Amy Grant of The Jesus Music. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Nothing prepares you for failure like success.

We knew that, of course. The Bible tells us that. history too. Success can shape us in ways we’ve never wanted, and its pressures can push us away from ourselves. We see that even in Christianity, maybe especially in Christianity. God’s blessings can lead us away from God Himself.

Jesus’ music, an excellent documentary directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin (and in theaters starting today, October 1), underscores this paradox again and again.

“When the world of success came to me, it became too much for me,” says gospel artist Kirk Franklin.

“I don’t think you’re ever ready for a lot of success quickly,” says CCM superstar TobyMac.

“If I had to remove from the magazine all those who have had a sin problem in their life”, CCM Review founder John Styll remembers saying to a musician, “we would publish blank paper.”

Jesus’ music traces the history of contemporary Christian music from its beginnings in the post-flower power era to its early cross-sectional successes to the massive industry it is today. The Erwin brothers give us a truly delightful, often inspiring look at music and its artists, but he does not shy away from the paradoxes inherent in its folds. And that’s when the document is most convincing.

Great beginnings

Contemporary Christian music didn’t start out as an industry, The music of Jesus tell us. It started as a movement– a rejection of Woodstock’s broken promises and an effort to embrace something truly eternal.

“The hippies started to accept Jesus,” Styll says.

Many of these hippies also played music. And so they turned their words up. Soon, this music began to spread from its California base. Singer-songwriter Amy Grant discovered it as far as Tennessee, where Christian songs traveled by word of mouth. “[It was] all so underground, ”she says in the doc. From hippie to hipster.

Soon, artists like Keith Green and Larry Norman caught the attention of the general public. In the 1980s, Christian hair metal band Stryper made their debut on MTV. Grant became CCM’s first true star in the 1980s, and his popularity has grown steadily. In the 1990s, DC Talk was perhaps the pinnacle of the CCM, named in 2002 as “the most popular openly Christian act of all time” by the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music.

But as DC Talk members TobyMac, Michael Tait, and Kevin Max sang to God, they were fighting each other. “They were held together with duct tape and prayer,” Audio Adrenaline’s Mark Stuart said in the doc.

Meanwhile, some Christians also wanted to use duct tape, not to patch up the CCM, but to stick it on artists’ mouths.

At first, many Christians did not know what to make of rock music with Christian lyrics. Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was perhaps CCM’s biggest critic of the 1980s, calling it “Satan’s evil plan.” Michael Sweet of Forb Stryper, Swaggart’s rants were particularly painful, given that Swaggart was instrumental in leading him and his family to Christianity.

“The rejection of the world does not matter,” Christian singer Mylon LeFevre said in Jesus’ music. “Rejection of the Church? It’s your family.

Troubled waters

Evangelist Billy Graham has helped encourage Christians to accept this new expression of faith. Artists like Grant, whose music she herself describes as “a pair of comfy house shoes”, have also helped to ease the way. But even as CCM became more accepted, Christians faced another painful reality: The artists who made it were just as flawed as those who listened to it.

“I think Christian artists… face the same challenges [as country and pop stars], but their audience is different, ”says Councilor Al Andrews. “It’s going to sound really strange, but the country audience, the pop audience, are more forgiving.”

The doc also explores the racial divide in the CCM, and some say the music has become more and more segregated as it has evolved. “There is still no tangible plan to remedy this separation between these two worlds,” Franklin said.

The Erwins approach these issues thoughtfully and (given Andrews is right) fearlessly. But they do so without ever losing sight of the music itself and its purpose.

CCM can be a real industry these days, filled with all the pressures and temptations that the word implies. It can be filled with artists who sometimes make bad decisions or questionable decisions. She’s an imperfect vessel, that’s for sure. Just like the Church. Just like us. And yet, it’s always about making a joyful noise to the Lord, and the Erwins never forget that. Indeed, they kiss him.

Jesus’ music is playing in theaters right now.



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