I wanted this essay to be about a different album, Pearl Jam’s superior sophomore effort, Vs. (1993), Zach Braff’s masterful Garden State soundtrack (2004), or Metallica’s beautifully risky S&M (1999). The playlist in my head shuffled through all of these, but none of them stuck with me long enough to write this essay.
The problem wasn’t the music. For a decade those albums have had a secure place in my rotation. Their lyrics always inspire. I’ve talked about all of them with complete strangers. Simply put, I don’t need a reason to listen to them.
But this essay needed to be about an album I’ve struggled to listen to. This essay is about the songs I can’t stand because they know too much about me. This essay is for the record that saw me through the times I could never forget and thus, choose not to return.
This essay’s for DC Talk’s Jesus Freak (1995).
To understand the power of this album, you have to rewind to a different time and “have ears to hear.” It debuted in an era before geeks were cool. Superheroes weren’t mainstream. There were no digital havens for strange subcultures. In an attempt to stay optimistic, we told ourselves “It’s the 90’s” in a world where “don’t ask, don’t tell” sounded progressive.
I grew up at the intersection of a lot of fine lines. In a strange way, a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude was both my salvation and my hell. I wasn’t gay, and though I knew better, I hurled words like f** in an effort to fit in because I was a black kid living in an affluent white suburb of Houston cruelly named Sugar Land. The streets were Republican red, but in my house we lived the blues.
My sanctuary was an evangelical youth group in the city with kids who were all walking tightropes of their own. We were bound together in our grasping for a more knowing reality, for a sense that someone got us.
Church heard this angst as the echoes beating off the walls of the God-shaped holes in our hearts. As a former youth director, pastor, and religion scholar, I’m now more inclined to think that we were simply teenagers. What I do know about those Gen-Y golden years was that the answers lay in a shiny disc behind an aged-looking parchment stamped with an all-seeing eye.
“Decent Christian Talk” had me realize that I was a spiritual being stuck in a secular world, and that—deep down inside—I knew it. Start to finish, the album shares a gospel that acknowledges ambivalence and promises the answer.
I can’t recall who put the CD in my hands for the first time, but I do remember pressing play on my Discman and hearing that cleansing “beep,” the one that prepared you for the unknown. Two electric guitars ascended with a crescendo out of the silence: one with a nervous arpeggio; the other, a steady yet distorted scale. They bring me to the brink of a familiar uncertainty, and then assured me with a nondescript voice saying, “I got something for you, man…Yeah, let’s go for a ride.”
“So Help Me God,” is the title and chorus prayed on my behalf as the first verse stuck me with my own psychosis:
Bombarded by philosophies that satisfy the surface,
I flee to something deeper
At the risk of seeking purpose.
How can I hang in this environmental state of being,
When everything I’m striving for
Is nothing that I’m seeing?
Jesus Freak was very much a mid-1990s album. Even its simplest arrangements are heavily produced. At the same time, the music never takes genre conventions too literally. The vocal trio rides the robust instrumentals reminiscent of an Abba-style wall of sound, but there’s a melding of southern rock riffs, hip hop flows, orchestral harmonies, and pop melodies. Critics usually deride Christian Contemporary Music for being derivative, but DC Talk’s eclecticism pre-dated the heyday of Dave Matthews’ Band, Kid Rock, and 311.
I’ve always attributed the sonic fluidity to the group’s diversity. Evangelicals generally steer clear of race. But one of the most successful music groups in its history comprised of African American singer, Michael Tait, and two white singers, Toby Mac and Kevin Max. I’m pretty sure everyone in the Christian Bubble knew this, but we dared not talk about it…except in the post-racial manner highlighted in DC Talk’s second track, “Colored People”:
Pardon me, your epidermis is showing. “Sir,
I couldn’t help but note your shade of melanin.”
I tip my hat to the colorful arrangement
Cause I see the beauty in the tones of our skin
We’ve gotta come together
And thank the Maker of us all.
Of all the songs on the album, this is the one with which I most struggle. At the time, I was simply happy that someone even acknowledged race. But a part of me was and, even more so now, is miffed that America’s racial woes get sublimated to a common “past” and “history” as “colored people…part of the human race…who have to share this space.” It seems to me that so much of this country’s ongoing racial strife is the product that we “don’t ask” and “don’t tell” about difference.
The band was capable of dealing with the grotesque. In fact, they relished in it. The album’s hit song, “Jesus Freak,” makes an anthem about likening the Teenvangelical subculture to fatness, taboo tattoos, and Jesus’s death. There’s even a post-colonial comparison between hope, resurrection, and World War 2.
DC Talk could be provocative about profound theological concerns. Why wouldn’t they touch racial fissures that were more than skin deep? The more I listen to this album today, the more resentment I feel.
I know they get it. I mean, their fourth song, “What if I Stumble?” is so self-aware. They know what throngs of youth see them as—icons of an ageless faith masking their own humanity.
In this most honest ballad, there aren’t confirmed answers. There are five minutes of questions and wishing. You get people doing the best they can with what they’ve got and looking for a little grace along the way, not just from the divine, but from the people around them. This is Decent Christian Talk at its best.
But from there, the album devolves into B-sides that preach to the converted. The songs are good, but they all conclude that God can handle your issues. Call me, “Judas,” but this isn’t the Jesus I need anymore. I want a Jesus who gets that sometimes, questions need to lead to human action and not just divine answers.
I’m pretty sure that not the real reason I don’t listen to this album. I think the problem for me is that my teenage self took comfort in this escapism. I’m embarrassed of it and me.
Though after repurchasing an album that I thought I had outgrown, I realize that there were things that I had missed the first go-round. I may be able recall the first “beep” on that rocking intro, but I have no memory of the CD’s eleventh track “What Have We Become.“ Its ethereal melody was too loose for me to hold, but it was the song that I should have been listening to all along.
This was the song that called out an anti-miscegenist preacher, the parents of an unloved child, and the benefactors of unbridled capitalism. This was the song with the nerve to talk back,
….“It ain’t what you were, it’s what you have become.”
I may not agree with all of the theology or politics behind Jesus Freak. But I’ve been changed by it enough to realize that I’d do well to keep listening.
Richard Newton, PhD is the curator of the student-scholar collaborative magazine, Sowing the Seed: Fruitful Conversations in Religion, Culture, and Teaching. He also hosts the companion podcast, Broadcast Seeding. He’s on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook as @seedpods.