Vice’s Noisey Critiques Christian Rap After Filming ‘I Saw the Light’
A sea of dimly lit candles surrounded a borderline uncomfortable Eric Sundermann as Pastor Harry Thomas Jr. led a crowd of tens of thousands in prayer. Though maybe not visibly moved, Eric’s insides were twisting a bit at what he once had and what he left behind. Sundermann was at this year’s Creation Festival, and as the spirit of God moved over the field on Agape Farm, PA, he wasn’t sure how to feel.
“Pastor Harry is on stage giving his speech and talking about belief and what that means. I think that was the moment I felt quite overwhelmed and I almost lost my composure of how I felt with tears…” said Sundermann, the editor-in-chief for Vice’s Noisey Music. “It wasn’t anything like super emotional but it was something I longed for. I can’t believe this way anymore because I’ve made this decision in my life and I don’t want to believe this way anymore but I can see why people believe this way.”
Sundermann and his Vice film crew were at Creation Festival Northwest for three days to make, “I Saw the Light,” a documentary film about the sights and sounds of what is widely considered the “Christian Woodstock.”
For nearly 40 years, up to 100,000 people have flocked to this farm in Pennsylvania to worship God through music, prayer, and fellowship. You’d be hard-pressed to find a major Christian artist, band, or rapper that has not performed at Creation Fest. Some of the names who performed this year were Skillet, Family Force 5, for King & Country, Casting Crowns, and Andy Mineo.
“We really wanted this documentary to be a look at kids who are alive now. There’s obviously a message. I want people to watch this no matter what they believe, and come away with something,” said Sundermann. “I hope people of Christian faith give it a fair shake even though Vice Media and Noisey cover other things. I think that we’re using music as a lens to view the world and this is one thing that we’re looking at.”
For Sundermann this project was a long time coming both in terms of the subject and in terms of his complicated relationship with Christianity.
He grew up in Western Iowa to a Catholic family who wound up making the shift to a non-denominational church. From there Eric got very involved with the church.
“I was so drawn to it that I felt called by God to become a youth minister,” he revealed.
Sundermann followed this nudging to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK. It was at this Christian college that he felt his faith began to falter. He described it as a “maturing,” and started to ask questions and think through some of the rules of the faith. He didn’t like or get the answers he was looking for. After the first year, he left the school and ultimately the church.
“I put myself on a different path.”
One Vice camera guy joked to him that while most stories are about a fish out of water experience, Eric’s story is a fish back in the water experience.
“I remember believing this way. It was complicated. Something we wrestled with in the doc was how much of my story was brought into this and how much of it is made about the music, how much about the kids, and things like that,” he explained. “It was weird. It was like walking back into a weird Twilight Zone that I had left. When you’re back you’re kind of like, ‘oh, I remember this’.”
Sundermann’s familiarity with Christianity, his love for music, and his fascination with an article about Creation in GQ from 2004, sparked his interest in investigating the event. The article is written by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and according to Eric is one of the “best things ever written.”
He and Vice producer Chloe Campion were talking one day and he mentioned the GQ article, Upon This Rock. Sundermann encouraged her to read it and the two became “obsessed” with Creation. “Let’s do a film for it and see what happens.”
Vice could have easily gone the route of making a Bill Maher style documentary which would poke fun and be extremely skeptical of everything happening at Creation. “We thought it would be a disservice if we went in there with a stereotype in mind,” said Sundermann.
In fact, they wanted to be “anti-that.” They wanted an outsider who has no idea what evangelicalism is to feel a bit of empathy for what they are watching.
“We thought that would be a failure as a journalist and the subject,” said the editor, referring to eliciting an emotion from the viewer. “The approach is ‘Here are these people, they are humans, humans just like I am, just like you are, just like all of us’. We are all attracted to certain things and believe certain ways, and this is just the path that these people have chosen. It would be quite unfair to judge them a certain way.”
“This is what it’s like to be alive in 2016 and in particular this is what it’s like to be a Christian.”
In the film you see Sundermann start out with a youth group who makes the trek to the festival. There are candid interviews with youth members, leaders, and pastors that reveal motives, reasons, and at times tragic stories of how these people came to faith and why they are at Creation.
He also spoke to Luke and Joel Smallbone of for King & Country, and spent significant time with Andy Mineo.
When describing the Christian music he heard at the festival, he wrote in Noisey, that it was “uninspired” but “not all bad.” He describes for King & Country as Christian music’s Cold Play and the Newsboys as its U2.
“It’s difficult. There’s a common misconception that it [Christian music] is a bit subpar, but there is good stuff happening,” said Sundermann. “You look at an artist like Andy Mineo or Lecrae, who I’ve also interviewed, and that kind of realm where there are guys who are Christians but are avoiding that label of Christian rapper. I think that’s kind of like a cool little punk movement behind the Christian world.”
He continued, “Talking to Andy, he’s talking about Chance the Rapper… and people are recognizing that Christians can make cool art. But there’s a major difference between Chance the Rapper and Andy Mineo regardless of their message.”
Sundermann says he “appreciates” the movement that is happening behind Christian music of trying to bust out of stereotypes.
“I think as long as it still operates in this world there are going to be challenges that are neutering itself a bit.”
He believes that guys such as Chance the Rapper or even a Kendrick Lamar will get heralded for their mainstream Christianity over someone in Christian Hip-Hop because “they are just better.”
“At the end of the day I think Chance the Rapper is just a better rapper than Andy Mineo,” said Sundermann. “I think Andy has come from ‘I am a Christian, not a Christian rapper’, but he also comes from the CCM world. He’s doing the Christian music festival circuit. It’s a cultural thing as much as a religious thing.”
This is something Sundermann said he addressed with Mineo. “If you are really so concerned about this perception as a Christian rapper versus a rapper who happens to be Christian, why are you playing a festival like Creation? Why are you participating in this world that also gives you someone like the Newsboys? The thing that you claim to be scorning, you’re still kinda entertaining it.”
He said the rapper’s answer was a bit “political” but he “gets it” and knows the balance must be difficult. In the documentary you can see a bit of this exchange.
In the past Mineo has said “Christian rap is corny” and that is a stereotype Sundermann is familiar with too. However, with as much flack as Christian rap music gets, there seems to be less of it in Christian heavy rock and hardcore.
Bands such as Underoath, Thrice, and For Today have dominated their respective genres of music, with the first two doing so for over 15 years. Underoath helped kickstart the dual vocal movement of hardcore/screamo music, while Thrice’s Dustin Kensrue is often looked at as one of the top rock writers of this era. Why do these Christian musicians get a pass in the mainstream and Lecrae can’t?
As an outsider looking in, Sundermann believes it is chalked up to the credibility and persona of rappers.
“Rappers are a persona. You look at the way 2 Chainz dresses or like Kanye, he invents a character called Yeezy. It’s about swagger and a huge mentality. There’s an element of being cool in connection with being an a-hole,” he said.
He continued, “Smoking cigarettes will always be cool because it’s breaking the rules. Rap music is very much like punk music, it’s about breaking the rules. It’s about lifestyle and proving yourself a little bit. If you a put a label that’s Christian in front of that, you lose all sorts of perspective.
The editor believes someone like Lecrae has an opportunity to crossover because “his music is tight.”
“He’s this Christian dude but he’s also knocking on the door because his music actually goes off at times,” said Sundermann. “Someone like Chance, Kendrick, or Kanye there’s still something in the presentation, the where it’s coming from.”
He went on to talk about the artist Future. He said Future is rapping about drug addiction and the struggles of pain and self loathing while having suicidal thoughts. “It’s done in a way that’s almost celebratory kind of.” Another example he gave was the new Danny Brown record. “It’s about being addicted to uppers and how he’s going to do it anyway. It’s a downward spiral, self-aware and complicated. It’s painful, but honest and real.”
To him, this is what separates mainstream hip-hop from Christian hip-hop. The above examples are featuring stories of people fighting, yet embracing addiction and their flaws while Christian hip-hop can’t get past, “My mom caught me having sex. If you talk about a real emotional connection to music, I believe you are dressing it up in a way to connect with the listener.”
Sundermann feels that Christian rap and conscious rap are very similar in the fact that they are promoting a message that some people just can’t connect with because of how keyed in on that subject it is.
A legitimate crossover where a Christian minded emcee and a secular emcee existed in the same world without any bias is “extremely challenging.”
“I asked Andy Mineo, what if Drake asked you to be on a song? He said, ‘Well I’m not gonna speak for anyone in particular but I have to ask myself, is the opportunity something I’m going to be ok with. Like, me, my faith, my personal relationship with Jesus…and if so then I’ll do it, and if not, then no’.”
Sundermann made the argument that the sacred and secular bridge already exists and it’s not Lecrae.
“Someone like Chance is a Christian rapper, he said it himself. It’s a matter of the Christian faith saying, ‘We accept it or not’.”
What do you think of Eric Sundermann’s take on Christian music? Do you think “I Saw the Light” painted a fair picture of Christians and Christian music in 2016?
Watch the documentary below: