Crossroads: When Rock Intersects The Gospel

Part Three - Merging Music, Message and Method: The Challenge of Christian Progressive Rock

By Steve Morley

(UMCom) -- As guitarist Phil Keaggy says, "bands live and bands die, but there’ll always be music, because hope lives. God lives. And the Gospel lives." Adding weight to his assertion is an emerging brigade of independent artists who have stirred progressive rock's embers and revived the faded "Jesus rock" movement of the early 1970s.

Today, "prog" is the term of choice used by the widespread but close-knit Internet community that supports progressive music’s modern practitioners and founding fathers. From within that dedicated minority has come a growing congregation of bands organizing under the separate banner of CPR, or Christian progressive rock. Christian prog artists are a mere remnant of the overall prog community. Interestingly, they're also divided on the issue of how to approach their art and its presentation. Virtually all are committed Christians who are equally committed to pursuing the path less trod, affording them copious creative latitude. Therein, as they say, lies the rub. Steve Babb, a principal member of the band Glass Hammer, offers the argument that a "Christian label" can hamper the artistic flexibility that prog artists so highly value.

"As Madeleine L’Engle says in Walking On Water, ‘I am a Christian. I am a writer. I want that freedom which is a large part of the Christian promise; and I don’t want any kind of label to diminish that freedom. It is sad and ironic to have to admit that it does,’" Babb says. "Glass Hammer is a band, first and foremost, (though) it is inhabited by Christian musicians. My imagination can go wherever my source of inspiration leads it. A ‘Christian artist’ relinquishes much of that freedom, (while) an artist who is a Christian does not."

Multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Randy George is a frontline supporter of Christian prog who preaches what he practices in his trio, Ajalon. Along with Gene Crout of the Christian group America Gomorrah, George recently produced a sampler CD titled CPR, a project intended to solidify and promote the movement. As an entity, CPR is still testing its wings, though some of the musicians on the two-CD set have already achieved considerable success. The sprawling collection features bands that affiliate with the CPR label as well as those who, like Glass Hammer and Kerry Livgren’s Proto-Kaw, do not. George, who doesn’t shy away from identifying Ajalon as a Christian act, says "the prog community is used to loose spiritual ideas in the lyrics, but to make those lyrics overtly - or even veiled - Christian ideas, you introduce something new to the community. There is not a reason why the deep things of God can't be expressed in the genre."

Neal Morse, a prog musician and composer who laid down his leading role in the established band Spock’s Beard to follow the Lord’s call, remains in a career transition after making his faith known. "Coming out" as a Christian is a move that polarizes prog listeners into two distinct factions, and in Morse's case, it cost him some customers. While he sells his work to his international fan base via the Internet, Morse recently began testing the market in non-secular venues such as Family Christian Stores. Because he believes God works differently among people, he doesn’t question the decisions made by his fellow musicians. Morse, however, wears his beliefs plainly and is adamant about waiting to feel spiritually led before determining the direction of his music. Morse’s stylistically diverse double-disc Testimony revisits the classic progressive rock sound of the ‘70s, but, unlike the spiritually open-ended and fantasy-based prog of the past, unpacks the circuitous story of his journey from dejected rock 'n' roll hopeful to a hope-filled Christian. (Hear more of Morse’s story in his audio sidebar).

Opinions vary significantly on the matter of CPR. (Read the comments of several major players in the movement in the sidebar "Virtual CPR Round Table"). But there are points on which all the music’s adherents agree - for one, the notion that writers like J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis profoundly influenced their genre and paved the way for art that straddles sacred and secular boundaries. (See also the sidebar titled "Tolkien - Lord Of The Rockers.") And, of course, they share a deep affection for the music itself - a connection that extends among both listeners and creators, as Morse points out.

"(Prog listeners) have a passion for this kind of music, just like me. People who are into this music are like, ‘oh, oh, listen to this part! Listen to this!’ And that’s exactly the way I’ve been all my life, drawn by these moments in music that just melt you. "I know," Morse says. "That people think prog is an intellectual thing, that it’s a bunch of really smart guys who want to hear people play fast or something. If it’s just intellectual, then I would say that it’s not good prog. I’ve always felt like prog, if it’s done well, should be very emotional. It’s got to touch your soul. Any kind of good music, I think, needs to reach deep."

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Read Part One - The Radio and Record Revival: Hippies, Hit Songs and Heaven

Read Part Two - Musical Michelangelos: Rock’s Ascension to Art Form

Steve Morley is a free-lance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.

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