"To effectively convict anybody, you have to stand alongside of them.  I think the biggest tool for me is sharing my own experience of being offended, of being scandalized; and then I can go right down through everyone who ever got close to Jesus, and they had a similar experience."

"Music prolongs our joy so that we can enjoy it longer, and it somehow defines our sadness so we can cope with it."

"Entertainment is okay.  The only serious reservation I have about entertainment is when it becomes primary.  I would go so far as to say I don't think, as a primary goal, that entertainment is Biblical.  At the same time, I believe Jesus was very entertaining, primarily because you never knew what he was going to do next."

"Well, if [Christian music] functioned the way it should, it wouldn't be an industry at all.  It would be a community, which is what it originally was.  It was a community of people that came out of the Jesus movement who were burdened with the message of the Gospel, regardless of  whether it was accepted or not. . . . I think all you can ever expect of an industry is a product and profits and power.  That's the value system of an industry.  What can you expect from community?  Well, you can expect something more personal--encouragement and that sort of thing."

Michael Card has established a reputation as one of the most thoughtful Biblical expositors in Christian music. From his groundbreaking trilogy The Life, which looked at the gospels in ways few musicians had explored, to Unveiled Hope, a journey through the biblical prophecies, Card has challenged conventional notions of both how we read the Bible and what it means to be a Christian. The Tollbooth had an opportunity to talk with Michael just before Christmas on topics ranging from the Christian music industry to music for the deaf to finding time in a busy world. 

Interview with Michael Card 
December 11, 1997
By J. Robert Parks

Tollbooth - You and I have actually talked before.  We did a telephone interview about nine years ago. Not that you will remember me at all.  But I thought that, as the course of the interview goes on, I'd ask just a few of the same questions I asked then, just to see how things have changed.

M. Card - Yeah, it would be interesting to know what I said.

Tollbooth -  I thought I'd start with sort of a softball question, sort of a seasonal one.  What does Christmas mean to you, and how do you try to communicate that in your concerts?

M. Card - Frederick Buechner said, "If Christmas doesn't mean everything, then it doesn't mean anything." And I think that's probably as close as an answer as I can get in terms of specifics. I can take or leave all of the seasonal and cultural associations that it has, but the real, deep significance of Christmas has to do with being a Christian, period.  The incarnation is what makes it all possible.

Tollbooth - I was reading an interview where you talked about how issues of poverty and desperation and desolation were important ones to rediscover at Christmas time.  Could you just say a little bit about that?

M. Card - Sure.  Those are the original context.  One thing that we're always trying to rebuild in understanding the Bible is what was the original context, and that's pretty much disappeared in American Christianity in our understanding of the birth of Jesus.  You know, "Silent night, holy night." It doesn't take a Ph.D. to go to a maternity ward and see what it's like for a woman to have a baby and then go to a barn and imagine all that happening in a stable or a barn.  And I think that's where the whole sacrifice began; it culminates, of course, on the Cross. Even the birth was an emptying.  Jesus could have grasped equality with God.  Not only did he not grasp equality with God, he was born in poverty.

Tollbooth - In many of your lyrics you focus on issues of sacrifice and scandal and offense.  I'm particularly interested in the issue of offense and how that relates to your audience. How do you try to offend your audience out of its complacency?

M. Card - Yeah, that's good.  And I think there is an art to that.  I don't know whether I've learned it or not.  I know that there are people who get the idea of the scandal from the Bible, and then they sort of try to scandalize people and it really isn't the same thing.  To effectively convict anybody, you have to stand alongside of them.  I think the biggest tool for me is sharing my own experience of being offended, of being scandalized; and then I can go right down through everyone who ever got close to Jesus, and they had a similar experience.  That's kind of how I do it.

Tollbooth - An old quotation from a press packet says, "Music ministers to your heart.  Bible studies are more mental."  Do you think that's still true for you?

M. Card - No, I hope I've grown from that because I'm teaching Bible now and I hope that it's not just mental.  I much prefer the word "imagination."  One thing I think, since the last time we talked, I've come to realize that a big part of what the Bible is about is recapturing our imagination.  So, no, I
don't think I agree with that anymore.

Tollbooth - So what is the relationship between your music and your lyrics?

M. Card - The music is a vehicle.  I think it's pretty much always been that; it's always been vehicular. People have faulted me for that, and that's probably justified. 

Tollbooth - How have they faulted you for that?

M. Card - Well, music being secondary for me.  Because there's also a school - and I don't disagree with them--that just the beauty of music itself can be confessional and true, and I believe that, too. But that's just not my calling.  I'm actually not that good of a musician.  I'm a words person.  So music for me has always been just a vehicle, and the lyrics have always dictated the music.

Tollbooth - Here's a quote: "I was a Bible teacher who got pushed into doing music."  But when I listen to your music, there seems to be a real passion for it, too.  Have you gotten more comfortable as the years have gone on?

M. Card- No, I think I've gotten less comfortable because I continue to work with literally some of the best musicians in the world.  Music was a hobby for me. I didn't study music; it was fun. But I've been playing catch-up for eighteen years now, musically. One reason I think that my music has progressed, probably *the* reason my music has progressed through the years, is that I've worked with better and better musicians-Phil Naish and people like Scott Brazier who are just awesome melody-writers.

Tollbooth - Where do you find inspiration for your music?

M. Card - The guy who discipled me, William Lane, used to talk about developing a listening stance towards life in general.  You develop a methodology of listening to everything--you listen to your life, you listen to the Bible, you listen to people around you, you listen to the news, you listen to everything.  Another thing he used to say was, "The best way to show someone you love them is to listen to them."  He told me that in the context of marriage, but I have sort of expanded that to God, so I think that's where the inspiration comes from. 

It's funny, my little girl's puppy died this week.  She wrote a poem last night.  She's ten years old and she wrote this beautiful poem, and there were bits and pieces of the whole day in that poem.  In fact, I just read it ten minutes ago.  It was all the things we talked about and the sounds, and just everything that had happened.

Tollbooth - Then how does how you listen to your life enter into the music that you write?  The reason I ask is because when you talk about listening to the news, that doesn't sound musical to me.

M. Card - Music is a response.  I think different people respond different ways.  Some people go out and paint a picture, some people respond with acts of mercy, which is probably the best response.  Some people write poems. That's what I think music is. I read a book a long time ago that said music prolongs our joy so that we can enjoy it longer and it somehow defines our sadness so we can cope with it.

Tollbooth - I've heard your next project may be based on Celtic hymns?

M. Card - No, I'm working right now on an album for the deaf.  That's probably not going to be a huge bestseller, and after that I am doing Celtic hymns.

Tollbooth - How will the album for the deaf work?

M. Card - Well, over the years I've gotten letters from deaf congregations saying we enjoyed this song or that song.  I always wrote them back, "What do you mean?"  You can't get a letter like that and not find out what the heck's going on.  And so over time I've gradually begun to understand a little bit about how deaf people experience music, which is primarily in a tactile way, through their feet and through a phenomenon called facial hearing.  They hear with the hairs and the nerves of their faces.  
 

Oliver Sacks, who's one of my favorite writers and who wrote Awakening, wrote a book called Seeing Voices about the deaf in America. He's very compassionate. I don't believe he's a Christian, but he's the most compassionate writer I think I've ever read.  Anyway, I don't know where the idea came from in that book, but it was somewhere in reading that book that I realized I've got to try to reach out and do what I can do.  So I did a survey and mailed it out to a bunch of deaf ministries and congregations and I started feeling music, which is difficult or impossible because I can still hear it.  There's no way that I can duplicate the experience.  But it's interesting.

I read a survey from a group in North Carolina called "Door Ministries," and they said that 85-90% of the parents of deaf children never learn sign language.  And what that means is 85-90% of the deaf children have never had a meaningful conversation with their parents.  We were talking earlier about "how do you respond?"  I mean, I want to respond with a song.  You know, God being your father and God listening to you and that sort of thing.  And so that's one approach.  Of course the other problem is the sign language problem--American sign language has a different grammar.  I've been studying it, though I don't think I'll ever learn it.  There's also what I perceive as being the poetic element that has to do with a subtle association between certain signs.  That's going to be the trick.  I'm going to write maybe four or five new songs in American sign language, and then the rest of the album is just going to be redoing old songs that they've said they liked.

Tollbooth - I know in the past you had a really strong sense of discipline when it came time to make an album.  Has that changed as your family has grown?

M. Card - Bull's eye!  Ouch! (Laughter)

Tollbooth - So, I'm just curious.  What are your working habits these days?

M. Card - Until actually the third child, it was still fairly easy to get away and have large blocks of time, which is what I need when I'm going to write for an album.  But when the third little boy was born, he has a condition that's like autism; so he's kind of like two children.  At that point my wife also started home schooling the oldest one, and we also realized that we couldn't afford a nanny anymore.  So I tried to revert to going back to all nights, but by that time I was getting too old to do that.  That used to be my time, but I can't do it anymore.  It takes me a week to get over staying up one night.

Tollbooth - Yeah, me too.

M. Card - So, I haven't solved that problem yet.  I've been working on this deaf album in little snatches in-between tours and that sort of thing.  So that's a problem.

Tollbooth - So what is the role of discipline in our busy 90's American life?  And how do we balance things out?

M. Card - Well, I don't think it's balance.  For some reason, the notion of balancing things, to me, implies you take something away from one thing, and then you put it onto something else.  You take some busyness away, that busy time, and then you put that time in another slot. I've tried that and I don't think it works. 

I prefer to think in terms of flow--I think of a fountain that has a big base and then stages that overflow into each other.  I think the big base pool of that fountain needs to be your relationship with God.  And if that's where it should be, that overflows into your family life, and then that overflows into a life with community, and then the final little bowl at the top is you.  

I think your relationship with God really implies simplicity and focus and narrowing and sort of an absence of busyness. You don't try to control or get in control of your time because you're always going to lose that battle.  I think what you have to do is try to give yourself to God that much more and I think the result of that . . . well I know the result of that is your life does slow down and gets quiet and gets still with peace that passes all understanding.

Tollbooth - An old quote from nine years ago.  "I see myself as someone who reintroduces Christ to American Christianity because I believe that we would crucify him all over again.  Not to say that there isn't a core of genuine believers in the church, but I don't believe that it's representative of the mass of American Christianity."  Would you still say that's true of both you and the church?

M. Card - Yeah, I would.  In fact, I think it's probably even more true now than it was then.

Tollbooth - More specifically, how true do you think that is of your audience?

M. Card - I think there are different layers to my audience.  I think there's a small minority who have been supportive over time.  The reason they're supportive, to some degree, is they agree with what it is I'm saying; but I think that's a relatively low number.  Then I think there's a layer above that of people who still sort of resonate with the message, but it's not really me. It's almost like a fix.  I think Christianity is a fix for a lot of people.  Just like church is a fix.  I think they want to resonate with it on a deeper level, so they can say, "Gee, I like Mike Card.  His music's deep, so I'm in that club."  And then there's probably a fringe that just listen because they like Christian music in general.  I don't know where I fit. I know that I say a lot more than I know and certainly a lot more than I live out.  And I think that's something that I hadn't faced up to ten years ago, nine years ago.

Tollbooth - So then what is your responsibility as you make records and as you go out on concerts?

M. Card - Well, my responsibility is to be . . . let me think before I speak for a change.  I have a responsibility to my family on one level.  I have a responsibility to the people I'm accountable to.  Those overlap, but they're not all necessarily the same thing.  Those first two responsibilities sort of
shape the ministry.  And then finally the responsibility to the public-at-large that listens to all the music. That responsibility is to first of all be accountable to the people on the two other levels and then to be as Biblically accurate as I can be, and then to live it out.  I like to point to Steve Green.  Steve Green is not a songwriter, but the thing I learned from Steve is that he lives everything he sings.  And lots of songwriters, including myself, don't.  Some people say, "How do you account for the power in a ministry like Steve Green?"  Well, that's easy.  He may not have written the songs, but he really lives them out.

Tollbooth - Another quote from you.  This isn't actually from the interview we did; this is more recent.  You said, "The true purpose of Christian music is to spread the fame of Jesus Christ, to proclaim him by celebrating him." Which strikes me as a wonderful calling, but I'm wondering if everyone in Christian music has to share that calling, or is there a place for Christian music as art or Christian music as entertainment, or are those substandard in some way?

M. Card - Well, I think the purpose of art isn't out of line with spreading the gospel. Renaissance art definitely spread the fame of who Jesus was and defined it in a lot of ways. Certainly they were preoccupied with the crucifixion and the nativity of Jesus.  So I don't think those are antithetical, I think they can go hand in hand.  

Entertainment is okay.  The only serious reservation I have about entertainment is when it becomes primary.  I would go so far as to say I don't think, as a primary goal, that entertainment is Biblical.  At the same time, I believe Jesus was very entertaining, primarily because you never knew what he was going to do next.  I hope that what I do has an element to it that's entertaining, and maybe different people define the word entertainment broader than I do.  I always wonder about people who call themselves Christian entertainers. I sort of stop and go, "Well, you're going to have to help me with that, because I don't see where the sort of sacrifice that the Cross represents is consistent with a ministry defined as entertainment." That's not to say that entertainment's bad, and that's also not to say that there aren't Christians who are in the entertainment business.  I can't define it as a ministry.  I just don't think it's the same thing.

I think another thing that's changed over nine years is that I think I've come to understand more clearly that there are lots of Christians who are called to be salt and light as musicians in the entertainment field.  I used to think that was bull, but I've actually witnessed that being lived out. I think as you get older, hopefully you get off your high horse more often.

Tollbooth - I know a couple of years ago you sort of publicly left the Christian music industry or took a step back. What would a Christian music industry look like if it functioned the way it should?

M. Card - Well, if it functioned the way it should, it wouldn't be an industry at all.  It would be a community, which is what it originally was.  It was a community of people that came out of the Jesus movement who were burdened with the message of the Gospel, regardless of  whether it was accepted or not. But then it became an industry.  An industry by definition has a different value system than a community, and I think another thing the industry does is it tells people what their expectations are.  I think that's what happening now, too.

Tollbooth - Given that it is an industry and probably not likely to change, what should we expect of it, what should we demand of it?

M. Card - I think all you can ever expect of an industry is a product and profits and power.  That's the value system of an industry.  What can you expect from community?  Well, you can expect something more personal --encouragement and that sort of thing.  And I think there are plenty of
people who are part of that industry who are still rooted in community--the Bob Bennett's, the Fernando Ortega's, the Steve Green's, the Wes King's, you know, I could name a lot of people.  And I think there's probably still a community within the listeners out there.  But they are not being encouraged and fed by the radio stations or by much of the music.  One thing we're asking ourselves now is how do we reach those people because they don't listen to radio anymore.

Tollbooth - I know you're involved in an accountability group with Wes King and Steve Green and Phil Keaggy.  Could you just describe how that works?

M. Card - Well, I tell you, it hasn't been working very well lately, just because everybody's been gone.  We tried, and Steve Green has really been the sponsor of that group.  At one point, Steve got us all beepers so we could beep each other. (Laughter)  We tried that for a while, and that didn't work. Right now, to be painfully honest, it's not working very well.  We still talk to each other on phone, but we haven't gotten together as a group in a long time.

Tollbooth - Last question. What have you been reading lately?

M. Card - Oh, good question.  I'm working on an astronomy book, so I've been reading a lot of astronomy.  I've got a book right here that I'm reading called The Handy Space Answer Book which is about 800 pages long, questions and answers about astronomy.  But what meaningful, good stuff have I read? I've been reading a lot of George Grant's writing lately.  

Tollbooth - I don't know him.

M. Card - He's an educator.  He's a part of our community.  I'm going to start studying with him, and he wrote a biography of Theodore Roosevelt.  He wrote an expose on Planned Parenthood. Let's see. What else have I read? Gee, I've actually been reading the Bible lately.

Tollbooth - I'm sure you've read the Bible dozens of times.  So what are you reading now?  Do you skip around a lot or are you reading it through again?

M. Card - Well, for years and years, I wanted to read it through one time for every year I was alive, and I hit that fairly quickly at school.  Right now, I've been skipping a lot lately.  I taught Luke this summer in church, and so I really got a chance to immerse myself in Luke, and I've been thankful for that. In fact, I'd like to write a book on Luke soon.  Right now, I'm centering more and more on Hebrews because that's the next record I'm going to do. 

And with that answer, our time was up. A wonderful and challenging interview from one of the deepest thinkers in music.