By: Joshua Kalin Busman (University of North Carolina at Pembroke) //
On New Year’s Day 2013, I filed into the lower deck of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia, along with more than 65,000 young evangelical Christians from all over the United States. We were all there to attend a four-day concert known as the Passion Conference, one of a series of massive multi-day evangelical events that the Passion organization regularly convenes all over the world. Although they were founded only 15 years ago, the Passion Conference has rapidly become one of the most influential evangelical Christian groups on the planet. Events like the one in Atlanta regularly draw staggering numbers in Kiev, Tokyo, São Paulo, and Kampala. During the third night of the 2013 Passion event in Atlanta, the crowd was ecstatic to receive an unannounced performance from multi-platinum selling Christian rapper LeCrae. After performing several songs, LeCrae took a short break and addressed the crowd directly.
Before launching into his 2010 hit song “Background,” LeCrae takes the opportunity to remind those present that he isn’t a celebrity. Celebrities, he says, are people who “want to be celebrated,” and he just wants to be a servant (a prominent theme in the lyrics of “Background”). Instead, he suggests that there’s only one “celebrity worth celebrating,” and it’s Jesus Christ. Naming Jesus as “the one and only celebrity” might just seem like a curious turn of phrase, but it’s internally consistent with an understanding of Christian culture that highlights the ways Christian music and popular music are inextricably intertwined. Religious meaning in these cases is a complex move, emerging from the interplay between sacred and secular categories, rather than originating straightforwardly inside either sphere.
One might consider, for instance, the ways that evangelical worship events have dealt with the convention of applause. Applauding or cheering between songs is a ubiquitous practice in Western musical performances of all types, but this practice was, until recently, essentially unheard of in Christian worship. But evangelical believers naturally continued this practice when attending worship events in the style of rock or pop concerts, due in part to the similarities in these contexts of consumption. In worship contexts, the meaning of applause needed to be adapted to the new demands of religious ritual, so it has become more or less standard now for worship leaders to ritualize the gesture of applause by suggesting that congregants “give God a hand” or “give it up for God.” Rather than accepting the applause as recognition for their individual performances, worship leaders redirect the gesture of applause as a form of worship in and of itself. In this way, a gesture that was inherent within mainstream popular music is adopted into a worship context and imbued with new meanings to account for this change of focus.
However, it’s also clear from this example of applause that the sacred meaning of the gesture is fully dependent upon a prior knowledge of its secular meaning. That is to say, the gesture only makes sense in a religious context if one imagines a world where religious believers are already familiar with the popular music practice of applauding. Without knowing that applause was meant to convey excitement about and appreciation for the music that is being presented, it wouldn’t be clear to a participant how or why this attention might be meaningfully transferred to the divine. When making sense of applause in this context, one must first think about the ways that applause functions in popular music and only then consider the ways it has been uniquely ritualized into evangelical practice.
In August 2002, Chris Tomlin released his sophomore album with Passion’s sixstepsrecords label entitled Not to Us. The album received moderate sales success, but within months of its release, one particular song, “Famous One,” was being adopted by congregations all over the United States.
“Famous One” by Chris Tomlin
“Famous One”, especially in the lyrics to its oft-repeated chorus, brings together Biblical declarations about the power and majesty of God with a contemporary language of “fame” to communicate the scope and reach of God’s influence. Responding to the song’s success, the popular Christian web portal Crosswalk.com published an interview with Tomlin in which he explained his choice of language in the lyrics.
There are so many wonderful and true adjectives and names for God, such as “holy,” “worthy,” “King,” “Lord,” “omnipotent,” etc. I thought “famous” was a fresh word. Everybody understands what you mean when you say “famous.” We all live in a world where fame is one of the highest values, but when you consider the greatness of God, everything and everyone pales.
Tomlin creates a series of connections between notions of “fame” or “celebrity” and religious ideas of “glory” or “majesty.” Understanding Tomlin’s acclamation of Jesus as “famous beyond imagination” is entirely dependent upon one’s prior knowledge of the way fame works in pop music contexts. But his understanding of “fame” as a religious category also seems to contest the notion of fame within the broader culture. Fame may be one of society’s “highest values,” but God’s fame renders the lesser fame of celebrities more-or-less meaningless. Tomlin resists the secular interpretations of fame and celebrity, all the while adopting and reinforcing their purchase and theological significance within evangelical Christian communities.
With the slippage between applause, fame, and celebrity, it is clear that musicians and fan-worshippers are not simply baptizing gestures drawn from popular music. Rather, they are building rituals out of entire contexts of popular music performance and consumption. The musical and lyrical contours of popular music are not simply a source of new appealing “forms” in which to couch the “content” of religious orthodoxy; in fact, they amount to something like what ethnomusicologist Steven Feld has described as an “acoustemology.”1 That is to say, the truly meaningful gestures and moments of these “praise and worship” performances come from a melding of beliefs and practices from mainstream popular music and evangelical Christianity. And these newly formed rituals sit at the heart of personal and community identity formation. Religious listening allows us to see the ways that believers and fans alike are using the gestures and contours of popular music as a way to understand themselves and interact with the world around them.
- Is it possible for religious communities to adopt “secular” music without becoming inextricably blended with the culture from which the music originates?
- How is LeCrae’s song “Background,” referenced above, similar to or different from Tomlin’s “Famous One” in its uses of celebrity culture?
1 Steven Feld, “An Acoustemology of Place Resounding in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea,” in Senses of Place, eds. Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso. (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 1996): 97.