May 3, 2016 Aaron Ross

An Interview with Toby Morrell from Emery and Bad Christian

Emery has been a staple in music for many who grew up in the church but wanted music that was outside of the typically accepted realm of what some would call “Christian”. Being a Christian in a band that was not quite the accepted medium of art, Toby Morrell offers great insight into the real of music, art, faith, and the church. Toby, while still touring and making music with Emery, is now a worship pastor, blogger, and curates a popular podcast and brand entitled “Bad Christian”.

Aaron – I like to think of art intersecting with faith as oppose faith intersecting with art. As usually when faith intersects with art we get terrible movies, music, and books that tries to use art as a medium. They usually mess it up pretty bad. In what ways do you think art should intersect with faith?

Toby – We have done interviews [about this] on the [Bad Christian] podcast … one that stuck out was David Crowder. I don’t necessarily really listen to his music regularly or anything but he has written some songs that are obviously are famous. He was making a point (I am just paraphrasing) that the church use to be known for art. People use to go to the churches for the architecture and the artwork and the songs that were being written.  It really meant something that the church was about art and beauty, and creating. One thing that does seem to be a little troublesome to me is kind of like how you said. I think the church at sometimes is assessable to hearing great art, or doing great art and then they create it with the faith tent (or tainted with faith). There are tons of Christians who like the idea of Christian movies. People like great movies. Well we are going to make a great movie but it has to be wrapped up with this very clear gospel message and have no alcohol, drug use, profanity, or anything like that. In and of itself this isn’t a bad thing but it is holding back for the sake of what people may think opposed to making an artistic decision not to use profanity.

12357812_1015796311811194_21596335_nI think there are tons of opportunities coming where we see people that are believers who are highly impacted in their faith and going to start creating more great music, more great movies. I think that some music has been dumbed down over the years to where people go, “oh we really have to have a repetitive chorus because it is so easy and it is more memorable so that everybody will know this song immediately. Then they can just sing it as a congregation as oppose to wrestling with songs.” This has been a big theme in my own life lately. Just thinking about wrestling with God, the idea of Jacob wrestling with God, and what that actually means. What that story can actually mean for us is that maybe it is a good thing for us to go to church and wrestle with the music about. Like, what are they doing here? Whoa, the things that they are creating here, I am having to think about this. When I buy an album, the song that I love the least in the beginning at the end will always be my favorite. The song that I get that is on the radio that I bought the CD for, that song was easy and assessable and I got in to it really easily. But if I really care about the band, or want to learn about this album, then the song that is not as accessible I will have to wrestle with it. I ask “why did they do that? That’s kind of weird.” That song I end up wrestling with will being more lasting and the song I will remember.

That is what I hope for Christian music and Christian art. Art in general should be influential, but the intersection of art and faith and how they melt with each other should be natural. Faith should not art use as a tool to promote itself. For example, you shouldn’t use art for the sole reason to promote your Christianity or faith. This becomes the cheesy thing. You are using it and its natural then the movie that you make ends up actually sharing the gospel in a real way, then the art is going to be beautiful. Then people will be able to respect that regardless of their faith.

Aaron – Something that you brought up that I have struggled with for quite a while now is the idea that a lot of times we kind of come to church with a pre-packaged idea of worship. For example, we are going to sing this song because it worships God, and we are going to sing that song because it is catchy, and we are going to sing this song because it will get people going. But so rarely do we get worship music that is actually deals with struggling and deals with problems. When John Mark McMillan recorded “How We Loves”, there is that original version where at the end he is basically crying, there is something so real about that song that I think people connected with, because you just don’t get that depth of emotion in worship music anymore.

Toby – I agree. Like you are saying, when worship music does talk about problems or something real, it makes it very vague.  Instead of staying “oh my gosh, my friend died”, or saying “hey I have a drug problem, my wife left me”, we will say we are in a valley! That is what is so awesome about the Bible. You get to see the really bad things about people. It’s not like they go “hey man King David was so awesome and yea he was in some tough spots”. No, you get to see that he was praying for God to kill men, women, and children. He cheated unbelievably and has a lady’s husband killed. Readers of the Bible are like, “whoa this is real”. But if we were to sing songs about that in church you would have to really keep it vague because church people can’t handle it. But I believe we should let people wrestle with it, and [God] will be more real. “I get this. I am understanding this more. I can relate to this more because I am just not in a valley, but this is my real situation.”

Aaron – By trying to make things so assessable we really just dumb it down. We have made the tough situations in life “non-real” for a lot of people. 9k= 

Toby –  That’s the problem, it’s very accessible, but it can only go so far. That is what worries me about where we are at in art and how far can it really take you. It’s funny because it you listen to top Christian songs and then secular songs, a lot of the stuff is just generic and empty. What does it say about the state of music if the number one song is America is about somebodies booty? What does it say about Christianity if the number one song is something very vague about “I will worship you.” We can do better than that. This is the Creator of all things. We can really create.

We have full authority to be creative. So why would we pigeon-hole ourselves into marketing .

Aaron –  I think one of your songs, personally for me, that I see a lot of being real and specific in struggling is “I Never Got to See the West Coast” where you sing about dealing with depression and thoughts of suicide. I find it interesting that you use the phrase that “everyone is quoting their teacher and preacher, but the words make them feel so alone”. In this kind of working through of art what were you thinking in writing this lyric? Where did it come from and what were you trying to show by it?

Toby – Well I just think that this is probably part of my reaction to the social media, Facebook culture that we have now. I’ll open my Facebook in the morning and there is already twenty high horses or uplifting scriptures. And that is a false reality. Once again it is a mega phone saying let me get my Christianity for the day. Check, got that off the list. Uplifting quote for the day, did that. Awesome! So some of that is a reaction to that. And just the false reality that there are a lot of people who are hurting literally right now, taking their life or getting ready to, or just thinking about taking their life. There are tons of people hurting in other ways too. But just specifically talking about suicide. That [uplifting] quote doesn’t mean anything. Going back to [talking about Jesus] on stage, what does that do? When really the person just need to be heard. Like, I need to shut up and let them kind of talk and say “wait a minute, my life is not that good” There are tons of people who are fully Christian and are just dying inside. And it doesn’t help to say “remember Jesus is your Lord and Savior”. That’s great and I love that Jesus has done that for us and we need to hear that sometimes. But sometimes we need to shut up and go “what’s going on?” So my reaction was to that.

Aaron – So you have been creating music with Emery for almost 15 years. With all of that time being in the music industry, your music, beliefs, and thoughts of God have changed. This is something you can clearly see through your music. What have been the biggest impact of that change, especially in what you are singing and writing about it?

Toby – I would say the biggest change that happened for me is growing up extremely in a conservative charismatic church background. I thought from the beginning that on the stage we needed to say we believe in Jesus Christ and really proclaim those things. I would’ve said 15 years ago that I was proclaiming Christianity, that God was giving me a chance to use the microphone to proclaim His glory and who He was. After touring for years and years I realized that when I am up on stage saying that “we are Emery and I want you guys to know that we are Christians and we believe in Jesus Christ” that immediately changed the whole moment to “I want to sell you something”. But that didn’t reflect anything about what I was like off stage. I live like a Christian off stage, but what I did on stage was just saying something real quick. I might as well have gone up there and said that I like ham sandwiches and you might not. That didn’t do anything for the gospel, except that it probably encouraged some Christians and turned non-Christians off.

I was just being a megaphone without it meaning anything.

This whole scenario got me thinking that this was an image thing. I believe in Jesus and his power and what it does in my life. So what am I actually saying? So when I actually said something on stage it was because I felt like the Holy Spirit asked me to. There have been times that we have been at a festival or show and I felt like that I needed to rebuke the coward or say something about what we are doing. I have been at Christian festivals before and said “how many Christians do we have here?” and everybody said “yes!” and raise their hands. Then I say how many non-Christians do I have here. There might be one person. I think “what are we doing?” We have a big festival and it’s mostly Christians. It’s Christian entertainment. If you expect this band to be missional, doesn’t it make sense for this festival to be packed with non-Christians?  I think from that I realized that if I was going to speak from the microphone I wanted to be really convicted to say something, or that I really wanted it to be meaningful or powerful. It should be about the moment and time opposed to a generic time that says almost nothing.

Aaron – So beyond creating music, recording and touring, you are now a worship leader, a blogger, you run a podcast, and you created the culture of “Bad Christian”. How has being involved in the music industry affected, hindered, helped, or changed how you view who we are as Christians? How should we interact with the world through those kinds of blogs and podcast?

Toby – I think what is happening is that we are going to see more and more of an entrepreneurial church. I am hoping we will see more of what the definition of church is. Right now, the definition of a church is a building. It really is, look at that church. We have swapped it out. The church is supposed to be the people. His bride is supposed to be those people. So what I am thinking and hoping is things like blogs and podcast and these things that use to be called para-churches, will actually become what the churches really are. I do believe that Sunday is a doorway for some people. It’s very simple and easy to go. “I am in a really bad spot, or I just feel alone.” Maybe things are not that bad and you just want some connection. I think that Sunday church is for some people.

But I think you are going to see that through media and through the internet that there is going to be more and more creative ways of doing church.

It will be less about how certain churches are huge have crazy numbers. We will become more entrepreneurial in the sense of people having great ideas and pushing boundaries. And it’s going to work. You know with blogging, a lot of it is with specific stuff. You pick just the green bay packers and just write about them only, and you will get a solid fan base. A lot of people are making a living by just writing about one sports team. I think we are going to see that too. People saying my interest is just theology. Or I really love outreach. Like I don’t resonate with Sunday morning at all. There are going to be plenty of opportunity to express that faith in a lot of different ways.

Aaron – I have heard people push back what with you were trying to do over at your blog and podcast, Bad Christian. Specifically they find the language used or the topics being discussed as unfitting for Christians. However I think this pushback is coming from a person who has been ingrained within the “church world” trying to tell someone who has been ingrained in the music scene what is and is not appropriate for Christians. What do you see as the disconnect between what you are trying to do over at Bad Christian and those who push back against you.  
ZToby – Well I think that our podcast is abrasive intentionally. We really wanted to capture three dudes talking. That was the whole goal. We wanted to talk about things that we care about. Obviously, Christianity is one of the things we talk about. I fully believe in Jesus Christ and his power and the resurrection, all the required stuff. But I also wanted to show why Jesus is so awesome. What I really don’t like is when people look at me and say “Toby was in Emery, or he really has done a lot. It would be cool to be more like him.” What we really want to show is that we really do need Jesus and we are just real dudes and we feel comfortable with where we are at. We are full of sin. We are also full of jokes. We are also full of having a good time. And yes, how we talk on the podcast is how we talk when we are together.

It goes back to that push back that I had for a long time now. My identity is in Christ. If my identity is in Christ, then who cares what somebody else thinks about me. If my identity is in Christ, then God himself thinks of me as a child. That is where my safety is and where who I am can really flourish. We push boundaries in the hope of being more like what the church will be in the future. Hopefully people would be able to push boundaries. We are not so far removed from people thinking drinking or that alcohol is a sin (though some people still believe so). We do not just talk about drinking, but about divorce, and depression. Do you know how many pastors suffer from depression and loneliness and can’t even talk to anyone about it? This is the church! What are we doing? It’s scary to think of a world where you actually have to own your own faith and the person besides you might think of you a bit differently if they knew what you are going through and they would call themselves a Christian. It’s really comfortable for all of us to be Baptist or Presbyterian or non-denominational and go “this is what we believe and we are all going to stick together.” That’s safe and that feels good. It is much more difficult to go “wait a minute we are supposed to give more money and this is real wine at communion?” I think we are trying to build a bridge. We are kind of on the tip of starting something. I am thinking years and years down the road it is going to get wilder and wilder and be better and better.

Aaron – What brought you to this point? Your blog has talked about things ranging from porn to Pentecostals speaking in tongues and everything in-between. What got you to the point where you stopped caring about possibly getting Christians mad at you and thinking “we need to talk about these things openly and publicly?”

Toby – I think the truth is that we just want to tell the truth. I feel like that I am only going to be on this planet for so long for sure. Out of everybody, Jesus knows me. He knows the good and the bad. God knows the good Toby and the bad Toby. He knows the lazy Toby and the work hard Toby. If God knows everything I am made of why would I be afraid for you to know it? What am I really afraid of? The fear are those things live in my sometimes. Like being afraid to tell you I looked at porn. Or being afraid to tell you that I got mad at my kids. Or that I acted ugly. Or to tell you that I spent sometime today at a nursery home and it was so wonderful. I actually got to sit with some people and talk to them and we made some progress and it was really cool. All of these things are the makeup of me. So why am I hiding it? The only reason why I would hide it so that you could think better of me.

Aaron – How do you think that the art can push the church to where you see the church needs to go?

Toby –  The church need to let art be real and to be able to push boundaries. But it has to be slow enough where art can be a bridge. A lot of people are not ready for our podcast. I get that and that is totally fine. Some people are. That’s why I always admit that I wish we were smarter. I hate that we are doing this podcast, pushing boundaries and I know how dumb I am. I want smarter intelligent people. We have so many brilliant pastors who are not pushing the edges or including art in their own sermons and messages. And also I think with being careful and making careful decision with music. When I think about church art right now all I can thing about is that you draw Jesus upside down and you flip him over and everyone is like whoa that is Jesus. That’s what every Christian artist does now. They flip Jesus over and everyone thinks it’s amazing. Why aren’t we doing something more real? I think the way is for everyone to allow for some of these things to happen and take a breath before reaction and before safety. Let’s be a little dangerous Christian. People are like let’s be dangerous for the Lord. Let’s really be dangerous against what the Christians in the pews and the pastors are doing right now. Let’s be dangerous for ourselves first. Let’s push a limit here and see what we are doing. Not for the sake of pushing the limit. That’s not my point. My point would be, otherwise we will continue to be cookie cutter and we will be that same road saying this is what church is. How it can be alive? Let art be creative. Let artist be creative. Creating art that can push boundaries in a way that it is a bridge. I am not saying that art needs to be just completely vulgar and terrible or awful. That’s not what I am saying. What I do think is that we can build a bridge for people to say that this wasn’t that bad. That didn’t hurt that bad. “I see some new faces here that I haven’t seen before because of this” That’s good.

Take a breath before reaction.

Aaron – I think pushing those boundaries can push us towards finding truth deeper. We tend to act if like we have all truth already wrapped up in our heads, that we already know everything that needs to be known. That’s why when art does push back, we go “wait a second that’s not what I already know”.

 

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About the Author

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Aaron Ross Aaron Ross is an instructor of theology at Southeastern University and a PhD student at the University of Birmingham (UK). He is also the senior editor of ECCLESIAM. In his spare time, Aaron enjoys running and being an avid movie watcher.