Singer-songwriter and author Michael Card has been a slave for Christ since he was 8 years old, but attending an African-American church helped teach him what that really means. His latest book, A Better Freedom, explores that theme.
Q: Why did you write your new book, A Better Freedom: Finding Life as Slaves of Christ? I was discipled in an African-American church. When we prayed we would always call Jesus "Master." I had not experienced that in the white, Southern Baptist culture-in fact, my first experience with church was looking down the aisle to see a line of deacons blocking the door in front of a black family that was trying to visit our church. Wendell Berry talks about the "hidden wound," and that was kind of a hidden wound experience for me.
Q: And calling Jesus "Master" signified . . .? My pastor said it was a hold-over from slavery: Slaves called Jesus "Master." When I read it in the Bible, curios originally meant "owner." Mary says, "Behold the slave of the Master." Paul talks a lot about it. You've got the Philemon issue: Why does Paul send Onesimus back? Why wasn't Paul a William Wilberforce?
Q: According to church tradition, Onesimus later became a bishop. Yes, I believe he did. Some people say I can't say that, but I think he did. That's why Philemon is in the Bible; Onesimus becomes a leader of the church. Paul must have written other letters like that, and they didn't make it in there.
Q: You mention four different types of slavery in your book. The first is slavery in Old Testament times for the Israelites: What was that like? The first block of commandments after the Ten Commandments is laws to protect slaves. Slavery in Israel was very limited-households had slaves, it wasn't part of the economy-but we still see abuses: Sarah abused Hagar. Any time you own somebody there are abuses, but in general Old Testament slavery was pretty benign, so Moses or David would say, "I'm a slave of Yahweh," and that was a good and positive thing to say: God says, "My slaves, the prophets."
Q: Then we move to the Greco-Roman world: The "glory that was Greece" wasn't particularly glorious. Greco-Roman slavery is a completely different world in terms of abuse. Not until later were there any protections for slaves. Chattel slavery: You would die in slavery; your situation was hopeless. Sexual abuse was just part of it.
Q: Similarities between New Testament slavery and African-American slavery? Very important, very direct. Some people say that it's not valid to make applications from one to the other, but they are much more similar than they are dissimilar: It's chattel slavery, you're going to die in your chains. Similarities: In both cultures, when you're bought your name is changed, so whenever you're bought or sold you lose just a little more of your identity. Even the instructions on feeding and caring for slaves were a one-shirt-a-year kind of thing. It was just almost exactly the same as African-American slavery.
Q: Jesus entered a brutal era . . . The more I study Rome I see that: It was a monstrous age. And yet there are people in the midst of that who stand up for principles and what's right. That's another connection between African-American slavery and Roman slavery, because where I'm from there are a lot of Southerners who say, "Well, African slavery, that was just part of the time; everybody accepted it." No! There were people who stood up where it was accepted, in the South, and said it was wrong.
Q: So after the Old Testament and Roman varieties of slavery came African-American slavery, and we're still very much paying the cost. We will go on paying the cost.
Q: And the fourth slavery you describe is the current variety, which includes sex trafficking. There are more slaves now than at any other time in history: Last year more people became slaves than in the entire 300 years of African-American slavery. It's horrible to think of it.
Q: You have Bible teaching and music in your DNA. Your grandfather was a Baptist preacher? Yes, both grandfathers. One was a Southern Baptist preacher as part of the Southern Baptist Convention. The other did the Baptist Hymnal, so I've got serious Southern Baptist credentials.
Q: Both your mom and dad were musicians. What kind? My dad was a big-band jazz trombonist. I call big band jazz "let's forget about World War II music," and we had a big fight because my mom was an excellent classical musician who played violin and string quartet. My brother and sister are both musicians-it's something you couldn't get away from in our house.
Q: So you have all these influences tugging at you? Tugging is a good word, 'cause we never had the family band: We always fought about music. My brother played blues and my sister has a master's degree in classical organ. So as you can see it was a pretty crazy household.
Q: You mentioned somewhere that as a small boy you saw very little of your father. He came home from practice, closed himself in his study, and you would push drawings and other things under his door to try to get his attention. Did it work? No, it didn't, actually. I wrote a song called "Underneath the Door." I grew up eating supper at 8 o'clock because my mom would wait for my dad. In those days when the father would come home the kids would come to the door and greet him. My kids don't do that with me; they just sort of look up from their video games and say, "Oh, you're home."
Q: You were the designated dad-bringer. My family would always send me to go get my dad, and I had to get his attention somehow, because he was locked away in his study. But he was a phenomenal person, my father. The older I get the more I appreciate him. He was a good man.
Q: That sounds frustrating. It was frustrating. One of my major themes is that you are not your gift, and my father thought he was his gift. He thought that medicine was all he was, so when he was forced to retire he died a few months later. He could not imagine living without being a doctor.
Q: I've read that you became a Christian at age 8. Even then I fought the status quo: They asked, "So you've asked Jesus into your heart?" And even as a little kid I said, "No, He's asked me into His heart." I recognize that the impetus really came from Him and that He was inviting me, and that was big.
Q: And when you were 14 a black Bible teacher became important to you. Yeah, an old woman in our town, who was blind, taught the Bible from memory. She had the whole Bible memorized. Through being exposed to her I just got this bizarre hunger for Scripture. From the time I was 14 up into my 20s I read a book of the Bible a day; I was a total Bible geek. I discovered that if I finished everything by 3 o'clock in the day, I could generally get whatever book I wanted read.
Q: Any book in a day? Philemon was an easy night. Psalms was a little harder. I did that for years and years and could never get enough. So often God gives us gifts and we misuse them. I turned into a Bible-thumper, beating people up with the Bible. I cringe at how I treated people in those days, but God still used it.
Q: In high school you went to school only two or three days a week and spent the rest of the time walking around the mountains? In our school nobody kept track of where I was. I was very serious and not until college did I find anybody who was really serious about learning.
Q: You found Professor Bill Lane at Western Kentucky University. Yes, majoring in forestry. I wanted a job that didn't have anything to do with people. But then I met Bill Lane and everything changed for me.
Q: How did Bill Lane affect you? He was a biblical scholar, pastor of the church I went to, and the life-giver who brought together the puzzle pieces of my life without even knowing he was doing it. He's the person who said, "You know, I think you have gifts for music; I think you should write us a song."
Q: How did he discern that? He used to say, "You can play guitar, you can attract girls with guitars." It was nothing remotely spiritual. But even when I started writing music for his sermons, it wasn't a deeply spiritual experience for me. I was just trying to please Bill. From that I've learned that God even uses our mixed motives. God uses those things, thank goodness, because it's all we've got. He takes our foolishness and our fragileness and does incredible stuff with them. Praise Him for that.
Q: Is the "Christian music industry" healthy? The good news is the industry as we've known it is dying, and the internet and people doing it on a smaller scale is growing. When I was younger you started playing around at local churches and gradually the circle of churches you played in got bigger and bigger. Early on it was a family, and then as the industry rose up the family died. The good news is the family is kicking again. Local artists, playing in your local church: The value of that is coming back. It's weeding out the suckers, too, which is a good thing. The industry doesn't have this promise anymore to make people famous, and that's a good thing.
Q: Big difference between an industry and a community? Absolutely. An industry is focused on money and power, and community is the opposite of that. When there's a moral failure in an industry, everybody gets up in arms that the industry wasn't doing anything about it. What is it supposed to do? If there's a moral failure the community comes alongside and copes with it, forgives, and disciplines. I'm not sure the industry is equipped to do anything about it. The industry is just supposed to sell records.
Q: How do you avoid going from "community" to "industry"? I don't know that I've done that good a job of avoiding it. There are three or four artists that I've been close to for a long time. We keep each other accountable. We're drawn to each other. We're hurting and foolish and fragile and recognize that we need each other.
Q: You've described yourself as the broccoli of Christian music: People don't really like it but it's good for them. Would you rather be the banana split or the chocolate? Of course I'd rather be the cool guy, but I'm not. I'm the singing Bible geek guy. That's OK. Bill used to say, "Never despise your own gift and never covet another." That's a good saying.
To hear Marvin Olasky's interview with Michael Card, click here.