I’m willing to bet good money on my ability to beat anyone else in a competition about Christian song lyrics. Seriously, you’d be dumb to take me on. My childhood consisted of Rich Mullins with a bit of Amy Grant chucked in, watching hours of the Donut Man, and then witnessing the Hillsong United boom in my teens.
My skills include being able to recite complete Jars of Clay albums and knowing the entire rap to Michael W. Smith’s “Love Crusade”. You’ve got nothing on that. This stuff made me who I am.
As I grew older I became increasingly conscious about how this music was often not just “inspirational” or “introspective”, but actually contained extremely formative ideas about what it meant to be a Christian.
Some songs point to behaviour appropriate for those who identify with the church, some put language to the wrestles of faith common to many, and other songs focus on the new sense of meaning that faith gives to life.
But there are also other lyrical ideas common to Christian songs that characterise those who wouldn’t call themselves believers. And it is these lyrics which are perhaps the most interesting, and often unnecessarily divisive. These songs seek to explicitly define the self, but also the other in an effort to show points of difference.
And it turns out that the 90s teen anthem of the Christian sub-culture is one of the most abrasive of them all.
No other song defined the 90s Christian scene in the way that this one did. It was cool because it kind of sounded like Nirvana with a bit of hip-hop but it was mostly cool because it was so loud and proud.
Nothing screamed “I am a Christian, hear me roar!” like DC Talk’s breakthrough single ‘Jesus Freak’. It was fun and a bit dark, but importantly it made it seem like a rebellious choice to be a Christian.
Historically this is an interesting move in a culture in which Christianity has been seen as a norm or foundational on at least a value level.
If you’re not familiar with this song, the chorus asks -
“What would people think if they knew that I’m a Jesus freak? What would people do when they find that it’s true?”
It then moves on to declare - “I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus freak, there ain’t no disguising the truth.”
The lyrics of the song focus on the idea that adhering to Christianity is socially unnatural, against the flow of the mainstream and therefore, following Jesus is a new form giving the middle finger to the mainstream. Basically, Christianity is a form of punk culture.
And this is fine, except the subtle message here is that the “they” that DC Talk are DC Talking about in this song are described in morally inferior terms.
The non-Jesus freaks are characterised as oppressors, as labellers, a high and lofty mainstream that doesn’t appreciate Christianity. The ‘other’ in this song are clearly the one dimensional baddies. ‘Jesus Freak’ becomes very oppositional, defining Christians by what they aren’t, and encouraging individualistic indifference towards those outside.
And while I have a special place in my heart for this song with all the experiences I’ve attached to it growing up, it is these definitions of self and other that probably deserve a bit of thought.
While claiming that they “don’t care” about the label, the reality is that they really do care, because the aim of this song is to establish an alternative post-family identity - a fundamental teen activity.
Self and other today
This lyrical idea is by no sense confined to the 90’s with today’s contemporary Christian music echoing similar themes. In her song, ‘Ready or Not’, Britt Nicole, in speaking to the “other” tells them she knows they want her to “take my light, fit it in your box, right?” but then she will show them “where the light comes from” and “where the love is” anyway.
Once again, the self is cast as oppressed and the other cast as the oppressor. Similarly, Kiwi Christian hip-hop outfit, Rapture Ruckus employs a similar rhetoric in “In Crowd”, claiming, “No! We don’t care what they say, I don’t wanna be you, so I’ll do it my way… we’re never gonna be in the in crowd.”
Always an interesting approach from someone who is the focus of a lot of positive attention. But once again, claiming oppression under a societal norm while expressing an indifference towards it is just a subtle form of moral superiority.
Telling stories about who we are and where we’re going is an important human activity.
Paul spent a lot of his time telling people about who they were “In Christ” and clearly saw it as crucial to faith development. But response to the secular is never simply an outright rejection of anything non-Christian and neither is the subsequent treatment of non-Christians with wary suspicion.
As Christians we are definitely called to resist parts of mainstream culture, and called to challenge some of it for positive change. But there is so much of ‘secularism’ that is great and needs to be celebrated, and even learned from and listened to seriously.
Ultimately, though, while we can probably see what DC Talk were trying to do in strengthening and encouraging those who do feel oppressed by non-Christian influences, we have to concede that this is a very one-dimensional portrayal of anyone who does not share the same worldview.
It suggests that anyone on the outside is the enemy until conversion and neglects any conversation about how we in fact do a lot labelling and oppressing ourselves.
So I’m not comfortable with the freak label because of what it says about me and what is says about those who don’t share the same beliefs. I don’t think my beliefs are freakish or unnatural, but actually speak of what true humanity is.
I do care if we label each other because it stops important conversations around things that are important to us. So I’m not a Jesus Freak.
First published March 3, 2014
Sam Burrows is an ex-Middle School teacher (he made it out alive) who is currently working in Young Adult ministry while completing a Graduate Diploma in Theology at Laidlaw College. In his spare time he likes to pretend to be a rock star and writes for enjoyment and in order to impress a potential wife.
Sam Burrows previous articles may be viewed at