Back during my days with Campus Crusade For Christ, I kept the above poster in my studio. People who saw it were always unnerved by the stark declaration under Kurt’s grinning face, and they’d worry about my mental health. The Christian line on a poster like this was that it was the devil’s influence, and I needed to get it out of my house asap. But that poster kept me sane. It was a constant reminder of the consequences of suicide: the horrible things people said about Cobain, the silencing of his voice, and the commodification of his death. Every day, I would see that poster and regain my incentive to live another day.
The Campus Crusaders had me pegged as unsaved long before they got an eyeful of that poster. Back in the 90’s young Christians were more concerned with pop culture than politics. What movies you watched and what music you listened to was a stronger gauge of your standing with God than your testimony or even your political beliefs. Being a liberal was a major red flag for them of course, but a true believer was supposed to purge themselves of any secular influences. The act of throwing out your old CD’s and movies and buying only Christian media was supposed to be the first step on the path to ridding yourself of your old heathen ways. Anyone who was still listening to secular music ten years after getting saved hadn’t been truly saved.
To give you a sense of the comic proportions of this mentality, my friend Jason was a metal head. He loved Metallica and 80’s hair bands. But when he became a Christian he tossed his CD’s into the trash and got into Christian metal. But Jason didn’t like Christian metal. In fact, he found a lot of it painful to listen to. But they sang about Jesus, and that was more important to him than whether he actually liked the music. So he’d buy gobs of Christian CD’s by artists he didn’t really like because their sound was the closest he could get to the secular songs he was trying to avoid.
He wasn’t alone. The Christians I met were constantly trying to find Christian equivalents of the music I listened to. Everywhere I went, I’d see these charts that were sort of like Amazon Recommendation lists: if you like Led Zep, listen to Stryper instead. If you like Nirvana, then listen to DC Talk. I tried to appreciate their efforts, but the stuff I heard all sounded plastic and phony to me, and it bothered me that this wasn’t a case of sharing their favorite tunes with new friends. They wanted to convert me to the virtues of the Newsboys as much as they wanted to get me saved.
And even within their Christian rock conclave, they were constantly arguing over whether a given artist was a true Christian. Amy Grant was the Devil Incarnate to them because she dared to get a divorce and sign with a secular label. U2 gave them fits, and they could go deep into the night arguing whether Bono was saved. The case against him usually resided on two points; he never said Jesus’s name in his songs, and he dressed like Satan for their ZooTV tour. I quickly learned that it wasn’t enough to be a Christian artist. You had to include Jesus’s name in your lyrics, and the more didactic the lyrics were, the better. Ambiguity left room for wandering minds to go astray.