than realize and not listen.

That’s why bands like Switchfoot give me hope. These groups are getting people to listen to Christian themes and ideas they normally wouldn’t, and they’re making Christian goals cool. These groups also give Christians a great way to break into conversation with non-believers. Many times, it’s hard for Christians to broach their religion to non-believers without there being a feeling of hostility. But if you can talk about “Dare You to Move,” then get into more religious themes of the music, the barrier is gone.

The third benefit of hidden Christian groups is they help break some Christian stereotypes. Just because most members of the political establishment are Christian does not mean that all Christians are pro-establishment. When Christian politicians backbite, steal, and act like hypocrites (and when don’t they?), how is it not Christian to call them on it? That’s what Switchfoot does in parts of their albums.

Sometimes, too, you get the sense that popular culture has an image of Christians as either squeaky-clean folks who never experienced real struggle and are always wearing naive smiles, or right-wing nuts who scream and condemn. Bands like Switchfoot, Jars of Clay, and Reliant K show through their music how neither stereotype is true.

Any band that can stimulate meaningful religious conversation at MIT is worth appreciating and listening to. So the next time Switchfoot plays Boston, I’ll get some of my non-religious friends to come. They’ll be exposed to great messages and great rock at the same time, with the added bonus of watching 12-year-olds trying to pretend they’re cool. What’s not to like?