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Signatures: The Story of John Michael Talbot
Author: Dan O’Neill
Publisher: Troubadour For The Lord
I had often wondered why John Michael Talbot converted to Catholicism. I hoped that by reading this book I would better understand John’s life and his reasons for becoming Catholic. I was not disappointed. This is a detailed account of John’s entire life with a large part devoted to his journey to the Catholic faith and where it has taken him.
I found it interesting that as a young child there were hints of what his personality would become. He was musically inclined, loved nature, and would sometimes retreat into solitude. It confirmed the idea of how formative our early years can be.
Reading about Mason Profit, the band that he and his brother Terry formed, gave me insight into what life on the road for a rising country-rock band was like.
Particularly moving was the honest account of his failed marriage. I could feel the pain in his words. Contrary to rumor, he did not leave his wife to become a monk. He married young and even after both he and his wife became believers and had a child, they could not make it work. It is one of the most sobering parts of the book.
After becoming a Christian, John became one of the pioneers of the Christian music scene. The book mentions the rocky relationship that he and Keith Green had right from the start. This was before John had become Catholic and Keith had written "The Catholic Chronicles"—a series of tracts that was highly critical of the Catholic Church. When John, as a new Christian, was trying to eat better, Keith told him that he would go to hell if he didn’t eat at McDonald’s. Later Keith would accuse John of leaving his wife to become a monk, reminding him that he was going to hell. Despite their troubles, John was genuinely saddened by the news of Keith’s passing, and years later Keith’s wife Melody would visit John and his community and apologize.
After another tragic death of a Christian artist, there was some speculation about his relationship to Catholicism. Still, it was a little bit of a shock to read that according to the book, Rich Mullins was just a few weeks away from being confirmed as a Catholic. It was clear that St. Francis had a big influence on Rich before the end of his life.
Francis also looms large in John’s life. The book goes into extensive detail about the community that he formed, which is a hybrid of many monastic groups and traditions, and the growing pains that it has gone through. Prayer and obedience to the gospel are the foundation of all that goes on. It’s a lifestyle that challenges my own.
This unique and radical lifestyle was part of what appealed to John about Catholicism. He writes, "There were three things that really drew me into the Catholic Church: 1) the rich contemplative and mystical tradition, 2) the balance of scripture, tradition and magisterium (or the Church’s teaching authority), 3) and the monastic heritage of radical gospel movements and communities." Ultimately, it came down to unity. In John’s mind, the greatest argument for Roman Catholicism was the existence of the Pope and the people that he led, who together comprise "the largest fully united religion on the face of the earth."
One of my favorite parts of the book is the background information that John provides on virtually all of his recordings and most of his books. His thoughts and recollections of his music and experiences are contained in shaded boxes scattered throughout the book. Being somewhat familiar with many of his recordings, it was fascinating to get his viewpoint on each one.
John also makes an interesting observation on the Christian music industry,
"‘In the early days of contemporary Christian music, it was clear there was a movement that was Spirit-driven. Suddenly, over a few short years, this industry has become money-driven,’ John asserts. ‘Money has to be considered, but it should never be primary. In early contemporary Christian music, the message was clearly in the music. In recent years, executives are concerned with the bottom line. For example, it is widely understood throughout the contemporary Christian world that if a new artist is to be signed, they must be young and good-looking,’ John says. ‘The first generation of Contemporary Christian musicians usually left a successful career in secular music to use their music for pure ministry. Today, many music ministers seem to use their music to build a career, or as a doorway into secular music. It seemed to me that everything had been turned upside-down. At some point in my music ministry, it dawned on me that this industry was in trouble. I decided to leave.’"
This book will primarily appeal to those who are interested in John’s music and his Catholic faith. I found it helpful in learning more of what he believes and how he is living out.
It’s hard not to admire John’s accomplishments. I look forward to listening to more of his music with a new appreciation.