Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
With Leave What’s Lost Behind, alternative rock group Colony House delivers a third album that feels more like a follow-up to 2014’s When I Was Younger than their sophomore effort, Only the Lonely (2017). When I Was Younger was an exploration of growing up and learning about grief and love. Their recent release picks up that thread and delves into the healing that comes with the realization that you don’t have to carry the weight of guilt and failure with you—at least not on your own. And that caveat is something that makes this mainstream release an important touchpoint in a larger discussion about Christian music.
For people outside the church, Christian music can be like a foreign language, filled with words and expressions they don’t understand. But anyone could understand the search for meaning in day to day struggle in “The Hope Inside” . . . Colony House band members Caleb and Will Chapman are the sons of Steven Curtis Chapman, who has been one of the biggest names in Christian Contemporary Music for several decades. Despite the Chapman brothers’ pedigree, Colony House is not a Christian band. Pick a random song off the new album—say, “Julia,” with its layered harmonic vocals, or “El Capitan,” with an opening guitar riff that will drop you on the California coast before propelling you east to Yosemite—and you’ll want to keep listening. But you definitely won’t think you’re listening to Christian radio. The Chapman brothers and bandmates Scott Mills and Parke Cottrell have crafted an album that very much lives up to the creative bar they outline in “Original Material.” “Why Even Try” is the number in which listeners are told that their doubts and fears are too much to carry alone. The conclusion of the song is something that will resonate with most Christians, but on its own, it doesn’t explain the reason we need to surrender those burdens or tell us who could possibly take them on.
Listening to the album as a whole, however, is a different experience. “Looking for Some Light” starts with the problem. We’re all searching for truth and goodness, but “darkness blurs the vision” and keeps us from seeing it clearly. “Runaway Pt. 1” is the first installment of a three-part conversation between a runaway and a porter that serves as the framing device for the album and its themes. “Leave What’s Lost Behind” plays like a conversation. The verses feature a traveler questioning his decision to leave the things that have weighed him down behind, while another voice in the pre-chorus and chorus calls for his attention and assures him, “This foundation is something real you can believe in.”
“El Capitan” seems like a simple song, with a guy trying to convince a girl he loves her. But then there’s the question, “Is stumbling up the mountain worth the scenic view?” In other words, is there a view at the end of life that gives our missteps meaning? One sentence ties the song to the rest of the album and gives it a deeper significance. It’s the song that proves each track on the album has a purpose and becomes more powerful when experienced as a whole.
It takes artistry and skill to create a song, but crafting thirteen songs that not only stand on their own but carry and build themes to give each other meaning is a different level of craftsmanship entirely. The Christian music industry is at something of a crossroads right now. With mainstream artists like Kanye West crossing into the genre and Christian artists like Lauren Daigle crossing into the mainstream, the line between what is and isn’t considered Christian music is being blurred. This is a good thing, and Christian artists who recognize this trend can find fertile ground where they and their work can grow and thrive.
For someone who has played in worship bands for the better part of a decade, I listen to surprisingly little Christian music. There are artists working inside the Christian music industry who put out album after album with skill, depth, and creative growth. It just feels harder to find them than their secular counterparts. I love artists who never put out the same album twice and distill seasons of their lives into twelve songs. It’s even better if those songs take on new meaning overtime as if they’re living and growing themselves. I just don’t experience that much with Christian music, and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels that way. But this isn’t an indictment on Christian artists. It’s an indictment on us as audiences of Christian music.
In the Christian music industry, every song an artist releases is overtly about God or faith. Most of what the public hears from these artists is their music or interviews about how their music is shaped by their faith. When this is the only visible side of an artist, it becomes easy for us to create hyper-spiritualized ideas of who that artist is. It’s easier to forget we’re talking about a human who struggles with the same things as the rest of us. We place unfair expectations on these artists without even realizing we’re doing it, magnifying victories and stumbles alike. We’re much quicker to forgive when the artist doesn’t fit neatly in the box we’ve built for them.
Lauren Daigle found mainstream success with her song “You Say,” and her album Look Up Child was a Christian & Gospel release. Doesn’t this seem to indicate that people are so hungry for truth in the music they consume that they’re finally making their way to Christian music? “You Say” is a rare success story, but there are several things we can learn from Daigle. In the wake of the song’s success, Lauren Daigle performed on Ellen and sparked controversy in the Christian community due to host Ellen DeGeneres’s sexual orientation. The performance did not fit into the confines of what we’ve come to expect from the Christian music industry. Daigle’s decision was criticized, and her character was attacked.
The pressure to stay inside the Christian music box can also limit artistry. On Leave What’s Lost Behind, the track “Julia” is a love song for Colony House lead singer Caleb Chapman’s wife. It’s a song that wouldn’t fit on a standard Christian album, but it’s not a song without meaning either. “Julia” is the answer to the cry for companionship in “Where I’m From.” Because of the relationship between the two songs, we’re given another glimpse of God’s goodness and what was a simple love song becomes the joyful response to one of His greatest gifts.
It’s a beautiful illustration of faith casting new light on our lives as it grows and transforms. Madeleine L’Engle wrote that “there is nothing so secular that it can’t be sacred.” Our lives as Christians shouldn’t be compartmentalized. Our faith should be free to touch every aspect of our lives because that is the only way we are transformed.
When Lauren Daigle was given a large platform to sing a song about surrendering her failures and weaknesses to a God who has the ultimate victory, she took advantage of that platform. Christians were quick to attack the appearance, but shouldn’t the first reaction have been awe that DeGeneres gave her that platform? Shouldn’t we have been excited that truth was proclaimed to millions?
For people outside the church, Christian music can be like a foreign language, filled with words and expressions they don’t understand. But anyone could understand the search for meaning in day to day struggle in “The Hope Inside,” the closing song of Leave What’s Lost Behind. By moving past the bounds of the Christian music genre, Colony House pours truth into people who might not hear it anywhere else, people who would never consider turning the dial to a Christian radio station.
Maybe mainstream music created by Christian artists doesn’t offer all of the answers, but it offers a glimpse of something bigger, which is the theme of “Where I’m From.” The song is the closest Colony House comes to offering an explanation for humanity’s search for light. Our souls were not made for this fallen world, and we’re each “praying somebody will stay with me while I remain in between” until we make it back to where we’re from.
Voicing that innate human desire is extending a hand to the listener, offering to be that person in this in-between world. Limiting that extension to people listening to the output of the Christian music industry seems like a failure to heed the call to love our neighbors. When we move past the boxes of “Christian” and “secular” in our music and our lives, we move a little closer towards answering that call.
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