A larger story behind the headlines: Why people keep fighting about Amy Grant's music

So why do people, decade after decade, keep arguing about the music and life of Amy Grant?

To understand these news stories, it really helps to connect them to other headlines linked to religious believers whose talents allow them to work in mainstream culture. Think about all those debates about the lives of Christian football players, such as Tim Tebow and Russell Wilson. Think about what happens when religious believers, left and right, produce bestselling novels. Think about all those news stories about what is and what is not a "Christian" film. Do the Christians who work at Pixar (and they are part of the mix) make "Christian" movies?

But if you really want to understand this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in), then I'd like you to take part in a little exercise that I have used for more than a decade in lectures on faith and popular culture.

Step 1: Watch the video at the top of this post, which is Faith Hill's stunning performance of "There Will Come A Day" during the "Tribute to Heroes" special a week after 9/11, a fundraising effort that was carried on just about every single television channel in existence.

Step 2: Now read the lyrics to this song, especially the triumphant final verse and chorus:

There's a better place, Where our Father waits, and every tear, He'll wipe away
The darkness will be gone, the weak shall be strong
Hold on to your faith, there will come a day ...

Song will ring out, down those golden streets
The voices of earth, the angels will sing
Every knee will bow, sin will have no trace
In the glory of His amazing grace ...
There will come a day ... I know there's coming a day

Step 3: Now ask yourself this question: Is this a "Christian" song, in terms of the marketplace of American music? That leads to another question: Is Faith Hill a "Christian" artist, in terms of the marketplace of American music?

You will need to glace, once again, at some material I ran in the GetReligion post earlier this week, which centered on a report in The Tennessean about LifeWay stores -- linked to the Southern Baptist Convention -- declining to carry Grant's new "Tennessee Christmas" CD. That post included material from my "On Religion" column in 1991 about Grant and what I believe are six different approaches that Christians tend to use when defining "Christian" music. Here's that list again:

(1) "Christian" music consists of hymns and some classical music. Amen and amen.
(2) It may be hard to define "Christian" music, bit it isn't rock 'n' roll. Folk songs may be OK and perhaps soft pop. But a strong backbeat is off limits. ...
(3) Each and every "Christian" song -- whether heavy metal or traditional gospel -- must include obvious evangelistic messages to woo the unbeliever.
(4) "Christian" music must at least include words that are overtly religious. This camp is especially critical of crossover artists, such as Grant, who often express their religious views in more subtle lyrics.
(5) "Christian" music is any music made by an artist who is publicly identified as a believer, as long as it expresses a Christian worldview. ...
(6) "Christian" music doesn't exist. It is arrogant for sinful people – even Christians are sinners – to put such a sacred label on their work. Members of U2 have taken this stance.

OK, using this framework, how do you see the lyrics of the Faith Hill song? It would appear that this song fits under No. 4, at the very least, and some would say that it could be seen as an example of No. 3.

So, is Faith Hill a "Christian" artist? Well, she grew up very, very Baptist and continues to state that her faith is crucial in her life. As is the case with many country superstars, Gospel music is a regular part of her repertoire.

But is Faith Hill a "Christian" artist? Of course not. She is a mainstream music superstar.

So what is the essential difference between Hill and Grant? Why don't people across America care as much about the content of Faith HIll's music as they do about that of Amy Grant?

That's obvious, if you know the history. For millions of evangelical Christians, Grant used to be one of THEIR superstars. There was a sense of ownership connected to their support of her work. She wasn't just an artist, she was a kind of honorary youth minister.

Grant, of course, emerged out of the world of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a niche marketplace in which artists are viewed as semi-ministers and evangelists, rather than mere performers. She was supposed to keep making CCM nice little albums in which she sang to the choir that she already had, rather than attempting to step out into the complex, messy world of mainstream music, critics, executives and fans.

Do you see the difference? These debates are not really about Amy Grant and the decisions and struggle of her life and career. For many, Grant is a symbol of compromise, yet another example of a beloved evangelical figure being lured away by the siren call of the real world.

Thus, mainstream journalists who attempt to cover stories linked to her life and career must understand that they are actually tiptoeing into larger debates, they are bumping into larger stories centering on larger questions linked to millions of dollars of commerce.

So what is this all about? The big question is whether religious believers are supposed to create culture (films, fiction, music, fine art, journalism, etc.) that strives to communicate with everyone, rather than with an evangelical subculture, alone.

So let's end with one more question: Was J.S. Bach a "Christian" musician? Is his Mass in B Minor a work of "Christian" art, or merely one of the highest achievements of Western culture?

Enjoy the podcast.

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