Christian singer Carman died Tuesday (Feb. 16). Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh died the next day. Throw in Mark Lowry, and that’s pretty much everything I listened to as a teenager in the ‘90s. Someone please check on Lowry!
I don’t want to admit I’m old, but that seems like a lifetime ago. I’m not sure I even have a working tape player to even listen to my old Carman or Lowry cassette tapes. And to think I used to laugh at my dad for his outdated ‘8-tracks.’
So, I’m not sure why I keep the tapes. Other than I just can’t throw away such a key part of my coming-of-age years. These tapes helped form my faith.
Carman’s songs admittedly can be over-the-top and melodramatic. But I enjoyed them. That meant his songs worked great for our church puppet team, of which I was a starring member (or at least my hands as puppet brains were). Most years we performed one of his songs.
I also remember the excitement of attending his concerts. At one, some of us from the youth group traveled with some, uh, lucky parents for the big show. We had general admission tickets, meaning my friends and I insisted we get there early for the mad rush to grab some good seats.
As we stood outside the locked doors hours before the concert, someone noticed a door up some stairs. About four or five us went up to check it out and walked right in long before the official “doors open” time. Once the rest of our group saw that we entered, they headed up the outside stairs. But before our group made it, some official realized the error and locked the doors. They didn’t kick us out, so we claimed some good rows and then spread out to save them once the crowd burst in. Those were good seats, and that was a great show!
Carman’s career faded during my college days, and my listening interests evolved. He popped back into my view a few years ago as he used his classic style to sing about Donald Trump. I didn’t burn my tapes, but it felt jarring to hear that voice that helped me praise God now celebrate the xenophobic and name-calling ways of a profane man.
At some point I also tired of Limbaugh, who I especially liked as a kid for the fact that he was a fellow Missourian with the same birthday. His shtick lost its magic for me as I started to recognize how little his lifestyle and rhetoric matched the Bible I studied at my Baptist college.
Today I fear that the voices of Limbaugh and his successors build more theology for those in our pews and pulpits than do the words of Jesus, Paul, or John. This American gospel isn’t just killing our nation but also our churches.
Lowry, whose songs also made appearances in our puppet performances (fortunately Limbaugh never did), held with me better through the years as I continued to watch him with the Gaither Vocal Band while visiting my grandparents or listen to his podcast with Tony Campolo.
So, as I watch key figures from my formative years die this week — other than Lowry; again, please someone check on him! — I don’t think my main emotion is I’m feeling old (though I had a big birthday last month). And I don’t think it’s just nostalgia swirling in my thoughts, though I am reflecting on my childhood.
Those voices helped form me, even in the ways in which I later rejected their words. Without those songs and rants I wouldn’t be who I am today. There’s no need to idolize my heroes from the past any more than I can excise them from my brain. Each one of us is shaped by the forces around us, the words we consume. The good, the bad, and, yes, sometimes the ugly.
As Carman’s songs rush back into my mind today, some of them still point me to God. Others feel a bit problematic now with Christian Nationalism or overly-violent rhetoric that could’ve worked as the musical score to the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol that Limbaugh cheered as people carried Christian symbols and signs.
But even though my faith deepened, I’m not ready to discard the soundtrack of my journey. When Paul said that he had “put aside childish things” when he matured in his faith, it doesn’t mean he disowned or regretted it. The stages of childhood development remain critical for what comes later in adulthood. The key, though, is to keep growing.
I put aside my old Carman and Lowry tapes somewhere in my basement. I couldn’t play them if I wanted, and I definitely can’t go back to that time. So, I’ll just let a few songs roll around in my head, albeit a bit partial and imperfect. And that sounds about right.