A groundbreaking book, Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music is out now. Tony Cummings interviewed the reference work's author MARK ALLAN POWELL.

Mark Allan Powell
Mark Allan Powell

As anybody in mainstream publishing will tell you, books on popular music are a growth area. Alongside the hundreds of titles chronicling the lives and music of bands and soloists there is a steady stream of reference works for the more serious minded pop music historian and encyclopedias of pop, rock, jazz, country, R&B and just about every other genre regularly arrive on the publisher's schedule. One exception to this rule though is contemporary Christian music. Although the size of the CCM marketplace has grown spectacularly down the years, this fact has not been reflected in the book publisher's thinking. This surprising neglect has finally been addressed with the publication of Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music by Mark Allan Powell (Hendrickson Publishers, Alban Books in the UK). This authoritative tome of 1,088 pages offers biographic and discographic information on 1,500 artists while it also includes a CD-ROM which features a searchable version of the book's text, links to music clips and artists' websites. I interviewed Mark Allan Powell, Professor of New Testament Studies at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.

TC: Can you give me a potted biography about yourself prior to your writing the Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music?

MAP: A "potted" biography? I'm not sure what that means to the British, but over here it's what you might get from Ozzy. Mine is more dull. I was caught up in the Jesus movement in the early '70s and spent some years working with Christian music artists - promoting concerts and the like. The band at my home church was a group called Liberation Suite, who later hopped the pond and landed in Dublin. Meanwhile, I went to seminary and became a pastor in Texas. Then, I got a PhD and wrote some theology books while teaching at the school where I now work. That's it, except to note that from high school on I also fancied myself as a bit of a rock critic and wrote reviews and articles on the side. Until recently, that part of my career was sort of a secret.

If you want more detail on my professional career, I first began work in the realm of understanding the Bible in light of insights from literary criticism - analyzing stories in terms of plot, characterization, conflict development and the like. I specialized in studying the Gospel of Matthew. Then, I started working in what is called "Historical Jesus Studies," trying to discover what can be affirmed about Jesus through objective historical science alone (apart from faith). I now chair a group of scholars devoted to that task, having been handed the reins from N T Wright, who's probably better known in Britain than I am. He's the newly elected Bishop of Durham and he's a lot smarter than I am, but I can tell you that he doesn't know squat about rock and roll!

TC: It's pretty unusual for a Professor of New Testament Studies to be writing a tome of a book on rock and pop music. How on earth did you come to write the Encyclopedia?

MAP: Well, Christian rock has been the soundtrack for my life. I love it and I just thought, what can I do to help it along? The book is a labour of love, a tribute to the artists and the fans, and a gift to folks who make my life more pleasant and more meaningful. I say in the preface that "a lot of people could have done this book better than I, but I did the best I could and here it is." Basically, I had the opportunity to do the book, so I did it and I hope it will be worthwhile. Besides just providing a resource for whoever wants it, I had two specific goals: I want the music to be taken more seriously within the broad realm of pop culture and within a wider scope of Christianity. I think I've had some success on the latter point. In America, at least, the audience for CCM tends to be limited to a conservative, evangelical segment of the Church. That's my tradition too ("charismatic, conservative evangelical pietist") but I am better known professionally within mainline denominations and Roman Catholicism. There are millions of Christians in those churches who love rock and roll but who never listen to Christian rock. Now, since this book came out, there's been a lot of attention to Christian rock in quarters where it never got noticed before, and I'm very pleased to have had a part in that.

As for the world of pop culture in general - well, I don't know if I had any success there, but I can tell you one thing I did. I bought 100 copies of the book at whatever discount price I get and I mailed them to the editorial offices of magazines that review rock and pop albums, suggesting that they put it in their reference libraries. I heard back from quite a few of them - all very secular publications. In fact, I got this note from the music editor at Playboy saying, "This is an awesome book - I've been reading through it all afternoon and had no idea the Christian market was so diverse." So, you know, I don't expect them to start reviewing Christian albums, but maybe some secular journalists and critics can at least know a little more about the field than they did before. When Rolling Stone confuses Amy Grant with Debby Boone, it's just embarrassing.

TC: What would you say are the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the book?

MAP: Strengths: I think it's probably the most complete anthology of information about the music that's been assembled so far and it also takes the music seriously from a critical perspective. That's important - indeed essential - for reception outside the traditional CCM camp. Public libraries are all stocking the book, so that assures that, at some level, this music will become part of our cultural history and not be forgotten. Also, the book is being sold through a lot of general market retailers. I get emails from people who picked up a copy at Virgin or Media Play but who never would have found it in a Christian book store.

Weaknesses: Of course, there are a few errors, but we keep correcting those. More troubling are the gaps where knowledge just seems to have been lost. The book should have been done 15 years ago because Christian music has not done a good job of preserving its own legacy and retaining a sense of history. I suspect your readers will also notice a bit of an American prejudice. The entry on Cliff Richard will seem pretty pathetic, but over here I always get "Cliff who?"

TC: You've had a little bit of criticism in the US Christian media for some of the subjective comments you've put into what is first and foremost a reference work. How do you respond to those criticisms?

MAP: Those complaints are accurate and justified. This is a critical work, without apology, and that isn't what everyone wants. I'm sure some people in the industry would have preferred a book that just reported facts, or maybe collected press releases. That could be a very useful volume (and I wish the GMA or someone would produce such a book); it's just not the kind of book that I wanted to write, because it would not accomplish the goals that I wanted to accomplish. There are reference books like that - music almanacs that list chart hits and discographies - but, in the arts, encyclopedias and reference works often reflect upon the critical significance of the artists' works. So this is sort of a Christian version of The Rough Guide To Rock or of some other book like that. I liked my original title for the book. I called it Parallel Universe: A Critical Guide to Christian Rock, but I guess the publisher wanted to call it something more straightforward.

Readers don't always realise that most of the critical opinions expressed in the book are not my own. I summarize album reviews that appeared in various media and only occasionally offer my own evaluation. I guess that isn't very clear - CCM magazine criticized me for a comment I offer about an artist when I was actually quoting something that a CCM reviewer had said. Anyway, I think the critical element not only helps the music to get taken seriously, but also makes the book a lot more interesting. Personally, I like reading what critics say, even when I disagree with them. It shakes things up a bit and makes the reading lively.

Oh, I could have said this under "weaknesses": I think most critics would probably agree that I am much too positive. I report a lot more good reviews than bad, and I always try to find something to like about every artist. I can't help this - I just really like the music, and even when it's bad in one respect, it's usually good in another. You wouldn't want me working at Cross Rhythms, because I would write only 6 - 10 star reviews. Nothing under five-I never think anything is that bad.

TC: Can you envisage further editions of the Encyclopedia?

MAP: It is the kind of book that can be updated and I guess it's sold pretty well, so my guess is the publishers might want to do another edition down the road. I'd be happy to work on that or to turn it over to someone else, whatever seems best for the cause. People should keep sending me corrections and updates anyway - I am maintaining a file, and we actually go in and make a few changes every time more copies get printed.

TC: What is your overall view of the tension between Christian music as an entertainment for evangelical Christians and Christian music as a platform for Christian ministry?

MAP: It seems like a false dichotomy. There is no reason why entertaining people cannot be a good and valid ministry, unless you think that God doesn't want people to be happy and to enjoy life. Martin Luther said that all Christians are called to ministry, but not to be pastors or priests. All Christians should use their gifts and abilities in ways that express their love for God and neighbour, but how they do that is a matter for personal discernment of one's individual calling. I think there are entertainers who try to evangelise people when they shouldn't and there are evangelists who try to entertain people when they shouldn't, and there are those blessed few who seem called to do all things well.

TC: Some people were very surprised by the comprehensive entries of some artists like U2 and Bruce Cockburn. What is your particular definition of contemporary Christian music?

MAP: I give this rather odd definition in the Introduction: "Contemporary Christian music is music that appeals to self-identified fans of contemporary Christian music on account of a perceived connection to what they regard as Christianity." Of course, that's convoluted but it parallels the way that we define any other category of music. If I were writing a book on reggae, I'd ask reggae fans, "Who do you think the important reggae artists are?" So, here, I tried to include any artist who some people who call themselves "Christian music fans" would expect to find in a book on Christian music, and then I allow for discussion within the entry as to why other Christian music fans might question the identification.

As indicated above, I assume a broader swathe of Christianity than is typical for the CCM world. There are many Christians in America who have never heard of Audio Adrenaline or The Newsboys but who would get a book on Christian rock to read about Creed and U2 and Bruce Cockburn and Van Morrison. I know this because I'm hearing from them - and my hope is that people attracted to those artists might discover a world of other music that will also appeal to them.

TC: Do you feel there's been a lack of serious research into Christian music in the past?

MAP: Oh, yes. The music does not get the respect it deserves. This is in large part due to the elitism of religion scholars who seem to think the matter is "beneath them" - as if anything important to the faith lives of ordinary Christians could ever be beyond our concern! But, then, it must also be said that the Christian music industry does not really invite analysis - there are understandable "control issues" and of course no one likes being critiqued. Still, when my colleagues in academia heard I was doing a Christian rock book, quite a few expressed concern that I would damage my reputation as "a serious theologian." I guess I'm just still enough of a Jesus freak not to worry too much about things like "reputation." And now I've discovered all these closet CCM fans among the elite - very intellectual religion professors who tell me they listen to Randy Stonehill or Michael W Smith on the sly. I joked with my publisher when they did a display at the American Academy of Religion conference that they should sell the book in brown paper bags so profs could buy it without being embarrassed. But I really do hope the book opens the way for more scholars to approach this subject and allow us the benefit of their insights.

TC: What are your plans for the future?

MAP: To live forever with Jesus in glory. Before that - though I do expect him to return soon - I guess I'll just love my wife and kids and cats and try not to bore my students. I have a book almost done on Christian spirituality (I call it Loving Jesus In A Complicated World, but publishers always change the titles). And I'm working on an ethics textbook and a denominational volume on How Lutherans Understand The Bible. Sometime before the Lord comes I want to come over to England and visit N T Wright and find out whether Stoke-on-Trent is a real place or not. It sounds like a disease. But, then, so does "Liverpool." CR

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.