In the States singer/song writer JOHN FISCHER is acknowledged as an important figure in the development of contemporary Christian music. He spoke to Andy Butcher.
Football matches have their spot-the-ball competitions, and America's Christian Booksellers Association jamboree equivalent could ask you to place an X on the stall you think Jesus would turn over first if he ever visited. The displays filling the exhibition hall at Atlanta's World Congress Center this summer represented the good (some), the bad (more) and the ugly (most) of American Christendom. More often than not, rather than casting pearls before swine the annual showcase of the Stateside book and music publishing world was throwing paste jewellery to the saints. But amid all the hallelujah hoopla and Jesus junk -prosecution evidence: a tee-shirt sporting two zebras and the declaration "Healed by his stripes" (how's that for confusing theology and zoology) - there was real life, too, for discerning eyes.
Looking down on the busy show floor from one of the guest lounges, musician-turned-writer John Fischer reflects: "There is no way in which you can think that this whole Christian publishing and music industry is somehow a Godly thing through and through. It is not at all. It is a business, marketing institute. "Now, because of its content, because of the people who are involved, there are many people who have tremendous ministries going on... but there are also the shysters, the people taking advantage of what sells, and just cranking stuff out. You look out at this cute array of all this Christian stuff... and it makes me think it's time for us to be Christians in the world! Buying all this Christian stuff isn't going to make me any more Christian than I was before I spent all that money. We need to be Christians in the world through the channels that are already there..."
As a singer/songwriter John Fischer was in at the very birth of contemporary Christian music and the Jesus music movement that preceded it. In the late 60s John recorded 'The Cold Cathedral', an album of Christian songs for use in folk masses. It was hugely successful and soon youth groups all over America were singing songs like "Have You Seen Jesus My Lord?" and "Look All Around You". Throughout the 70s and into the 80s he recorded a series of quality, acoustic-based albums (though only one of them, 'Dark Horse', was released in the UK). It was the publication of John's allegorical work of fiction Dark Horse which opened up new arenas for John and he subsequently has gone on to write more books both non-fiction - Real Christians (Don't) Dance (1988), True Believers (Don't) Ask Why (1989), Making Real What I Already Believe (1991) - and fiction - Saint Ben (1993). But it has been John's monthly column in CCM magazine, which for more than a decade has been a spiritual health check over America's burgeoning contemporary Christian music scene, which has kept him most in the public eye. John fears a certain hardening of the CCM arteries.
"Oh dear, I worry greatly about what has become of CCM," said John. "You know, we started this whole thing in a sense of saving the world with our guitars. No one was thinking of careers or marketing. Somehow we lost that vision, and we ended up trying to make careers and records and be successful.
"I think if there is any problem with this at all, it's that we have created a little platform on which we play to one another. That goes only so far, and then I think we are just hitting the walls of our little room. Meanwhile the rest of the world is out there - and they don't even know what we are doing! I think it's all given us great experience, it's got us going - and it has perhaps given a platform to people who might not otherwise have had one. But, regardless of that, I think it's time to get back to the original vision and say we have a message for the world."
Gently spoken, and of the Clark Kent school of mild manners, John doesn't fit the finger pointing, ranting Jeremiah mould. But he doesn't pull his punches. Hasn't done in years as a columnist, nor in the books that have resulted. Yet for all his razor-sharp commentaries, he has received little reaction. "You know, I wish I got more, I really do. I wish I upset people more, because it makes me wonder whether people really care at all.
"The interesting thing is that the one time I got inundated with responses to something I said in my article in CCM was the one time I didn't quite say -though I might have intimated - that Jimmy Carter may have been a better President than Ronald Reagan. Letters poured in - and this after years of straining at the gnats of contemporary Christianity, trying to get at truth where we are off track, and sticking my neck out and never hearing anything. Sometimes it made me want to say something purposefully offensive just to wake them up. But that isn't my character. There are some people like that -Larry Norman was like that, he would offend just to offend. I'm not judging him by that, either, I think he's a wonderful person. John the Baptist was like that."
Part of the reason for the absence of criticism may be that his challenges and questions of others are filtered through confessions of his own struggles. "Probably more than anything I have told my own stories, rather than tell somebody else this is the way it should be. That way someone can sit there and chose to take what I have to say; I'm not being so defensive. And if I am going to point my finger, I would rather point it at myself - be more self-critical, confessional, pointing out my own sins rather than someone else's. Because whenever we do that, we open up the possibility of someone else doing that too. It's a much more compassionate way than to just judge someone."
But as someone writing not uncritically about the evangelical culture from within it, and even being at CBA in the first place to promote his new book, isn't this a bit of the pot calling the kettle black? "Absolutely, absolutely. And to a certain extent it is frustrating to me - except that I started on this platform. If I was 20 years younger, I might think differently about this, but at 46 I am not sure I am going to make the big time.
"There is no more big time for me, frankly. But if a tremendously talented kid at 20 or 21 years of age came up to me, or a group of kids, and they wanted to do something significant for God, I am not so sure in this day and age I would send them to a Christian company. I might suggest that they just get out there and beat the streets -be accepted at face value for the integrity of their music, how good they are and getting themselves heard."
John visiting CBA to promote his novel Saint Ben, the story of a mischievous ten-year-old pastor's son and his best friend, and their love affair with 1958 Edsel (a clunkily-designed car whose small sales ensured a brief showroom life; a sort of early De Lorean). It's a poignant story of childhood hopes and adult realities, which weaves some of his own experiences and memories - his father was the church choir director -into questions of faith and falseness. As both "a writer who is also a musician and a musician who is also a writer" he enjoys juggling art forms, and finds each helping him to express the other.
"Song writing is all about honing a large concept down to a phrase or just one three-minute song. Writing a book or a novel is the opposite; it's taking that one phrase and opening it out to all the possible ramifications you can think of. So it's great fun for me, because I get work from both ends." From his home in California John travels widely in a multifaceted ministry; playing a concert here, preaching there, speaking and lecturing somewhere else, and doing all three in yet another place. "I wouldn't want to label myself as a minister, per se. I am more comfortable with philosopher-artist. Maybe I'm worried that if I say I am a minister then everyone will expect just one thing of me, and I would much rather come at things from an artistic standpoint.
"I want to keep trying to say things in ways people haven't heard before, because I find that the biggest killer of truth is to get a handle on it, to get it down to one little concept: we know what worship is now, you know. The minute we do that we close down on truth; you can't capture the Holy Spirit. The minute you think you have him, he's out of here. It happened to the Jesus Movement and we have got to say where is he now, what is he doing?" Saint Ben took John away from writing new music for some time, and he recognizes part of that is "a sort of grieving" over the death of Mark Heard, who produced his last, 1992 release 'Wide Angle'.
"It was so important for me to have found someone who could produce my music the way I wanted it - and then the Lord took him away. I felt very robbed; God and I had a bit of wrestling over this..." Despite a batch of well-received albums over the years, and a clutch of "classic" songs, John looks on 'Wide Angle' as the first recording on which he really felt free to be himself, really captured who he was.
"That was Mark's expertise. I think I got stuck on some of my earlier projects trying to be marketable, trying to write hits, trying to be somebody I wasn't. I don't record enough where I know that much of what's going on, and so I would be intimidated by producers, other musicians who would say this or that about my music. I always thought, 'Gee that sounds good', but down the road I think I was pulled away from who I really was. And so we went in as two older guys and we had a ball, and made music the way I always wanted to." The title of the recording is an exhortation to believers to see the bigger picture, rather than focus in on small details. "There is this idea that if you are going to be a Christian you have to be very narrow-minded, you have to come down to these few little creeds. But it has been fed by a large subculture of people who call themselves Christians but who are maybe more tied to ideas than they are to Christ.
"This concerns me greatly, and so I continue to try to say, 'Wait a minute. Jesus did say that the way was narrow that leads to light - but he never said that the mind that follows it is!' All the way down through history we have had great thinkers - Aquinas, Lewis, Schaeffer - who have thought through their faith. I am concerned that people are not integrating spiritual things with life enough these days. We have become so compartmentalized... I think we have had the whole wrong approach to the world, at least in America, up until now. Our ideas are that we are at war with them. Yet my Bible says that God loved the world... that he sent his son not to condemn it but to save it.
"Now that's a message of love, compassion, reaching out, caring for people - and yet you see the Christian community at war with the world, as if we have erected this huge wall and we are under siege and lobbing hand grenades at the enemy. How ever are we going to win people to the good news of the gospel when we are shooting them down? I think we need to open up the channels, find the places where we tie in with non-Christians - and there are many. We need new attitudes about the way we think about the world, and as artists we can create art from this attiude. I think we will then find our message will at least be heard. I don't think people are necessarily turned off by religion or the gospel. They are turned off by phoniness , by people who are trying to sell them something. But something that comes off with integrity - 'A River Runs Through It' - a movie about fly fishing and Presbyterianism, a hot seller. You wouldn't think these two items would be a real attraction, would you, yet they have - then the average person will at least give them the benefit of the doubt."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.