Back in the mid to late 1980’s I was in a post-punk band that called San Jose, California home. We were signed to a small independent label based in the Bay Area. As is the case with any young band trying to hone their live performance chops, we’d try to get gigs around town at various venues.
It just so happened that one of our band members was also an artist (a notable one at that). After he created posters, we’d go around downtown putting them up on walls, lampposts, in windows-anywhere, really, where we could-promoting our recordings and any performances we could drum up.
As it happened, other bands and performers were putting up posters as well, highlighting their gigs and musical recordings.
One such person was Chris Isaak.
I remember seeing his posters next to ours. His posters were professionally made; we printed ours at a local copy store. His posters showed an Elvis-looking crooner with nice skin on the front; our posters showed a chicken next to Albert Einstein. You couldn’t get two polar opposites. But as is the case with music, both Chris Isaak and our band were out to make an impact in the musical world.
Chris wasn’t originally from the Bay Area. Rather, he was from a city east of San Jose, named Stockton, California. But he was making great strides in the Bay Area, playing at all the “hip” places our band was trying to get gigs at. Our band’s scene was underground-Club X, The Fencing Club, and the like. Chris was playing the respectable places, real gigs where he got real money-I’m sure not a lot, but more than us.
As are things in life, our band eventually dissipated, becoming an underground flash in the pan, whereas Chris Isaak went on to “make it’ in the music industry, accumulating hit records and touring the globe.
Chris’ first inroad to music stardom consisted of two songs used on David Lynch’s movie, Blue Velvet. His crooning voice was a perfect match for the film.
Yet his first notable hit song was the 1989 tune, Wicked Game, from the album, Heart Shaped World. Not only was the song a radio hit, but an MTV hit as well. It showed the handsome Isaak running around with a model. Of course it would sell. But the song was, indeed, a good tune. Wicked Game was a top ten hit in several countries around the world, topping out at number 2 in the Unites States (Billboard Modern Rock tracks).
The rest is, if you will, history.
Isaak went on to record many albums, host an HBO TV show, act in several movies, and, more recently, star in a PBS broadcast dedicated to one of his recordings, Beyond the Sun.
And Chris continues to tour and record.
Recently Isaak was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, playing an outdoor concert at the Bio Park. Though it was a warm evening, the show was a marvelous mix of old and new, combining his own music with 1950/1960’s classics from Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. For a moment there I thought I was back in San Jose, California-his voice still strong and young. Mr. Isaak even came out into the audience to sing and jest with folks. To say the least, he was a hit in Albuquerque.
As is the case with most people I watch and listen to, I wondered what his worldview is. Does he have a faith? Does he prescribe to any religious system? The answer to that question is unknown to me. I do know that Chris has been in a movie that portrays Buddhist themes, but that doesn’t make him Buddhist. Just like someone playing Jesus in a movie doesn’t make the actor Christian.
Yet beyond just his personal belief, I began to wonder about the place of “secular” music. Though I’m of the disposition that the divide between “secular” and “sacred” music isn’t as expansive as most think, I do recognize that there is a divide. For me, all music is a testament to God’s grandeur.
But let me qualify: I recognize that there’s some music that has anti-Christian themes. Some music – particularly through the lyrics – has non-Christian sensibilities entwined in them. But at its root-the basic principle of musical creation-is an indicator of something bigger, more profound. In its simplest form, creation begets a Creator. We see this in the creative arts as well as in scientific fields (engineering, inventions, etc.).
This being said, when I think of music-or any of the arts-my mind turns to the theological principle of “common grace.” Rightfully understood, common grace refers to that which is common to all of humanity, those shared principles-or benefits-every human being partakes. These benefits come in th e form of creation (the natural world and science) and culture (the humanities, arts, and civilization). In short, these are gifts given by God to humanity, to be enjoyed and used as benefactors of His grace.
Common grace is differentiated from saving grace in that the later conjoins salvation (the theological term of justification) and redemption. Common grace is God’s gift to all; saving grace is God’s gift to those who receive and believe.
That being said, I’m glad God has imparted both graces. For when I hear someone like Isaak sing out his opening verse for Wicked Game, crooning, “The world was on fire and no one could save me but you. It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do. I never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you. And I never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you,” I can’t help apply it to God.
No one can save me but the Lord; people do foolish things; God is the fulfillment of my dreams; and, contrary to the song, God will never lose me: the love of God in Christ is God’s guarantee. Same song, different application.
My point in highlighting this correlation is that God can speak through secular songs as part of His common grace. It is the heart of the individual person that interprets common grace in a particular fashion, either for God’s glory or man’s glory. I choose the former. And furthermore, I hear in all music the harmonic tones that unify the world in God’s opulence, a symphony of notes that ring out for those who have ears to hear.
So sing on Chris Isaak.
To find out more about Chris and his projects, visit his Official Website
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Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, minister, and family man. You may contact him at Brian Nixon