Should Christian music focus on praise and worship? Or can Christian music express ALL emotions, including sadness, anger, even rage?
Frank Hart (see our ) and the band Atomic Opera feel strongly that for every Christian out there looking for traditional praise music, there’s another one drawn to an alternative beat. They’ve seen it with their own eyes since their start performing in college towns and drawing the attention of young people who dug their vibes and related to their lyrics.
“People were intrigued by our dark, heavy sound and thought-provoking lyrics that hinted at spiritual themes without being heavy-handed about it,” said Hart. “I wanted more than anything to share the hope I had found in Jesus with people who either didn’t know much about Him, or had been damaged by bad experiences with church people and didn’t think they needed any of that in their life. I just wanted to make people think, make them feel something, and let God do the rest. No altar calls, no pressure, no preaching. Just big, powerful music that hinted at all the hidden mysteries of faith and doubt.”
All of Atomic Opera’s songs are based in theology, but they take the approach of parables rather than sermons. Hart explained, “The message is ‘for those who have ears to hear’ and not as overtly ‘Christian’ as many of my church-going friends would like it to be. Sometimes we are too ‘secular’ for the church people and too ‘sacred’ for the frat party scene.”
But that’s what the band likes about their music – the fact that it lies on what is sometimes a fine line between Christian and secular. This allows them to create a form of outreach, a way to reach non-Christians or those a little intimidated or put off by traditional ideas of who Christians are.
This philosophy has worked for them. In 1993, the band was signed to the Warner Music Group and recorded the album For Madmen Only. They played to festival crowds along with bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Metallica, King’s X, and Galactic Cowboys. Since then, Atomic Opera has been described as an eighteen wheeler storming down the freeway, often stopping suddenly to allow a tricycle to pedal across the road—just so you can appreciate the massive truck again. A melodic, harmonic explosion.
One of Hart’s favorite songs from that album, “Joyride,” speaks to how Jesus said not to worry about tomorrow because today has enough troubles of its own. When it all gets to be too much, maybe you might have to stop and scream. And the song reflects that with big harmonies, a wall of guitars playing a heavy groove, and lot of stops and starts. That’s the goal – for the music to express the emotions we all have and say, It’s okay to feel those emotions. Just let them out!
Hart describes “Justice” as an angry song. “I wrote the song in 1991 but it sounds like I could have written it last night listening to the news headlines. Everyone yelling at each other with their fists in the air. A ‘black parade’ of violence and anger. Everyone thinks they want justice, everyone cries out for it, but the last thing I would ever want for myself is justice. I know me too well. When I pray, I ask for mercy.”
There’s a song on For Madmen Only called “Blackness” about a white boy from the Midwest who struggles to understand his hidden racism, saying, ‘I don’t even have to deal with it, but you can’t help but think about it.’ Not your traditional Christian song by any standards, but profound, and especially important for the time in which we live.
“These days it seems like most of the Christian music being written and recorded is worship music. Songs to be sung in church services. Songs of praise and thanksgiving. There’s certainly nothing wrong with music for Sunday morning, but what about the rest of the week?” questioned Hart. “Where are the songs about the rest of life? All the other subjects the Bible talks about. All the other emotions we deal with as human beings.
“What would be the best musical setting for the prophets? Malachi, Amos, Habakkuk? What would the existential angst of Ecclesiastes sound like set to music? When Job questions God? When God questions Job? When Jesus drives the money changers out of the Temple?
“See, this is where I think bands like Atomic Opera step in, when thunder and power are called for to express the honest questions and observations of raw human emotion and intellect. Sometimes I have felt like Amos calling out the unfaithful people of God for their unbelief. Other times I have felt like Jonah pleading with unbelievers to recognize that God is God before it’s too late. And a lot of the time, I have felt like the writer of Ecclesiastes or Habakkuk, looking for the last shred of faith in this world of hopelessness and meaninglessness—searching for something to believe in. I want to be the soundtrack for anyone who squints toward the heavens and says, ‘Lord, I believe (I think); help my unbelief.’”