In an episode of King of the Hill called “Reborn to Be Wild,” Hank Hill says to a Christian rock singer, “Can’t you see you’re not making Christianity better? You’re just making rock ‘n’ roll worse!”
It’s not that you can’t make good music singing about Jesus, or use him as part of a successful crossover formula. Fifties and 60s R&B is shot through with gospel influences. In the early 70s, hippies gave up world-saving in favor of soul-saving, and Jesus hit the top 40 a lot, and the top of the album chart too, on Jesus Christ Superstar. The Carpenters’ 1973 #1 single “Top of the World” can be heard as a song of praise, and Debby Boone famously addressed “You Light Up My Life” to Jesus. Amy Grant and Stryper broke out of the Christian-rock ghetto in the 80s; Jars of Clay and dc Talk did so in the 90s. In the first decade of the 21st century, the Christian rock band MercyMe threatened to become the next big-time crossover with “I Can Only Imagine”—which is one of the World’s Worst Songs.[youtube id=”N_lrrq_opng” width=”600″ height=”350″]
There’s no way to hear “I Can Only Imagine” as a love song, like “You Light Up My Life.” It’s a straight-up Christian power ballad of praise, meant to inspire concertgoers to sing along, eyes closed, hands in the air, waving ’em cuz they really care.
The singer imagines himself dead and in Heaven, standing before Jesus, and wonders what he’ll do. “Surrounded by your glory / What will my heart feel? / Will I dance for you Jesus / Or is awe of you be still?” The hellbound scoffer in me finds the idea of people dancing in praise of Jesus to be hilarious. I grew up a Methodist, so I can tell you from experience that there’s not a lot of rhythm in that tribe. Even Jesus would be tested by an eternity of these people trying to get their Elvis on. “I Can Only Imagine,” which might be the whitest record ever made, is your proof.
“Will I stand in your presence / Or to my knees will I fall / Will I sing hallelujah / Will I be able to speak at all?” If it were me, I’d keep my mouth shut. You don’t want to say anything to a guy who can smite your ass all the way down to perdition.
From the sensitive piano that starts it to the quiet, head-bowed last line of the vocal, “I Can Only Imagine” is delivered with an earnestness that would be ironic if MercyMe was anything but a Christian rock outfit, working in a genre immune to parody. Certainly some listeners heard it as a wonderful vision of the future, but many others must have heard it as pretty radio muzak without thinking much about it. It reached #72 on the Hot 100 and the top 10 of the adult contemporary charts late in 2003. It’s the first Christian single ever certified platinum with a million digital downloads.
And it sucks. If you’re a fan and that offends you, take heart: I’ll be getting my just desserts in Hell any day now. Not for this, but still. . . .