Written by Kathleen Lundquist
I’ve been struggling to keep up with my life over the past week, but I need to add my voice to the very exciting conversation re: Keith’s post on Christian music. I apologize in advance for the length of this post; you might get yourself a glass or cup of whatever you like to drink and then settle in for a bit.
I have an extensive background in Christian music: I was born and raised a Baptist, and I’m well acquainted with traditional Protestant hymnody as well as the earliest CCM albums and artists. I became a charismatic Evangelical in my early twenties and am well versed in the praise chorus repertoire. I’ve always loved pop music, and my ear was trained by Top 40 radio in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I’ve played the piano since I was five and have been writing songs since I was fifteen. I have a degree in music theory and composition from a well-known East Coast college. I worked in Christian retailing and for a Christian record company in California in the early ‘90s, the heady days of Amy Grant’s and Michael W. Smith’s first CHR crossover hits. Finding myself dismayed and heartbroken over Evangelicals’ ambivalence toward music and other artistic achievements of Western culture, I began studying art history and iconography; from there I discovered church history and uncovered a truly Christian theology of art, and it was this (among other beautiful things) that led me to convert to the Catholic faith with my husband in 1999. I’ve sung with a gospel choir in a Pentecostal church, a Renaissance madrigal ensemble at Christmastime in a shopping mall, a Christian rock band in a church basement, and an experimental electronic vocal trio in a downtown punk club. Right now, the original piano/vocal songs I play in coffeehouses and at open mics are mostly Joni Mitchell/Carly Simon/Karen Carpenter-flavored, with liberal sprinklings of Enya, Tori Amos, and Sam Phillips thrown in.
And… I’ve been doing church music all – my – life. I can’t escape it. It pursues me; it dogs my steps everywhere I go. It’s not that I mind so much; it’s just that – well, my relationship to church music is a bit complex. Sometimes it seems to take the form of a beautiful wolfhound that trots gracefully beside me on the path; sometimes it’s like a springer spaniel puppy that keeps throwing itself under and between my feet, tangling the leash around my shins; sometimes it’s like a overcaffeinated Chihuahua who’s been cooped up all day and loudly, nervously, incessantly yaps at me when I step in the door.
Since I was in grade school, I’ve always sung in church. From the time I was 12, it was expected that when my family went to visit Grandma (2 hours north of us in Washington State) over a weekend, I would be prepared to sing “a special” for the Sunday service in her tiny Plymouth Brethren church. No one ever implied I had a choice in the matter; the question was always “What are you going to sing today?” rather than “Will you sing today?” As I landed in different churches according to the various twists and turns in my spiritual journey, when people discovered I was a singer and musician, it was never long before I was pushed up onto the platform to serve regularly in some musical capacity. In nearly every church I’ve attended, when people hear me singing in the congregation, they turn around and say, “You have a nice voice. You should sing in the choir.”
I know I sound horribly ungrateful for all this support; I appreciate the fact that I can be a blessing to people in church, but what I need to say is this: Being surrounded by this perspective, this idea that my musical gifts are meant solely for church use, that church music is the holiest thing I can do as a Christian musician, kept me from seeing God’s actual plan for my life for a long time.
Through years of struggle, study, prayer, and encouragement from trusted friends, I have come to the realization that my vocation is profoundly secular in nature. I do enjoy singing in church, and I know it blesses other people, but it’s not the true heart of my vocation. What gives me the most joy is being able to play a “somebody-done-somebody-wrong” song in a dimly-lit coffee shop late at night, that touches another human heart with sympathy and understanding, and shows a light on the pathway toward healing and hope – a pathway that I trust will lead ultimately to Christ. I see myself as a sower of seed, a “pre-evangelist” in that sense. A flashlight in a dark hallway. Something like that.
In order to have some credibility with nonbelievers, I’m compelled to do what Flannery O’Connor did with her writing – not to shy away from unsavory characters or violent endings, but rather to portray the whole of the human condition, to capture the sadness and despair of the soul without God, to acknowledge that “grace has to cut before it can heal”. The “shouting to the deaf” and the “startling figures” that must be drawn for secular audiences aren’t appropriate for church music, of course. When I realized and accepted the fact that these types of songs were coming out of my heart and prayers for a reason, for God’s reasons, I had to reorient myself in terms of my career.
That’s not to say that I think all Christian/Catholic musicians ought to be duking it out with Coldplay for an airplay spot on VH1 (though I think there should definitely be some of us doing that). I don’t mean to disrespect any musician or performer who senses a call from God to serve His people within the church, to challenge and encourage Christian youth, or to teach and enlighten folks using familiar Christian/Catholic language and symbology. God knows we need you, each one of you, and we surely need all the support we can muster for one another. I’m certainly not against church music ministry; I still cantor for funerals, weddings, and Taize prayer services, for example.
However, it’s my fervent hope that we can continue this conversation about Christian music, church music, and artistic charisms in general, broadening its scope to include the myriad ways in which God uses art and artists in His plan of redemption – not just of the entire person, but of the entire culture and temporal order in which we live. I strongly support Keith’s idea of forming some sort of formation network, taking into account the different spheres of the Church and of culture in which we as Catholic artists are called to minister.
Here’s a link to my website. It was actually built in 2005, so hopefully it won’t bother Keith with memories of 1997. ;^) There’s streaming audio of my professionally-produced Christmas album, as well as music from some previous custom recordings and links to published articles, pictures, and biographical info. I have a new EP of originals that I haven’t got up on the site yet; I’ll be sure to keep you posted when that’s done. I also have a press kit available (through SonicBids, highly recommended); hit me with your email address, and I’ll send it out.
Here also is a link to a piece I wrote a while back in response to my friend Michael McNamara’s question regarding Catholic contemporary music: Is it getting any better? Those of you who do Catholic-themed pop or rock music should contact Michael and see if he’ll have you on his radio program, Cross Signals (just picked up by the new Catholic satellite radio station out of New York).
And God bless you, Nick Cardilino (in the earlier comments thread – can’t figure out how to link to your comment) – I attend a Christian songwriters’ group under the auspices of an “Emerging Church” congregation that desperately needs a more solid focus, and your ideas are just perfect. I hope they respond with courage to the challenge to take what we do more seriously, to write better songs and help each other do that, rather than continuing down the ego-centered path of the “mutual admiration society”.
Looking forward to your comments!