Michael Card An Introduction to Contemporary Christian Music
It was a Saturday afternoon in May, 1995. I gathered up three thick file folders of Bible tests and sat behind my desk to begin marking. What a lot of work! I'd be busy the whole afternoon for sure. The sparkling sunlight and warm spring breeze wafted in through the window beckoning me outside. “Don't waste this beautiful spring day! Can't the work wait till Monday?” I paused, looking wistfully out the window. I had an idea. I quickly gathered my papers together, grabbed my colored marking pens and headed out to the picnic table on our sundeck. I could enjoy the warm sunshine and get my marking done. I opened the first folder. A row of check marks down the left side of the first page. Flip the page. Here and there an occasional “X.” This was going well.
Boom! Boom! Boom! BOOM! I looked up in dismay. The neighbour's two teenage sons had appeared on the sundeck across the back lane, plunked themselves down in lawn chairs, and began to toss back a beer or two. Their boom box, balancing rather precariously on the railing, blared loudly and raucously over the entire neighborhood.
I began to gather my papers once more. I could not mark with that ungodly racket reverberating in my ears and head. I paused. This was ridiculous! I would not let myself be chased back inside on such a beautiful sunny day! Quickly I ran inside, collected my eldest son's portable CD player from his bedroom, grabbed a couple of recently purchased CDs and made my way back out to the picnic table. I inserted a CD, The Ancient Faith by Michael Card. The opening strains of the instrumental prelude provided a soothing contrast to the racket emanating from across the back lane. I adjusted the volume up slightly, and settled down to marking tests once more.
“When He climbed upon the mountain, He took Peter, James and John./In the face of pending glory/They soon began to yawn…” Hold on a minute! The disciples weren't sleeping on the Mount of Transfiguration! That happened in Gethsemane! I picked up my trusty old NIV and quickly looked up Matthew 17 and then Mark 9. No mention of sleepy disciples. Who was this Michael Card, anyway, embellishing Scripture to suit his own purpose! I paged over to the parallel passage, Luke 9:32: “Peter and his companions were very sleepy…” Hmmm! Never realized that before!
And so I was introduced to the music of Michael Card. I did get almost all the tests marked that afternoon, but time and again I took my Bible in hand to check out the lyrics. Every time Card was right on the mark. No trite interpretation of well-known passages, and even a number of songs based on some decidedly obscure passages in the Bible. Included in this double CD is the poignant “Song of Gomer” (Hosea 1-3) and “Valley of Dry Bones” (Ezekiel 37:1-10). Quite a feat to make a singable song about such topics!
These Michael Card CDs were my first real introduction to current contemporary Christian music. What attracted me to his music was his emphasis on Biblical lyrics and the fact the neither the instrumentation nor the beat ever overwhelms or obscures the lyrics. Intrigued, I sent away for some biographical background on this artist. What follows is based on articles from various magazines – Religious Broadcasting (RB) (July/August 1995), Release (R) (March/April 1995) and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) (May 1995) – and on the write-ups included in the lyric booklets and liner notes of the CDs themselves.
Michael Card has been writing biblical songs for about fifteen years. He and his wife Susan live in Franklin, Tennessee, and have four children: Kate, Will, Nate and Maggie, ranging in ages from one to nine years old. Card has a master's degree in biblical studies from Western Kentucky University. He has produced 15 critically-acclaimed albums, representing sales of nearly two million copies, including the gold-certified lullaby album, Sleep Sound In Jesus. He has been recognized by his peers with five Gospel Music Association Dove Awards: Songwriter of the Year, Song of the Year (“El Shaddai”), Children's Album of the Year (Sleep Sound In Jesus), and two for Praise and Worship Album of the Year.
Card began writing songs while attending university. He was asked by Dr. Bill Lane, the pastor of a small biracial church he attended, to write a chorus for the congregation based on the sermon for that week. Michael developed the three main points of the sermon into two verses and a chorus. Another time while listening to Dr. Lane speak on the Apostle's Creed, Michael scribbled these words on the back of the church bulletin: “I have decided I'm going to live like I believe the things I say I believe.” These words became the song “I Have Decided,” a song that has been foundational for Card's life and ministry. To this day, Card often submits lyrics to his pastor, Scotty Smith (senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee), for approval.
CCM (May 1995) records the perspectives of both Smith and Card on what it means to be a Christian artist. Smith maintains that Christian artists must have a fundamental commitment to a biblical worldview in order to determine what artistry means for them – what, how and why they do it.
Card approaches the question from a different angle. He prefers to divide the two definitions. He states,
There are Christian musicians and there's Christian music. There are Christian musicians who play great secular music… Christian music is music that's about Christ, that is informed by a biblical value system. The Christian music business definition is that Christian musicians always make Christian music… which isn't always true. I think that there are probably some non-Christian musicians who've written some pretty significant Christian music… which would also probably trouble a lot of people.CCM, p. 36
Card acknowledges that Christian artists are tempted to compromise the character of their music in order to be commercially successful.
The Christian music industry is power and money right now. In its early stages it was a ministry support vehicle. A record company would come to you and say, 'We're here to support your ministry,' but now it's gotten so big that (record companies) are creating artists, taking people – some of whom haven't even sung in a church – and creating them. That's just power and money.RB, p. 18
Card has refused to play that game. Early on a lot of radio stations wanted him to sign something so they wouldn't have to pay, and he agreed. If they didn't have to pay, the music would still get out, and he feels it has not hurt him. He firmly maintains that the songs a Christian artist sings must be validated by the artist's own Christian lifestyle.
It's the Lyrics…
After listening to The Ancient Faith and Poiema I was not surprised to learn that for Michael Card the music is always dictated by the lyrics. “The message of the lyric comes first.” He notes that he was not a rock, jazz or alternative musician who became a Christian. He was a Bible teacher who got pushed into doing music.
He writes, When I would write a song, I'd have to find the right vehicle for it. I grew up in a folk tradition and so that's sort of where my center probably is, acoustic folk music.
He continues, Certain lyrics just call for big orchestral music and some lyrics call for rock, as far in that direction as I can go, because that music is appropriate for some themes, like judgment. I don't think (rock) is appropriate for very many themes from the Bible, but there are some… I have trouble hearing real hard rock music with lyrics about the love of God. I just don't think it communicates.
He concedes that hard rock is certainly not his first language. "(It is a) language, and if that's all some kids hear, then (perhaps) they need to hear about the love of God” in that language.RB, p. 13
As a Christian musician, Card admits to a certain irony.
Christian music has made so little impact on me. Books have… There's lots of Christian music that I like, but… I haven't experienced the same thing with music that I have with books.R, p. 38
You realize things in conversing with someone that you would never realize just thinking. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that the worst thing about secular rock and roll music is that it teaches kids not to listen to the lyrics at all. That's the danger and unfortunately a lot of Christian music is teaching them the same thing. There are plenty of people who are writing good lyrics… but nobody's listening…
Card has chosen to follow the advice of his mentor since college, Bill Lane – the pastor who inspired him to write his first song – “let the excellence of your work be your protest.” If people respond to that, no one is happier than Michael Card himself.