Kelefa Sanneh’s New Yorker article about Larry Norman and the rise and fall of Christian rock music reminded me how much music played a role in my early Christian experience. But it didn’t start with Christian rock and it didn’t really start with Christianity. It started with the radio.
I was working the midnight shift at Jack in the Box, a fast food restaurant that was about a block away from my home. I had graduated from high school and didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be a writer. More specifically, I wanted to be a poet. But how did a person get a job like that? I had no idea, probably because there were no jobs in that field, except perhaps as poet laureate to the Library of Congress. My mother was wasting away from the illness that would eventually claim her life and my father was slipping deeper into alcoholism. Meanwhile, I cleaned the grill and mopped the floor with the radio tuned to WABX, Detroit’s underground rock channel. I was hoping for signs and wonders. I was listening for messages from God.
The radio waves were pregnant with meaning in those days. From Bob Dylan’s latest musical metamorphosis to Detroit’s homegrown rock scene, there was plenty of music to hear and I listened to it the way an exegete studies Scripture. I didn’t just wonder what it meant. I wanted to know what it meant for me. Was God speaking to me about my life and my future? When the songs were upbeat and hopeful, I hoped He was. The night they decided to devote the entire show to the blues, I wasn’t so sure. Although, at the time the blues were probably more suited to my situation.
By the time I started to follow Jesus seriously, the Christian music scene was just reaching its early stride. At the Fisherman’s Net, the Friday night meeting where gang member turned evangelist Frank Majewski preached the gospel, they had a music table right next to the book table. I purchased the first volume in what would eventually become the library I used as a pastor and professor there. It was a book that explained the manners and customs of the Bible. I also bought my first Christian record, an album by the group Love Song.
I attended the Lost Coin coffee house on Saturday nights. We sometimes sang, “I wish we’d all been ready,” Larry Norman’s cautionary tale about the fate of those who will be unprepared when Jesus finally comes for His church. The song terrified me. What if I wasn’t ready? What if Jesus took everyone but me? It was a widely shared fear in our circles and a common theme in the messages we heard. I spent the first few years of my Christian experience worried that I would backslide. I thought that if I could make it past year four, I might have a chance. I’m not sure where I got the number.
Mike led the songs at the Lost Coin. He played the guitar and wrote some of the songs himself. Mike prayed for Bob Dylan daily and got excited when he heard the song “Father of Night” on Dylan’s New Morning album. “I know God is working in his heart,” he said. Mike was the first one to invite me to attend Glad Tidings, the little church that sponsored the coffee house. Although I was nervous, his reassuring smile and gentle assurance won me over. The church believed in signs and wonders but I didn’t see any performed that day. Just a soft-spoken message from the pastor about love and a few old songs from the red hymnal in the pews.
This week Detroit rocker Bob Seeger announced that he was ending his touring career. Bob Dylan wasn’t touring for a change but his website was hawking bootlegs of his old concerts from the 60’s and 70’s, along with his signature brand of whiskey. Meanwhile, in the chapel service at the school where I teach, we sang one of the songs we used to sing at the coffee house, along with a hymn from the old red hymnbook. I stood silently. My mind drifting back to a time when I listened for God to speak to me through the radio and the church waited for Him to show up with signs and wonders.