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What Makes Christian Musician Michael Card Unique?

Lori Stanley Roeleveld

 

When Michael Card started as a worship leader, he provided a worship sound resonating with thousands of young adult believers who came to faith during the Jesus movement. His music used instruments that many older Christians weren’t used to seeing in church (like guitars), and the lyrics were undergirded with the Scriptures that these young believers had only just begun to love and live by faith. Card’s songs supported the discipleship of countless Christians who met Jesus in this explosive period.

Who Is Michael Card?

Michael Card is an American Christian singer, songwriter, and author, a Bible teacher at heart. He is what this generation would call a “creative.” Born April 11, 1957, in Madison, Tennessee, the son of two preacher’s kids, he came to faith at eight and became deeply engaged with the Bible by age 14.

In a 2017 interview with One Man in the Middle, Card states, “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.“

Interestingly enough, Card doesn’t consider himself a musician. In the same interview, he observed, “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.”

This love of God’s Word marks Card’s life, ministry, and music. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biblical studies from Kentucky University and believes that God calls every Christian to go beyond knowing “Bible facts.” He once said in this Christianity.com interview, “I think some Christians approach Scripture like stamp collecting. ‘I just collect a bunch of facts and tidbits that will help me.’” Instead, he believes God wants to recapture our imaginations. He wants all of us to engage with the Bible, interact with His Word, knowing it in a deeply personal way that transforms our lives.

Card is also an author. He’s penned or co-authored over 22 books. Many of his books correlate with his albums which generally revolve around one central theme. Whatever medium he uses, Card uses it to encourage Christians to engage with the Bible.

Michael has grown up with his Jesus movement generation. He lives in Franklin, Tennessee with his wife, Susan. Susan wrote a book called The Homeschool Journey. According to Card’s website, the couple has four children and five grandchildren. Michael continues to travel, sing, and teach. He frequently teaches at the Biblical Imagination Conferences, which are born from his Biblical Imagination Book Series (each book is based on a separate gospel).

How Has Michael Card Influenced Christian Music?

Card grew up during the sixties and seventies, the decades of the explosive Jesus Revolution. The church was changing. The culture was changing. All that change came with a powerful soundtrack of folk and rock music. But as the flower child converts of the sixties grew up, their music needed to mature with them.

Once the initial momentum and excitement of the movement settled down, a new generation of believers was ready for music that reflected their folksy roots while continuing their biblical educations. God sent Card onto the scene at the right moment for all these spiritual adolescents craving nourishment.

Michael’s debut album, First Light, was released in 1981. The following year, Amy Grant released a song penned by Card. “El Shaddai” became a hit, reaching the top ten on Contemporary Christian Music charts and garnering “Song of the Year” and “Songwriter of the Year” at the 1983 GMA Dove Awards. In 2001, the Recording Industry Association of America included it as one of the 365 Songs of the Century.

Since then, Card has had 19 #1 hits and has sold more than four million records. He continues to be a creative force in Christian culture.

What about Card’s musical style and powerful lyrics made a generation of newborn adult Christians embrace him and call him their own? And how has his approach to the Bible and creativity continued to impact us?

What Is Michael Card’s Approach to Christian Music?

For Michael Card, music is one vehicle for engaging people’s imaginations with the Bible. Card learned from theologian William Lane, “We must engage with Scripture at the level of the imagination.” Whether Card is writing lyrics, books, or Bible lessons, it all emerges from interacting with God’s Word empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Card believes that the Christian musician’s life must bear testimony to the art they create. In his book, Scribbling in the Sand, Card observes, “all art forms attempt to translate what is unseen into what is seen. Painter Joel Sheesley states, ‘I … suggest that the definition of content in art is very much like that New Testament definition of faith that calls faith `the substance of things hoped for.’ Art, especially as we engage in it with a redeemed vision, becomes an activity of faith, translating the ‘substance of things hoped for’ with words, paint and other materials into the content and form of art.”

Necessarily then, in all attempts to represent Jesus through art, music, or writing, Card believes there are “missing pieces” that force us to lean in with our imaginations and hear both what is being said and unsaid. In a 2003 article on the missing pieces, he observes we “can’t say everything all the time”—a lesson he admits he’s taken years to learn after trying to “cram everything” into each lyric. Instead, we must allow our souls time to catch up without trying to say everything all at once.

Music is the vehicle for which he’s most known, but it’s just that. Card stated in a 2020 World interview, “The older I get the better I do understand this process. Music comes from resonance, right? You hit a guitar string and it resonates or whatever. Well, that happens in your heart. Your heart resonates and you make music out of the resonance that happens in your heart.”

In his One Man in the Middle interview, Card explained he feels there are “sacred songs” which contain much theology drawn from the Bible and “worship songs” which are responsive to God’s Word. When he began writing songs, the sermon was first in the service, so he would write worship songs that “would almost sing the sermon back.” Music isn’t the end; it’s how we engage with God.

Card has, at times, been critical of the Contemporary Christian Music industry, concerned that it’s succumbed to power and money rather than supporting ministry. The 1996 Christian Study Library quotes Card saying, “There are Christian musicians and there’s Christian music. There are Christian musicians who play great secular music… Christian music is music that’s about Christ, that is informed by a biblical value system. The Christian music business definition is that Christian musicians always make Christian music… which isn’t always true. I think that there are probably some non-Christian musicians who’ve written some pretty significant Christian music… which would also probably trouble a lot of people.”

But Card believes God calls Christians to offer more than their gifts: to go beyond and offer our very lives, as Jesus did.

In 2011, Card told Ligonier, “One of the most important lessons the Lord has taught me is that you are not your gift. That is, you are not defined by what you do or create. Jesus is a wonderful example of this. He would not allow the crowd to define Him by His considerable gifts, even though they tried to do so. Jesus always points away from Himself and His gifts and thereby wins praise for the Father. We are not our gifts. We are called to give more. Like Jesus, we are called to give ourselves. That is the real purpose behind our gifts; they are vehicles for giving the self.”

Michael encourages every Christian (especially Christian artists) to engage with God’s Word and their community. He believes art should emerge from that community, something he emulates by serving his own community, working toward “racial reconciliation and neighborhood renewal.”

Great Michael Card Albums and Books

It’s never too late to discover the music and writings of Michael Card. If you love the work of Andrew Peterson, you’ll adore Card’s work. Or, perhaps you’re a huge fan, and it’s time to take a memory walk to recapture your imagination. Musician, author, Bible teacher, and Christ-follower—we have much to gain from exploring his work and opening our minds to the Holy Spirit as we engage with God’s Word.

Here is a sampling of some of the best of Card’s writings, both music and books, from each decade:

From the 1980s:

Known by the Scars (1984) contains Card’s version of “El Shaddai” as well as “God’s Own Fool,” “Come to the Table,” and “Know You in the Now.”

Scandalon (1985) is named for a Greek word the Bible uses for Jesus as the unexpected Messiah and contains 10 sacred songs focused on Jesus Christ.

Sleep Sound in Jesus (1989) includes “All You Are,” based on a poem by George MacDonald. It also has an accompanying book, Sleep Sound in Jesus: Gentle Lullabies for Little Ones and Inspirational Devotions for Parents.

From the 1990s:

The Word: Recapturing (1989) includes “All You Are,” based on a poem by George MacDonald. It also has an accompanying book, Sleep Sound in Jesus: Gentle Lullabies for Little Ones and Inspirational Devotions for Parents.

From the 1990s:

The Word: Recapturing Imagination (1992) contains hits such as “Recapture Me,” “Valley of Dry Bones,” and “I Will Bring You Home.”

Unveiled Hope (1997) contains sacred songs inspired by the book of Revelation and has an accompanying book co-written with Scotty Smith.

Starkindler: A Celtic Conversation Across Time (1998) contains traditional Celtic hymns re-imagined by Card.

From the 2000s:

Soul Anchor (2000) contains songs inspired by the book of Hebrews.

Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity (2002) is Card’s book about Christianity and creativity, named for a song in his album John: A Misunderstood Messiah.

A Fragile Stone: The Emotional Life of Simon Peter (2003) comes with a DVD of Card’s four-part Day of Discover program on Simon Peter. There is also an

accompanying book of the same name.

From the 2010s:

A Violent Grace: Meeting Christ at the Cross (2013) explores the crucifixion and has an accompanying book with the same name.

Luke: A World Turned Upside Down (2011) explores the Gospel of Luke with the accompanying book, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement.

To the Kindness of God (2019) explores hesed, a Hebrew word that Card observes is unusually hard to translate but communicates something vital about God’s love. The accompanying book is titled Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness.

Compilations:

Joy in the Journey: 10 Years of Greatest Hits (1994), and the accompanying book

Joy in the Journey: The Lyrics and Their Stories.

Signature Songs (1999) contains selections from the albums Legacy and First Light.

The Ultimate Collection (2006).

Matthias David
Matthias David
Working in His vine, as He does even more at mine.
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