- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

Christian music has come a long way from the days of Keith Green concerts at the state fairgrounds.

Two weekends ago, I heard the classic-folk Cameron Blake Band at the Mayorga Coffeehouse in Silver Spring. Within its olive and ocher walls, Mr. Blake, 26, who holds a master’s degree in violin from the Peabody Institute, was at the keyboards with a trio of Peabody grads on violin, cello and the djembe, an African drum.

The music was beautiful, but the lyrics needed footnotes. One song was a mixture of passages from “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck and Ray Charles soul. Another was about Sylvia Plath - an American poet and novelist who committed suicide at the age of 31.

Mr. Blake, the Sunday morning worship leader at the Village, a Baltimore-area church, has cut two CDs: “Revival’s Flare” and “Over and Over.” He’s fascinated by how Bob Dylan’s surrealistic 1966 “Blonde on Blonde” album hints at realities.

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“I am trying to make poetry,” he said. “What I am trying to do is revitalize Christian music and bring it to an element of deep art, like Dylan did.”

Suggesting, not shouting, is what young evangelicals are all about these days. Everything is low-key. Things are hinted, not said. You have to seek and seek before you find.

I asked Mark Joseph, author of “Faith, God & Rock ‘n’ Roll,” to explain.

“There is a new breed of God-rocker,” he said in an e-mailed reply. “In the past they were called ‘Christian artists.’ Today they just prefer to be called ‘artists,’ period, because they believe the modifier keeps people away.

“They are still animated by their faith and often sing about it, but they’re working to integrate it into their music more naturally so that it’s less like a door-to-door salesman selling religion and more like an artist sharing with a listener those things that are important to him or her, which includes the faith that animates every part of their lives.”

Which is why Mr. Blake and a friend have been grilling hot dogs for homeless men in Baltimore. Mr. Blake has experienced the disconnectedness and surrealism of the mentally disturbed, and the fractured syntax in his song “You Bought Me Twice” shows it.

“It’s like a long prose poem or a patchwork of thoughts,” the composer told me. “Basically, it’s language going mad and how following Christ can seem like madness.”

Which is a long ways from the Second Chapter of Acts lyrics we heard in the ‘70s about how to get saved.

“The biggest band of the ‘80s was Petra - which means rock - and the best-selling band of the ‘90s was Jars of Clay, which is a metaphor for the frail human condition,” Mr. Joseph said. “[The band] Switchfoot in particular has mastered the Socratic method - raising disturbing and troubling questions they hope will agitate the soul to seek spiritual answers.”

But Mr. Blake said he was criticized by judges at a recent conference for not being commercial enough.

“It was kind of crushing,” he said. “They were saying all weekend we needed to be innovators and getting Christian music back to true art.”

He has a more appreciative audience in bars, coffee shops and laundromats where, “We were meeting the local drunks and people loved it. I was singing about Jesus in mysterious language and we were ministering to them offstage.”

Julia Duin’s “Stairway to Heaven” runs Tuesdays and Thursdays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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