When the music group Sixpence None the Richer appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman to perform the hit pop song "Kiss Me," lead singer Leigh Nash talked with Letterman, remarkably, about God's love.
Prompted by Letterman's question about the band's name, Nash explained that it referred to an illustration from C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. Nash retold the tale of an English boy who asks his father for sixpence, which he uses to purchase a gift for his dad. The father gladly accepts the gift but realizes he's not any richer because he gave his son the money in the first place.
"C. S. Lewis was comparing that to his belief that God gave him and us the gifts that we possess to serve him," Nash told Letterman on the July 7, 1999, broadcast. "We should do it humbly, with humble hearts, realizing how we got the gifts in the first place."
"That's beautiful," Letterman responded. "It makes perfect sense. If we could just keep that little sliver of enlightenment with us, things would be so much better."
Not your typical late-night TV banter.
Sixpence capitalized on the popularity of its wildly successful and catchy pop tune—a song, by the way, with no spiritual content to speak of—to steer the conversation to higher ground.
Sharing that "little sliver of enlightenment" with a national audience is the sort of breakthrough that entertainment executive Bob Briner had in mind when he wrote Roaring Lambs (Zondervan, 1993). Briner urged Christians to engage the culture instead of merely complaining that society does not share their worldview.
Beyond the subculture
Steve Taylor, president of Sixpence's Nashville–based label, Squint Entertainment, cites the exchange on the Letterman show as a prime example of bringing salt and light to the surrounding culture. "I don't claim that something like that changes the world or revolutionizes society," Taylor says. "But I think Bob's point would be that, without moments like that going on in culture on a regular basis, the culture decays just a little more, and it gets a little darker."
In his book, Briner contended that the church does very little to influence the culture. "In the arts, entertainment, media, education, and other culture-shaping venues of our country," he wrote, "the church has abdicated its role as salt and light." Briner challenged fellow believers to set their sights beyond the "phenomenal subculture" Christians have created.
Briner died of cancer on June 18, 1999, while writing Final Roar, which Broadman & Holman published in September.
It's been seven years since the first printing of Roaring Lambs, but the book's concept has taken on a new life, mostly because Briner's approach to faith and witness struck a chord with contemporary Christian music (CCM) artists and executives. In fact, many of them established close ties with Briner after reading his book, turning to him for business advice, encouragement, and mentoring.
Why the attraction? "Many Christian musicians I know never intended to be preaching to the choir," says Taylor, a singer-turned-record executive.
"When Bob's book came along, it was a sort of call to arms. It really resonated within the Christian music community. In spite of all the fantastic infrastructure the church has built, in spite of the infrastructure Christian music has built, when it comes right down to it, we're not really having much of an effect on the culture at large. His manner was very encouraging in the book, yet there was no missing what he was saying."
Briner practiced what he preached. As an Emmy Award–winning TV executive, a professional sports agent, and a businessman, he earned the right to be heard in the larger culture. He worked with athletic superstars, including Michael Jordan, Arthur Ashe, and Dave Dravecky.
As president of ProServ Television and cofounder of the Association of Tennis Professionals, Briner played a key role in producing sports programming and paved the way for tennis to become a mass-market TV sport.
Well-versed and well-traveled in the secular workplace, Briner surveyed the landscape and found believers largely missing in action. He proposed that people of faith enthusiastically shape American society. "Instead of running from it, we need to rush into it," he wrote. "And instead of just hanging around the fringes of our culture, we need to be right smack dab in the middle of it."
Roaring in D.C.
The Christian recording industry not only has been influenced by Briner; it has also taken his message from the bookshelf to the CD rack. This summer Squint released Roaring Lambs, an original collection from singers and groups who identify with the call for Christians to pursue excellence in the workplace and demonstrate character and conviction in the world. The musicians include Jars of Clay, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Burlap to Cashmere, Over the Rhine, and Bill Mallonee and Vigilantes of Love.
In early June, Squint concluded a promotional tour by taking the Roaring Lambs message to the nation's capital for a ceremony in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Attended by more than 200 Capitol Hill staffers, the two-hour event brought together representatives from the worlds of politics, music, and entertainment to celebrate the contributions of Roaring Lambs to other cultural realms.
Four members of Congress—three Representatives and one Senator—gave their testimonies and urged young Christians to reclaim the culture by pursuing careers in public service, journalism, and entertainment. Ohio Democrat Tony Hall told the story of being introduced to an audience as both a U.S. Congressman and a Christian. "It got real quiet," he said. "An elderly man down front couldn't take it much longer and said, 'Make up your mind, buddy, you can't be both.'"
Television and film producer Ken Wales (of the CBS series Christy), another friend of Briner's, spoke of the need for a biblical worldview in Hollywood. And Roaring Lambs Awards went to two organizations that have integrated their Christian values in the marketplace: Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable housing for the needy, and Pura Vida, an online coffee company that gives its proceeds to missions and charity work in Costa Rica.
A CD for the choir
Not everyone is impressed with the Roaring Lambs recording. David Drury, a music critic for Beliefnet.com, believes the album's message suffers because the contributing artists "all sell and play primarily to Christians." He suggests it's just more preaching to the choir.
"None of these artists will break away from the industry that adores them anytime soon," Drury wrote. "When Squint founder Steve Taylor writes on the liner notes that these artists 'have, in their own way, journeyed beyond the invisible walls of the evangelical subculture,' it is a hard pill to swallow."
Drury wonders why the album's producers did not feature songs from established mainstream artists such as Bruce Cockburn, Lenny Kravitz, Johnny Cash, Bono of U2, and Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes. Drury argues that these artists are most faithful to Briner's concept.
Taylor tells Christianity Today he generally agrees with Drury's criticism but that Drury "misunderstands the purpose of the album. The fact is this [CD] was made to preach to the choir. It makes no sense outside the context of the Christian church. That's the point of the book, the album."
"Getting the Violent Femmes is a cute idea," Taylor says. "But it makes no sense. I know the Christian audience pretty well, and those artists would not have been able to effectively carry the Roaring Lambs message to CCM listeners."
As one of the top CCM artists for more than a decade, Steven Curtis Chapman has wrestled with his role as a Christian singer-songwriter. Ultimately he defends those—including himself—who sing primarily for a believing audience. "All those choir members are people who live out in the world that's desperately needing to hear the gospel," he says.
Chapman, who developed a close friendship with Briner, says he has had plenty of opportunities to roar through interviews with the secular press and in vitations to participate in the memorial services after school shootings in Paducah, Kentucky, and Littleton, Colorado.
"Rather than saying specifically, 'I need to go outside of [the Christian audience],' I say to God, 'All that I do, I offer as a living sacrifice. Wherever you place me, whatever opportunities you present before me, let me always be ready to give reason for the hope that I have and do it with gentleness and with respect.' "
CCM's wild man
If anyone in Christian music was to take Briner's Roaring Lambs concept and run with it, Steve Taylor was the man. He burst onto the scene in 1983 with an alternative rock sound and witty, hard-hitting lyrics. A former youth pastor, Taylor used well-crafted music laced with satire to shake up the cozy CCM community and the broader church, addressing topics many singers were afraid to tackle, including religious hypocrisy, racism, and moral relativism. In 1990 Taylor and four other CCM veterans formed the band Chagall Guevara, which recorded one critically acclaimed album before breaking up.
Taylor has never been shy about responding to a Christian subculture that needs correction. "Someone needed to say, 'Whoa! The emperor doesn't have any clothes on.' Music is a great and subversive way of getting a point across without it coming off as preachy," he says.
As the head of Squint, which he credits Briner for helping him launch, Taylor is intent on producing music, videos, and films for a broad audience. "For some reason in entertainment—in music and probably even more so in the film and television world—Christians have given up," he says. "They think it's a hopeless cause or they want to start their own subculture."
It's fitting, then, that Squint's first signing—and first success story—was Sixpence None the Richer, a band that has garnered enormous general market popularity around the world while maintaining its integrity and Christian testimony.
Members of Sixpence "didn't want a home within the specific confines of Christian music," Taylor says. "However, they didn't want to be signed to a mainstream label that wouldn't understand that for them it wasn't just about money or fame. As Christians, they wanted to communicate their hearts through their music."
Through his efforts at Squint, Taylor puts the Roaring Lambs philosophy into practice. He hopes, among other things, to alter the world's view of Christian music. Outsiders generally think of CCM as a "whiny voice singing about Jesus with a cheesy '80s guitar," Taylor says.
"Given that perception in the broader culture that that's what Christian music is, Sixpence went in and let the music lead first. They did it in sort of a subversive way and that was part of the plan. They used this great, charming love song."
See our related story, " Singing Briner's Praises | A review of the Roaring Lambs CD."
The Roaring Lambs CD can be purchased at the Christianity Online Store and other music retailers.
Read ChristianityToday.com's Books and Culture Corner about Briner and Roaring Lambs.
CCM Magazine has an obituary for Bob Briner, another review of the Roaring Lambs CD, and a lot more information about the Roaring Lambs influence in Nashville. It also has a 1988 cover story about Steve Taylor , several articles about Sixpence None the Richer , and other such pieces about the CCM world.
Don't miss out on the excellent stories Beliefnet ran on Briner and Roaring Lambs: Christianity Today's Michael G. Maudlin wrote a review of Briner's latest book , and artists from Jars of Clay and Sixpence wrote responses to a critical Beliefnet review .
More on Steve Taylor is available from fan sites Quantitative Roland Stephen Taylor Ubiquitous Volume and Steve Taylor On the Fritz .
Crosswalk's music channel has a chat transcript with Taylor about the Roaring Lambs project.
Read Steve Taylor's Roaring Lambs chat transcript from Crosswalk.com.
The Violent Femmes is a Christian band? The Violent Femmes FAQ explains: "[Lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter] Gordon Gano is a devout Christian while [bass player] Brian Ritchie is a hardcore atheist. Can you just imagine the arugments [sic] these 2 must have?!! And [drummer] Guy [Hoffman] worships aliens. (DON'T GIVE ME THAT LOOK!! THAT'S WHAT THEY SAID . …)" The Seattle Times has more:
The Femmes is headed by Gordon Gano, a Baptist preacher's son whose songs express wildly conflicting views of religion. Straightforward ones about Christian grace—which early on caused some critics to mislabel the band as Contemporary Christian—are contrasted by intensely angry songs about religious-induced guilt and paranoia. All of his songs, which also deal with such dark subject matter as violence, death, sexual frustration, irrational fears, or just being teased in the school lunchroom as a child, express a kind of visceral uneasiness, which makes them deeply affecting. Interestingly, the only answer he ever offers for such troubles is GOD (always spelled in the lyric sheets in capital letters). In the early years, bassist Brian Ritchie used to display his independence from Gano's thinking by appearing onstage dressed in full yellow, orange and red Hare Krishna gear, complete with shaved head. But in the '90s he's come to share many of Gano's beliefs, and has dropped the garb.
When Joan Osborne's " One Of Us " was popular, The Detroit News ran a story titled " Finding their religion: More pop stars are proclaiming their versions of God's message to heaven, earth and airways."
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