Michael Card is a well known singer-songwriter with over 35 years experience which include 19 #1 hits, but he is also a Bible scholar and an author.
He describes himself in interesting terms, in this interview he calls himself a "Bible geek", a "pointy-headed fundamentalist" and during the concert he calls himself the "Broccoli of Christian music" as people tell others to listen to him because it will do them good!
Some people who have a deep interest in theology can be very stale, Michael Card is not one of those people, he's entertaining and informative and just like in his songs he finds new life in the familiar stories. So have a read of this fascinating chat through his music and his ministry - a conversation not to be missed!
You have been part of my soundtrack growing up, so I want to go right back to the beginning, 1981 was your first album release. What happened prior to this to bring you into the Church?
Well both of my grandparents were ministers, so my parents were both preachers kids which is kind of a mixed bag because my Father hated church and my Mother loved church. So I had two different forces, like Darth Vader, darkness and light thing. I must say that my Mum won me over because she loved church and she loved the Bible. My mother loved the Bible! So when I got serious, I came to faith when I was about 8, I walked the aisle, a typical Southern Baptist type of conversion, but when I was 14 I just got hungry for Scripture. I was a bad kid, I wasn't religious, or Spiritual, or anything like that, just all of a sudden at 14 I found the Bible just endlessly fascinating. I am 60 now and it's still...I'm just a Bible geek.
So from 14 on I knew my life was going to be involved somehow with teaching the Bible, so my degree was in Biblical Studies and I was going to teach. I had a professor who asked me to write a song for the church that we attended together, and that's how I started writing music!
You were doing a favour for someone which is how your first album came about, is that right?
Right, I grew up in Nashville playing music, but I'm not...I really don't even consider myself a musician that much, music really isn't that big a part of my life. I have friends who are true musicians who play all the time. Phil Keaggy, right now Phil Keaggy is either eating, sleeping or playing the guitar, because that is all he ever does. I'm not that guy, so my degree was in Biblical Studies, New Testament backgrounds is what I was interested in and music was very secondary, just a vehicle.
In the time you have been writing you have seen a lot of changes in the Christian music 'industry'. Are the changes that have happened in the past 20 - 30 years, are they good for the church, are they good for the industry?
It's interesting in what you say about what we call the Christian music industry, because that is almost gone now. Because of social media, Spotify and iTunes, there aren't big record companies. I guess you could say that there is an industry, but it's not very industrial and it's not very big. Everything is on a very small scale now, social media and downloads and things like that. The days of huge record budgets, those days are over.
With your writing style, you say you are a teacher first, many of your songs are teaching songs, you take a Biblical story or event and extrapolate some teaching points from that and then work it into a song. Is that something you see that still happens with songwriters today?
Some people do, some people like Sara Grove she interacts with the Bible. Andrew Peterson, is another, you see I consider him a young songwriter but he's like 35 (actually he's 42!) so it's a sliding scale. Ginny Owens is another person that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, in fact my daughter who has just started to write music has been writing with Ginny Owens, it doesn't get much better than that! She [his daughter] doesn't want to write with me because she says all the songs end up sounding like my songs which is apparently not a good thing!
There are obviously some big moments from your musical career, songs like "El Shaddai", "Joy in the Journey", "Known by the Scars", but what has been your surprise over the years. What is the one that you didn't expect to go anywhere, but God has taken it and used it?
Wow, no-one has ever asked me that question before, now I actually have to think first.
I'll tell you the big surprise. I was at a real low point, I wouldn't say that I was about to quit, but I was feeling like I was about to quite. On the BBC there is a TV show that used to be choirs singing in Cathedrals...I forget...Songs of Praise? Yes, Songs of Praise, and the timing...my mentor told me that timing is of the Lord. It's one of those things that God is really good at, I mean, we don't like his timing but He's big on timing...He's big on waiting as well, and patience...Yes, that's why the timing never feels right for us! At the lowest point someone sent me this video from Songs of Praise and it was this Cathedral full of choirs singing Emmanuel.
Where the people normally sit, those were choirs and they start out with the little kids singing the first verse, and they pan back and I...that's probably the most powerful memory I have that's associated with any song that I have ever written. I mean I'm all by myself and I can't remember if I was looking on a laptop, or on a video, it was a few years ago. It was this moment where I was feeling like I had wasted my life, you know, you get in these places. And here was this Cathedral, starting with little kids, and then teenagers and then older people and they are all singing "Emmanuel" and that was a big moment for me. That was the biggest surprise that I ever had, at the point that I thought, "you're sort of done, you've sort of said everything you're going to say' this moment happened, and it's because of the BBC, so I'm sort of a big BBC fan!
Your last 4 albums were the ones through the Gospels, the last one was in 2014, so is there anything further? Are we waiting for an Acts of the Apostles, or Revelation?
I think I am going to write what I think is going to be my last record. For the last 8 or 10 years I have been working on a book on the Hebrew word 'Hesed'. Which is an untranslatable word, in six different English translations this one word is translated 169 different ways! It's a remarkable word and it's probably got the biggest semantic range of any word, of any language, and it's one of the words that God uses to decribe Himself. A word was made up in 1535, lovingkindness was a word that was made up to try and translate this word 'Hesed' and so I have been working on that for years and years, and in each one of the Gospel books there is a section on how that gospel writer deals with 'Hesed'.
So I have been thinking about it for a long time, so what I am going to do is, I think I am going to do one more record and I've got 3 songs started. One is Dvorak's 'Going Home', you'd know it if you heard it, its a very recognisable melody. It's the kindest peace of music I've ever heard and I'm writing a hymn to the kindness of God. One of the defining characteristics of God in the Old Testament, which is one of the surprises of the Old Testament, is that God is kind. I don't think anybody saw that coming!
I think one of the biggest surprises of the New Testament is that Jesus is a slave. He dies like a slave, he washes peoples feet. Nobody saw that coming, not the Messiah, the Messiah is meant to kill the Romans, he doesn't die for them, that doesn't make sense, right? And I think what no-one saw coming in the Old Testament was that God was kind.
The idea that Jesus was a slave is probably quite contentious still. I remember when Graham Kendrick's "Servant King" came out and a lot of people wouldn't sing that because how can Jesus be the servant?
Yeah, it's not disputable, in Philippians 2:6 -11, "He came in the form a doulos" that's not even a servant, that's a slave. He comes in the form of a slave, he washes feet, and Peter says 'You shouldn't be doing this' and he's kind of right. Jesus shouldn't have done that, it's too humiliating. If you notice, that passage only happens in John. John is the last Gospel written around 100AD, Matthew, Mark and Luke, they all knew that story, but I believe that they could not bring themselves to tell you that story, only John all those years later could say 'yeah we actually kept this quiet, but He actually washed our feet.' Maybe we are too used to this story, but trust me the people who first read that story went, 'that's nuts, the Messiah doesn't do that!'
I think we get that with a lot of the stories in the Gospels, you've been studying Scripture for 40+ years and you said it's not got old, but sometimes we get complacent about it and you sit down to read the Bible and it's John 3, and you're like I know this, I don't need to read this again!
Yeah but one of the things that make the Scripture different to any other book, and if you are a pointy headed fundamentalist like I am and you believe in the Holy Spirit, and part of the Holy Spirit's work is to help you understand the Bible. There is no book like the Bible, it's always new and fresh, and one of the things I have been doing is re-listening to things.
Abram offering Isaac, we all know that story, right? I was reading it the other day and I thought 'wait a minute'...God says 'offer your son, your only son who you love, go to Mount Moriah and offer him to me.' Abram doesn't open his mouth, and I had never noticed that before. What I realised was that in Abram's time that's what gods asked you to do. Molech, Baal, what do they all do? They say, take your babies and throw them into the fire, that's Baal worship, right? So Abram goes, OK well I guess, El Shaddai or whatever name you are going to be known by, that's just what we do. So without any question he's just going to cut Isaac's throat! God stops and says, 'no I'm going to offer a sacrifice.' I've seen that as a picture of God offering His only son, and it IS that, but more so now when I read this story that God was revealing Himself to Abram in a really dynamic way by saying 'I'm not like the other gods, I'm not going to make you slit his throat and burn the body, I'm going to provide the sacrifice.' Things like that keep happening, I am working a lot in Exodus 34, that whole passage where God covers Moses with His hand and again, you can quote those verses, but if you start in Exodus 20 and read to 34 and see step by step what Moses has gone through. In Exodus 34 is where God says that He is full of 'Hesed' that's where the word 'Hesed' comes up. So I'm seeing lots of new things, I'm praying that it's going to keep going that way.
There is still more to learn after all those years. Not to make you sound or feel old...
Well I am old. I was discipled by a guy who could recite the Bible from memory and I was holding his hand when he died, and right before he died he said, I've only scratched the surface, and this is a guy who could speak it, he had a photographic memory, wrote loads of commentaries a brilliant Bible scholar and he had only just scratched the surface!
I don't know about British Christianity but in American Christianity has really become secondary, I think the worship movement is a good thing, but I think there has to come a time when you have to know who you are worshipping more intimately, and you don't get that by worshipping, you get that by engaging with scripture.
It's the difference between what you do, which I would call sacred songs, there is a lot of theological input there extrapolating teaching from the Bible, and the worship songs reference the Bible but they are the feelings about the Bible.
Worship songs are a response, worship is a response to hearing the Word. The church that I started to write music in all those years ago, we had the sermon first, and then we had the worship service. The worship service was the response to having heard the word and we would design, and I would write songs that were taken from the sermon, so we would almost sing the sermon back. I did that for 6 years in college and that's where I learned to be a songwriter.