It contained multitudes: rap-rock, grunge, alternative, and pop ballads. The themes seemed to cover every bit of the Evangelical teen experience of the 1990’s, wrapped in a retro-ish album cover that looked something like a talisman. It was the thing for a few years. I memorized the raps on the title track (there was a man with a tat on his big fat belly…) and repeated them ad nauseum on all the youth trips.
It made it on the Billboard charts, which validated a seemingly-outcast experience that was much more widespread than any of us would know until much later. It made us feel cool to be different, even though we were really all the same in so many ways.
I am convinced this album, DC Talk’s third and greatest, was the apotheosis of white evangelical Christian culture. It came at a time when Evangelical churches experienced remarkable growth compared to the steady decline of the mainline denominations.
I’m no historian, but I believe it was the beginning of the end of the 4th Great Awakening. Or, rather, a perfect emblem of an entire generation’s religious experience. The historical point is not mine to prove: plenty of better minds debate how and when the 4th Great Awakening began and what defined it. But the experiential point is one I know all too well: I lived it!
So here is a personal reflection most popular Evangelical album at a point when Evangelicalism seemed to be at its peak. I have not pasted all lyrics but provided links.
Bombarded by philosophies that satisfy the surface (Surface)
I flee to somethin’ deeper at the risk of seeking purpose (Purpose)
How can I hang in this environmental state of being (Being)
When everything I’m strivin’ for is nothin’ that I’m seein’? (Seein’)
Jesus Freak flowed with the semi-philosophical teachings a whole tranche of quasi-philosophers and apologists who saw materialism (modernity) and the embrace of feelings as the center of one’s existence (post-modernism) as the core challenges facing young people. So Help Me God lands right on that theme: we are striving for the invisible, not something seen. But how do we attain that without relying on emotionalism? And how does that message get conveyed by a song that is highly emotional in its rocking funk-pop? My generation wanted an experience of God beyond the physical, something that came from a numinous experience with a living God. This was a generation that inherited the Jesus Movement’s directions on lifting hands, stomping feet, dancing, moving, swaying, etc. Youth events of my day (and this day, I am sure) were built around creating “worship experiences” that were many decibels louder than anything experienced in the drab old hymn-singing congregations back home.
So a conflicted message was pressed into us: desire the invisible, but also reject superficial emotions as the defining center of Christianity, even as we pump you full of loud rocking music.
So help me, God (So help me, God)
To put my faith in You
So help me, God (So help me, God)
Before I come unglued
Call it my addiction
I can’t get enough of You
So help me, God (So help me, God)
To put my faith in You
Infected by the skin I’m in that’s starvin’ with desire (Desire)
And Jesus ain’t the latest thing to come across the wire (Wire)
I throw myself at mercy for I am the chief of sinners (Sinners)
Desire — even a sort of sexual-like desire that mirrored language from the Song of Songs — became a core feature of songs over the last two decades. We even went to heaven meeting earth like a sloppy wet kiss! Youth experiences I saw involved a lot of touch — hugging, hand-holding, sweating, small close knit groups with hormonal youths being entirely in too much contact for those days. Desire, sexual-like activities, baited-breath talk of what happens when people get married… that was all wrapped up in the numinous experience that we wanted and DC Talk echoed. No wonder the “coolest” pastor of my generation — the first to garner clicks on the internet in the millions — was Mark Driscoll when he preached on sex. Our experience of God and Desire and Sex were wrapped up in very odd, very bad ways.
Listening to the song now, of course it is much grungier than the lyrics imply. Something like a love song set to Nirvana’s Nevermind, with some spoken word mixed in. It is a funk-jam that ends with a catchy ba-ba-ba-ba-ba that the band would call for song-and-response in live concerts. It gets you emotionally high. It reminds me of the clap-and-shout worship songs that made for the first song of a worship set for what seems like 30 years now.
Interestingly, at the same time this album was going huge, David F. Wells was leading a counter-emotionalism, counter-post-modernism movement amongst reformed types, culminating in the Cambridge Declaration, a recommitment to the 5 Solas as an answer to modernity and post-modernity.
The conflict between numinous-seeking emotionalism and reformed dogmatics has been ongoing within evangelicalism since then, defining fights in almost every evangelical denomination and often within non-denom churches.
Well, just a day in the shoes of a color blind man
Should make it easy for you to see
That these diverse tones do more than cover our bones
As a part of our anatomy
We’re colored people, and we live in a tainted place
We’re colored people, and they call us the human race
We’ve got a history so full of mistakes
And we are colored people who depend on a holy grace
The idea of the day was “color-blindness.” Far from dealing with the fact that the Sunday Morning worship hour was the most racially-divided hour in America, the idea was to kind of paper over the hundreds of years of racial division (often supported by churchmen and Bible verses) with the hopes that things would be better… some how. Conferences really did not handle race. This was peak “Jesus can fix racism” era, even as black folks visiting white evangelical churches could still be ushered down the road to someplace that “would feel more comfortable” (actual quote I heard).
The song itself tries to break through that and is to be commended, I think, for talking about race more than just about anyone in white spaces wanted to at the time. It came on the heels of the Southern Baptist Convention voting to “repent of racism of which we have been guilty.” For about ten minutes it seemed as though Evangelicalism was priming the pump to take on the issues of race and racism. Then 1996 saw the Million Man March, an undeniable statement of Black Christianity that did not comport with the colorblind future some Evangelical leaders desired. Blackness and colorblindness were not compatible, and white Evangelicals struggled to understand, let alone embrace, black people for who they are. Politics clouded the waters, to where by 2008, many in Evangelicalism were quite comfortable loudly declaring their hatred for Obama’s Nigerian heritage. Since then, of course, we’ve seen the rise of Proud Boys and other white nationalist movements and the embrace of white nationalism by Evangelicalism’s favored political candidates in many states.
The dream of the 90’s on race certainly seems, at the moment, to be suffering. Black leaders drawn into Evangelical spaces by the promise of colorblindness have left loudly for good reasons (See one Tisby, Jemar, for example) once they realized the politics of Evangelicalism were more important than the process of racial reconciliation.
3. Jesus Freak
Aww yesss here we go.
Separated, I cut myself clean
From a past that comes back in my darkest of dreams
Been apprehended by a spiritual force
And a grace that replaced all the me I’ve divorced
Central to the Evangelical identity of the mid-90’s was difference. We were different from the world, we were told: we thought differently, acted differently, voted differently, watched different movies, listened to different movies, and above all served a different God. Jesus Freak made that seem not only acceptable but desirable. Being weird because of Jesus was all of the sudden going to be cool. Because this was the pre-internet days, our experiences were confined to family, church, and conferences, so our differences seemed very unique. Jesus Freak gave us a broader sense of belonging.
Central to the experience of Evangelicals is conversion. The song begins with a hinted conversion experience. This conversion experience gives us a clean before and after. Even though most of our lived lives aren’t this clean, we longed for that kind of testimony: we was THIS BAD PERSON, now I am A JESUS FREAK. The song reinforces that experience with two examples of seemingly crazy people who proclaimed Jesus: an obese shirtless street preacher and John the Baptist.
I saw a man with tat on his big fat belly
It wiggled around like marmalade jelly
It took me a while to catch what it said
’Cause I had to match the rhythm of his belly wit’ my head
“Jesus Saves” is what it raved in a typical tattoo green
He stood on a box in the middle of the city and he claimed he had a dream
There was a man from the desert with naps in his head
The sand that he walked was also his bed
The words that he spoke made the people assume
There wasn’t too much left in the upper room
With skins on his back and hair on his face
They thought he was strange by the locusts he ate
Ya see, the Pharisees tripped when they heard him speak
Until the king took the head o’ this Jesus freak
Now, how on earth the obese shirtless fella became an aspirational moment for a generation of Evangelicals is beyond me, but we all knew the song and rapped the rhyme. We longed for that clean conversion experience and for the attitude conveyed “I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus Freak.”
But then we went out into the world and realized that we were being labeled Jesus Freaks not on the basis of our Jesus-ness, but on the basis of all that separateness that I mentioned above: our media, our celebrities, our culture, and our politics. Suddenly being a Jesus Freak became a tool of capitalism and politics more than a signifier of radical separateness from the world. We were just creating a mirrored, slightly cleaner version of the world we already had around us, and when challenged by that reality in college and after, a lot of Jesus Freaks walked. The Conversion Experience wasn’t as clean as we wanted it to be, too. We still sinned. We still struggled. The song was cool, but the existence suddenly wasn’t.
I am sure the folks deciding on the track listing knew what they were doing when they put the more somber What if I Stumble after Jesus Freak, both because you don’t follow an absolute banger of a song with a lesser banger, and because the high of Jesus Freak needed an answer: what happens when the Jesus Freak life fails? The intro comes from Brennan Manning:
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today
Is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips
Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable
The mood shift in Evangelicalism from the mid-90’s into the 2000’s was toward authenticity. It became a buzzword in churches and evangelistic conferences. DC Talk here hints at the conflicted reality of saved sinners: we still sin. This sin seems to denigrate our public image. While the veneer of Evangelicalism was happy people doing great things or Jesus Freaks living separately, oftentimes the pews and pulpits were filled with very sin-sick people doing miserable things.
What if I stumble
What if I fall?
What if I lose my step
And I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue
When my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble
And what if I fall?
Father please forgive me
For I cannot compose
The fear that lives within me
Or the rate at which it grows
If struggle has a purpose
On the narrow road you’ve carved
Why do I dread my trespasses
Will leave a deadly scar
The song doesn’t really have an answer here. Most folks in my generation couldn’t answer this question well either. Partially because so many of us were raised with an infection of legalism. Evangelicalism, since it was not explicitly reformed, invited it the holiness/perfectionist movements within the camp and relied heavily on someone like James Dobson, who taught all sorts of legalistic-lite approaches to morally perfecting your children and your family. Legalism, or works-righteousness, was a consequence: the idea that one could work their way into holiness or into God’s favor. Salvation, as I said above, should see a divorce: I was X, I am now Y. But we all still sin — so what is the answer? The answer of returning to the grace of God seemed to simplistic, maybe? So the real answer that came out was effort. What if I stumble? Try harder.
The song gives no other answer except “Everyone’s got to crawl.” Which, what does that even mean? I stumble, so I keep pressing forward. I keep doing what is necessary. I try harder.
5. Day by Day
We begin with a chill vibe. The maracas. Almost Smashing Pumpkins-esque hum. Then we enter right into spiritual warfare!
I live a simple life, I take a day at a time
I spend my mornings with God before I hit the grind
The subtleties o’ darkness never cease to amaze
As a physical world creates a spiritual haze
Blinded by distractions
Lost in matter-less affairs
Reachin’ through the darkness
Trustin’ You will meet me there
…aaaand we’re off to the rocking chorus
Oh, dear Lord, three things I pray (One, two, three)
To see Thee more clearly (Day by day)
To love Thee more dearly (Day by day)
To follow Thee more nearly (I got to take it…)
The imagery here is either of the daily pressure of being a Christian in a broken world or, as I took it as a young man, a recognition of the powers of darkness at work behind everything. This Present Darkness found its way into many a church library and inspired an imagination of spiritual conflict that well exceeded the bounds of the Bible but seemed, you know, so cool, so vivid, so explanatory.
I’d bet DC Talk was a little more focused on the daily grind, as they explain, but the matter-less affairs and the subtleties o’ darkness sure filled the minds of many, including myself. We were the generation, after all, who saw the Satanic panic in its full throes. We were given Bob Larson books and were told certain music would lead to certain demons entering our house.
You cannot condemn me
I won’t buy your bag of goods
You got nothin’ for me
Anyway, that’s why I pray
The answer to the common threat of darkness / demonic powers / Satan was a day-by-day struggle and a need to gird oneself with the Armor of God. Again, I doubt DC Talk was making an explicitly spiritual warfare type thing, but for young me hopping around the room thinking about Peretti’s demons and angels, what more can there be than three things I pray to fight the Devil day by day?
6. Mrs. Morgan
A silly interlude, but also a funky self-reflective meta-commentary on the worship wars.
And I said, “If he hits the drum one more time
He’s gone be a dead drummer”
And that was the last I heard of the drummer that day
The worship wars carry on to this day! Just last week I heard from a pastor whose church is struggling with adding drums and guitar. Churches split and closed over the drums. The Jesus Movement embraced the drums and guitar but generations before and after are keen on much quieter, liturgical styles. Many Exvangelicals are finding a home in Anglicanism or Catholicism, for example, while churches that went contemporary are starting to add back in more liturgical readings and creeds. Some older people clung to their churches and sustained them simply because they had the older styles of worship, and those churches are the ones now quite literally dying.
Sorrow is a lonely feeling
Unsettled is a painful place
I’ve lived with both for far too long now
Since we’ve parted ways
I’ve been wrestling with my conscience
And I found myself to blame
If there’s to be any resolution
I’ve got to peel my pride away
In my pursuit of God, I thirst for holiness
As I approach the Son, I must consider this
Offenses unresolved will keep me from the throne
Before I go to Him my wrong must be atoned
See the continued streak of works righteousness? Even in friendship, the purpose of reconciliation was to please God, to fix things before going back to God. The idea, again, was to do the right thing before getting to God, instead of going to God and letting him do the right thing in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, you’ll note the entire album lacks reference to the Third Person of the Trinity!
The lack of the Holy Spirit in much of the Evangelicalism wave of the mid-90’s into the early 2000’s came to the forefront when Francis Chan called everyone out in 2009 and Jesus Culture made sure every church said “Holy Spirit you are Welcome Here” in 2012.
Interestingly, the steady decline amongst Evangelical denominations has only one major exception: the Assemblies of God, who place a massive emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit.
Under these circumstances, they can hardly cope
Notice their fleeting glances and their lack of hope
I offer this suggestion, they don’t seem to care-o
This is my generation, drowning in despair-o
You’ll never find peace of mind in your pool of self
You’ll never find peace of mind in a sea of wealth
You’ll never find peace of mind in your rock and roll
You’ll never find peace of mind if you sell your soul
We circumvent our feelings through an angry sound
He who complains the loudest wears the fattest crown
We’re anti-everybody, call it paranoia
Well, I ain’t no judge or jury, but I’m prayin’ for ya
You’ll never find peace of mind in your lucky charm
You’ll never find peace of mind on a hippie farm
You’ll never find peace of mind in a one-night stand
You’ll never find peace of mind in your Superman
For you youngins, the vibe of the day was a kind of narcissistic nihilism: everything sucks, including me, so listen to me telling you how much everything sucks. TobyMac’s whiney voice on the Verses is a mockery of the whine that filled the radio airwaves in those days. Against the whine they give a jump-around rock-pop chorus
You gotta like it, you gotta love it
I know you need some freedom from the strife
You gotta like it, you gotta love it
I know you need some Jesus in your life
Some Jesus in your life (Oh-oh-oh)
Against nihilism, the idea was: have fun in Jesus! Enjoy life! Soak in the happiness of Christianity! The criticism was on the nose: “That the selfish way you’re livin’ is for nothin’” Kurt Cobain has just taken his life in 1994, and the grunge bands that marked the era were breaking up or losing visibility.
What the song doesn’t capture is that it itself follows the contours of the secular direction. During the late 90’s, post-grunge became an uplifting and pop-y commercialistic capture. Bush, Collective Soul and others sought the success without the nihilism. Even as Cobain died, a new band, the most commercial and happy and joyful and pop-y and rich group, would come down from Canada. That band was Nickelback. They took the same vibe as Like It, Love It, Need It’s chorus and made a career out of smiles and commercialism and radio replay. The vibe shift was toward happiness, but it was a happiness of major keys, Shrek smiles, and gobs of cash.
A hilarious send up (or tough mockery, depending on your perspective) of the kind of singing that marked the tape-lead worship in many smaller churches who were trying to adapt to new musical styles but lacked Jesus Movement guitarists and drummers. For many, taped music is the abomination of desolation. Too often the singer was someone who really thought they were the bee’s knees, despite a total lack of actual ability.
If you’ve heard that kind of singing and that kind of worship, you know where this track comes from.
10. In the Light
We return to the theme of What if I Stumble:
I keep trying to find a life
On my own, apart from you
I am the king of excuses
I’ve got one for every selfish thing I do
What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior
This only serves to confirm my suspicions
That I’m still a man in need of a savior
Which brings us to Scrupulosity. (Read that essay by Susannah Black. Did you? No, you didn’t. I said read it.)
Nothing — I do mean nothing — has ruined a generation of Evangelicals quite like the constant feeling that they are failing God. As Black writes, “A more contemporary Protestant experience is the fear that one hasn’t “been saved” properly, that sure, you said the Sinner’s Prayer but it kinda seems like maybe it didn’t … take.” I know many who’ve been baptized a dozen times, who’ve prayed the prayer a thousand times, who still wonder if God hates them, who still are paralyzed by anxiety doubting that they are good enough for God.
Evangelical legalistic parenting (thanks Dobson) wrought a sense of perpetual failure: I am never good enough. I cannot achieve. I want more than what I have in my life. Lord, how come I am not perfect?
The disease of self runs through my blood
It’s a cancer fatal to my soul
Every attempt on my behalf has failed
To bring this sickness under control
The chorus in response is a call to God: let me experience that salvation!
I wanna be in the Light
As you are in the Light
I wanna shine like the stars in the heavens
Oh, Lord be my Light and be my salvation
Cause all I want is to be in the Light
All I want is to be in the Light
The song captures the heart cry, but never gives the assurance that we crave. The knowledge that the love of God in Christ Jesus is sufficient for our assurance as the Holy Spirit works in us. Note again the absence of mention of the same Spirit: without the Spirit in us, how could we possibly be in the light?
So many live in fear now because of Scrupulosity. Back to Black:
“Am I saved? Am I right before God? It is a question that can lead to repentance, to baptism, to a life of discipleship. It can also, in a baptized person with every reason to trust that God’s promises apply to him, now adopted into Christ’s family, be the content of irrational ruminations. But so can “Can God be trusted?” and “Does God want my family to be saved?” And this can get very very refined indeed — as refined as your theology: “is ‘good’ meant equivocally or analogically when we predicate it of God? Are you sure? But are you sure? How about ‘love’? Is monergism true? What can it mean that God desires all men to be saved if monergism is true? How can I trust that he wants me to be? Better think about this for five hours in the middle of the night to try to solve it.”
The answer Black arrives at is meaningful: submission to the church, to “To exit one’s self-enclosed fake moral universe is to enter the real, external moral universe, which is the one we share with each other, the one where God is.” Because so much of our shared Evangelical experience was individualized (as in “I must be saved, I must be holy, I must worship, I, me, myself), we forgot the church as well. Just as the Spirit is absent from this album, church is also! The only references to the collective experience are negative: Manning talking about hypocrisy above, and in the next track.
During Evangelicalism’s heyday in the 90’s, churches changed from a community of faith to a place and experience. People went to look at the stage, receive God, and go home. The shared experience of being God’s people filled by the Holy Spirit living a shared life was lost. The songs here mirror that experience: I want to be in the light. Me. Lord, put me in the light. Instead of leading me to the place where the Spirit abides, in God’s people, and to the place where I can find assurance in the face of scrupulosity, we were driven back to and individualism, of finding God in our personal experiences instead of in his Body.
A preacher shuns his brother
Cause his bride’s a different color
And this is not acceptable
His papa taught him so
It was love that he’d been preaching
But this was overreaching
The boundaries stretchin’ further
Than his heart would choose to go
Like an angel with no wings
Like a kingdom with no king
What have we become?
A self indulgent people
What have we become?
Tell me where are the righteous ones?
What have we become?
In a world degenerating
What have we become?
A central feature of Evangelicalism in the 90’s was hating on the church. Not, you know, the cool churches where tens of thousands flocked and where DC Talk would perform and make big money, but those old stodgy country churches filled with racists and hypocrites. The brokenness of the Christian experience is made manifest here:
Speak your mind, look out for yourself
The answer to it all is a life of wealth
Grab all you can cause you live just once
You got the right to do whatever you want
Don’t worry about others or where they came from
It ain’t what you were, it’s what you can become
It could be that DC Talk had a wider criticism in mind, but since they started with the preacher, it seems like the song is directed at the church. The song talks about selfishness, narcissism, racism, and suicide:
Mom and dad are fightin’
As Rosie lies there crying
For once again she’s overheard
Regrets of their mistake
When Christmas bells are ringing
Little Rosie’d leave them grieving the gift she’d give her family
Would be the pills she’d take
An inconvenient child
She wasn’t worth their while
It was good to hear a band of this magnitude talking about these issues on a super-popular album. This hailed an era of fundraising by Christian bands at their concerts. Many concerts featured a talk — usually an evangelistic message — combined with a fundraising appeal to some relief organization or mission. From the 90’s into the 2000’s the fundraising appeals shifted to some domestic issues and opened many suburban eyes to things like sexual slavery, human trafficking, urban poverty, and more.
At the same time, the focus was outside the church. The local church disappeared in these talks and in the songs. In talking openly about church pain, we lost the ability to talk about church good. The small, local church became an easy object of derision. Following this season, small churches are dying off in record numbers. We are in a period of intense concentration, as mega churches grow and small churches die. Time will tell what impact that has on communities and on the faith.
12. Mind’s Eye
We return to the theme of the first song.
You know what I’m going through
I know this is true
’cause you stood in my shoes
Desire’s inside of me
But it’s hard to believe
In what you cannot see
In my mind’s eye
I see your face
You smile as you show me grace
In my mind’s eye
You take my hand
We walk through foreign lands
The foreign lands of life
The song is all over the map, analogy-wise, and hard to follow, but the most notable part of the song is the Billy Graham pre-chorus. Graham invited DC Talk to perform at his youth crusade in Cleveland in 1994. This part of the song comes from that talk in Cleveland.
The effect of Graham on Evangelicalism cannot be captured or overstated, so I won’t try here. But I will say this appearance of his on the album marked the beginning of a slowing-down period, ending with his last public crusade in 2005. His TV presence from local stations showing his revivals was virtually non-existent by this time, and while his shadow still runs long over the church and Republican politics, he’s been replaced by his son, Franklin, who is even more conservative in his political leanings and less apt at capturing the audiences Billy did. While Billy was a political figure, he wore many significant hats as preacher, bridge-builder, pastor, and foremost revivalist. Franklin is primarily viewed through his political work and his relief work at Samaritan’s Purse. Billy was hob-knobbing with Woody Allen in 1969. In 2022, Franklin is tweeting about Chik-fil-a. The Graham name and role has changed considerably, and listening to this song with that voice — so firm, so resolute, so direct — calls back to a time of big name revivalists that I don’t know as we will ever see again.
13. Alas, My Love
Distortion baby — yeah! Then the strings — double yeah! Then a spoken word poem.
Alas my love, you say goodbye, Wipe the poison from my brow
Alas my love, this guilty night, It gives me up like a foster child
And in this moment I take my vow, These angels sleeping at my feet
And in this moment you do not know how, How my spirit wants to flee
You see it was one man against the night, Taking on a multitude
That had left him high and dry
No candle burning vigil could light the way
Darkness hit the ground like a fallen satellite
He wrestled until morning
With human souls and dark angels
And there he finished his work
On the third day
Several themes return: darkness and spiritual forces at war; Jesus winning a battle; our own struggles against sin and hopelessness. There is an integrity to the spiritual experience — it is authentic — and hints of Christus Victor, but we never land filled with the Spirit. We are still yearning, still frustrated, still broken, still searching for some holiness that we never quite experience as the strings fade to silence.
14. In the Light — Instrumental
Because, why not? Epic, solid chord progressions. Solid “church van on the way to a youth retreat” vibes.
So what do we see?
The cracks in Evangelicalism remain: experiential/emotional spiritualism vs dogmatics; racial reconciliation and colorblindness; the specter of politics; the shadow of the Greatest Generation which none of of us have seemed able to match; legalism and scrupulosity leaving many feeling unsaved and not good enough; failing small churches and dying old ones; the ongoing worship wars. All of this remains even as Evangelicalism seems to recede as the center of the American religious experience.
What does it mean now to be a Jesus Freak? I don’t know. Maybe I don’t really care.