May 30, 2020

He Wouldn’t Smile for the Camera

markheard.jpgUPDATE: Several of Mark’s songs are available free at the Paste Music MP3 site.

Back in the day, I was Mr. Christian Music, and kept up with everything, so I remember pretty clearly the day I bought a Mark Heard album and the guy wasn’t smiling.

Mark Heard, for those who don’t know, was probably one of the four or five greatest songwriting talents to emerge from the early CCM movement. Heard started out as part of Larry Norman’s Solid Rock label, then became a song-writing, producing, performing dynamo for most of the 80’s. He passed away in 1992, on the verge of critical and mainstream musical success. His influence on today’s young indie songwriters and performers is substantial. The man was a monster of a talent.

But Mark Heard pretty much stopped smiling. On his first album he was grinning like a monkey, or should I say like a typical CCM celebrity. Then…somewhere down the line, he stopped smiling in the majority of his pictures. His albums were simply Mark…no smiles. No comic grin. Just Mark looking serious and intent on reaching you with his music.

Now we should point out that sullen, pouting musicians are nothing new, and I will briefly entertain the notion that Heard was simply trying to look like the dark, troubled loner. OK….now that we’ve done that, I can say that’s not what was going on. Heard had plenty of upbeat, danceable, celebratory songs. He plenty of humor, warmth and love for people. Everyone who knew him spoke of his winsome, open, loving nature. He wasn’t depressed or attempting to look like he was in a skillful ploy to boost record sales among fans of angst.

He didn’t smile for his album covers, and eventually for any photo I ever saw unless it was just a candid shot. Why? Because, in his opinion, it sent the message that Christians were always smiling, and that wasn’t true. Mark Heard was intensely honest and real in life and in music. The “image” of a Christian artist as being “high on Jesus” didn’t appeal to Heard. He believed the Christian experience was the full human experience; all the emotions and all the feelings good and bad came along for the ride.

Heard also believed in integrity in artistic presentation. He wasn’t going to be someone on an album cover that he wasn’t in real life. He wasn’t going to send the message that his life was somehow different from the life of other people. Though Heard wasn’t a blues artist, his music and his words show that he fully accepted the “Blue Notes” as part of the song. He hadn’t lost the blues; in some ways, being a Christian meant finally finding how to sing those blue notes.

So as a good follower of Francis Schaefer (Heard had studied at L’abri), Heard began this small crusade to be what he really was: A man who didn’t smile all the time. A true man. A man who was often thoughtful. Sad. Troubled. Within himself. Knowing Jesus was knowing the truth, and it was receiving the gift of honesty. God’s love wasn’t a happy pill, and the people of God weren’t on an emotional high all the time.

I was deeply affected by Mark Heard’s music, presentation, words, life and death. Not to try and be like him, but to know it is OK to be me rather than an image of what a Christian is expected to be.

I don’t smile all the time. I don’t want to. I have darker moods and I feel the pain around me in ways I seldom show. Life with Christ is rich, deep and good, but it’s not always happy, and I’m not always happy. Sometimes God troubles me, and sometimes believing in God is harder than giving up. I think. I get inside myself. I don’t want to be entertained all the time. I want the smiles to count, and not be manufactured.

I learned from Merton (sorry watchbloggers. My bad) that the false self is the poison self, and the true self before God is the one in whom Christ dwells. The reason so many Christian “performers” -of every kind- come to hate their lives is they are empty of Christ when they are pretending to be what they’re not. To look at ourselves and to be real, transparent, true…that’s a great gift. It’s a gift from God, and it’s a gift to yourself and to others.

I don’t believe we have to “let it all hang out” to be real. I’ve probably said too much on this blog a few times, but I would rather err on the side of real human experience any time than to make people think that every Sunday, I’m smilin’ Michael, the happiest man on earth.

I have to counsel a lot of students who feel sorry for themselves. I don’t give them “happy talk.” I teach them that they have to grow to where they have a point of view, a mature perspective on the things that make them unhappy. The facts are the facts: people let us down. Love hurts. Broken promises ruin life. Disappointment, loneliness and abandonment seem unfair and endless sometimes. But we don’t drown out real life or real feelings with louder music and more choruses. We see these things with Jesus. We find a Christ-centered perspective on circumstances and events. We let God be God and we take what he has for us where we are, now and in the future.

And sometimes we smile. Sometimes we don’t. I’m not going to lie about it.


  1. Michael,
    As a family practice physician, I have people break down in my exam rooms almost daily, crushed by life and unable to be real with anyone else. And they almost always say as I hand the tissue box, “I’m sorry.” —-sorry for being real, sorry for admitting to another human being that they hurt. In the South especially I think this “God is good so I must keep smiling if I’m a good Christian” heresy permeates the church and the culture at large. I tell my patients “Life is hard. It’s ok to hurt, it’s ok to cry (Jesus did, didn’t he?), it’s ok to struggle (Moses, Elijah), and it’s ok to go to God as a hurting child & tell Him we need His comfort.

  2. noseriously says

    I appreciate the general point of your article. To a finer point I truly likes Mark Heard. Didnt know him well but did some live audio work for him and many others and there were few that measured up to his true kindness. I must say there were many that were darn near hard to please, Mark wasnt one of those. Hats off to a great tribute but more importantly a vivid point.

  3. This was a moving article. For one thing, I was majorly impacted by Mark Heard’s music growing up and I consider myself a somber Christian at times as well. Thank you so much for making me feel better about this. The world is still so seriously flawed and we seem to be such horrible stewards.

  4. Mark Heard spoke to me like few Christian musicians have before or since. He was intelligent and serious, but he knew how to have fun. (He’s still the only songwriter I know who could get away with using the phrase ‘pious anhedonia’ in a song!) To this day, “These Plastic Halos” informs my approach to my church family, and songs like “Strong Hand of Love” and “House of Broken Dreams” speak to me about relating to my wife and children. Mark showed me that it all right for me to be who I was in Christ, bad days and flaws included. Thank you for pointing him out as a signpost on the road to being real.

  5. Hi. Found your blog through a mark-heard mailing list.

    Good for you, you now belong to the class of people, though vanishingly small, that I find incredibly relevant and important; those who see something good in evangelicalism, but have, in some way, moved beyond it.

    For me, that process ended up with becoming Roman Catholic. Absolutely happy about it, and quite at home with it, though it troubled my parents a bit.

    Anyways, Mark Heard was the most important musician (who happens to be a Christian) in terms of my formative years of listening to music, pondering life, etc. My closest and longest-term friend introduced me to Mark’s music when we were in University together. We still appreciate his music.

    I just bought the biography of him, published by Cornerstone press. I’m about to read it. There’s a sample chapter on line, check it out. One of the things I learned about Mark from that, is that he didn’t attend Church most of his adult life. I understand, completely.

    “We believe so well / Don’t we tell ourselves / Don’t we take exclusive pride that we abide so far from hell / We might laugh together / But don’t we cry alone / For the ashes and the dust we’ve swept beneath the holy throne”.


  6. Pierce Pettis always opens his concerts with a cover of one of Heard’s songs, and his albums have each started in the same way.

    I only have one of Heard’s CDs. Time to dig it out and feed it to iTunes… and eventually buy some more.