By the time I was finishing up eighth grade, I had ditched my Carman albums and moved on to bands like Audio Adrenaline and Jars of Clay, groups who sported flannel shirts and surfer hair and did songs that sounded like praise choruses transposed into a minor key. “Lift me up—when I am falling / Lift me up—I’m weak and I’m dying.” Or the Newsboys, who produced albums like Hell Is For Wimps and Not Ashamed, and gained popularity for the track “Shine,” which assures teens that their faith can appear attractive to nonbelievers: “Shine, make them wonder what you’ve got / make them wish that they were not / on the outside looking bored.”
The piece is long, but an excellent tour of the movement in Christian music to “meet kids where they’re at” in the 90s. The paradox, O’Gieblyn notes, is that while evangelicals were bemoaning losing the youth, MTV was recognizing the reawakened spirituality of young people, and responding appropriately. As she puts it:
As CCM strove to keep up with an industry teens resented for its spiritual vacuity, MTV reached the acme of its marketing genius: its ability to take its audience’s disenchantment with commercialism, repackage it, and sell it back to them.
Like I said, my experience was almost exact parallel to hers. And like most younger evangelicals, during that middle phase of discovering Nirvana and Pearl Jam and all the glories of secular music I developed an acute ability to mock the imitative nature of CCM. Christians eventually learned the main lesson the music industry had to teach: “don’t let your marketing show.” But before then, whatever justice there is in such critiques, they are often neglect that the very context out of which they are made has been propped up by a massive research department devoted to cataloging our tastes.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem of living in a consumerist society. Precisely at the moment when we think we are waking up out of it, we are in danger of being most in it. Nirvana managed to make O’Gieblyn feel “smarter and hipper than the kids at church” and “less of a sucker in a world that was trying, on all fronts, to dupe [her].” But Nirvana was (for me) simply a gateway into another drug, one that managed to be simultaneously more potent and more subtle.
I’m continuing to work through whether we can escape all this, and–if we can–how. There’s the monastic strategy of withdrawing, and the Jamie Smith strategy of switching up liturgies. Wisdom in both of them.
But to put a third on the table (tendentiously), I wonder if some of us might do well to consume more and feel the empty exhaustion of it all. Take the Ecclesiastes path of going as deep into consumer culture as it is, and to find ourselves standing in the shallows as a way of recognizing its poverty and cultivating a desire for what is beyond.
Probably that way is not wise. But it may be the path that some of us take anyways.