How Christian Music is Keeping Me Sane

When I was younger, there were some adolescent stretches of Christian praise music on repeat only. I had an MP3 CD with eleven albums of an Australian church praise team that played for hours and hours and hours as I drove around up to Torrey Pines and Westview in my ‘07 black Camry.

Christian music is funny in how it tries to appeal to the current trend of pop music, but holds fast to lyrical simplicity in order for churches worldwide to play their songs. In the early 90's, churches lofted too conservative views, so electric keyboards and synths carried the melody. But in the heyday of my youth, we had electric guitars blaring distortion and bass lines worth identifying. Even still, the melodies, chord progression, and guitar riffs were all nearly identical. We essentially played the same song with interchangeable word phrases and identical themes. But I was in love with every single similar flavor.

My best friends and I talked about the best songs on the best albums. We watched videos of live concert performances and sat in awe of the crowd, the energy, and the most beautiful praise leaders from down under (Marty Sampson/Joel Houston). We memorized every word, every nuanced phrasing, and other effects like the exact second someone in the crowd would scream between choruses. I proudly got to a point where I could identify which song was playing based on the first couple seconds of the crowd clapping.

And then I grew out of it. I wanted to listen to objectively better music. The rehashed melodies and rhymes grew stale: Lord/more, day/pray/say, you/truth, me/need/free. I wasn’t connecting with the same songs I used to blast through my car’s bare-bones stereo setup. The bland Christian music scene left my appetite aching for creativity. I did what most people do: I found sonic solace in the ratchet bosom of hip-hop.

Rap hit harder and cut deeper. The clever witticisms provoked more thought and contemplation in one line than an entire Christian superstar album. Eminem ushered in a new musical lineup with his multis (favorite example), raunchy and downright disgusting sense of humor, and raw emotions of his struggles as a guy trying to turn trailer trash into platinum for his daughter.

Kanye mellowed the symphonic gang with a tighter flow leaving no words left behind. He gave me chipmunk soul, a new anthem to appreciate my mama, and literally the sickest production beats to this day hands down, no holds bar, cage match champion. And of course I fuck with Tupac and Biggie. Of course.

After the death of rap in the 00's (RIP Nelly/Mike Jones/Ja Rule/Soula Boy Tell’em/Chingy ... jk), the desolate genre grew flesh upon its dry bones. I asked my friend Jon for a recommendation to get into the 2013 rap lineup. He immediately steered me toward Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole as the best in the game.

Section.80 didn’t change my life, but it buried my then-current playlist. When you listen to a Kendrick album, you can’t help but feel like you’re in the presence of greatness. Yes, he rocks complex rhymes, relatable stories, and jazzy Ali beats, but as the parts fuse into a whole and buzz between my ears, it sounds like history in the making. Game changing. Profound. Worth a long, long while and the sacrifice of the entire list of 2000's rappers. Kendrick speaks with knowledge and experience. He doesn’t just tell stories, he survived them. He transcended them. He’s not a gangster rapper who talks big about what he’s packing and stacks he collects on the regular. He shows you why he climbed so high — he wants out of the terror of a post-Reagan ghetto, and he holds his arm out to take his neighborhood with him.

Life has been kicking my ass lately. Every single day I’m thinking: “Am I good enough?” And the answer is no, I’m not. Objectively, I’m not.

I’m struggling everywhere in all things. You name it, I have no clue. My house isn’t part of any section 8 housing projects, and I’m not getting jumped at school, but my overgrown fingernails scrape the bottom of a barrel looking for a white flag to signal my defeat.

Only one couple warned us how hard it would be having a child (thanks Leo). Yeah, parents wearily shared their days of sleepless nights and laughed it off. But they don’t talk about the first few weeks when you’re fed up with your partner because you’re the one going to work, cleaning up the house, vacuuming, and filling in on night feedings when she’s too tired and tapped out. They don’t describe the evil that curdles in your throats when two parents disagree with what’s best for that helpless little infant shaking from stress in and out of the womb because of your arguing then and now. I mean, who wants to talk about the first couple of weeks of parenting collapsing under stress, fatigue, hatred, blame, and hostility? Or when the worst parts about you start surfacing and you’ve never properly buried them before you had a child? Maybe I wasn’t listening. We devolved into yelling, cursing, scoffing, rolling eyes, throwing tantrums, and giving up so many times.

Today, these moments don’t stop. We still struggle with our hair trigger defensiveness and blaming rather than the vulnerable willingness to say “I’m sorry.” We still play the victim and scoff ungratefully at what we have and, more importantly, who we have in our lives. It’s three months in and I still consider showering and commuting to be my number one and number two most favorite activities of the day.

But we’re getting there. Every time we fight, we learn more about what we’re struggling with internally and how it’s coming out externally. We talk, make amends, and brace ourselves for the next spurt of indignation from either side of the line. And when we fight, I slam the door to my car and try to power out of the neighborhood in my ‘15 civic, late to work as usual.

And in those moments where I’m seething with rage and so fitfully exhausted, white knuckles gripped around my steering wheel, I’m not looking for witticism or the projects. I’m not looking for entertainment.

I turn on the 2001–2008 Hillsong United discography, and I listen. I reminisce of youth retreats where we first learned these songs as we fell in love over four days and three nights; praise nights with my best friends in our eager yet naive attempts to figure out who God is and how to praise him; and the moments of solitary worship in my old car as I screamed the high notes at the top of my lungs, dashboard glow glinting off my scratched glasses and wide eyes. These seeds I’ve sown have only now flowered.

Repeated rhymes and phrases? Cheesy and predictable musicality and lyricism? Give them to me in full for they are all I need in my lowest and most broken times. Water to my soul, bread of my life, they fill and warm the cold and shattered heart barely hanging by my burst veins and arteries.

I have no regrets of how much time I invested in my car with my 11 album MP3 CD. Nothing else simultaneous grounds me back on my soles and suspends me in hope. Nothing else breathes air back into my lungs, power into my heart, and releases my hands to turn again from white to flesh.