Jesus isn’t the problem with Christian music. Nor is the openness of devout artists. Nor is the occasional mid-concert worship service, when heavenly tongues bombard your ears and every hand in sight reaches for the rafters. (Okay, maybe that’s part of it.)
The problem is that most Christian music is really, really bad.
Where various world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism—satiate the spirit with hypnotic atmospherics, ritualistic chanting, and impassioned dancing, popular Christian worship tends to rely on self-aware histrionics and vacuous lyrics. Oh, and hair. Lots of hair.
As a lapsed born-again Christian, I carry an abiding respect and affection for music that earnestly tries to channel the spiritual. That’s why I collected 10 sincere songs about the Christian savior that don’t make me want to puncture my ears with a rusty crucifix. These songs prove that an artist’s religious faith—even when put on display—doesn’t need to alienate secular listeners, especially those willing to discern the universal from the devotional.
Daniel Johnston – “Careless Soul”
Satan, not Christ, was always Daniel Johnston’s true obsession. Songs like “Devil Town”, “Don’t Play Cards with Satan”, and “Held the Hand” showcase the troubled singer’s clear mistrust for red devils, a fixation likely brought on by his aggressive religious upbringing. But in 1988, a show at New York City’s Pier Platters found a warbling Johnston rattling off prophetic perplexities (“Number 7 is Jesus Christ”) before launching into an a capella version of “Prepare to Meet Thy God”—credited on 1990 as “Careless Soul”. Johnston’s cracking voice overwhelms with unbridled emotion as he warns listeners to repent, as death could come at any moment. His heartrending reaction to the hymn is understandable, especially when considering the singer was on the verge of a life-threatening mental breakdown that would have him institutionalized. “Careless Soul” is not an easy listen—you can almost hear the audience’s eyes gluing themselves to the floor—but it’s that rare, uncomfortable performance that slowly, achingly transforms music into a cry for help.