A couple of months ago I had the chance to catch up with my friend Justin McRoberts. I hate transcribing interviews, so that’s why you’re just now seeing this interview. I apologize for that, because I’ve really been looking forward to you being able to glean from Justin’s insights. He is an artist who thinks deeply and carefully about what he does and for that we are all better off.
Were you raised in a musical home?
Kind of. I was raised in a musical neighborhood. My parents were Beatles fans and listened to Elvis and John Denver. We had a lot of John Denver growing up. My father would take me to see the San Francisco Symphony. We didn’t have music playing at all times but my Dad moreso than my Mom, he listened to a lot of classical stuff. I still have some old vinyl from back then. I have a couple of old Stones records.
How did that transition into you picking up a guitar and playing for yourself?
That was mainly a friends thing. The older kids in the neighborhood were big music fans and I was the 12-year old kid hanging out with the 16-year olds who just got their licenses and had cars with really cool stereos. I just learned to love the music that they were listening to. This is when cars with really killer stereo systems were the thing. Lunch time at school and everyone was out in the parking lot surrounding the dude’s car who had the best stereo system. Maybe that’s still the way it is, I don’t know. People would get in cars and drive around just to play music.
That was mostly how I fell in love with music. C.S. Lewis talks about beauty. We admire beauty from a distance but that, really, there is something in us that desires to be beautiful. It’s not just that we have an admiration of it, we desire it for ourselves. So my love for music turned into picking up a guitar and trying to do it.
At what point did you realize that that connection was your life’s calling?
I don’t even know. That was a long progression for me. I picked up a guitar for the first time when I was around 17 or 18. I didn’t write a song until I was around 22. At 24, I was tinkering around and I would play every once in a while at a coffee shop just so that the kids who were in my Young Life club would come. When the option came up to look at this as a more professional thing, I really wasn’t sure, probably for the first year-and-a-half whether this was for me. It was more like: “Why not take a shot at it.” All the stars aligned for me at the time, I didn’t have any responsibilities, I wasn’t paying rent on a six-month lease, I could leave if I needed to. It was something that worked out over the course of time.
Why’d you stay with it?
Because it continued to fit. The more I’ve learned about myself and what I’m good at, and what I have to offer on the whole. In fact, this continues to be the case and I continually realize that music is a part of my larger calling. I guess I’m still working it out to be totally honest. I didn’t have a particular moment of clarity, though I do have them. I get e-mails from people saying that a particular song really touched them and those are affirming moments but I don’t think I’ve had the moment.
How did your relationship with 5 Minute Walk come about and go away?
I was living in Frank Tate’s house. It was myself and 3 other Young Life guys. I think there were five guys in the house. We just hit it of and I played out three or four times a year, something like that. I wasn’t super serious about it and Frank actually said to me, this is how you stay humble, by having people like Frank Tate in your life, Frank said to me: “You know, I don’t really like your music, but I like you and I think you could learn to do this better.” And that’s continued to be the theme of my career I guess. It’s been me that I’m passing along and not just the songs.
That set a tone for 5 Minute Walk and the way they went about doing music. It was about people, relationships, the transference of great things and beautiful messages. It was always relational. It was never just that the song was good enough or that a band was marketable enough. There was always a human element to it. So, even when I went out and Frank put me on that first tour with Five Iron Frenzy! It was me with an acoustic guitar in front of 1,300 kids with Mohawks there to see punk/ska. But Frank’s point was that I had to earn the right to be heard. I had to make the relationships. I’m thankful all the time that that’s how I started off.
Were you raised in a Christian home?
No. My Mother had a dormant faith. I was familiar with her faith to some degree, though I don’t even really know how or why because it wasn’t discussed in the house. My Dad was the pretty traditional young, white American kid who picked himself up out of the dirt and was very self-sufficient. He decided pretty early on in life that the whole God-thing really was for weak people. The irony was that this was the man who ended up ending his own life because he couldn’t deal with the identity shift of no longer being a successful corporate person. So, talk about irony, this is a man talking about how Christianity is for weak people but he didn’t have the strength to deal with his own life.
It wasn’t until that point that my mother’s faith re-entered the picture. I had come to faith through a relationship with a Young Life leader several years before that. Faith wasn’t part of my upbringing. In fact, the opposite was somewhat true. People of faith in our neighborhood were, not necessarily looked down upon by my father, but he didn’t have much place for them.
Tell me about your salvation experience.
I wouldn’t say that I had completely the same mindset as my father in regards to a total disrespect for religion. In fact, I was fascinated by religion. I thought it was interesting. But I really thought it was interesting from more of an anthropological standpoint. I just thought: “That’s really interesting that people are that way.” As a person who considered himself at the time to be rather intellectual, the humbling aspect of it was that I just fell in love with a person’s life. That trumped all of the conclusions I had come to intellectually about God. I just saw this person and the way they lived and tended themselves toward me and it just trumped all the rest of those things. It made me question whether some of those could be true. Suddenly there was something very real about it and that’s the mystery of the faith. There was something of the Person of Christ revealed and I couldn’t ignore it. I had to respond.
How did you become involved with Young Life?
What I said earlier about earning the right to be heard, from Frank’s perspective, is also a Young Life principle. With regards to any story you have to tell, it’s never enough to be impressive. It’s about earning trust with people so that you can challenge and push and lead people only insofar as they trust you and love you and that’s established in relationship.
So, for my involvement with Young Life, this man, from the point when I was 12 years old on, has continued to earn the right to be heard in my life; to tell me hard things, to challenge me and lead me. That has defined the way I approach, really everything, whether my professional relationships or my role as a lay pastor in my own community, whatever it is. It’s always been about earning the right to be heard. I’ve continued to stay connected with Young Life because I really love the mission. I love the philosophy of being where kids are and not being embarrassed to have conversations on that level, all with the sense of the incarnational so that you can lead them long-term in life.
How did you come to be involved with Compassion International?
Through the guys in Caedmon’s Call. I was on tour with Caedmon’s in 2000 or 2001 and the thing I missed about full-time vocational ministry was the day-in, day-out, always knowing what’s going on. When you play music, you’re often there and then gone and you just hope that there’s something lasting. I loved the idea of putting legs to what I was doing, that if someone was moved, they could make a decision right then and there to live differently. I’m not going to be there to hold them to their decision, but this six-year old child writing letters from India, that’s far more accountability than the hair-brained singer/song-writer from California. I loved that. And, the more I know about Compassion and understand God’s heart for the poor, and the power of relationship with poor people, what an enormous impact that has on people.
Being involved so heavily in ministry and performing, do you ever experience the tension between humility and having to sell yourself?
One of the really obvious things over the last 10 years is that who I am when I’m gone; I have to be the same person. Living in the San Francisco area where I do, and the community that I’m a part of, they really don’t care that I’m a singer/song-writer and that I travel around the country doing this. Some like my music, but they’re not at all impressed by me. In that vein, if I have anything that I can pass along, it’s not because I’m impressive or can sell myself, it’s because I’ve earned that right in their lives and there’s a very human transference and that has defined how I’ve approached being on the road.
I didn’t really start off in that direction, but the whole notion of trying to sell myself or an image; that has had to die in order for me to be consistent. I have to be the same person in both contexts. I travel with my wife also and that keeps me from trying to be one person here and another there.
What’s your perspective of the “Christian” market?
I’m still trying to work that out. It seems to get weirder and weirder as time goes on. I went through the phase that every immature jerk does that it’s all crap that we even have Christian bookstores. Well, there’s still some of that that’s true in the back of my mind but I’m no longer as willing to write off the whole thing though I do think there’s something damaging to it. I think drawing lines between where God is and where God isn’t is irresponsible. It does two things: it blanket-states that every record and every lyric on this record that are on this wall in this building has the stamp of biblical, Spirit-guided approval, well, that’s crap.
I’m more nervous about the content of books and music that my people, whether it’s at home or abroad are taking in from the Christian environment than anything from the outside. The fact that there is a Christian marketplace sets us up for some expectations of how God functions and that can be damaging.
You are part of a growing group of artists who 1) have decided to release your music independently rather than through labels and 2) openly work through your faith and art outside of CCM. Can you briefly talk about those two things?
Well, for one thing, just for the standpoint of market functionality, I don’t really need a label. I don’t need a lot of people working for me. If we decided to cut a record right now, we could write 6 or 7 songs today, they’d be pretty bad, but we could record them and have them up and open by tomorrow night where anyone in the world could have access to them. So, for distribution, I don’t need the machinery in the same way that we used to.
Because you don’t need the machinery in the same way you used to, it means that your character, your person and your style don’t have to be molded to a particular format. In the past, you used to have to bend yourself into a particular shape in order to fit into the right machinery that could then get your music out to the people. At this point, you can be who you are, do what you do, write what you write, say what you want to say and the people who are drawn to that are more organically drawn to that because they connect with it, not because it was sold to them.
You see this now when you look at people’s play-lists. When you look at the most played, it might be Johnny Cash followed by Danzig and then David Crowder Band. There’s less division in the way most people are interacting now with media and art. I think it’s more functional than it is philosophical at this point. You don’t need it, so we’re not doing it. I think long-term, we’ll develop an interesting philosophy of what it means, but right now, it’s just that we don’t need it, so why do it?
Tell me about some of the push-back you’ve received from doing a covers project.
From a shepherding perspective, if we’re going to be protective of and strategically guiding our people into engagement with the grander culture around us, and even the Trent Reznors of the world, no one questions: “Oh, really?! I didn’t know Trent Reznor was angry at God!” We know where Reznor is coming from. But if we have that much discernment about the music “outside of us,” we should at least have that same level of discernment with the songs we are teaching our people to sing. There are many extremely popular that are just setting people up for a particular type of engagement with God and people are going to be really disappointed ten years down the road when they realize they’ve been living out of this weird emotional expectation from God.
Why are we as Modern, American Christians so bad at this practice of discernment? Why do we practice discernment in “one direction”?
I don’t really know. The cheap and easy answer is because it’s not a discipleship culture. Because of that, we have to trust a certain level of institutional decision-making in which we either trust or mistrust a marketplace so you either trust the “Christian” marketplace or you mistrust the “Christian” marketplace and the same applies to the larger marketplace. All of this is opposed to nuanced engagement with an individual artist or an individual song guided by someone.
We might even say that discernment has become a point-of-purchase decision. It’s become a sales-thing. Anything that comes with this particular branding on it: “Christian market,” it’s now in and we’re willing to put it on display.
How can pastors do better at training their people in discernment?
I think that has more to do with the person who is pastoring. In other words, that type of cultural engagement is a large enough shift that either you’re that type of person who has lived into that type of discipline over the long haul or you’re not. There’s always the danger of trying to be a person who is going to learn this cultural engagement from a more functional standpoint just to get the job done as opposed to: “I really do recognize something of the sovereign presence of God in the larger culture and I recognize my duty as a person, not just the pastor, to point out where God is in the world around me for the benefit of those who are blinded to that.
There are folks who are naturally that way, but, and this is a big, sweeping generalization, the type of personality, the type of machinery that develops a type of personality in which we find the term “pastor” being developed, that’s not the type of person we’re developing in the pastoral role. We’re, oftentimes, talking about people who are trained to run churches in the way that you would run an organization and not in the way that you would shepherd and guide a people.
I don’t even know if that’s a fair question to ask about the larger pastoral culture because what you’re asking is not church culture as we know it.
But should it be?
I think so.
How do we get there?
Start over. Well, maybe more like this; not even starting over because that’s way too simple. Giving people who have that sense of vision, and this is part of what I’m trying to do with my covers project; that sense of the presence of God in their everyday; the pop radio they listen to and the lines that are normally drawn between the “Christian” marketplace and the “blah blah blah,” the people who already see the world that way, to empower them and equip them and free them to say “That is a vision that God has given you that you have a responsibility to.” We need people to understand, that doesn’t put you on the outskirts of “Christian culture,” it makes you a bridge between people who have been blinded one way and people who have been blinded in another.
So, for example, Trent Rezner needs to know and be told and encouraged: “Did you know that there are things that you have written that are reflective of the principles of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Did you know that?” Who is telling that to Trent Reznor? In the same way, people who live on the other side of things, who often times feel like they have a grip on the shape of the kingdom of God, need to be encouraged to see that in Trent Reznor. Some people live in that space, where they actually see those things. I see this pervasive, enormous, grand, sweeping activity of God. That’s not a role that often affirmed by many Christians. We don’t create culture around those people. It’s harder to sell I guess.
So are you saying that it’s not always an issue of discernment but of how we define “sacred” vs. “secular?” Which I guess could still be defined as discernment.
Absolutely. Alexander Schmemann wrote one of my favorite books For The Life of The World. He’s an orthodox theologian and he writes, I’m going to get this quote somewhat wrong, but you’ll at least get the gist of it: “The world is a fallen world in part because we have abandoned the idea that God is all in all. We’ve embraced the all-encompassing secularism that desires to steal the world away from God.” We’ve come to believe that the activity of God takes place in this idea we call “sacred” versus the “rest of the world,” which we don’t just call “secular,” but in many contexts, we call profane. The result is that what is “sacred” is very small; it takes place in a very particular time. This is much the same way we look at the hour we spend together on Sunday morning and then the hundreds upon hundreds of hours that happen in between.
Sacred hour: profane life. So Schmemann writes about undoing these things and that’s a long process. But I do think that there are many of us who do see the world this way. In fact, I would go so far as to say, and this is part of what Schmemann does in his first few chapters: the line between the sacred and the secular is not a line that was drawn by people who live on the profane side of the line. It’s a line that we drew in a very protectionist sense, thinking that we need to make sure that our people don’t or that we need to keep clean from this or that. We drew the line. And then we drew a further line and a further line.
I would go so far as to say that, and this is a theological statement, but I’d be shocked to find that there are really that many people in the world who have no sense whatsoever of a sense of mystery. Michael Frost tells stories about, and yes, this is a little on the cheesy side, but he says that if you ask people if they’re religious, no one says that they are. People who go to church regularly don’t even want to say that they’re religious people. But, Frost points out, if you ask people if they’ve had a religious experience, that’s a different question for most people. Over and over again, people admit that, of course, they’ve had a religious experience.
There is something to the way that we communicate internally about the activity of God and a vision for the activity of God that disregards the pervasiveness of a globe full of God’s people. They’re still His folks, having encounters with God over and over again. So, one of the central texts for me with the covers project is Phillip’s encounter with the Eunuch. Are we willing to go near the chariot and stay near the chariot?
Phillip is told by the Spirit of the Lord to go South. He’s just given a direction. I think there’s something to that, though I haven’t completely sussed it out yet; he doesn’t even have a particular destination. There’s something very open to it; he’s just told to go South. There are no preconceived notions to the story. On his way South, he runs into; he sees, across the way, a chariot with an Ethiopian Eunuch in it. We don’t really know how he knew from a distance that the man is a eunuch, which is one of the great mysteries of the Bible.
When he sees the chariot, the Spirit of the Lord speaks to him and says: “Go to the chariot and stay near it.” I just love the particular words: “Go.” “Stay.” Near.” He doesn’t go and deliver a message, he goes and stays near. As he does, he hears this Ethiopian eunuch, someone pretty culturally distant and removed from Phillip culturally, reading the words of sacred Scripture, he’s reading Isaiah. And in particular, he’s reading a section of Isaiah that foretold the life and death of the one Phillip had come to know as the resurrected Christ. It’s not a sidenote but something I pull from the story: the Word of God was not something Phillip was carrying around with him to drop off, it was something that was already present in this place before he arrived. So he asks the Ethiopian if he understands what he is reading. The Ethiopian asks how he can understand unless someone explains it to him. Then the Ethiopian asks him to get into the chariot. So we’ve moved past “Go to,” “Stay Near,” to “Get In.” It’s not until he’s in the chariot, with his feet off the ground, with his story, his life fully entwined with this man, wherever this man is going in his chariot, that’s where Phillip is headed. Their stories have collided now and they then, in that context, turn the conversation to The Story that is being played out already in both of their stories on two different cultural planes.
Part of where I’m going is this: it’s not until we’re willing to intentionally; in the same way we’ve intentionally divided and intentionally judged others, we must intentionally engage and listen to the books that are popular or the music that is popular around us. Only then will we go near the chariot, will we stay near the chariot, will we get in the chariot.
So how does all of this translate into you doing a project of cover songs most people would not expect from a “Christian” artist?
I grew up hearing these songs and in them I recognize something key, something beautiful, something reflective of the Kingdom, in the way these songs are written and in their beauty. They made me wonder: “Can it be enough for us that this is a beautiful piece?” Even in terms of lyrical content, whether it’s Reznor writing very clearly about what he sees as this deathly potent relationship between power and divinity/religion or Aimee Mann talking about what it means to be saved and the very relational nature of being rescued by simply being known by someone.
These, of course, are not fully developed; you wouldn’t want them to be the centerpiece of someone’s life, but can we hear something really profound about the nature of salvation in these songs? Can we hear something profound about someone’s rage against a world that abuses power? I would finish that by saying that, it strikes me that if we can’t, if we’re honestly willing to draw a line and say that God is not present in these works, then that says more about our understanding of God than it does about the larger culture. We are saying that there are places God won’t go and I simply don’t believe that.
I grew up loving The Smiths. Why choose one of their songs?
It was this sick, sick sadness. But not of Morrissey. The thing, every time for me, was these deeply sad, pathetic, awful, depressing lyrics set against this jangly, beautiful, bright guitar. In terms of a person’s experience of life, Makoto Fujimara talks about sadness in that there is an aspect of sadness that the Japanese recognize as “the beautiful sadness.” “The Beautiful Sadness” is a perfect way to describe The Smiths.
As an adolescent growing up and having all these experiences, like being in love with someone you cannot possibly be with and then the breakup and the so on; there’s something there, you weren’t just busted up, there was something beautiful and cathartic about how jacked up your life was. The Smiths really captured that. They tapped into that and, in many ways, redeemed that aspect of my life. It wasn’t just a bad day, this was part of life; there is something good about sadness. There can be something beautiful about sadness. There’s poetry in it. I don’t know what I would have done without The Smiths or The Cure. They made my sadness beautiful.
Do you have a typical songwriting process?
I do. I write snippets. I have a folder called “snippets” on my computer. That’s not true. It’s actually called “McSnippets,” because that’s dumber. I do write bits of songs, whether it’s something more thematic and then come back around and listen through every once in a while. Then, at some point, I’ll set some time to stretch those a bit. Then I leave that for a while then come back and stretch it again and then make a decision. Then I go away for a few days with a guitar and a computer and try to finish some songs and that’s about as much process as I have. Maybe I’d be a better songwriter if I had more of a disciplined approach but I very rarely force myself to finish songs.
Who are some of the artists who have influenced you?
Glen Phillips from Toad the Wet Sprocket. He’s my guy among guys. I like the way he writes. There’s some variance in his styles and most of the time I like what he’s writing about. Tom Waits in the last few years. I liked him in the past but I’ve really grown to appreciate him recently. He’s sort of; and this is probably sac-religious on several fronts, but I’m not a huge Bob Dylan fan; I don’t dislike him but I don’t have the great love for him that people do. I admire Dylan but from a songwriter’s perspective, Tom Waits serves that for me.
I always have too many ideas.
- Visit Justin McRoberts’ official website