breaking away

In high school I was an avid reader of Breakaway magazine. I mean, avid. I read every word at least twice. I even entered and lost a couple of their art contests.

In case you've not heard of it, Breakaway is/was Focus on the Family's teen magazine for boys. It is therefore none too surprising that I avidly read it, since my high school was spent on a missionary center in the Amazon Basin before the proliferation of the interwebs. That pretty much made it a Focus on the Family Hot Zone.

Breakaway had stories, dating advice (or rather, "not-dating" advice) and glossy pictures of professional adrenaline junkies doing insane sports "for Jesus." One of my favorite parts of the whole slickly-packaged deal, however, was the music reviews. Usually they focused on telling me how the latest over-exposed CCM sensation was super-awesome-cool, but every once in a while they would throw in a review of one of the more popular secular bands (insert ghostly howl), presumably to let me know when to put my fingers in my ears so I could avoid having green sin-fungus grow on my brain.

Usually the bands they chose to review "said some good stuff," perhaps even cautioning against "the hazards of promiscuous sex," but ultimately failed the litmus test because of, say, the "lamentable solitary profanity on track seven," or, "the instance where the line at the end of track nine seemed to indicate that the singer had done drugs (illegal ones) and had enjoyed them." This, I was instructed to believe, meant that I could not listen to their music, because art is powerful and music is art and therefore the power of that music would override all other influences in my life and have me blaspheming and drinking marijuana alcohol before you could say, "Nirvana" (Which, by the way, was obviously Buddhist Propaganda Music. Obviously).

I cannot say for certain if the writers intended the following to happen; but a long, steady diet of these reviews taught me one very important lesson: I absolutely must never, ever, EVER allow myself to be exposed to art produced by people who EVER said things that Breakaway magazine deemed evil, or I would become infected. Possibly forever.

This lesson was easy enough to apply. I lived, after all, in the middle of the amazon. On a missionary center. Cell phones with data plans had not even been invented yet, and all those evil-mongering musicians were just mythological beasts... out there somewhere, far over and beyond the lush green jungle canopy of my home.

And then high school ended.

I left my cocoon and went away to another, slightly bigger cocoon at a Christian University, where I could always shake my head and sanctimoniously shut the door of my room when Chris Mouw and Luke Favel started impromptu dance sessions with the Spice Girls in the dorm lounge. I was living in the world, as they say, but was not of it. And I was awesome. Except, of course, for the sanctimoniously evil way I closed my door, walked over to the computer, and fell deep into the cesspools of the internet. Because there is no one righteous... no, not one.

But then came the Root Beer Kegger. I met Chris and Jesse and the other guys of Stabilo and suddenly good music with potty words wasn't just something I could turn off... it was my friends, talking. They said things that Breakaway had taught me were wrong, and they said them really, really well. When that happened, I had two choices. I could do what I had been trained to do and stop being friends with these guys, or I could shut up and listen to their music. I could try to figure out why there seemed to be a discrepancy between their obviously wicked ways on the one hand and their kind, joyful friendship on the other.

I chose the latter and found in their music a deep spiritual yearning that connected to my own spiritual yearnings in away that the sanitized, Eighties-throwback CCM CDs (that's compact discs, kids) never did. When I went over one day to the Crack Shack where he lived, for example, and Chris threw some earphones on my head and made me listen to a song he had just laid down with a click-track, it made me cry. "Jesus I'm your friend I know you'll never leave me till the end of life," he sang, "I'm your Secret Son... don't worry I won't tarnish your name by telling anyone."

"What do you think?" he asked.

I got up, wiped a tear, and gave him a hug. What else could I do - tell him he was a terrible person for being ashamed of himself and therefore not wanting to associate with Jesus? For all my careful avoidance of potty words and drugs and fornication, deep down in my guts I felt exactly the same way. I knew I was not really a good person, and that all the good things I did weren't bringing me the spiritual satisfaction I craved. Yet in solidarity with Chris' yearning sadness I felt that everything was, indeed, okay - that Jesus was my friend, despite the poop I persisted in rolling around in. I learned that despite the Breakaway-not-approved stuff that Chris sometimes did and said and sang, he somehow lived and loved in a way I didn't know how to begin to approach.

I also learned from Chris and Jesse and the others that Grace cannot be captured and boxed and controlled with behaviors, but that it must be lived, honestly and fearfully, one faith-filled moment at a time. I looked back at my Bible again and saw a whole lot of stories about people who did and said screwed up things, people whom God loved and hung out with, even though they kept doing the same naughty things, over and over and over.

Because of this, I started to actually listen to the stories that the people around me were telling with their lives. If they were going to be honest enough to tell the truth about their garbage, I figured, then I could at least be honest enough to listen without the pretension of superiority. My eyes began to open - just a crack. I saw that the contempt that came with my pretension made me a little more contemptible and robbed me of the chance to experience the joy of shared struggle.

Where contempt is, love is not.

And so, gradually, I started to listen and love. I started to weep along with Jesse when he sang about his suicidal thoughts (thoughts that I, too, had entertained in high school) in If It Was Up To Me, and to rejoice in the love and concern that Chris expressed for Jesse on the same album with the song Coffee Spills.

I started to hear through all this music another track, laid down and in and through and between the cacophonous, bittersweet song of the world. This track told a story of love and grace and beauty. It was so soft and sweetly sung... unmistakably divine and the most beautiful melody in all the world. How had I missed it?

I still don't like Nirvana, or any other music that screams at me. I don't like listening to people glorify selfish, pointless sex (although I refuse to be in charge of defining what that is) and I think it is sad, as well, that artists who cannot hear The Song end up chasing after it in all sorts of self-destructive ways. I am more eager than ever to listen to honest stories, however, because I believe that it is the desperate attempt to define themselves as qualitatively superior that keeps that whole CCM crowd (or at least, most of it. what I've heard) making what sounds to me like tin-can, soulless music.

I am done with that. I want to yearn for God - not trap a parody of God in my pocket. I am breaking away.


  1. I too remember the joys of Breakaway. I would read it cover to cover as soon as it arrived. (When I finished it I would read through my sister's Brio magazine.) I remember my dismay when I read the damning review of Ace of Bass and later gave away my recently purchased cassette; I enjoyed the music but I also enjoyed guilt free sleeps.

    I think the blinders came off when somebody wrote in asking about Billy Joel's music. Being a closet Billy Joel fan I read the review with interest but already knowing what the response would be. There is no way that Billy Joel's music could be endorsed if only because of the song "Only the Good Die Young."

    I was surprised though because the article gave a description of how the reviewer hoped that Joel's spiritual longing, detailed within his song lyrics, would finally lead him to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. The review noted that Joel revealed his longing within the song Blonde Over Blue. He then even included a quote from the song, "These days not a damned soul prays and there is no faith because there's nothing to believe in." (With "damn" not spelled out in it's entirety of course, both profanity and the name of the LORD are too dangerous to be put into print)

    In the end the reviewer couldn't recommend Joel's music but the damage had been done. I didn't necessarily disagree with anything that the article said, but it was obvious that the reviewer listened to and enjoyed Joel's music. Ace of Bass got the axe but Billy Joel got mild but sympathetic disapproval and the reason Joel got off easy was because the reviewer liked his music. After reading that mild hypocrisy I stopped caring about Breakaway's music reviews.

    I listen to secular music now because I find CCM music to be utter rubbish. It's too saccharine and has no relation whatsoever to real life. If I want music to awaken my spiritual hunger I listen to Bach.

    This is really a long winded way of saying, "I agree."

  2. Somehow I missed this post... how very relevant to the weekend. I also agree, though in Peru I was rocking Beasty Boys that had been recorded over a Phil Collins cassette... for years I thought Phil Collins was a group of Brooklyn rappers (I didn't know what rappers were either).


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