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  In Retrospect: A Double CD Collection.
Artist: Marsha Stevens
Label: BALM 

If Larry Norman is to be called "the father of Christian rock," then Marsha Stevens certainly deserves to be known as "the mother of contemporary Christian music," a title that Christian Century magazine and others have bestowed upon her. At sixteen, she wrote and sang the classic Christian folk hymn "For Those Tears I Died"; later she was the leader of one of the world' s first contemporary Christian music groups, Children of the Day, and she has continued as a solo artist to produce albums of worship-oriented and edifying adult contemporary pop. She has been ostracized from the Christian music culture, however, because she is also a lesbian who sees no conflict between committed homosexual relationships and biblical, evangelical Christianity.

Questions concerning the origins and ethics of homosexuality are extremely controversial and this is not the place to discuss them. Suffice to say that Stevens' own denomination (the Metropolitan Community Church), to which she is accountable, has formally blessed her relationship with life partner Suzanne McKeag and certified her as a lay evangelist. In the last decade, Stevens has performed 200 concerts a year and recorded eleven albums, all on her independent BALM label; the acronym stands for "Born Again Lesbian Music." Still, not a single review, interview, article, or even reference to her work or music has appeared in any media outlet devoted to contemporary Christian music. That she would be controversial is a given; that she should be ignored seems more dubious-why not let Christian music fans decide for   themselves whether they want to support or denounce her?

In Retrospect offers a two-disc "best-of" compilation that accurately summarizes Steven's career. As with any artist who has been at it this long, there is quite a bit of variety, but the dominant sound is in the same ballpark as artists like Nicole Nordeman, Twila Paris, Kathy Troccoli, and many others. Indeed, she makes fun of the overcrowded ccm market from which she has been somewhat blissfully excluded:  "Does the world really need another middle-aged female Christian singer? Check out the racks! I make contemporary Christian music for the gay, lesbian, bi, and transgendered Christian community. It may be a narrow field but, hey, it's wide open!" The most distinctive contribution she might make to the broader field would be in songwriting. In general, Stevens' material is more theologically astute, culturally sensitive, and personally vulnerable than the a/c hits that fill up Christian radio playlists. She is not a one-issue player, furthermore, and most of her material does not deal directly or obviously with homosexuality. Indeed, many of her songs could be hits on the most conservative Christian radio stations, if only they were written or sung by someone else. Yet she is not ashamed of who she is and, at times, the issue surfaces. On a song called "I Still Have a Dream" she updates Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of an inclusive society :

    I dream of a land where all children can be free
   To grow and mature into what they're meant to be
   To love whom they love, with no fear of penalty.

On "No Matter What Way," she celebrates the realization of that dream in her own community:

    Here we are, such a motley crew
    Gay and straight, and loving You
    No matter what way this world defines us
    Nothing is stronger than this tie that binds us.

All told, there are thirty-three songs on this collection. Some of the early numbers ("Falling Star,""Romans 8," "All Your Names Are Love") have a '70s Jesus Music feel to them, recalling the folk-pop stylings of Children of the Day. A few others ("Celebrate," "Sing a New Song," "All Things Are Possible") have a big "church musical" sound that might remind nostalgic Jesus freaks of those old shows by Jimmy and Carol Owens. Those more oriented to the '90s will find highlights elsewhere."Wash Over Me" (co-written with her son, John Stevens) and "Healing Still" are two of the most beautiful adult contemporary Christian ballads in recent memory. "Eastern Gate" (which anticipates eternal friendships to be enjoyed in heaven) and "Cup of Joy" (which counts blessings to be experienced here on
earth) are also fairly traditional Christian songs that seem like they should have been Dove contenders.

Personally, I like the numbers where Stevens messes around a bit. "I'm Blessed" is a country ballad with a simple lyric ("I don't say I'm lucky anymore, I say I'm blessed"); it sounds like something Susan Ashton or Vince Gill might do. "No Matter What Way" can only be described as a synth-pop dance track and "Light of the World" draws on Black Gospel and R&B influences. "Is It I?" is actually a rock song based on the discussion of the disciples when Jesus tells them one of them will betray him. "Don't Change Me" (another Marsha and John track) is sung in a bluesy voice and features Steve Taylor-esque lyrics that lampoon WWJD-banded Christians who want to be "the same only better" and expect God to get them there. "I Will Not Behave Like Prey" finds Stevens growling in an appropriate manner for a song that looks the roaring lion of 1 Peter 5:8 in the eye and refuses to run. A powerful track called "The Body of Christ Has Aids" plays on the biblical metaphor of the Church as "the body of Christ" to bring home Christ 's identification with his followers who suffer from HIV.

A number of Stevens' songs are poignant or distinctive in their message. "Mommy's Song" seeks to supplement popular images of God as Father in the light of the lesser known biblical presentation of God as mother (e.g., Isaiah 49:15):

   God I've known you as a Father for all these many years . . .
   But now I'm asking something new
   Will you be my Mommy, too?

And if that seems too maudlin, consider that it is from 1987 and flash forward to 1999 when she offers these revelations:

    Wish I could sing in glowing terms of family that I had
    My mother led the choir, the preacher was my Dad
    But other people never saw what went on as I slept
    And all I know for certain is, Jesus wept . . .
    Wept for Mommies unbelieving and screams the Church forgets
    But long into the deepest night there was a vigil kept
    Jesus saw and Jesus knew and Jesus wept ("Jesus Wept").

There are also a couple of hymns, including a roof-raising rendition of "Revive Us Again" (ala Ashley Cleveland) and a lavish re-make of "For Those Tears I Died."

Stevens, for her part, displays no shred of bitterness toward the Christian music subculture that has felt the need to banish her. She acknowledges the strained relationship and on one song offers an olive branch to "the friends I've left behind, who feel bewildered and betrayed, who will never understand the agonizing choice I've made." The chorus goes:

   Can't we find a way to make a truce of heart, if not of mind?
   Can't we find a place of peace, where we can share the bread and wine?
   Can't we find some love to salvage, can't we find some joy to share?
   Can't we find my hand still fits in yours to say a prayer?

Mark Allan Powell 7/27/2001
 
 

Mark Allan Powell is Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio and author of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music (Hendrickson, 2002).
 
   
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