The summer of 1996 was a peculiar time for me. For the first time in my life, I started to take my faith seriously and really ask whether I would stick with the Christian thing or move on to something else. I had spent the spring working like a dog at both college and work (I went full-time at a mutual fund company that spring), trying to get over a particularly difficult breakup, and attempting to sort out my various feelings about my life up to that point.
Music has always been the vocabulary of my life’s journey and in the preceding year, I had spent a lot of money on music. The early 90’s were a great time for music, sort of the last gasp before the digital revolution of the internet transformed the music world. I had all kinds of music – from Spanish guitar to emo metal to pop to country to classical. I even owned a couple of rap albums, although it has never been my kind of music.
Then, in the summer of 1996, I picked up one of my first “Christian” albums. It was DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak” which had been released the previous November. I picked it up pretty much at random although it had been recommended to me by a friend. I had heard that beside being done by “Christian” artists, it was just a good album. Up to this point, my experience with Christian music had been mostly in the realm of Southern Gospel – not a genre known for innovation or lyrical depth.
(For those who don’t know anything about DC Talk, they were a pop-rap trio formed by three classmates at Liberty University in 1987. I knew a little about them because the “rap kids” in college listened to them; but like I said, rap was not my thing.)
DC Talk’s previous album, “Free at Last” had done remarkably well for a pop rap album, but Michael Tait wanted to do something else for the next album. The three developed a genre-defying fusion of the grunge rock style and rap that allowed them to innovate on multiple levels. The lyrical depth of the songs they created for “Jesus Freak” was unprecedented in popular Christian music at that time. In many ways, it shadowed the work of Rich Mullins who had taken his own spiritual struggles and placed them in the lyrics of his music. Tracks like “What If I Stumble?”, “In the Light”, “Mind’s Eye” and “What Have We Become?” asked questions about struggles of faith while “Colored People” and “Mrs. Morgan” celebrated diversity with a knowing smile and a joke.
The album got fairly wide exposure in even the “secular” world, debuting at #16 in the Billboard 200 and eventually going double platinum. DC Talk got a big contract from Virgin Records, but their follow-up album, “Supernatural,” had disappointing sales and the group went on a hiatus shortly thereafter.
For me, the album was tranformative. Here I was an unintentionally rebellious preacher’s kid with real questions about my faith; but I was surrounded by Christians who gave cliched answers that simply did not work. I had dived head first into all kinds of bad habits and lifestyle choices looking for what I could not find; and yet I knew that Christ was calling me back to himself.
When I first heard it, all I could say was that “Jesus Freak” was one of the most perfect albums ever recorded. I do not say this lightly. For me, it opened all kinds of musical and spiritual doors I did not know I had shut. Here were three guys who had reinvented themselves to tell the Jesus story to an entirely different group of people. They were honest. Their music was rocking. I listened to it every day for over a month. I had the cassette for my car and the CD for my room. I memorized lyrics, reciting them to myself. I tried to play the songs.
All of this was the beginning of a spiritual awaken for me. When I got back to school, I met my future wife and she introduced me to Rich Mullins. Then, I stumbled on Michael Card. The two of them could not be more different from DC Talk, and yet they were so honest and so real.
When I listen to tracks from DC Talk now, I am no longer as drawn to them. In a sense, I have outgrown most of the music on the album. It has a nostalgic draw for me, and I turn it on every once in awhile and rock out to it. It also has tremendous spiritual significance for me because it (and Petra Praise II, but that’s another story) was instrumental in righting the ship of my life and drawing me back to Christ.
So, 20 years ago I got this album (I’m not sure what day); and I have DC Talk to thank for being God’s instrument for me at the time. Some of you might say, “How could God use a rock band?” My answer is: He used Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon and Cyrus the Persian to do his work. Why couldn’t he use a rock band?