I had just turned 15 when my older brother Travis and I got our first car. Growing up in a homeschooling family of four boys, there were few things that you could truly call “mine.” Even all of the Lego sets, given individually at Christmas or birthdays, eventually were deconstructed into a communal tub for all to use. So it was fitting that “my” first car wasn’t really mine at all. Plus, at the time, I only had my learner’s permit. But, Mom and Dad paid half and Travis and I paid the other half.
It was a silver 1989 Dodge Raider, so boxy and top heavy that high school friends would later call it the “box on wheels.” The Raider faithfully served all four Sides boys in high school, and to this day still sits in my parents’ garage, albeit in need of a new radiator.
We bought the Raider from Dad’s youngest brother Steve. At the time, Steve, his wife Nikki and infant son Mitch were living in Missouri, and they joined us for Thanksgiving that year. It was 1999, and no one was really sure if there was going to be a Thanksgiving next year.
The plan was for Steve to drive the Raider while Nikki drove their primary car, a Toyota Land Cruiser. They’d leave the Raider with us and go back home together. En route, somewhere around Kansas City, the Raider broke down. The shop wouldn’t have it fixed until a day or two after Thanksgiving, so Steve and Nikki left it and spent what might have been their last Thanksgiving with us.
On the morning of the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Travis and I hopped in their Land Cruiser and rode down to Kansas City to pick up the Raider. I don’t remember seeing the Raider for the first time, but I do remember feeling stunned that our parents were letting a 15 year-old and not-quite-17-year-old make the nearly seven-hour drive home all by themselves.
We celebrated the occasion in the best possible fashion: by listening to Nirvana’s universe-altering album Nevermind. I manned the portable CD player (with marginal anti-skip protection) and the tape adapter, and as we drove north on I-29, I knew life would never be the same again.
A Tale of Two Albums
wasn’t all we listened to, mind you. We were, after all, homeschooling evangelicals, and good, homeschooling evangelicals don’t (just) listen to Nirvana. For a good stretch of the journey, we rocked out in holy array to Sonicflood’s self-titled debut album
. From my perspective, it’s hard to state how quintessential Sonicflood’s first album was. I would argue that it came to define all of Christian culture in the 1990s. It was at once urgent and innocuous: It produced soaring worship songs many churches still sing today; yet it also gave teenage Christendom everything it clamored for in those waning days of the millennium: Noise, self-righteous expression, and an incubator-like warmth that kept us safe from the real world that existed on the other side of the CD aisle in the mall music store. There, in those purple neon waters, floated every single American teenage Christian, grasping for we knew not what, looking towards a seemingly blank horizon.
was the defining cultural artifact of Christianity in the 90s, then Nevermind
was the crowning glory of culture – period
– in the 90s. There’s nothing I can really add to the conversation about its place in pop culture and the effect it had on the American psyche, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide only added to the mythification of the album. But it is worth pointing out that its album artwork, like Sonicflood’s
, featured someone grasping for something in a body of water. With Nevermind
, at least the object was verifiable, tangible. No horizon, though, just the self-made waters of our own consciousness, the existential struggle for identity and purpose in this world.
On lonely stretches of I-29 as it traced the Missouri river in the space between Nebraska and Iowa, these two albums traded places in the portable CD player of two teenagers growing ever more into manhood with each mile that rolled across the odometer. Two albums: One composed at the dawn of the decade, and the other near its twilight. Nirvana and Sonicflood: so different, yet so similar.
I’ve always found it odd that my brother and I could listen to these albums interchangeably without any apparent sense of contradiction. I’ve had 13 years of reflection since that evening to try to sort out this paradox, and I think most of it revolves around the fact that I couldn’t fit all of life’s experiences and desires in a constant loop of CCM-sanctioned praise and worship music, no matter how “edgy” the style. I couldn’t justify a life lived totally inside that bubble, enveloped in those comfortable neon waters.
Circling the Wagons on Our Own Subculture
It should be noted that these are fairly personal takes on Sonicflood and the CCM industrial complex circa 1999. If you follow this blog regularly enough, you’ll know that I have a certain affinity
for Christian bands that boomed in the mid 90s. There may be some of you reading this that still follow Sonicflood, and your time listening to them may be a source of encouragement in your relationship with Christ. I don’t want to paint with an absolute brush on the value of late-90s Christian anthem/praise rock. But the bubble I began running into at this point in my life was that of a sentimental expression of faith that had very little grounding in what was going on in my life, and even life in general. The social expectation to stay within the confines of “Christian” culture seemed troubling to me. American Christianity kept burying its head deeper into its own patch of sand, kept circling the wagons closer and closer together. I didn’t get it. Why the fear of the “other” culture? We were quarantining our faith to the point where we had no thought to even look for the similarities/differences in Nirvana and Sonicflood cover art. It’s no wonder, then, that we awoke on the morning of November 7, 2012, asking, “What happened?” We got stuck in our own cultural idol factory, that’s what happened, and we had very little idea where the country as a whole was heading. We separated Christian life from life itself, and the world noticed.
Therefore, for this teenager at least, Nevermind
was not just about music appreciation, though that was certainly part of it. No, it was more about discovering those parts of my heart, soul and mind that were Davidic in their angst, frustration and authenticity. I was seeing the other side of reality for what it was, and not for what I thought it should be. I was learning about the way the world worked, about things in my own life that I had never fully placed into grunge’s sallow light. Not that such an education was always “positive,” and not that I should deem “good” those things I learned about myself/the world from Nirvana, but there’s something deep and real going on when an entire generation can identify so fully with the likes of Cobain. I think I was able to put name and form to things I had been told shouldn’t even be in my own life. And yet there they were. How was I to handle them? There was no way – for me, at least – Sonicflood could offer any tangible relief to this tension. They offered an adoration and an attitude that I oftentimes felt got in the way of what I was trying to process. There was very little room for “struggle” in late-90s Christianity. Whether the struggle was against dating rules or specific beliefs that didn’t quite make sense to young minds, we were constantly told that if I didn’t want to “know You more,” then something was horribly wrong.
Which is true in the deep sense of it, but I don’t get more of a desire to “know You more” from listening to that song one more time.
If Sonicflood – and, by extension, all other late-90s CCM rock – was a Psalmist, they’d skip the top half of the psalm – all the grungy inconsistencies of life – and skip straight to the praise chorus at the bottom.
So, as I rode shotgun in a 1989 Dodge Raider, as the late November sun put Iowa to sleep, I played Nevermind
. “Something in the Way” became the most repeated track of the drive, and it will always be the lasting audible memory of that journey.
Then again, it could all just be teenage angst that had no purpose to it except to be angsty. Which is entirely possible. But every year around Thanksgiving, I drift back to that road trip – that first true road trip. To call it “formative” is an understatement. You can’t get much more Americana than teenagers in a new (to them) car, on their own, listening to Nirvana … and yet still feeling a connection with their Father God, Who they knew to be good and real and true.
I remember the details in snippets or flashes, really. Flashes of sun on razed cornfields and barren trees; the way the Raider smelled, the lights on the dash; the pride we felt when we showed it off to friends before we got home. And beneath it all, without fail, the lone guitar and desperate cello of “Something in the Way,” playing over and over again as we drove into the night.
Beyond the Blog
Looking for more resources on Christianity's role in cultural engagement? The Mockingbird blog "seeks to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life." They do fabulous work in what I call "gospel criticism." Also, Nancy Pearcey's book Saving Leonardo should be recommended reading for every believer in this day and age. It's a mind-blowing analysis of worldview, art and science.