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Soundtrack for Revolution

Written by Michael Cline : February 13, 2008

Settling down to watch the widely successful 2006 movie Dreamgirls, I anticipated getting the usual randomness of songs bursting onto the screen from nowhere that has come to be expected in Broadway adaptations. A great deal has been said about actress/singer Jennifer Hudson’s big debut and about the catchy tunes on display throughout the film. But there was a larger story in Dreamgirls that seems to have been missed by media reviews: the struggle of black artists to break out of the segregated world of radio and music and into the mainstream (read: white) listening world. The songs were not just beautifully sung sonnets about relationships gone awry and catfights among group members, but cries of a larger social movement happening in the streets. In one powerful but neglected scene, Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) rushes out into the neighborhood after an argument with the group and her manager/boyfriend. Waiting for her on the block outside is an angry riot all too common to the tense racial scene of that time. People were desperate for change. In their effort to appeal to a larger audience, the soul of the music was largely cropped out of The Dreams repertoire. Songwriter C.C. White sums it up when he asks their manager, “Isn’t music supposed to express what people are feeling?” Manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (played by Jamie Foxx) responds “Music is supposed to sell.” Well, despite Curtis’ sentiment, music does more than stuff pockets. It sheds light on stories often being told only in the underground world of grassroots revolution.

Behind the scenes of the latest newsflash or journal cover story, there has always been a catchy melody or a powerful vocal hook. Where movements of change, empowerment, justice, love, or even anger have swept through, a musical soundtrack can usually be found lurking as a backdrop for the story of revolution. Rhythm and blues melodies with an underlying message of determination and hope were transformed into battle cries across the nation during the civil rights movement. Agitated rock and roll rifts rung out about the injustice of sending sons and daughters to Vietnam. Rap lyrics were penned by the disenfranchised gathered together by common racial and class tensions. Garage bands everywhere donned their flannel shirts and brought in a movement characterized as “grunge,” signaling more than just a shift in musical taste, but a generation of angst, social alienation, and apathy. And despite many critics hesitations, what has come to be known as “pop” paints a social portrait all of its own, displaying a generation unique in its own desires and pursuits.

Critics have been quick to dismiss the “emerging church” as a fad. New Monasticism, as just one of many expressions of the supposed “fad” has also had its fair share of doubters. In rebuttal, voices from within the movement have given theological support to the nature of their experiment. Still others have displayed examples from the history of Christianity that point towards the same phenomenon in times past. But I’m wondering, what can be labeled as the soundtrack for this movement? To identify a song writer or band, we would first have to identify the core principles of the movement. Authenticity, hope, imagination, openness, mission, urban, love, justice—some of the same buzz words used by other social revolutions—have come to the Church. But what groups and artists carry our “sound” throughout the days and nights of ecclesiastical and social renewal in the 21st century?

Who best captures the spirit of the emerging church (or whatever expression of it you prefer)? If as C.C. White suggests, that “music is supposed to express what you are feeling,” who is doing the expressing for this era of change? Is there a particular genre? A certain lyric, artist, group, or song? List a few of your ideas here and give some reasons for your suggestion. Let’s create a “soundtrack” for the revolution we see happening around us in our churches, in our networks, and in our communities.

mike.jpgAuthor Bio:: Michael Cline considers himself a freelance pastor and and over-employed learner who currently attends Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. When not snuggling with his wife, he’s blogging here.

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22 Responses to “Soundtrack for Revolution”

  1. Darren on February 13th, 2008 10:45 am

    PSALTERS- I don’t know about how they capture the whole of the emerging church, but definitely those who resonate with an expression like this site

  2. Mark Van Steenwyk on February 13th, 2008 10:56 am

    the Cobalt Season should be on the short list.

  3. joe troyer on February 13th, 2008 3:04 pm

    definately cobalt season like mark said. also, Derek Webb belongs there. Especially with his last two cd’s “Mockingbird” and “The Ringing Bell”.

  4. Michael Cline on February 13th, 2008 4:28 pm

    I’ll throw the obvious (but still lovable) U2 out there. Ok, now everyone else has to be more creative

  5. Mark Van Steenwyk on February 13th, 2008 4:58 pm

    Hmm. I’m getting U2ed out. And I’m not sure they qualify because they haven’t “emerged” from within the movement. Get it? I made a pun. Ha!

  6. JoshuaEllens on February 14th, 2008 4:09 am

    RICH MULLINS should definitely be included. It’s sad that what he’s most known for is his most mediocre work. Solid but catchy praise music used tritely in many a status-quo evangelical worship-gathering. His best material is some of the most poignant critique of Americanism and a prophetic call into the Kingdom of God. And what’s more, he lived a life consistent with the ethic of his music. I know of few people able [as well as he] to at the same time both challenge and love the American church [Dr. King comes to mind]. His music is nothing less than liturgy for the Christian sojourn in America.

  7. JoshuaEllens on February 14th, 2008 4:16 am

    i guess Rich Mullins isn’t exactly an ‘Emerging’ voice. Forgive my error. Honestly i’m tired so i barely skimmed the article and was under the impression it was simply about radical subversive music and not specifically ‘emerging’ stuff.

    Acurate cronology aside, though, i do think his music was appropriate to the movement[s] at hand. Maybe Rich Mullins should be classified as Proto-Emerging ;)

  8. Monk-in-Training on February 14th, 2008 7:06 am

    Well, while I am not Emergent so to speak, I really love the Benedictine Monks of Quarr Abbey in England. :) But that is just me.

  9. Michael Cline on February 14th, 2008 8:09 am

    JoshuaEllens,

    I’m not as pick about whether it is “emergent” or not. I was just trying to think of what music captures the spirit of our work and the focus on the Kingdom of God and all the other changes that have recently come to the doorsteps of the Church. I think Mullins definitely fits the bill. As long as we tone down the “Awesome God” track on overkill. :)

    I’ll throw Josh Ritter on the pile. His lyrics and style are right on par with this idea of subversiveness and aesthetics pointing towards something revolutionary.

  10. Anna on February 14th, 2008 8:38 am

    Omigosh, folks, we can actually use the word ‘resonate’ in proper context! Can you tell I don’t like comparing people with tuning forks? :P

    Deliriou5? used to be “it” in their early days. Now…hmmm….

    ~Anna

  11. Jordan Peacock on February 14th, 2008 9:31 am

    mewithoutYou, hands down.

    Take, for example, the lyrics to Four Word Letter Part 2:

    I wrote a four word letter, with post-script, in crooked lines, “tho I’d lived I’d never been alive.”
    You know who I am
    you held my hem as I traveled blind listening to the whispering in my ear,
    soft but getting stronger, telling me the only purpose of
    my being here is to stay a bit longer.
    stealing a bicycle chain, as the handlebars crashed to the ground,
    the back wheel detached from the frame,
    it kept rolling, yea, but aimlessly drifting around
    Oh, doubters, let’s go down, let’s go down
    won’t you come on down, oh doubters, let’s go down , down to the river to pray?
    “But I’m so small I can barely be seen
    How can this great love be inside of me?”
    Look at your eyes - they’re small in size, but they see enormous things.

    Wearing black canvas slippers in our frog-on-a-lily-pad pose we sewed
    buttons and zippers to chinese pink silk and olive night clothes
    if you can someday stop by
    somehow we’ll show you the pictures and fix you some tea
    (see, my dad’s getting a bit older now, and just unimaginably lonelier)
    oh, pretenders, let’s go down, let’s go down
    won’t you come on down, oh pretenders, lets go down, down to the river and pray?
    “But I’m so afraid,” or “I’m set in my ways”
    but he’ll make the rabbits and rocks sing his praise
    “oh, but I’m so tired, I won’t last long.”
    No, he’ll use the weak to overcome the strong!

    Oh, Amanda, let’s go down, let’s go down, wont you come on down
    Mama, Nana, lets go down, down in the dirt, or the river to pray
    you strike the match
    Why not be utterly changed to fire?
    To sacrifice the shadow and the mist of a brief life you never much liked
    So if you’d care to come along we’re gonna curb all our never-ending,
    clever complaining (as who’s ever heard of a singer criticized by his song?)
    We hunger,
    but through all that we eat brings us little relief
    we don’t know quite what else to do, we have all our beliefs,
    but we don’t want our beliefs,
    God of peace, we want You.

  12. dave on February 14th, 2008 10:16 am

    When I think of “capturing the spirit of the emerging church,” I don’t think necessarily of “emerging” artists. I think of any artist, past or present, that captures the same spirit that those in the emerging church are attempting to follow.

    I agree with many of the above…

    The Psalters, Rich Mullins, Derek Webb, mewithoutyou, even U2.

    Others… both “non-Christian” and “Christian” that I believe capture some of the “revolutionary” spirit of the emerging church:

    Ben Lee, Johnny Cash, Madison Greene, Indigo Girls,Matisyahu, Ben Harper, Trashcan Sinatras

  13. Mark Van Steenwyk on February 14th, 2008 10:55 am

    Some of the angst against organized religion that is a part of the emerging church is captured by artists like the Arcade Fire. One time, on a long car ride, my wife started crying when I played the song “intervention.” The lyrics strangely connected to our experience as financially struggling church planters:

    The king’s taken back the throne
    The useless seed is sown
    When they say they’re cutting off the phone
    I tell ‘em you’re not home

    No place to hide
    You were fighting as a soldier on their side
    You’re still a soldier in your mind
    Though nothing’s on the line

    You say it’s money that we need
    As if we’re only mouths to feed
    I know no matter what you say
    There are some debts you’ll never pay

    Working for the Church while your family dies
    You take what they give you and you keep it inside
    Ever spark of friendship and love will die without a home
    Hear the solider groan, “We’ll go at it alone”

    I can taste the fear
    Lift me up and take me out of here
    Don’t wanna fight, don’t wanna die
    Just wanna hear you cry

    Who’s gonna throw the very first stone?
    Oh! Who’s gonna reset the bone?
    Walking with your head in a sling
    Wanna hear the solider sing:
    “Been working for the Church while my family dies
    Your little baby sister’s gonna lose her mind
    Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home”
    Hear the soldier groan “We’ll go at it alone.

    I can taste your fear
    It’s gonna lift you up and take you out of here
    And the bone shall never heal
    I care not if you kneel

    We can’t find you now
    But they’re gonna get the money back somehow
    And when you finally disappear
    We’ll just say you were never here

    Working for the church while your life falls apart
    Singing halleluiah with the fear in your heart
    Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home
    Hear the solider groan, “We’ll go at it alone”
    Hear the solider groan, “We’ll go at it alone”

  14. jurisnaturalist on February 15th, 2008 6:33 am

    The Lost Dogs and The Choir, their early At The Foot Of The Cross albums were a call to centering down on Christ.. Innocence Mission. Vigilantes of Love.
    All worked withing the CCM industry, but produced way above-par music with enduring lyrics.

    For example: The Choir
    If I could touch with my fumbling hands your scars
    If I could know in my rebel mind, your heart
    If I could see with my lusting eyes your face
    If I could taste on my withered tongue, sweet grace
    Would I trust you near enough, to die, to love

    If I could hear with two muffled ears your voice
    If I could find in my troubled life true joy
    If I could feel with numb fingers your spirit
    If I could drink from my barren soul your tears
    Would I trust you near enough, to die, to love

    If I could touch with my trembling hands your scars
    Would I trust you near enough, to die, to live, to love.

    Nathanael Snow

  15. Luke on February 15th, 2008 8:27 pm

    I love the music of John Michael Talbot. The song “Behold Now the Kingdom” from the painter CD I think captures a lot of the spirit of the emerging church even though it predates it by quite a few years.

    This song is awesome too:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBufxAq0-8g

  16. Luke on February 16th, 2008 9:41 am

    Another great one by John Michael Talbot:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpHNJaikup0

  17. Casey Ochs on February 16th, 2008 5:04 pm

    Three albums come to mind.

    1. “Brother’s Keeper” The Neville Brothers (twenty years old, but still timely)
    2. “Zero Church” The Roches
    3. “We’ll Never Turn Back” Mavis Staples (in collaboration with Ry Cooder)
    Mavis turns “This Little Light of MIne” into a protest anthem. Great stuff.

  18. Renascent on February 17th, 2008 3:44 pm

    As a Christian artist myself, I am drawn to bands like Switchfoot and P.O.D., who didn’t so much “cross over” from the “Christian” the “mainstream” as simply start approaching art in a Christian way. I appreciate the way they strive to create good art for good art’s sake, on one hand not abandoning Christian witness and on the other not being drawn into the parochial, inward focus of the evangelical cultural ghetto.

    Although bands like Switchfoot and P.O.D. may not be “subversive” or “post-modern,” I think they reflect a post-evangelical approach to culture, one that does not look at art as a means to an end (i.e. evangelism) but as something that can express the gospel in and of itself. I think this level of engagement with culture is one of the key elements of the emerging movement.

  19. Andrew Tatum on February 18th, 2008 6:39 am

    Sufjan Stevens

  20. AriahFine on February 18th, 2008 3:47 pm

    webb all the way

  21. daniel.t on February 19th, 2008 3:51 pm

    I would echo Sufjan. Also, Justin McRoberts. His latest album has some interesting stuff.

    Peace,
    Daniel

  22. Casey Ochs on February 21st, 2008 7:12 pm

    Sufjan Stevens: at the very least he has created a truly excellent emergent Christmas album.

    Adrienne Young: Dixie Chicks meets Uncle Earle meets Allison Krause with a message. And, she’s not afraid to tackle great traditional tunes.

    Phil Wickham

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