Body Piercing Saved My Life, by Andrew Beaujon, a reporter for music magazine Spin, is a fascinating read for any music fan.
For the Christian who also likes “Christian music,” it provides history, context, and criticism to various aspects of the scene as it exists today, and raises questions that are worth wrestling through.
For the Christian who generally doesn’t like “Christian music,” it may cause some rethinking of opinion on some subjects as well as affirming others.
For the music fan who isn’t a Christian, it will probably be quite eye-opening, providing several glimpses into a different world, some of them quite surprising.
For all three, it may introduce you to some bands you just might like.
For the record, Beaujon is not a Christian–at best, he is a lazy agnostic. He holds to the opinion that he doesn’t really know if there’s a God, but he probably wouldn’t live his life any differently if there was one.
He set out to examine what he considers a truly American phenomena, this music scene called “Christian music” that exists almost within its own bubble. There is no comparable separate scene in Europe or elsewhere. He spends time learning the history of modern Christian popular music, explores some of the contradictions inherent in the industry and issues artists wrestle with, and listens to a lot of music. He goes to Cornerstone Festival, both the original in Illinois and its Florida offshoot, the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College, and GMA Week and the Dove Awards in Nashville. He interviews several Christian music “lifers”, and all through provides opinion and analysis on what he finds.
It may feel, to the believer, a bit intimidating to have someone who doesn’t believe in God at all analyze this scene. But I was impressed. Beaujon is extremely fair. When something is bad or confusing, he says so, but never meanly. He treats everything with a lot of respect, and says some surprising things.
These lines, from a section where the author shares what he believes and talks about what he feels about people sharing the Gospel with him, may put you at ease. After confirming that he believes there is no afterlife, he says this:
This is the kind of talk that makes my Christian friends unbearably sad, and that’s what I love about them–they really, really, really don’t want anyone to die, and that’s why they can sometimes be such a raging pain…So next time a Christian tries to save you from the fate that awaits you, don’t get irritated–remember that it’s because they care about you. Seriously. If you take nothing else away from this book, remember that.
One of the main themes of the book, probably developed because so many artists talk about, is the wrestling of spirituality and commerce, expressing Truth without conforming to the Bubble. Christian music’s propensity to award mediocrity is also at long length discussed. On the other hand, is he also quick to agree that there can be a certain amount of prejudice on the other end–most music magazines won’t pay any attention to an artist associated with Christian music in anyway, and Beaujon feels that this is also unfair, as some of the artists he finds are, well, awesome.
Beaujon certainly likes some bands and artists more than others. He interviews controversial figure David Bazan (formerly of Pedro the Lion) multiple times. He falls in love with Mute Math’s live show (and rightly so.) He gets into mewithoutYou pretty heavily as well, and shows Steve Taylor some admiration–again, on both counts, rightfully so. Even the too-weird-for-me Danielson Familie gets some attention.
He grows tired of hearing derivative bands, but admits that even Stryper had some pretty good tunes.
He conducts longer interviews with Doug Van Pelt, Steve Taylor, Jay Swartzendruber (editor of CCM Magazine), Bill Hearn, and Stavesacre’s Mark Salomon.
One of the most interesting sections, to me, is a two chapter look at the phenomenon of Worship Music. He struggles to understand it, and although he finds “Blessed Be the Name” by Matt Redman incredibly catchy, singing it for weeks, he finds the worship experience to be insular, unwelcoming to the outsider. Later, HM editor Doug Van Pelt challenges him on this point, saying that worship times weren’t meant to be for outsiders–just as you wouldn’t go to a club for expensive car enthusiasts and find them simplifying things so you understand. So, Beaujon gives it another chance, going to several David Crowder Band concerts, including one of the shows DCB plays in the week after Kyle Lake’s tragic death.
It is there that worship music finally clicks for him. He tells how, during DCB’s closing number, Crowder disappears to the floor, as he uses his various pedals and instruments to make all these noises. The audience stays enraptured, even though the frontman isn’t in view–nothing visual is happening. “And that, my friends, marked my conversion to, or at least my enmity to, worship music. Here’s a guy surrounded by rabid fans who’d have done anything to get close to their worship leader, consciously removing himself from the spotlight. There was only one star at that evening’s show, and he hadn’t been onstage at all.”
Not everyone comes out looking great. He is finds Switchfoot’s attempts to pretend they’re not associated with Christian music to be a bit off-putting. And his time at GMA Week and the Dove Awards make the idea of a Christian Music Industry look a bit silly (which it is, imho). He sees a lot of mediocrity and hypocrisy there, and even a bit of racism. (Some of the worst examples include the horrid rewording of the Dove eligibility requirements that occurred when the Association didn’t want to give the song “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer any recognition, and the fact that the majority of the “Best Rap” awards at the Dove’s have been won by white guys.)
Another somewhat telling thing from that week is that one of the rappers he meets decides to give him a tract and share the gospel, and he realizes that in all the time he was working with Christians on this book, that was the first (and I think only) time that happened.
Only one chapter seems a waste of time to me, and that is a late chapter where he goes around Washington with several abortion protestors. It seems a bit random and out of place, and not as well written or as gripping as other sections.
Jesus calls us to be in the world, but not of it. It seems with the somewhat accidental creation of a “Christian music industry”, we have gotten that backwards. Getting out of that trap will take boldness from artists with originality. Body Piercing Saved My Life gives an outsiders perspective on this curious aspect of American culture , looking at it from all angles, asking important questions and highlighting artists who have been unfairly shunned because of their worldview. It’s a great read, and I recommend it.