He wrote "El Shaddai" and he's much loved for his biblical concept albums. But there are many other sides to the veteran singer/songwriter MICHAEL CARD. He spoke to Steve Givens.
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"That was one reason for the great popularity that John Michael Talbot had. He was presenting some fresh stuff that we never heard before, St Francis of Assisi especially, since John is a Franciscan. That sort of simplicity and freshness American Christianity really needed."
Card says he's just not interested in making distinctions between Catholic and Christian, although a lot of people "would just shoot me" for saying so. He noted that a conference he was to speak at recently "barred" some of the scheduled speakers because they had shown an openness to the Catholic community.
"J R Packer was one of them," Card says. "When I found out they had barred Packer from this conference I called and said you might as well bar me, too, because I've always been open to the whole Catholic experience. Especially after Vatican II, which was really a reformation of the Catholic Church. I just don't make that sharp a distinction between Catholics and Protestants. I know there's an old orthodoxy within the Catholic Church -purgatory and praying to Mary and all those sort of things - which I biblically wouldn't be able to stand with. But in terms of the things that I would die for - the divinity of Jesus, the nature of the Trinity, the sufficiency of the cross, the second coming, all those things -there's no problem there. Our pastor Scotty Smith, who is as Reformation theology-oriented as you can get, says there are seven or eight things that we are willing to die for and nothing else really matters."
What does matter dearly to Card, in addition to these essential elements of his faith, is his music. But sadly, he says, more and more he sees the CCM industry more concerned with the making of icons than it is with the music itself. Those kinds of beliefs have also not always held him in the esteem of his record company. He feels a bit "out on his own" in this stance, he says.
"Oh, I am [out on his own]," says Card. "But I wish there were more people who would stand with me, honestly. I find it interesting that within Christian music someone would say 'you sing songs from the Bible and that's unusual,' but I think contemporary Christian music should be songs about Christ. That's what Christian means. Sometimes it feels a little ridiculous to me.
"And I don't like the direction that Christian music is going, either. Because if anything it's going in the direction away from that, not towards it. It's getting worse. It's more personality centred. It's a celebrity thing now and it didn't used to be."
An example of this song/star controversy happened after Card's concert in London on 22 October last year. A woman approached him and told him she had been singing his songs for years and didn't know it. What she was saying was she had been singing "El Shaddai" and "I Have Decided," both made famous by Amy Grant.
"I like writing for other people, it's just that most of the time people aren't interested in what I write," he says. "Amy did 'El Shaddai' and 'I Have Decided' and basically nobody else recorded any other song that I ever did for 10 years or so! I'm basically a songwriter for myself. Nobody else will do them.
"There was a time, when Keith Green was popular, when you could name all these songs. Now you can name all these artists but you can't name any of their songs. There are artists that I know that are real famous - huge artists - but I couldn't name a single song that they've done. It's not songs anymore and I think that's bad."
So is there room in CCM for more writers and artists like Michael Card? "The bigger Christian music gets the more songwriting and song selection becomes a part of the record company and the publishers domain," Card says. "What that means is they have a staff of writers that sit around and write songs for individual artists or individual styles. I don't get as much radio play as I used to get and I think that's part of it. The 'people' don't pick the songs anymore, the record companies and the radio stations decide what's going to be played and that's what gets played. It didn't use to be that way. Christian music is in a bad place and my record company gets real upset with me for speaking openly and honestly about it. You know, 'why can't you be more supportive,' that sort of thing. But the stuff that's good I'll be supportive of, but the stuff that's not good I'm not going to support."
After struggling with these issues for years, Card says he received the best piece of advice from the man who discipled him.
"He said, 'Let the excellence of your work be your protest. Just try to do what you do excellently. If you sit around and rag against the Christian music scene it's always going to sound like sour grapes because your records aren't selling as much or your records aren't being played enough.' He's absolutely right. That's what I've tried to do."
A major facet of Card's desire for excellence stems from his ardent belief that it is God, and not himself, who creates the music. "For the sake of me I don't understand how it happens," he says. "The clearest thing I can say about writing songs is, first of all, it's a sort of prayer. It's like listening prayer. You become a listener. And it's always done in response to feeling a burden to say something. Sometimes you know what that is; sometimes you will have heard a sermon or something will have happened in your life and the theme of what you want to sing about is very clear. But most of the time it's not very clear. Sometimes you don't have a clue at all, all you have is this burden, this feeling that you have to say something. I don't understand it.
"Sometimes when people compliment a song I'll tell them I had very little to do with it. There was a time in Christian music when people would introduce songs by saying 'this is a song that God gave me.' Now that's looked upon as being very naive. Most crowds would laugh at someone who did that. But that really is what happens. God gives them to you."