November 26, 2020

The Missing Voice of the Christian Counter-Culture

(For N.T. Wright, Bono, Bob Dylan, Sara Groves, Derek Webb, Steve Earle, Larry Norman, Johnny Cash, Michael Been and Steve Taylor)

Floating somewhere around the web is a picture/mp3 of Anglican bishop and theologian N.T. Wright, complete in lavender shirt and bishop’s collar, playing Bob Dylan’s sixties anthem, Blowin’ In the Wind on an acoustic guitar.

It’s not anything I’d pay money to have on my ipod, and I doubt his audience was blown away. But I don’t think the bish was having a moment of youth minister envy. His admiration for Dylan and the counter-culture voices of the sixties comes from something else.

Wright was singing Dylan because, in his particular take on Christian eschatology, he sees something very admirable and good about those idealistic kids in the sixties. Something in their optimism and idealism resembles his belief that we are called to Kingdom work in every area of human life now. Wright believes that Christians are a Holy Spirit empowered Christian counter-culture movement at work with God in the world’s hopeless places and unsolvable problems. He profoundly believes in resurrection, but not in the despair that has overtaken much of the church- Protestant and Catholic- in these days.

Wright believes the Kingdom of God is at work in the present everywhere that Christians put their audacious resurrection hope into practice: in politics, art, society, education, peacemaking and yes, even the church.

Wright has been criticized, perhaps justly, for his bias towards certain liberal and leftist solutions as being identical with the Kingdom of God. Admirers of Wright like Douglas Wilson have taken him to task with some specificity for sounding like an echo chamber of the liberal establishment.

I believe the point is well made, but I’m also starting to see Wright’s larger point, and why the good bishop is playing that Dylan song.

In some of my classes this semester, I’ve been using protest songs from the classic era of folk music to illustrate points regarding Biblical literature and elements of English literature. And as I was listening to Phil Ochs Outside of a Small Circle of Friends yesterday, a thought occurred to me that’s been rattling around in my head ever since.

Why aren’t more Christians making the sounds of counter-culture protest in their art, their literature and their witness?

I want to be careful at the outset to acknowledge that some Christians ARE making the sound of counter-culture protest, and I want to salute them and promote them. More to say about them later.

Right now, I want you to go to the iTunes store, Christian and Gospel music section, and look around. What do you hear?

Praise and Worship.

The soft sounds of baptized psychology.

God-experience in highly personal terms.

A tip of the hat in the direction of evangelism.

That’s the vast majority of what Christian artists and voices are bringing to us. Of that collection, the largest pieces of the pie chart go to “praise and worship” music and expressions of fuzzy personal experience with a decidedly “girl-friendy” Jesus.

Now as I’ve said before, I’m encouraged by how many contemporary artists and authors are personally involved in ministries of mercy and issues of compassion and significance. These are a generation of artists who are busy supporting International Justice Mission and Blood:Water Mission.

But few of them are raising the voice of a true Christian counter-culture; few have the sound of counter-culture protest, lament or outcry. Few are taking on the voice of the prophet. Few are using artistic irony and sharp observation and story telling to penetrate into those aspects of our culture where the truth of God has a sure and true word for us. Few are articulating the vision of anything approaching a radical kind of Christian discipleship.

I don’t hear the kids of voices that shined the light of God on the darkness of racism, that opposed the Vietnam war with a Christian conscience or that awoke to the realities of poverty and corruption in America. Evangelical art seems to reflect the concerns of the status quo, and the easy acceptance of a world where how we feel is the great crisis of our time.

Those artists that do find a prophetic voice stand out immediately from the bland majority.

Listen to Larry Norman’s deliberate echoing of the protest voice of Dylan in his early music. Norman wrote about the environment, the space program, poverty, drugs, government corruption and more. Almost as quickly as Norman’s voice had appeared, it was co-opted by the Jesus movement into songs for the believing faithful. But for that one moment, Norman pointed Christian artists in the direction of being a counter-cultural voice across the same wide spectrum as his “secular” brothers and sisters.

Listen to Derek Webb’s take on a Dylanesque voice, and notice how the mainstream Christian music industry attempted to pigeonhole him for being too political. Webb continues to be at the center of a different kind of Christian art; a socially conscious, challenging voice of a counter culture that resists the â”mainstreaming” of the Christian artistic voice into the Christian ghetto. We Don’t Have A Savior On Capital Hill isn’t going to make it on K-Love anytime soon.

Look at the work of Steve Taylor, a master of irony who was unafraid to turn his art on the churchâ’s failings and society’s corruptions. As musician and now filmmaker, Taylor has ventured into the kind of territory where irony, cutting humor, broad social commentary and creative truth-telling at the expense of evangelicalism are part of the artist’s palette.

Other younger Christians are rejecting the lure of being another praise and worship leader for the possibilities of speaking in the authentic voice of lament, protest and resurrection. Predictably, many of these artists are far outside the evangelical Christian mainstream, having found out that, like artists from Bono to The Call’s Michael Been, there is more freedom and a far more receptive audience outside the boundaries drawn by the church.

Christian radio will not play these voices. They will not be leading the bouncing worship songs at your next youth event. They are not entertaining the sheep into a state of altered- and largely insensitive- consciousness.

You will find them at Square Peg Alliance and Paste Music. You’ll hear them cited as “indy folk” more than Christian. You’ll have to endure the question “But is that really Christian music?”

Evangelicals have now produced a massive consumeristic niche ready to buy, wear and applaud whatever fits in its pre-described mold of entertainment oriented discipleship and warm, fuzzy, evangelical experience.

It’s personal miracles, not social transformation that has the attention of evangelicals. It’s the culture war’s short list of approved issues, not the prophetic agenda of justice and compassion that inspires most music, conferences and major events today. It’s the sounds of “We want more of you Jesus,” not the cry for justice for the hungry, the oppressed and the displaced that inspire evangelical art.

When I expose my students to the protesting voices of the sixties, their reaction is varied. Some are more interested in the iPod than the song. Some are completely clueless as to what I’m referring to. Others are drawn toward the knowledge that young people were once, as a generation, animated in causes greater than acquiring expensive shoes.

When I preach, I preach N.T. Wright’s vision of Gospel application in the empire. I preach MLK’s application of the Gospel in a way that challenges evil with sacrificial love. I preach Don’t Waste Your Life. I preach examples of personal engagement with causes greater than the expansion of church facilities and more sales of the latest praise and worship ditty. I constantly urge my students to see Jesus as a radical and to see following him as a radical exercise extending into economics, racial reconciliation, compassion, the arts, politics, justice for the excluded, the creation of community and the renewal of the local church along new covenant priorities.

But I feel that my voice is one voice; one voice largely overwhelmed by the current vision of Christianity as an extension of the American dream of personal affluence and evangelical cultural triumph.

My students will hear a hundred voices telling them to march against gays for every one they hear saying they should befriend the oppressed and the rejected. (One friend told me that when his church volunteered to help with a fund raiser for the local AIDS hospice, the directors were so stunned that they thought it was a joke.)

My students will hear that Martin Luther King, Jr was an adulterer 25 times for every time I point to his model of sacrificial non-violence. Few of them will ever read any of his sermons, but many will be told of his moral failings. (And the same is true for many activist Christians. Some evangelicals make it a point to morally impugn anyone who pursues that they label as the “social” Gospel.)

My students will be offered a hundred “Christian” things to buy for every one time they are challenged to give anything away or to use their money to dig a well. Thank God for the thousands of Christians who generously give time, talent and money to help the suffering, but they do so in the midst of an evangelicalism that has found a way to bless every excess of the American materialistic lifestyle.

My students will hear hundreds of moralistic, pietistic and privatistic applications of the Gospel for every time they see or hear the Gospel lived out in Jesus shaped ways. If evangelical sermons and publishing is our measurement, then economic, missional, socially redemptive discipleship is far less interesting than end times scenarios and diets.

My students will be encouraged to accept the evils of society as the unfolding of the end times plan a dozen times for every time anyone tells them to go out and personally do something to make a difference in that world. After abortion and homosexual activism, the average evangelical’s engagement with social issues goes off the radar.

My students will be told that church should be fun, entertaining, cool and better than a mall a thousand times for every time they see a church embodying the suffering, justice, poverty, prophetic truth and radical love of Jesus for the poor and the sinful.

My students will hear the siren songs of evangelicalism endless times for every time they hear about a truly prophetic, counter-cultural, compassion-passionate Jesus shaped spirituality.

I’m waiting for the birth of truly counter-cultural Christian voices; voices as arresting in these times as Guthrie, Dylan, Ochs and Seeger were in theirs. Christian voices that don’t require us to go to non-believers to hear the authentic message of the compassion and present power of the teachings of scripture on justice and mercy.

I’m waiting. And while I have a voice left and anyone to hear me, I’m using my voice as best I can. I won’t be singing Blowin’ In The Wind at my next Bible study, but I understand what the Bishop was trying to say. We have an answer more sure than those who mounted the counter-culture critique of the sixties, but our voices are strangely silent.


  1. Michael,
    Thank you SO MUCH for this blog. No one has ever articulated the way I feel about modern day Christianity than this blog has. I blog about this stuff all the time @ latest post links back to this one because I think it communicates some of these points so well. Thanks again for your thoughts and articulation.

    PS. I’m huge Derek Webb, Sara Groves, and obvious Bob Dylan fan

  2. Micheal,

    Thanks for these challenging words. There are pockets of protest.
    But rather than addressing things politically, their art takes traffics in absurdity. They emphasize beauty as a way to contrast the ugliness of so much “Jesus Junk.” So record labels like Asthmatic Kitty and artists like
    Sufjan Stevens, the Danielson Family, Rosie Thomas, David Bazan and Over the Rhine are going with either extravagant theatricality or ultra stripped down simplicity as a form of protest music.

    The same is starting to happen in film. Alternative documentaries of protest made in the past year include, The Ordinary Radicals, Call + Response, Lord Save Us From Your Followers, and my own, Purple State of Mind. Each is small, indie outsider art.