July 5, 1997
It's 5:30 p.m. on the Fourth of July, and this reporter is standing at the back of Cornerstone Festival's main stage, waiting for Rich Mullins's Ragamuffin Band to finish their sound check. When you're participating in a 5-day outdoor festival, you take particular interest in the weather, and the threatening skies are finally releasing the inevitable summer shower every outdoor-event promoter dreads. The shower is light, and merely settles the dust, while I'm content to wait it out on the roofed stage listening to the band tear into a couple of 60's-style mod-rock numbers from Tom Hank's movie, "That Thing You Do." The Ragamuffins generally produce lighter fare to back up Rich Mullins's ballads and worship music, but this sounds just like the movie. There's a good reason for that--the musician who laid down all the guitar parts for the soundtrack and co-wrote five of the featured songs is a Ragamuffin, Rick Elias.
Rick Elias became a Christian about eight years ago, and professional musician over a decade earlier. He's released two albums on Christian labels but currently works in the lower-profile roles of guitar and keyboard musician, writer, and producer of other artists, including his wife Linda Elias's solo projects and her band, Tuesday's Child. He recently donated a song to PRISM magazine's compilation. Entitled "God, Incorporated," this biting first-person commentary on the spiritual dangers of professional Christianity has every record executive he knows asking him if he wrote it about them. "No," he explains in one of his all-too-rare solo concerts, "I wrote it about myself." With the sound check over, the stage crew mops up, and Rick Elias spends some time discussing his current professional work, his faith, and how the two worlds occasionally collide.
Tollbooth - What are your thoughts on Cornerstone Festival?
Elias -It's by far the hippest. If you were to judge the Contemporary Christian Music scene by who was popular at Cornerstone, you would come to the conclusion that things are pretty smoking. My first exposure to the Christian buying public at large was at a Cornerstone, 1990. I went, "Wow! This is going to be fun!" Then I found out it wasn't that at all. This is almost a negative portrait.
Tollbooth - A complete opposite?
Elias - A complete opposite to the way it really is out there in Christian radio and Christian retail. So that was a little disconcerting. Took me about a year to recuperate from that conclusion. I think it's a lovely festival. It's not perfect, but nothing is.
Tollbooth - The reason I wanted to talk to you is, as far as I can tell, you're successfully doing what everyone should be doing, which is crossing over and getting outside the ghetto. What are your thoughts on the Christian music industry vs. the secular one?
Elias - It's a really big issue for any artist who happens to be a Christian. I don't know that I've even got an answer for it yet. I kind of redefine it every day. I do know that I'm a Christian, and that I'm a musician, that I make music, and I'm happy to make music as long as it doesn't cause me to have to reject what I already believe in. I wouldn't do something I found morally objectionable.
That's a really tough question. I don't think any real musician sits down and says he's going to make music for a particular market. That's something that marketing guys do, and record labels. That's kind of their job. You should be making music that is from your soul, from your heart, that you have deep conviction about. Ideally, I think that's the kind of music we hope to make.
I make music, whatever kind of music it is, and I never really considered myself, and there's a subtle distinction here, a CCM artist. I just wanted to make music I wanted to make, and it happened to get signed to a Christian label. I would've made that music for anybody. Getting the gig for the movie was not that big a jump for me. That was just another assignment, another thing that was dear to my heart, and it so happened that that went to another audience.
You know, I've only been in Christian music for about eight years, and I didn't even know it existed prior to that, so most of my career as a musician has been in the general marketplace, and I feel most comfortable there. I don't really feel comfortable with the restrictions that seem to be placed implicitly or otherwise on so-called contemporary Christian artists.
Tollbooth - What are some of those restrictions?
Elias - That image is more important than substance, nine times out of ten. That you are supposed to in some way present an ideal of the Christian walk, rather than the reality of the Christian crawl, or whatever you want to call it.
As a result of that, in very many ways, the failings of CCM are symptomatic of the evangelical church at large in America. The reason why we've grown increasingly more irrelevant in our culture is the fact that we refuse to take the narrow path. The narrow path is one of vulnerability, and of openness, and of honesty. Instead, we've decided to sensationalize our faith, and Christ.
You look at televangelists, and you look most of your major Christian leaders in this country--every hair is in place, the nice suit, and the perfect family. I don't see that in my everyday walk with anybody who's a Christian. Anybody I know who's a Christian is struggling, and I don't even know that they lead a victorious life by the world's standards. I don't think we were ever guaranteed that, necessarily. We've decided to try to present Christ in a way in America that you'll become more prosperous, you'll become more likeable. Sort of like this panacea for all your social ills. You're going to make more money, you're going to be more popular, you're going to be better looking, your wife will love you, and your kids won't give you any problems, you'll have your job forever, and then you'll die and go to heaven. None of those other icky people around you to make life unpleasant. It just isn't that way, and everybody knows it's not that way, especially non-Christians. Non-Christians aren't fooled for a minute! They may be in spiritual darkness, but they're not idiots. In some ways, they're smarter than we are.
They look at Christian TV shows and they don't go, "Oh, well, bless their hearts, they're sweet people, and their motivations are right." They go, "You know what? I don't care what their motivations are. They have bad taste!" It's just that simple, "Look at them! I don't want to be that kind of a person, so later. If that's Christianity, I don't want it!"
All we have to offer to your average person is to try to cut beyond it, to try and show the way--that what you look like and how much money you make does not define who you are and your relationship with God.
I'm not a theologian. You know something? I don't even really care that much about theologians. I think they've set up a stumbling block nine times out of ten between people and God. They've made us believe that you have to be able to read the original text to understand what scripture is saying. If that's the case, we're all lost. You can take five theologians and put them all in a room, and they'll all disagree on any given text. So that can't be the answer, either. Somehow, God must exist, and if He does exist, then He is real, and that reality is objective, and some regard of Him just being there. We may all see Him in a different way and come at Him from a different angle, but He is there. He's God, and He is capable of making us understand his intentions.
I'm really in transition in my faith right now. I went through a period of real obedience, and then I went through a period of real disobedience. I don't mean to God so much, but just to the ways of the organized church at large. I don't really have any answers, and I think it's OK not to have any answers. I think that's the biggest thing.
That's the main thing about the Ragamuffin Band and why we continue to do this--we really value each other. We're like-minded in some ways in that none of us really know what's going on. We've all kind of come to this point in our lives where we're re-evaluating our faith and saying we know we believe in Jesus, we believe the Apostle's Creed. I have no fundamental disagreement with the church, or with the tradition of Christianity. The problems that we might have are some of these ancillary, culturally accepted . . . you put it well, you said in the "Christian ghetto." I'm just not buying into all that stuff anymore. You're going to have to convince me over again. I tried it your way for a while, and it didn't work.
Tollbooth -And you're making a living at it, somehow.
Elias - I'm making more of a living at it by not commodifying my faith. I refuse to commodify my faith. It's said that one of the prime contributing reasons for the corruption of the church in the Middle Ages was the fact that being a member of the clergy was one of the best jobs you could have. You made more money, you had more power. The aristocracy would raise their children up to become priests and bishops. Whenever Christianity becomes the best gig you can get, it's prime for corruption.
You're better off working. Just take your thing out into the general marketplace. Nothing wrong with working in Christian music per se, I have no problem with that. This A & R guy said to me the other day, "The word is that since you've become kind of successful, you don't want to do Christian music anymore." I said, "Absolutely not! I have as deep a passion, if not deeper about Christian music, about music that expresses my worldview, my mind set. I just don't want to be part of the CCM marketing sub-culture. That, I'll have nothing to do with, if I can help it."
But wherever I can make great music, I'm up for that. Rich Mullins is one of them. It's not his fault that he happens to be on a Christian label. In fact, the people he works with are really good people; this is a good label. I'm not even dogging Christian record labels, I'm just saying that there is a faction of guys out there in CCM that don't care one bit about the quality. All they care about is making a buck. I've heard it said by one A & R guy, "If you put this particular song with this particular title that has the word Jesus in it, I can guarantee you that forty thousand units will be sold of this record, just off the title alone." That's the way some of these people think! Some of these people, not all of them. I've made my mind up to seek out the good ones, and to try and work with them, and there's a lot of them. There's a lot of schmucks, too. They're the ones I try to avoid as much as I can, but can't always. You try.
Tollbooth - You've got a new CD.
Elias - That came out of nowhere. I didn't really plan on doing another record ever, but I wound up with the opportunity to compile some of the stuff I've been working on over the last few years that I never had any intention of releasing. They were just things I'd done in my basement. I knew they probably wouldn't wind up on anybody else's record, so in a way, I guess they were made with the purest motives you can think of. They were just made for me, without any intention of anyone else ever hearing them. But the opportunity came to compile them all together, and I did, then did a couple of other recordings that fill out the collection a little bit. It just came out in the U.K. and will be coming out here in the States in September.
Tollbooth - Are you going to support it with some touring?
Elias - I'll do some, I think, but really, right now, I'm gearing up to produce Randy Stonehill's next record, and then Rich's next record, and then we're (the Ragamuffin Band) going to tour next year, so that's my main focus right now. I'll probably tour a little bit, but I don't plan on leaving home for any period of time.
Tollbooth - Is the new album an extension of your earlier albums, "Confessions" and "Ten Stories?"
Elias - Yeah, in as much as those were mostly solo projects. It's where I've been for the last five years, and it's a step forward musically. I don't know if there's even an audience out there for it. It could be forty people, it could be forty thousand, it could be four hundred thousand.
Tollbooth - What label will it be on?
Elias - Here, in the States, it will be on Pamplin Records. Over in England and the Republic of Ireland, it's on ICC Records, and then in the rest of Europe, it'll probably be through Word Recall.
Tollbooth - Do you have a European following? How did you get international distribution so quickly?
Elias - Yeah, I've actually maintained more of a following over there, I think, than here. I don't really know from what. I can't tell you. They don't really have the CCM sub-culture that we have here, the infrastructure, so I don't even know how they hear of the music, but somehow they do. It tells me we don't really need CCM infrastructure to make things happen. (laughs) I shouldn't say that. They look at America as a land of wonderful opportunity for Christian evangelism and that they have to struggle a little bit more.
It's probably an over-simplification
to place all the problems at the feet of the CCM underground, or the evangelical
church, even. When push comes to shove, by and large, it's a lot of good
people trying to do their best, but man, whenever your consciousness and
your morals become subjugated to the collective will of some bureaucracy,
you're in trouble. We were not called to serve bureaucracy, we were not
called to serve denominations, we were called to serve Christ. In as much
as those denominations, or companies, or bureaucracies can aid in the cause
of Christ, and aid us in doing whatever it is we feel called to do, they're
a good thing. But the minute we're doing something we don't feel right
about doing because the company wants us to do something else, that's just
a different story all together. And that's just been going on, in my opinion,
just a little too long. Way too long.
By Linda Stonehocker