If a lamb roars in the forest, does it make a sound?
Television executive Bob Briner's 1993 book, "Roaring Lambs," was an open challenge to Christians to rethink their ideas about ministry in popular culture. The book had such a widespread impact on artists in the Christian industry that in 1997, friends of Briner's at Squint Entertainment approached Briner with the idea for a "Roaring Lambs" album--a compilation of artists, each of whom would have "in their own way, journeyed beyond the invisible walls of the evangelical subculture." The album, released this month, is being touted as, "part celebration, part manifesto, and part tribute" to Briner.
The premise of Briner's book was that Christians ought to do far less "bleating" and far more "roaring," that is, to enter into culture and engage it, rather than looking down one's nose at it from a safe distance. To live loudly and proudly.
And so it must have been spoken, deep within the bowels of some Nashville war room: What are we going to put together to answer this call?
Unfortunately, they've answered with artists who carry their Gospel Music Association Dove Awards in their wheelbarrows. The album includes Jars of Clay, Sixpence None The Richer, Steve Taylor, Ashley Cleveland, Michael Tait (DC Talk), and PFR--all playing the accessible acoustic and pop melodies they are known for and have even earned secular airplay for--well-produced, lots of harmonies, and (ouch!) a fair share of Christian clichés.
If you listen to these artists and like their music, you will love the album. Go out and buy it. But for Christians, it's hardly a challenge to go forth into the world. When Squint founder Steve Taylor writes on the liner notes that these artists "have, in their own way, journeyed beyond the invisible walls of the evangelical subculture," it is a hard pill to swallow. With the exception of Over the Rhine, Ladysmith Black Mombazo, and Vigilantes of Love, all sell and play primarily to Christians.
The evangelical subculture loves Jars of Clay, who also appear on "Roaring Lambs," because they are hardworking Christian artists who have scratched the surface of the secular music scene by staying away from the routine Christian venues, choosing to play smaller mainstream clubs instead. But do secular kids trust them as musicians, much less as advisers on matters of faith? Not as long as they are branded Christian by their labels.
Significantly, Emmylou Harris sings background vocals on Sixpence's contribution to "Roaring Lambs," "The Ground You Shook." Sixpence may be riding a wave of fame on their warm and tingly single "Kiss Me," but Harris is a pop and country recording legend in the secular realm. She's the model of a "roaring lamb" in the sense that she works strictly in the secular realm, while still managing to express her faith in Christ. Yet she doesn't have her own song on the record.
Jesus didn't fit so well into religious molds as this album does. What is the musical equivalent of dining with prostitutes and tax collectors? What is the industry equivalent of turning over tables in the Temple? What is the lyrical equivalent of being a "stone of stumbling and a rock of offense"? In heaven, Revelation reminds us, the only lion is a slain lamb.
What about "roaring lambs" such as Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes, Lenny Kravitz, Moby, Maria Mckee, Johnny Cash, Bono, and Alice Cooper? Does the Christian community support them and their ministries? Why aren't these artists being nominated for Dove awards? Why aren't they on Christian radio and television? Are their ministries less viable?
Christians, says Briner, "primarily spend our time and energies talking only to each other, writing only for each other, performing only for each other. This abdication has made it possible, even necessary, for evangelical Christians and their beliefs to be interpreted to the world primarily by non-Christians. The fact that they almost always get it wrong is our fault, not theirs." This album doesn't begin to change that reality. None of these artists will break away from the industry that adores them anytime soon.
Not that there's anything wrong with what they do: The church needs leaders, too. But most of these bands are better examples of bleating lambs than roaring ones.