The Phantom Tollbooth

John Fischer
URL: The Fischtank
Interviewed by Trish Patterson and Geoff Horton
Photos by Trish Patterson
Cornerstone Festival, July 1998
Bushnell, Illinois

The legendary John Fischer is considered a founding father of what is known today as contemporary Christian music. After conducting a four-part seminar and gracing festival attendees with an acoustic concert of his music, Fischer sat down with us in a trailer and spoke openly and honestly about his perspective on changes in the contemporary Christian music industry from its inception to the present, writing for CCM Magazine, his books, and his website The Fischtank among other things. Fischer resides in California with his wife, Marti, and their two children, Chris and Anne.

Tollbooth - Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by The Phantom Tollbooth.

Fischer - Well, I am honored to be here.

Tollbooth - What do you feel are the predominate changes that have taken place in the contemporary Christian music industry over the past 30 years?

Fischer - Well, on the downside would be how what started as a spontaneous expression of Christians who wanted to save the world with their guitars turned into a Christian music industry in the first place. To me, that's kind of a move away from what it originally was intended to be. The downside of an industry is that it needs to feed itself so that it can function. In other words, we've got to have more artists and more product; we have to get to the people and find out what they want; and then we have to give the people what they want. We got a whole bunch of other questions that we are answering that the music was never originally designed to answer. That's probably one of the biggest problems right there. The industry was actually formed right there in the beginning to provide a service for the artists to get their product out to people. The more it became an industry in and of itself, other elements took control. So that's been a downside, but it's a nature of reality, our society, media, fame, and all that. There was probably no other way around it. So I say it's a downside, but that's the way anything's going to go.

On the upside is the realization that we now have a pretty huge platform and a whole lot of people and resources that are available to get the work out for young artists who are Christians and feel like they want to express themselves, be it as an act of faith, a ministry, or even as simply an art form. In the midst of all this, there is some genuinely good work going on on both sides of the map. What I mean by that is what we might call more mainstream CCM, which is really geared toward the Christian audience. There are some real artists with integrity who have things to say to that audience that are important to them. Then, especially lately, there has been resurgence of a kind of support for the artist who may not necessarily even be a minister or want to minister to Christians, but simply want to do their music as a Christian. I think that's a valid expression, too. In the midst of all that, there are all kinds of groups who are missing the mark, who don't have integrity, or who are not very good.

Tollbooth - When did you discover that there were problems in the contemporary Christian music industry?

Fischer - It's hard to say when things really happened. My first album was in 1969. I recorded for a Catholic group. They were the only ones who would do anything contemporary that early. Larry Norman's album didn't even come out until six months after mine, so I have the dubious honor of beating him. But, it depends on who you're talking to if I get to be the first. (Laughter) We started to notice problems developing pretty early on. I think by 1970, maybe 1971, was when the companies started getting involved. As soon as that occurred, it was more than just us playing our music, making tapes, and selling them at concerts. As soon as you started to get A&R types and industry-type people thinking about sales and marketing, that's when you started to notice. It's not that any of those things are bad, but they open up a can of worms. Wherever there are money and marketing issues, there are going to be questionable motivations. It wasn't as obvious in the beginning because at that time we weren't making any money at this. We were just doing this because we felt we had to get The Message out. But as soon as you bring in an industry based on a secular model--booking agents, record companies, sales, marketing--then you're going to bring in elements that can lead you astray.

Tollbooth - How do you feel about praise & worship music?

Fischer - I think there's definitely a place for praise & worship. I worry a little about it sometimes in that it has almost become an enterprise. People are learning how to crank these things out almost formula-like. Good ones sound good--the band's professional, the sound's groovy, and people like it. The better it becomes the more I get worried about it because then I have to wonder what does the Lord have to do with it? Is it really the Lord or is it the music? I think that we need to make sure that with our praise and worship there is a lot of really good teaching going on at the same time to back-up the things we are talking about. I think we need to always be stretching people in their praise and worship into areas where they are uncomfortable so that everything's not so familiar and comfortable.

There's a mystery to God, and that's why I really lament the fact that a lot of praise & worship has abandoned the hymns. I wouldn't mind hearing some of those old archaic sounds that don't work with our minds and our experiences and don't make us necessarily feel comfortable because there's something about worship that should not be relevant. You see, I get really worried with how relevant everything is to our culture. I think there are things about knowing God that are relevant to our day and age, but there are other things about knowing God that are irrelevant about our situation and to our time in life. We should have the understanding that God is bigger than 1998 and what we have in our "touchy-feely" existence right now. So, I get worried that we aren't worshipping God in other areas where I think we need to grow.

Tollbooth - What would you like to see the contemporary Christian music industry become or evolve to?

Fischer - I have an ideal world answer and a real world answer. The ideal world answer is I wouldn't mind if it disappeared. For instance, Christians who are really good and who are going to minister to other Christians would end up singing and be tied into churches. There wouldn't be this big CCM thing getting it out. People who are really good enough to be out there in the world would be there. They'd make it. And so on one hand I'm not sure
if we really need it.

On the other hand, I know for a fact that it isn't going to go away. So, now that it's here, let's build the best we can to it. And what I actually think is a good idea is if CCM becomes more Christian. You know, somebody asked me, "How do you define Gospel music?" and then they went on to explain this big definition that has to do with world view. Then I said, "Well, to be fair to Gospel music, why don't we have Gospel music be music about The Gospel?" Why not? You see, I feel like Christian music, if we're going to give it that label, should be primarily Christian themes directed to The Message. This is what it is. That's what it isn't. Because the thing is, if you don't feel led to do that, you're not any less a Christian, and there are other avenues for you to express yourself.

Tollbooth - You have written a column for CCM Magazine for at least twenty years. Who is your target audience?

Fischer - I write to the thinking Christian. I want to write to the Christian who has realized they have a mind and that God gave them a mind to use for something. People who just want to be fed stuff and not have to think about it are probably not going to like my articles because sometimes I raise more questions than I solve. I do that on purpose because questions are what get us thinking and also make us realize that we really don't have things nailed down so tightly like we thought we did. Having said that, I also take pretty seriously the fact that I know a lot of people on the inside of the industry (artists, executives, writers) read my column, and so in many ways I'm thinking about them. And young artists--I'm thinking about them a lot as I write to try to help direct them and give them some kind of countenance because some of them are out there pioneering in newareas. From my vantage point, writing a column puts me in some place of authority, and I want to be able to affirm them by saying, "Hey, way to go! You're doing the right thing."

Tollbooth - I know you're on the Internet because I've e-mailed you several times about your CCM Magazine columns. How has the Internet affected you and your work?

Fischer - It has had a major affect. It's really enhanced and upped my communication skills and abilities to touch people and interact with them on a large basis. It's also been a real source of encouragement for me. For instance, as a writer you hardly ever get any feedback. Every once in a while you get those people who come and say, "Hey, I really liked your CCM article." Since I got my own website and e-mail address and put it on my column, I get four or five people a day that respond to my CCM articles. That encourages me personally. Wow! People are actually reading this! There are people who do care! (Laughter) That helps me as a writer to be more conscientious. The other thing is I get feedback from them and that helps me to develop ideas for other things I might want to say in my columns. In fact, I've even written columns out of conversations that have come through my website. I actually quoted somebody who had recently written me a comment.

If I have an idea I'm mulling around and it isn't formed enough yet to become an article, I'll throw it in my Tank and see what people have to say about it. Some of those ideas will eventually become articles. That's been a lot of fun.

Having a website is also starting to allow me to find an audience out there that I formerly was not able to tap into. I know there are people who read my books. Now I'm beginning to find them.

Tollbooth - You've written several books. In Real Christians (Don't) Dance, how do you describe real love and obedience for Christians, and how does one go about discovering that?

Fischer - I think love comes first, and obedience comes out of love. When we realize everything that Christ has done for us, we have a sense of His grace. We understand the extent that He's gone through to make possible a relationship with us. Our obedience is a natural reaction to all that He's done for me. It is the least I can do to want to find out what He wants me to do for Him. So, to me, that's how those are tied together. That's important because without the element of love, obedience becomes a legalistic kind of thing, as if I'm doing this to get love and attention, which is the human way we normally perform. When you come face to face with Christ in God's economy, you find it works differently. You are pleasing before God before you even start, and out of that you obey joyfully.

Tollbooth - Another book you have written is titled True Believers (Don't) Ask Why. When God allows pain, suffering, and unanswered questions in our lives, He already knows what we need. Why should we "ask, seek and knock on the door"? What does that do for us as Christians?

Fischer - Asking, seeking, and knocking wakes us up! If we just assume God knows everything, then we're just going to kind of muddle along and fall asleep. We're not going to care. This is a relationship--a two-way thing. God wants to hear from us, and so we need to articulate what we're after in a relationship with Him. God, I believe, has invited us to have that kind of interaction with Him. He wrestled with Jacob, and it was not such a bad deal. He wants us to want Him bad enough to be involved with Him. So, "asking, seeking and knocking" wakes us up and gets us involved in the equation.

Tollbooth - What is the name of your latest book, and what is it about?

Fischer -- Ashes on the Wind - It's a novel about a regular family that gets swept into a bizarre adventure involving a pseudo-snake handling preacher and an ornery step-grandfather who is looking for his wife's ashes which were switched by the mortuary by mistake. Just your average story...

Tollbooth - Who have been the greatest influences in your life?

Fischer - Well, I would say probably first off my mother, who was a real woman of God and taught me to love the Word of God as a child. Second would be a man who discipled me; he was like my spiritual father. He was the first Christian in my life who was real before me, honest about his life, his own struggles. Through that I was able to see that faith is a real thing, not just somebody who is trying to be better than everybody else. Leadership is someone who is vulnerable, someone who is open and says, "This is me. This is how life is for me." So in watching him, because he let me see his life, I learned some very valuable lessons. Then I would say beyond that would be people whose writings I've read. My favorites include C. S. Lewis, Blase Paschal (17th century), and a more contemporary guy named Frederick Buechner. Buechner's had a major influence, even on my writing-style.

Tollbooth - What kinds of things do you like to do for pleasure?

Fischer - I like to go to baseball games. I follow the Angels closely. I also love to take my wife out to eat. There is a restaurant in Laguna we enjoy going to for lunch. We enjoy listening to the waves and talking.

Tollbooth - What are your plans for the future?

Fischer - Working on two books now: another novel called Roses on Wednesday and exploring an idea for a non-fiction piece that came from a comment at C-stone. I would call it 12-Steps for Recovering Pharisees.

Tollbooth - If you had one thing to say to the world, what would it be?

Fischer - God sent His Son. He became one of us. Jesus died for us and rose again to prove He was who He said He was. And because He has taken our inability to live the way even God His father wanted us to live, He has provided forgiveness and a way back to Him, so we can be in a relationship with God. The whole thing is being back in touch with our Creator, living off of that relationship, and having the joy of that re-established, whatever it means in our existence. It's going to be different things for different people. The most important thing is to be reunited.