Porn, sexual abuse, extramarital attraction and homosexuality tackled on the new record by TENTH AVENUE NORTH
One of the much-heard criticisms of Christian and gospel music is that it is limited in the subjects that are covered in its songs. To some extent, this limitation can be defended. After all, the vast majority of Christian songs address the most important topic in the history of the universe, God himself. But it has to be admitted that there are many important subjects which are seldom, if ever, addressed by Christian songwriters. This is about to change with the release of the EP 'The Things We've Been Afraid To Say' by one of the bestselling acts in American CCM, Tenth Avenue North.
The four-piece band's new project tackles such evangelical hot potatoes as porn, sexual abuse, extramarital attraction and homosexuality, and it's going to be intriguing to see how America's ultra-conservative Church and the US Christian radio stations react to the powerful songs on 'The Things We've Been Afraid To Say'. The group's lead vocalist and principle songwriter, Mike Donehey, spoke at length earlier this month to influential American trade magazine, Billboard.
Said Mike, "The main reason we decided to do this record and make it all about this was I was reading [the Bible] in Luke 6 and Jesus says to the Pharisees, the religious elite of the time, 'You thought your job was to be popular, but your job is to tell the truth.' As a songwriter, I realise if I only release music that I know is going to be commercially successful - and I know that has to be part of the deal, we've made record contracts and selling music is part of the equation - but if that's all I do as a songwriter, then I don't think I'm really telling the truth anymore. I'm just selling the parts of the truth that I know people want to hear and I don't want to sell the truth. I want to tell the truth."
The song "Covenant" deals powerfully with extramarital attraction and was inspired by a poem penned by the renowned author of children's book A Wrinkle In Time, Madeleine L'Engle. "She writes this poem to her husband saying basically, 'I felt this spark with this other guy at a writing conference and I almost went to bed with him, but right when I could have gone into his hotel room, we just said goodbye and walked the other way.' She said to her husband, 'I realised that feeling, that spark with that other guy, it doesn't mean what we have isn't real. In fact, by leaving that spark behind and by choosing you again, it actually makes what we have even stronger. It makes it even more beautiful,' and so I was like, 'Hey what if we wrote a song telling people it's okay if you feel attracted to other people other than your spouse?' and they [bandmates Jeff Owen, Ruben Juarez III and Brendon Shirley] were like, 'That's cool, but no one will ever listen to it.'"
Tenth Avenue North have already played "Covenant" in concert. Said Donehey, "I've been sharing that every night on tour saying, 'I'm totally in love with my wife and still able to be attracted to other people,' and you could hear a pin drop. But the first time we played it, two different couples told the pastor that they were in the middle of going through a divorce and they were going to retract their divorce and try to work on their marriage after listening to the song."
Another song which will undoubtedly stir up something of a hornet's nest in the America of Donald Trump is the plea for tolerance "Love Anyway" with a lyric which goes "Race, guns, refugee wars/We're known for who we're against/Yeah, but who are we for?" Explained Mike, "We talk about secrets. We talk about hating people who vote differently than you. We talk about pornography and casual sex. I believe God's kindness is what changes us. Romans 2 says it's the kindness of God that actually leads to repentance. It's not the judgment and fear of God. It's the kindness of God that produces change in us, so instead of railing, 'You guys need to change this about yourselves,' I'm trying to look in my own heart and go, 'Well what do I need to let God change in me? And how can I be honest about those things in a way that brings people in and doesn't build more walls of keeping people out?'"
One of the things which inspired "Love Anyway" was Donehey observing the way in which his gay brother was being bullied. Said the singer/songwriter, "He told me, 'I've distanced myself from you because I didn't want to hurt your Christian music career.' He said, 'Your followers have found me on Instagram and just railed against me because by looking at my pictures they say, "This sort of life that you lead, it's a tragedy that you are so far from God and your brother is such a great example."' So for people who say that they are followers of Jesus to go out of their way to condemn my brother, who they don't even know, I can't think of anything more counter-Gospel, counter-good news, counter-Jesus than seeking out people to condemn them. Jesus said 'I didn't come to the world to condemn them. I came down to save the world.' It's a really important thing for people to grasp that. The homosexual community, they know how the church feels about it. You don't need to reinforce it anymore."
Tenth Avenue North tackles the issue of pornography in the song "Counterfeits". The roots of the song started with a staple on the band's bus that Donehey used to keep away temptation. "I wrote a blog a couple years ago called 'My Porn Clock,'" he said. "Basically instead of using the alarm on my cell phone in my bunk, I use a clock. On a tour bus, you have your own little bunk, with a little curtain. When you are married and you've got kids, the potential for looking at pornography when you are at home is greatly diminished just by circumstance, but when you are on the road, you have endless hours by yourself. You are in your own little bunk and I know a lot of dudes who got really addicted to pornography. It started because they were using their cell phone as their alarm clock and they'd bring their cell phone into their bunk and they'd start just scrolling late at night just endless hours looking at porn. So one way I try to keep myself from looking at pornography is instead of bringing my phone in my bunk, I bring a little alarm clock."
Donehey admits his blog about the porn clock wasn't well received. "Within minutes I probably had 15 comments of people saying, 'I'm burning all your music. I'm never listening to your band again. You obviously aren't a Christian for the fact that you even want to look at porn. You need to go meet Jesus,'" he recalled of the backlash. "I was like, 'Oh so that's why people don't talk about these things.' It's funny because in the blog, I didn't even say I wanted to look at porn. I didn't even admit to looking at pornography. I just said in case it ever did happen, I had this guardrail and I still got that blasted."
Tackling another taboo, the last song on the EP, "I'm Listening", deals with sexual abuse. "It's three different stories from three people I know in my life and I sort of generalised them as mother, sister and brother, but I took three people's stories because I've never heard a song from CCM that even tries to talk about this," said Mike. "The song is called 'I'm Listening' because the most powerful thing you can say is, 'I'm going to listen to you.' I've had at least 10 personal messages and the record has only been out a couple of days. A girl said, 'I was sexually abused by my pastor and I'm not a Christian anymore because of it, but I wish this song was out eight years ago when I was dealing with this.' Another girl wrote, 'I teach middle schoolers and I'm trying to undo the injustice that was done to me. I do know that that pastor was not like who Jesus was, so I haven't given up on Jesus quite yet.' For me, man, I'd rather get that message than a gold record hanging on the wall any day of the week."
In the Billboard interview, Donehey boldly said, "I'm not afraid in my songwriting to bring the full force of my questions and confusion to God." He continued, "There's actually a strange peace that comes when I actually let God have it because he can take it. So 'the things we've been afraid to say' are not the things I've been afraid to say to God. It's the arguments with God I've been afraid to let other people hear."
For 10 years the band have been recording a series of highly successful records for major Christian label Reunion. Now, the long-time members Donehey and Owen, the guitar impresario who produced the bulk of 'The Things We've Been Afraid To Say', have started a new label, Remade Records, and 'The Things We've Been Afraid To Say' is the first on the Remade label. Said Mike, "I was talking to a guy at the label and told him, 'It's the first time that I'm not scared if the art that we made isn't successful.' He said, 'No, you just redefined success,' and it's true. I realised I want to get back to when I first started writing songs and that was to help people get released from their burdens and shame and to find a deeper sense of truth. But in order to do that we've got to be honest about how messy it really is sometimes."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.