They shall be released


By Matthew Ralph

Though it wasn’t completely intentional or expected, I recently attended what more or less ended up being a pro-life concert at a megachurch in Evansville, Ind.

It wasn’t advertised as a pro-life rally or sponsored by the group with the tattoos and the cartoon logo of a fetus playing guitar. There were no graphic pictures of aborted fetuses, “non-partisan” voter organizations or political statements from the stage about how awful a certain political candidate with a foreign sounding name is because of the latest spin on his complicated legislative voting record. In fact, abortion wasn’t even mentioned at all.

While the idea that a pro-life concert could be about anything other than the hot-button issue cultural warriors use to try and get opportunistic politicians elected every election cycle may seem odd to some, there really is no better way to describe the Art Music and Justice tour a group of singer/songwriters have been doing this fall.

From the minute my wife and I walked into the excessively large church building in what appeared to really be the middle of a pitch-black nowhere, it was obvious that the purpose of the event was not necessarily to be entertained for three hours. Moved, disarmed, inspired and spurred into action are probably more appropriate ways to label our reaction to what we were hearing, seeing and feeling as we sat in plush movie theater seats that probably cost enough to give more than a couple kids in the third world a refreshing dinner or two.

To those not familiar with the world of Christian Contemporary Music, the names might not mean much but Sara Groves, Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, Charlie Peacock and Brandon Heath are big enough names to draw a crowd and are apparently respected enough to keep suburban Bible belters captivated. The fact that large chunks of time usually devoted to guys like Brandon Heath saying “come on” and “yeah” a lot while moving about like an Abercrombie and Fitch model (he did this plenty enough for my tastes in four songs) were replaced by heart-wrenching videos and testimonies of young girls being kidnapped and sold into brothels, children dying of starvation and other tragic stories from around the world of human trafficking, slavery and extreme poverty.

The loudest and most unapologetic of the bunch was Derek Webb, who was introduced by his wife, fellow singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken, as a singer of protest songs. Seeing the guy once lambasted by Jesus-per-measure counting conservative music fans for using the word “whore” in a song and daring to say that Jesus was NOT a white middle class Republican playing in a church proudly displaying large paintings of a very Western looking Jesus in the foyer at first seemed kind of oxymoronic. But when I heard him unapologetically tell the crowd that the real Gospel, aka the good news for Christians, is the promise that one day all things will be made right, it made perfect sense. Who better to speak a prophetic word to a gathering of affluent Bible-belt suburbanites, but someone who has obviously read the Bible with his American blinders wide open? Though I wish I had jotted down the exact quotation, Webb was basically saying that because the good news for Christians is that Jesus will return to earth to redeem it and make all things right those who choose to follow Jesus have a responsibility to feed the poor, care for the widow and speak up for the abused and the afflicted. It’s an idea often missed in the “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” line of the oft-recited Lord’s prayer – pushed aside far too often for culture war fighting, church building campaigns and an obsession with individual salvation, personal devotions, proselytizing and “seeker-sensitive” church growth models.

Troy Groves piggy-backed on Derek’s message later in the show when he confessed that he used to pray children in extreme poverty would accept Christ before they starved to death. Troy, who joked about being better known as Mr. Sara Groves, said he’s since changed his focus, doing what he can to feed children instead of just praying they become Christians. With his wife next to him on the piano and his two young sons by his side, he talked about how sponsoring children in a village in Rwanda, Africa, is a family project that regularly teaches all of them what the love of Christ is really all about.

In other words, it’s a lesson in how to promote life not just in the womb, but far beyond the moment of conception. While I’m sure all of the performers have similar positions on abortion, they all demonstrated a holistic understanding of what life is by paying careful attention to an expanded pro-life agenda.

For her part, Sara Groves demonstrated a passion that all but makes up for her sometimes cheesy latest album. She played very little, but spoke volumes about the impact an organization of Christian lawyers that use the laws on the books in various countries to free slaves has had on her as a songwriter and a human being. Like the child sponsorship group Food For the Hungry, the group, International Justice Mission, was promoted during the concert much more than CDs or T-shirts at the back table. Sara Groves even asked those in the audience to donate to IJM before buying anything from the merch tables and gave away copies of her latest album to anyone who signed up to sponsor a child in the same Rwandan village she has visited through Food For the Hungry. Despite rubbing me the wrong way with his radio-friendly music and style, Heath for his part seemed more concerned with promoting clean water initiatives and care for the homeless than he did boosting his hit song “I’m Not Who I Was” on the CCM charts. Charlie Peacock, the elder of the bunch, focused most of the time he wasn’t playing his royalty cash cow “In the Light” (made even more popular by DC Talk) reading scripture and explaining why the heavy message of the night was biblically necessary.

There was also some time of worship sprinkled in, including a moving sing-along of the Fanny Crosby hymn “Rescue the Parishing” and a couple chances for the crowd to sing the chorus to “I Shall Be Released,” the Bob Dylan-penned hit made popular by The Band. When the group of musicians first started playing it, I was a bit confused. Was I really hearing a song on Music From Big Pink being sung, more than once, at a megachurch in the heartland? Talk about putting a new twist on a great song. Humming it to myself on the way out, I replaced the word “I” with “they,” making it a personal prayer that my global brothers and sisters enslaved, homeless, poor and hurting would be released and that I would somehow be part of the growing effort to make that happen.

That, after all, is the kind of consistent conception-to-the-cradle-to-the-grave pro-life philosophy worth rallying behind.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: