by Daniel Hong
In 2018, major headlines from the secular media as well as Christian ones were for a young female Christian Contemporary Artist named Lauren Daigle. While she seems to be the next big thing (or maybe already is the new big thing) in Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) movement, accomplishing much by breaking into the top 10 (3rd at its peak) in the billboard 200 chart with her latest album Look Up Child as well as appearing on a major platform like the Ellen show, there is one other artist who has consistently done it for years. Chris Tomlin was a worship leader for Passion City Church and a fixture of Passion Conference (a noteworthy conference for young evangelical Christians) has done it again with new songs of praise for the church in his new album Holy Roar. Admittedly, I am much more in the mold of the traditional independent fundamentalist Baptist background when it comes to praise and worship, so at times the CCM movement disappoints me to the point where I desire to sing only the ancient hymns. However, Chris Tomlin is one artist that always seems to keep me tuned in with his uncanny ability to write worship songs with substance. For those who are not familiar with Christianity and its music scenery and even for those who are Christians but are not familiar with CCM’s history and current landscape I will provide some context so what I write does not look like a completely different language.
To be clear, my point is not so much that Chris Tomlin is the only one who writes and makes good worship music as I find many blessings in the songs of other artists such as Jimmy Needham, Shane & Shane, Matt Redman, David Crowder, Phil Wickham, Jeremy Camp etc. but that he is one who seems to be a sort of leader or as Time Magazine once put it as America’s worship leader. In fact, Time called him the most sung artist in churches in America as well as the most sung in different languages around the world as well. He has done it during a time where technological innovations and the rise of radio has brought CCM into the spotlight. While, the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s had its share of artists from Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Don Moen and many others, it was nothing compared to the turn of the century where the quantity of CCM exploded giving opportunities for many artists to make their mark. Many have done exactly that just as their secular counter parts have. The problem also comes from that as well, the Bible states Christians are to be in the world but not a part of it but stand out as salt and light. However, it seems with the rise of this brave new world Christian artists have fallen into the pop cultural trend. Though not the focus of this article, another one could be written about the fall of many artists as some have failed to even have a basic theological understanding of the trinity, fallen into fornication, pornography, secularism and other character flaws most recent and notably being the aforementioned Lauren Daigle and her dodge on the issue of gay marriage (specifics on Daigle’s dodge and others will be addressed that article for another day). Even keeping to musical standards CCM has become lyrically devoid of actual Christian content and symbolism, instrumentally it has become repetitive and cliché, and just finding a proper standard in which to judge CCM is becoming much harder with the advent of new technology and radio. It seems if anything CCM is going through an identity crisis personified yet again by yours truly Lauren Daigle.
Again, my point is not to make Lauren Daigle a target of constant criticism, in fact I followed her career and found her to be a very talented young woman to the point where I would call her the Christian counterpart to pop star Adele. However, due to her surge in popularity in 2018 she is the best example in personifying my points. Especially the last one about CCM’s identity crisis. Her 2018 album is filled with awe-inspiring songs that I believe to be a gift of God, but what is noticeably missing is a clear Christian messaging or symbolism. As words like “Jesus” “Cross” “resurrection” and others are nowhere to be found. When approached on this Daigle responds by saying that she is aiming to make her music accessible to the secular person as well as the Christian. A response that is normative at this point as Christian rapper Lecrae as well as others before him like Switchfoot have claimed the same thing. Good music overall seems to be the goal which leaves the question as to why these artists do not just enter the pop scene instead of marketing themselves in CCM. For instance, what separates the inspiring music of Lauren Daigle as opposed to Rachel Platten? Sure, Daigle may still have more religious symbolism as Platten does not use that as much in her songs, but overall referring to God and religious symbols is not alien to pop music. Drake, Kesha and Avril Lavigne have used religion as a major driver of their songs this year. The thing is nobody would disagree when I would say that you would not sing Platten, Kesha, Drake, or Lavigne in churches but today it’s not just pop songs, there are a lot of CCM songs that can’t be sung or are borderline like Daigle herself due to lyrical content (at times the instrumentation as well). That is where Chris Tomlin steps in with his new singles Resurrection Power and Nobody Loves Me Like You you can already see with his lyrics:
Now I have resurrection power
Living on the inside
Jesus, You have given us freedom
No longer bound by sin and darkness
Living in the light of Your goodness
You have given us freedom
- Resurrection Power
Story, I could’ve had a really different story
But You came down from heaven to restore me
Forever saved my life
Nobody loves me like You love me, Jesus
I stand in awe of Your amazing ways
I worship You as long as I am breathing
God, You are faithful and true
Nobody loves me like You
- Nobody Loves Me Like You
I think it’s safe to say that these songs were written for the purpose of worship in churches.
Chris Tomlin’s career is marked with songs of adoration and praise for the God of the Bible with hits like How Great Is Our God, Indescribable, Whom Shall I Fear, At the Cross, Our God, Jesus, Good Good Father, I will Rise, and We Fall Down to name a few. Of course, he was not alone in the 2000’s as no matter how much controversy their churches seem to face Jesus Culture/Bethel Music and Hillsong are also fixtures in the CCM movement that have garnered popularity with the latter having another hit as well in 2018 through clear Christian symbolism and messaging. Solo artists that I mentioned before are also like Tomlin in that their music has clear gospel centered content covering topics like Christ, sin, revival, God’s character, the cross and repentance all of which is appropriate for church worship. What marks the success of these artists is obviously and undoubtedly the Holy Scripture, but also a conserving and the carrying on of the tradition of the hymns and the early CCM movement. Though controversy was still prevalent much of it centered on instrumentation than lyrical content, for what it’s worth it seems the instrumental debate has taken a backseat to the lyrical debate as the modern form of worship with a band, electric guitars and pop/pop rock sound dominates many church settings. To relate it to its secular counterpart the issue of conserving tradition is not exclusive to CCM but is for instance a constant debate within Country Music as artists like Kane Brown and Sam Hunt dominate a genre once owned by George Strait is also having an identity crisis of their own. Through all the debates and confusion though Chris Tomlin has remained a constant within the industry making new innovative songs that finds inspiration from the past as well as reintroducing the ancient hymns to today’s generation with remakes of Amazing Grace, Take My Life And Let It Be, Crown Him and All Hail the power of Jesus Name to name a few as well as an album full of them.
Hopefully I have not exhausted you with the detailed background of Christian Contemporary Music but it is vital in understanding the success, character and make up of Chris Tomlin as one of the best Christian singers and his new singles in the short history of CCM. What’s amazing is that even though it’s his tenth studio album his artistic genius is still within his lyrics as seen in his two singles. While I would love to do a full album review I believe it will not do justice especially since I only had a cursory listen through his other songs other than the two songs I am writing about now. As much as I believe his album is a much-needed injection into today’s CCM movement a fair review is what I aim for. Sometimes as humans when we review our favorite artists or artists that we prefer over others it can cloud ones’ judgment. For instance, while I appreciate the constant consistency of Chris Tomlin, others might view it as a stale product no longer appealing to their artistic taste, while some other more traditional leaning groups might view Tomlin’s music as too progressive with more trendy and overproduced sounds ruining the quality of his lyrical content. These are all fair judgments that I would not want to overlook so an album review might be in my future but as of now my focus is on his two singles.
In Resurrection Power Chris Tomlin highlights the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the cross and what it means to the believer. Tomlin’s artistic talent truly lies in his lyrics not only in content but in placing the right words in the right place. One of the simplest ways to apply theological insight for those who struggle in that area is through prayer and praise, and this song of praise is applied theology at its finest. Tomlin takes the listener on a journey from the grave to the cross and into the born-again life using the imagery of a grave to denote sin and how it causes death in the person. Death not only physically but spiritually as well, the book of Romans speaks of how we are dead to sin. Then he takes a Bible verse and as he has done so well over the years he naturally puts 2 Corinthians 5:17 into the ebb and flow of the first verse right before it transitions to the chorus to show that Christ has called the sinner from death to life and from the old to the new, which is essentially what the evangelical term born-again means. Just like in all his trademark choruses the song quickly picks up and rises as he proclaims that the same power that rose Christ from the dead lives in the believer, and the believer is now free. One of the goals of Tomlin’s new album is to speak to the culture, engaging culture and being a light is a Christians duty. Therefore, the theme of freedom is marked throughout his song, but unlike the abstract notion that runs prevalent in today’s culture calling everything from immoral behavior, sexual promiscuity, hatred, bitterness and polarization is in reality bondage to sin. True freedom is in Christ and as Tomlin masterfully puts it “living in the light of His goodness” which is essentially living in accordance with Christ’s character being the light of this world and the salt of this earth as Jesus himself so eloquently stated in the book of Matthew. The second verse then takes the listener into the born-again life as a gift not as something we must earn, it is basically the concept of imputation or penal substitution. Reformed theologians like calling it the great exchange, where Christ became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) and took the death and punishment that we deserve on the cross in exchange we get the eternal life we never deserved, and that is the main idea of the second verse as we are clothed or dressed in his royalty, with the Holy Spirit the third person in the trinity inside of us, our past life of sin redeemed and the new given to us, so our main job is to live as the redeemed saint with the resurrection power of Christ in us. The instrumentation is pretty much standard Chris Tomlin with the acoustic guitar and piano dominating the verses and the electric guitar and drums coming in strong as the chorus picks up. The only criticism I could find is that within the standard formula that Tomlin uses, it is basically expected at this point in his career so it’s fair to say that the instrumentation is formulaic and predictable.
In Nobody Loves Me Like You Love Me ironically, it’s the opposite in terms of instrumentation as Tomlin is far from being formulaic. However, just like his previous albums there is always one or two songs that goes away from his standard worship format as he tries to add some current trends into his songs. God’s Great Dance Floor in his Burning Lights Album implemented that party style EDM flavor, as did Waterfall from his Love Ran Red Album. The only surprise is that while those were popular energizing worship songs they were not the lead singles understandably so, considering how others who use current trends end up receiving backlash and controversy. In Nobody Loves Me Like You Love Me the trend that Tomlin adds to this song is the electronic drum beat which produces a catchy but an artificial sound that takes away from the authenticity of playing live instruments. Especially since this song begins with a rather pleasing and calm acoustic guitar sound. It is widely popular in today’s modern pop country as artists like Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett thrive off that sound. One similarity between Country and CCM is that both genres use a live band which poses problems for live performances. In terms of Tomlin it may either be a source of controversy or it may be widely popular with his audience. However, I do believe it takes away from his most artistic asset as it makes it hard for the listener to absorb his lyrics with the electronic drum playing in the background. It seems to be a poor choice on the artist of Tomlin’s caliber to place that into the song as it does not synchronize too well with the other instruments. However, even with that poor choice the lyrical content which was actually written by Ed Cash his producer and someone who co-wrote his massive hit How Great is Our God, the overall quality of the song is salvaged. The only downside is the beginning of the first verse where the song sounds more like a romance song to a girl more than a worship of the almighty creator. Though I could see what Cash was trying to express in saying:
“Morning, I see You in the sunrise every morning
It’s like a picture that You’ve painted for me
A love letter in the sky”
It unfortunately seems to be more suited for a love song by Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift than for the Almighty Sovereign King of the Universe. This problem is not new in modern Christian music and it is one many artists run into as they find the fine line between expressing their love and adoration to Jesus as their savior as opposed to a romantic lover. With that said the lines that follow this below average opening is probably one of the best lines in CCM, which is:
“Story, I could’ve had a really different story
But You came down from heaven to restore me
Forever saved my life”
This is the foundation of every Christian’s life, had it not been for grace of God where would those who have been greatly touched by him be? How different would their story have been? If God had not touched John Newton’s (the writer of Amazing Grace) life, how different would his story of slave trading had been? If you are a redeemed what would you be doing now if you were not? I know for sure the course of my life was changed by the grace of God. It’s a line relatable to the believer of all different backgrounds and even to the non-believer seeking redemption. There is also some rich theology in that Cash masterfully connects the idea of restoration and redemption in chronological order. Salvation of man leads to the restoration of man back into the imago dei or the image of God as things were originally meant to be, in the bigger picture restoration also covers nature as well. There are countless references in the Bible to the restoration of Earth into a New Earth. Finally, the chorus covers the love of God, and in a sense what true love is as the Bible States that God is Love (1 John 4:7). In a culture, where the word love seems to be thrown around true love comes from God and to truly love in the right way one must realize just how loved they are. Love is also connected to worship, and a worship of the Savior and his amazing ways. I believe Cash was aware of songs like Love Wins by Carrie Underwood as well as many other pop artists and culture in general that in this song of worship he tries to redeem it from the abstract erotic notion that the culture has perverted it with. That it is not a political tool or simply a feeling, but an act(s) as stated in his lyrics that are worthy of worship.
At a time when many are proclaiming that CCM is on the rise again and that it is being revived into its past glory it is fitting that one of its leaders releases a new album to fit the occasion. It is 3 years in the making as Tomlin’s last album was Never Lose Sight (2016), and its around the time that the industry drove me away. At the turn of the decade CCM was going downhill in my eyes that other than a select few it was not worth my time, but little did I know from the release of his last album to now the industry is having a little mini revival. Ironically started by his last album and culminating with his new one. Just this year alone songs like “What A Beautiful Name” and “Reckless Love” are songs that remind me of what the CCM industry used to produce. It seems like Resurrection Power and Nobody Loves Me Like You will join its ranks in 2019. With that said the theme of being born again and the love of God are two important things that Christians can reflect on for the New Years. Each new year signals the old passed away and the new has come, and with each year that passes it’s another year of grace and love from the creator himself. Therefore, Resurrection power should remind the believer to live in victory and to continually live as a new being while simultaneously being reminded by Nobody Loves Me Like You of the love of God that was in 2018 and the love of God that is to come in 2019.