A Christian Musician With More Questions Than Answers Josh Garrels says his music tries to "peel back layers" of what it means to be a Christian. He says he's given away 153,000 digital copies of his breakout album, Love & War & The Sea in Between.

A Christian Musician With More Questions Than Answers

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

Contemporary Christian music has quite a following in this country. But for those who sneer at the genre, there's an inside joke: Jesus Per Minute. You get it - how many times does the artist say Jesus's name in a given 60 seconds? We're about to meet Josh Garrels. He's part of a new breed of independent singer-songwriters who doesn't sweat Jesus per minute. And he's one of the ecstatic voices we're featuring as we report on Sacred Music in America.

NPR's John Burnett has the story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Last year, Christianity Today magazine named Josh Garrels' CD, "Love & War & the Sea In Between," its album of the year. In 66 minutes of music, Garrels mentions Jesus exactly once. The album is a lyrical, haunting exploration of what it means to be a Christian.


BURNETT: Garrels is a 33-year-old former skate punk and high-school dope dealer who lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and three young children. His music has earned him an adoring following that seems to be on the rise.


BURNETT: He's been courted repeatedly by what's known as CCM, the contemporary Christian music industry, and he always declines.

: The music I make doesn't tend to go there all that often, just in awe of God. You know? More of my music, I would say, is trying to peel back layers and find like where is God in the midst of this city that I live in and this marriage I'm in, and these things that are going wrong and these things that are going right. Does that make sense?

BURNETT: Josh Garrels asks more questions than he offers answers. He's comfortable performing on both sides of the sacred/secular divide. One night the youth ministers are clapping; the next night the bartenders are giving him high fives.


CHRISTIAN PIATT: There are movements within postmodern Christianity that are saying these lines between sacred and secular are false constructs. They don't really exist.

BURNETT: Christian Piatt is a blogger and author in Portland who writes about faith and pop culture.

PIATT: And therefore we don't have to choose whether or not we're going to listen to U2 or we're going to listen to Amy Grant, or we're going to listen to Josh Garrels or the Avit Brothers. I can have them all on the same rotation in my music and not consider myself an apostate or a heretic or anything like that.

BURNETT: Neither does Mark Moring. He's the former pop culture editor at Christianity Today and a big fan of Garrels' music.

MARK MORING: It wrestles more with real life issues. It wrestles with faith and doubt and that mystery in between. And he does it with more depth and more poetry.


BURNETT: Garrels is playing a sold-out concert at Portland's historic Alberta Rose Theater.

: Thanks for coming out on a Wednesday night.

BURNETT: He's sitting on a stool onstage wearing a white skullcap, a work shirt, work boots and resting a Gibson guitar on his knee. While the venue is decidedly secular - his fans are sipping craft beer - Garrels does a little preaching toward the end of his set.

: The song is called "Bread and Wine," 'cause we're invited to eat the body that's broken for us and drink the blood that's spilled for us, to enter into literally like the suffering so we can receive something that is way beyond us and be healed.


BURNETT: He seems to connect with his listeners. They not only tap their feet; they nod their heads in agreement.


BURNETT: In the lobby after the show, fans line up to buy a CD or shake Garrels' hand. One of them is Luana Wilson, a stay-at-home mom from Vancouver, Washington who discovered Josh Garrels through her 15-year-old son, Jadon.

LUANA WILSON: I actually don't listen to a lot of Christian radio. For me, personally, a lot of it sounds the same. And I just love the fact that his sound is fresh and new and just deep.

BURNETT: As an independent, Garrels has built his fan base in a way that may seem counter-intuitive. He gave away his break-out album - "Love and War and the Sea In Between" - free for a year. In all he says he has given away 153,000 downloads. What's more, he dedicates a portion of the income he does receive to charities such as World Relief in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

: If you want to call it like a business model now that I have, is every new album I make I will give away for a season. It'll sort of be my offering, my first fruits.

BURNETT: As the thinking goes, the people who get freebies will buy his earlier albums and his next album, and they'll wait for him to come to their town to play. It's a business model that many musicians and the music industry say will not work. But Josh Garrels is used to doing things his own way.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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