Roaring Lambs or Bleating Lions?
Dream with us of an America transformed. At a sold-out concert at the Las Vegas House of Blues, hundreds of fans of the hottest pop sensation of the year sing along to lyrics that unabashedly proclaim dependence on God. On national television, an innovative and much-lauded musical artist reads from Scripture. The major media, no longer bastions of anti-Christian prejudice, take faith seriously, and novels written by Christian authors and dealing with explicitly Christian themes hold several slots on The New York Times best-seller lists. Meanwhile, the nation’s highest political leader repeatedly and publicly acknowledges his need for God and his reliance on faith. This is a world in which Christians are no longer second-class hangers-on in a secular culture. It is a world in which the gospel is presented on MTV, ABC, ESPN, and the highest-profile Internet sites. It is a world in which believers no longer feel ashamed.
Sound like an impossible dream? Wrong. It’s the United States of America, circa 2000 A.D.
Thanks to (in order of appearance) Moby, Lauryn Hill, John Grisham, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, President Clinton, and innumerable other prominent figures who weave the language and beliefs of Christianity into their public life, we’re at a truly weird moment in modern American history. Much to the frustration of secularists, America is awash in professions of faith. And though neo-Buddhist health gurus and Harry Potter–emboldened proto-pagans (not to mention Joe Lieberman) are certainly getting air time, good old fashioned Christians—the kind who talk a lot about Jesus—dominate the scene.
With uncanny timing, a moderately obscure book written for the Christian market in 1993 has resurfaced and, with the aid of a heavily promoted commemorative CD, started to shape the consciousness of evangelicals, especially young ones with the talent and ambition to aspire to the pop charts and executive suites. Roaring Lambs may not quite have been this year’s WWJD, but with a well-crafted publicity campaign, cover stories in several prominent Christian-market magazines, and even a promotional event in the nation’s capital, it made a fair bid for that spot. The message of Roaring Lambs the book and the CD: Christians should get out of their ghettos and start, as the movement’s tagline goes, “affecting culture by being a part of it.”
Bob Briner, the author of Roaring Lambs, was a well-known figure in the world of professional sports before his untimely death in 1999. As an agent, he worked with tennis star Arthur Ashe, among others; as a producer, he won sports television Emmys. A child of post-fundamentalist, world-wary evangelicalism and a product of its Christian colleges, Briner wrote Roaring Lambs to urge his fellow evangelicals to follow Jesus’ call to be “salt and light” and to abandon religiously sanctioned, separatist mediocrity. After the book’s debut, Briner commissioned a follow-up volume and started a radio program to feature other notable “roaring lambs,” even as he poured his considerable personal charm and energy into encouraging young believers who had musical talent to break out of Contemporary Christian Music’s suffocating embrace. Some of those who were directly or indirectly encouraged by Briner are represented on Roaring Lambs, the CD, released this past June. Pop chart-toppers Sixpence None the Richer and Jars of Clay both cite Briner and his book as instrumental in encouraging them toward mainstream careers when they could have played to the increasingly lucrative Christian choir. Other artists on the CD are less well known, but all have ostensibly “crossed over” to some extent, from Vigilantes of Love’s relentless touring on the club circuit to Michael W. Smith’s occasional pop breakthroughs like Go West Young Man. While the Roaring Lambs CD was released solely for the Christian market and thus was something of a contradiction in terms—some critics derided it as crossover artists crossing back to safety—it is an earnest attempt to mobilize a new generation to read and heed Briner’s call.
The resonances between Briner’s vision of roaring lambs and Re:generation Quarterly‘s own vision of cultural transformation are deep. A full disclosure of the intricate links between RQ and the various artists, writers, and producers behind the re-launch of Roaring Lambs would consume the rest of this article. But readers can find unabashed celebrations of Briner’s vision elsewhere. Here are a few uncomfortable questions for the next generation of would-be transformers of culture.
Mention Moby, Lauryn Hill, and their ilk to the Roaring Lambs crowd and you get some conflicted responses. These are, after all, incredibly influential public figures, ones who make even the considerable success of a band like Jars of Clay look minor. And they talk about Jesus. A lot. Moby devotes a whole page of his platinum CD Play‘s liner notes to an enthusiastic tribute to Jesus. It was a Moby concert that brought the Las Vegas crowd to their feet in what—in another context—could have been an evangelical worship service, ecstatically singing along with the techno-enhanced lyrics of an African-American spiritual, “Don’t nobody know my troubles but God.”
“When Lauryn Hill read from the Psalms at the Grammys, it was electric,” recalls Steve Taylor, the Christian musician-turned-maven who produced the Roaring Lambs CD and was at the ceremony with his own label’s band Sixpence None the Richer.
But ask Taylor whether he would sooner nominate Lauryn Hill or Christian pop star Amy Grant (notably absent from the Roaring Lambs CD) for a place in Briner’s imaginary Roaring Lambs Hall of Fame, and he says, “You don’t really expect me to answer that, do you?” After all, Lauryn Hill has had children out of wedlock, while Amy Grant and her ex-husband have each speedily remarried after a lengthy separation and divorce. Moby’s proselytizing for Jesus coexists comfortably—for him—with his vegetarianism (which also gets a full page in the Play booklet) and his interest in the aesthetics of pornography.
Add the thong-wearing, Bible-reading Britney Spears, and, what the heck, throw in the rapper Eminem’s frequent expressions of thanks to God and Jesus (when he’s not spouting vileness toward gays, women, or his own mother). Meanwhile, “we have a Southern Baptist in the White House,” a prominent official of the Southern Baptist Convention said ruefully this spring, “with the morals of an alley cat.” None of these spokespeople for Jesus are likely to appear on Roaring LambsII.
Evangelical Protestants, of course, are adept at dealing with the problem of professed Christians who don’t measure up to Christian ideals. When an evangelical says “Christian,” he is actually using code for something much more specific—such as “active, church-going, born-again Christian,” as Briner puts it at one point. Hence Greenville College (Briner’s alma mater) is a “Christian” college, while Notre Dame is not. Michael W. Smith is a “Christian” artist, while Lauryn Hill is not. Is America awash in Christian voices? Well, not exactly, goes the reply—we meant Bible-believing Christians. Committed Christians. Real Christians. Christians like us.
The dream that shines through Briner’s book at many points is one where real Christians, good people, exert a positive moral influence on a decaying society. And yet the Christians—using that term in its broader sense—who actually make it into positions of influence and popular power very often turn out to be . . . well, more complicated.
There is at least one good reason for this. Call it the bleating lions principle: power and popularity—which are largely interchangeable in a democratic, let alone a consumer-oriented, society—are bestowed on those who most effectively absorb, articulate, and ever-so-slightly anticipate the dominant values of society. Leadership and power are, ultimately, about submission to these values. That is, to be a lion you have to learn how to bleat.
This can be hard for those who don’t have power or popularity to grasp. To the data analyst at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, the CEO, sweeping by on the way to the corporate jet, looks like the epitome of power. Suppose the analyst is a Christian. What can I do, he thinks, with my job to influence the world for Christ? If only I were a CEO, I could really do something!
But from the CEO’s point of view, the situation is almost exactly reversed. As she gets on that plane, her mind is spinning with the dozens of constituencies she will need to serve today in order to keep her job: The potential business partner on the other end of the corporate jet trip. The shareholders punching up the latest quarterly results on finance.yahoo.com. The customers, with their constantly changing demands and tastes. Even her own employees, like the analyst, who could easily defect to one of her competitors’ companies. Now, given the fungibility of power and popularity—i.e., their ability to be turned into cold, hard cash—it is possible that this CEO could, Internet-billionaire style, achieve escape velocity from the power/popularity game altogether. At least, it is possible in principle—in practice, many who by all rights ought to be able to stop serving the various gods that delivered their success actually find it very difficult to do so (see the recently published and profoundly disturbing biography of Netscape impresario Jim Clark).
This is not to say that the CEO is a weak person. She is, in fact, a tremendously gifted and skilled person. But she has developed her skills to be able to submit effectively. She knows where, and when, and how to submit to the market, to the shareholders, and to her employees in order to propel her business into greater and greater opportunities to submit effectively to the world that grants her power, popularity, and wealth in the first place.
And the same is true for pop artists. Few things are more irrelevant in a high-speed culture than the idea of the artist laboring for relatively little pay, letting her genius develop without either censure or praise. Today the arts, like nearly everything else, are very big business. Since the entertainment industry produces completely superfluous products (no one ever died for lack of a Britney Spears CD), it must be exquisitely responsive to the demands of its public. Like it or not, a successful artist today is balancing constituencies, managing image, hoping to be in the right place at the right time every bit as much as a corporate executive—which is why the same teams of public relations, marketing, finance, and legal experts that surround corporate offices now also surround successful artists.
The same phenomenon is repeated in our political system, where two presidential candidates fall over one another to claim the same middle ground. Meanwhile, true believers like Ralph Nader make fools of themselves (and throw the election) by thinking they can play the political game on principle alone.
True believers. That derisive phrase describes exactly what evangelical Christians, and serious Christians of any sort, aspire to be. It describes—often condescendingly—someone who is committed to something that trumps more “realistic” considerations. If followers of Jesus, whose lack of concern for realpolitik got him crucified, aren’t supposed to be true believers, who is? Bob Briner wants to see true believers in positions of power and popularity, writing winning screenplays and scoring touchdowns for the glory of God. But what is unfortunately missing from Roaring Lambs’ vision of cultural transformation is awareness that being in power more often than not transforms one into a bleating lion. The pop universe (whether that’s pop music, pop writing, or pop politics) allots power on its own terms, for its own purposes. This means, among other things, that those “real Christians” who are given the most power and popularity are not likely to be those who directly challenge the society’s dominant values—and in more or less subtle ways (ranging from doctrinal creativity to lifestyle choices) they are likely to reinforce those values, even while imparting a pleasant, positive, religious—but above all tolerant—glow to the proceedings.
The bleating lions principle is alarmingly evident in the very first words of Briner’s book. “The Shah of Iran had summoned me to meet with him during his international tennis tournament at the sprawling Imperial Country Club on the outskirts of Tehran. As I stood beside the U.S. ambassador awaiting the imminent arrival of the Shah and the Empress, one question continually came to mind: ‘What am I doing here?’” Briner never fully answers that question—he is simply conveying amazement at the opportunities that had opened up for him. But it’s a particularly striking place to begin a book about “roaring lambs.” The Shah was not, after all, just another world leader of the day—his totalitarian government, notoriously propped up by the CIA, was operating one of the most ingeniously brutal torture programs in the world at the time. What was Briner doing there? Was he, perhaps, using the opportunity to let the Shah know that, in spite of the U.S. government’s craven support of his regime of torture and repression, American Christians were praying for the Shah to repent and for justice to be done for his victims? Or to warn him that Briner was going to use his media contacts to prevent that international tennis tournament from being a media relations triumph for the Shah in the Western world?
From the fact that Briner doesn’t say anything further about what he did in the Shah’s presence, we suspect he did nothing of the sort. The fact is that Briner couldn’t—not if he wanted to be invited back, or to maintain his reputation and access not only to the Shah but to the organizers of events like that tennis tournament, reputation and access that were vital for the continued and increasing success of his business. Briner may have looked at that moment like a roaring lamb, but (unless there’s something he didn’t tell us) he was really a bleating lion.
Something has been bedeviling evangelical Christianity since evangelicals began emerging from their fundamentalist cocoons in the 1950s. The evangelical narrative, as historian Douglas Frank has argued, was formed in the context of shaming experiences—young fundamentalists at Wheaton College being sent out to evangelize in the upwardly mobile suburbs around them, scholars like Carl F. H. Henry arriving at Harvard and rediscovering a vast and challenging intellectual world for which fundamentalism had not prepared them. In this shame narrative, evangelicals were a set-upon minority, despised by the “world.” The world was powerful, wealthy, and educated—“Christians” were marginal, poor, and only beginning to do serious scholarship.
Whatever truth this narrative may have had in 1950, it is seriously out of date. Recent studies by George Barna and Christian Smith, among others, have shown that evangelicals are as well-educated, affluent, and represented in prestigious occupations as the general population. The furor over a Washington Post writer’s description of evangelicals as “poor, uneducated, and easy to command” came not only from the blatant inaccuracy and prejudice behind that statement, but also from the wounded and delicate pride of the recently shamed.
Meanwhile, the Christian music industry, once a beleaguered and clearly second-rate alternative to mainstream music, has become a consumer force to be reckoned with. Nearly every major “Christian” record label is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of a mainstream record company—testimony to the bottom-line power of a market segment that comprises as much as 30 percent of the American population. Christian music consumers were the booster rocket that launched Sixpence None the Richer and Jars of Clay into their careers, a built-in constituency that most non-Christian bands would kill for. In short, evangelical Protestants in America, based on numbers and sheer purchasing power (the power that counts in a consumer economy), as well as their already-documented presence in the cultural pantheon of pop stars, are not lambs.
Still, evangelicals still favor the language of victimization. Case in point: while enclave or even gated community might be the best terms to describe the places of evangelical separation from the larger culture, the favored term is invariably the Christian ghetto, making an implicit connection to some of history’s truly oppressed groups—from Jews in seventeenth-century Italy (for whom the word was first coined), to the black and Latino residents of today’s inner cities.
After all, if American culture at the turn of the millennium is a festering swamp of moral decay, then which would you prefer to be? (a) A persecuted minority group struggling to offer their vision of righteousness to an uncomprehending world; or (b) a part of the reason the swamp exists in the first place? The choices aren’t so stark, of course, but most human beings will tend to interpret the evidence in favor of (a), avoiding the clues that they are more responsible for the status quo than they would like to think.
Briner himself brings up an interesting example early in Roaring Lambs. Professional athletics is one arena where Christians are already vocal, welcome, and influential. Briner acknowledges that much is corrupt in pro sports—for example, he tacitly admits that the increasing encroachment of sports on the Christian Lord’s Day is problematic. But that is not a reason to avoid working in professional sports, Briner says—in fact, the whole reason that Christians are as influential in sports as they are is that “Christians did not run away … when games were played on Sunday.” True, even with a significant Christian presence, professional sports have become increasingly riddled with “dishonesty, exploitation, drugs, illicit sex, ego gratification gone out of control, and the attempt to deify money.” But, “I believe things would be worse if Christians had fled this area,” Briner insists.
This is option (a)—Christians as the righteous, if ineffective, remnant. The decline of the surrounding culture is simply a further inducement to stay involved. But isn’t option (b)—Christians as part of the problem—equally possible? Elsewhere in Roaring Lambs Briner praises the movie Chariots of Fire, which hinges on a Christian athlete who refuses to run on Sunday. Briner went to work for the Miami Dolphins, knowing that they played on Sunday, in order to be a Christian presence there. But a good portion of the paying fans at those Sunday afternoon games were themselves Christians. Isn’t it possible that the presence of all those Christians in the Miami Dolphins organization was an encouragement for thousands of Christian fans to spend their Sunday in a way that would have mortified the hero of Chariots of Fire?
While calling evangelicals to greater involvement with the culture, Roaring Lambs never invites evangelicals to consider the ill effects, potential or actual, of their involvement. Involvement is assumed to be purely beneficial: “Amy Grant retards the spread of evil every time one of her records plays on a secular radio station.” (Briner was, of course, writing before Grant became a more ambiguous figure.) The iconography of the Roaring Lambs CD—a lamb standing apart from the herd, its head ringed with something like a halo—lends credence to the idea of a pure minority, whose influence might be resisted but will unquestionably be for the good. Briner cites the biblical example of Joseph as an example of one who rose to great power and then was able use it for positive influence. But for every Joseph, scripture offers us a King Saul as a stark reminder of the dangers of power-grubbing, even among God’s anointed.
We evangelicals like to think of ourselves as powerless, but we have actually been given a great deal of power. In order to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, we need first to come clean about the ways that we have gained power at a very high price—the price of not being able to risk losing that power when the time is right. There are marvelous exceptions, such as Van Halen’s pro-life lead singer Gary Cherone, but any Christian who aspires to roaring lambhood needs to seriously question what ideological sacrifices it will take to gain a hearing on the wider culture’s terms. At the same time, we must stop seeing ourselves as cultural non-entities when, in fact, we already have power, and will need to give an account of our stewardship. We are lions in lambs’ clothing.
The best models for “roaring lambs,” then, will be people who rightly grasp the truth about power. The teachings of Jesus suggest that true power can be accessed via a very unlikely source: from being aligned with the truly powerless, from serving those who cannot serve you back. If the world’s form of power is derived from the elaborate mutual back-scratching that circumscribes the world of CEOs, pop musicians, and movie stars, the Kingdom of God’s power comes from emptying bedpans. Or from advocating for those who will never be able to pay for a lawyer. Or from seeking justice when that could cost you your career—or even your life. Any litany of twentieth-century saints will invariably be dominated by those who gave up human power and (by choice or by force) cast their lot with the powerless—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa. It was this reversal that gave them both the integrity that allowed them to criticize the larger culture and the clout to be heard.
But simply to point to those three as the true heirs to the Roaring Lambs Hall of Fame may smack of clichÉ, and misses Briner’s point that Christians should be shaping popular culture from within. So, where are the Christians who are truly influencing American culture from within, even as they acknowledge the plight of the marginalized and God’s place as the only true source of power? Drop by most any African-American church on a Sunday morning and you’ll begin to see, or rather, to hear.
Black gospel music is arguably the most influential tradition in all of American popular music. Without it, jazz, blues, rock and roll, R&B, and hip-hop would not exist. Without gospel music, we never would have had Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, not to mention Moby or Lauryn Hill. While Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) has struggled to field artists who can simply replicate the sound of secular chart-toppers, gospel music has been a consistent force in shaping and reshaping America’s musical culture. Fifties doo-wop and sixties soul owe equally heavy debts to gospel a cappella groups like Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. Countless musicians across many genres—from jazz drummer Brian Blade to classical trumpeter Wynton Marsalis—got their start in the rich musical culture of the black church.
Modern gospel artists like Kirk Franklin may borrow from the musical vocabulary of secular America, but they also influence the music of wholly secular acts (how many Top Forty artists are falling over themselves to copy that signature CCM sound?). Moreover, gospel music has provided the musical and lyrical vocabulary that many mainstream artists of faith—from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan to U2’s Bono—have used in their most poignantly and obviously Christian songs.
Gospel music is, essentially, the developed voice of a truly oppressed people who, though they were powerless on the culture’s terms, have found favor, and hope, in God. And because of this, gospel possesses a deep integrity that the majority culture finds difficult to match. From Elvis to Eminem, white America’s obsession with co-opting (or, one could say, stealing from) black musical culture indicates a deep-seated hunger for integrity, or at least for the sort of innovation and substance that true integrity produces.
By all but overlooking the wide and overwhelmingly positive influence of gospel music, Roaring Lambs sadly misses what is probably the largest flock of true roaring lambs in our culture. The inclusion of a moving track by the black South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the Roaring Lambs CD is a step in the right direction, though in a way it only makes more poignant the absence of any American gospel music on the album.
Not everyone can be a black gospel musician, of course. (For starters, you have to be black.) But there is a way for even those of us with real privilege to take a few steps closer to being a true roaring lamb. Simply, it is to identify those who are oppressed, and to cast our lot with them. Then wait a while. Suffer a while. Slowly, we may begin to develop a foundation of integrity from which true cultural influence can be based. Want an example? Take one of the most artistically influential figures in folk music, whose echoes resound across the decades, from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen to Beck. Woody Guthrie spent much of the 1930s and ‘40s traveling and living with migrant laborers and dust bowl refugees, turning down opportunities for popular fame when the trappings of success interfered with his populism or his wanderlust. And though he’s rarely remembered as a Christian musician, Guthrie’s affection for the person and politics of Jesus crops up again and again among the thousands of songs he penned.
More recently, Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s faith-fueled advocacy for social justice had him spending time and writing songs in Central American refugee camps. (Cockburn, too, gets a somewhat-distant nod from the Roaring Lambs producers, with Vigilantes of Love’s cover of his “Wondering Where the Lions Are.”)
This is the communion of saints toward which Roaring Lambs, the book and the CD, points ever so tentatively. Whether the “active, church-going, born-again Christians” who read Briner’s book and eagerly add the CD to their collections will join them, or whether they will simply pursue the gilded cage of success in the world’s most wealthy and powerful country, is a question that remains all too undecided.