Beards, Banjos and Real Ale: Or, Why Christian Music is Better than It Used to Be.
by Elias Blum
One of the strange things about going back to university as in my late 20s, after several years doing a ‘proper job’ (if playing around in war zones and nuclear submarines is a proper job), is that it was a bit like having a second crack at ‘university years’. I went to some cool parties. I hung out in the library and in coffee houses. I even went back, on at least two or three occasions, to Christian Union chapel services and prayer meetings at stupid o’clock in the morning. And, in the midst of all this, I somehow got a second bite at the university cherry. A second youth, if you will; a second time for self-reinvention.
Of course it was different. I was a post-grad, doing a PhD. I was married. I had my own house. All these things were quite different from the usual student experience. The most contact I had with the undergrads, seven to ten years my junior, was when I was their tutor. But still, the age gap was small enough that many of them quickly went from being my students to being my friends – indeed, some of them I would now count amongst my best friends.
And so I interacted with, and partially absorbed, the popular culture of the cohort half a generation younger than me. Technically, I belong to the tail-end of Gen-X (my parents were post-war Baby Boomers), but I feel in many ways more a part of the Millennial generation. I probably share the stereotypical thoughts and concerns of educated Millennials much more than those of Gen-Xers: I care about organic fairtrade environmentally friendly coffee. I’m a bit more into Gemeinschaft and gemütlichkeit.
Most of all, I was able to observe recent developments and trends in the popular culture, compared with that prevalent a decade or so before. And it seems to me that many of these changes are for the better. The music has, on the whole, gotten better. There is more emphasis on genuine, authentic folksy-acoustic music, played by musicians, not machines. And the clothes: whoever thought the ‘chap’ look, complete with waistcoat and hat, would come back into fashion? And the beer, of course, thanks to the craft beer and micro-brew movement. I’d rather sip a real ale in a dark pub listening to a man in tweed on the cello than knock back lager to the 1990s sounds of Blur, Pulp, Oasis and REM. In all these ways, the 2010s meet my needs and suit my tastes much more than the 1990s did.
Except, of course, that in the late 1990s I probably wasn’t listening to those bands (except REM, of course). I was listening to Vineyard Music’s ‘Hungry’ album on continuous loop (interspersed, somewhat incongruously you might think, with whole bunch of Old School goth tracks). And this is where we get to the point of this post. One of the things I felt in the 1990s was that Christianity was deeply uncool. Although it tried so hard to be cool, by jazzing up the music and wearing hoodies with bible verses on the back, it never really worked. At my university there was a lot of upper-middle class privately educated evangelicalism of the HTB Alpha-cult sort. It was all very nice, in a staid, complacent, comfortable way, but quite culturally uninspiring.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that this seems to have changed for the better. I was attracted to the goth scene, in part, because I yearned for a depth, a recognition of the darkness, of the fragility and brokeness of life, that never existed in the sanitized christian sub-culture of my university years. But now I think the millennial generation of ‘hipster’ (horrible word) christians have changed that a bit. Bands like Gungor with their ‘liturgical rock’ and folksy christian bands like Mumford and Sons and Rend Collective, to cite just a few well-known examples, bring a depth that I find integrative. The many-splintered reality of a world which is both redeemed and still groaning in anticipation of redemption is expressed in a way that the rather one-dimensional, over-engineered, relentlessly upbeat christian music that I remember from the 1990s wasn’t able to do.
The figures might show a continued decline, but qualitatively Christianity in the millennial generation is making something of a comeback. Perhaps this is because we live in darker, less certain, times. Perhaps it is because, unsatisfied with the instant gratification of consumerism, we yearn again for art, creativity, craftsmanship and slowness. Perhaps there is a sense that, having being obsessed for two generations with profits, we need once more to be concerned with values. Whatever it is, I think we are experiencing something of a cultural renaissance in the church, especially at the fringes of the church. I can only hope that this is able to make a lasting and positive impact on the wider culture.