Grace Baldridge, whose recording name is “Semler,” made music history this month as the first openly queer artist to land atop the iTunes Christian albums chart. Some fans refer to the rise of her eight-song EP, Preacher’s Kid, as “GameStopping the Christian music industry.” Baldridge, a lesbian singer-songwriter who recorded the songs independently and uploaded the EP to iTunes, enlisted her fans to “claim it for anyone who has been cast out in the name of God.”
She called it an underdog story. She cast the campaign as one of justice and inclusion, saying the Christian music industry should make space for openly queer artists. But “gaming” the system of Christian music like this feels closer to intrusion than inclusion—an intentional subversion and rejection of what makes Christian music what it is: an expression of Christ’s gospel.
Church Hurt Is Real
Most of Semler’s songs describe emotional wounds from church life. They are well-crafted and haunting, both musically and lyrically. In “Jesus From Texas,” she sings:
I grew up a preacher’s kid cleaning up after communion
So I know that a church is not a way to live
It’s a weekly reunion
Who hasn’t been disappointed by a consumerist view of church that sees it as a place of outward social connection devoid of inward spiritual transformation? But it seems Semler rejects the premise that inward spiritual transformation is even possible, at least through the means the church has affirmed since its inception.
She clearly rejects the need for a Savior in the opening track, “Bethlehem” (warning: language), which is what makes her desire for inclusion in a Christian genre confusing. As Johnny Cash once sang in U2’s “The Wanderer”: “They say they want the kingdom, but they don’t want God in it.”
As Johnny Cash once sang: ‘They say they want the kingdom, but they don’t want God in it.’
There is value in some of Semler’s critique. Many of her complaints are sadly warranted. But to reject the church’s cornerstone (Eph. 2:20) while asking to sing in the church’s choir is disingenuous. It comes across as a project not to strengthen the church but to burn it down.
Deep Wounds, Deeper Well
The wounds that shape us can be deep. Semler’s wounds from her experiences as a preacher’s kid are sobering (especially for someone like me, the father of four preacher’s kids). The lyrics to “Youth Group” painfully allude to sexual encounters occurring during church lock-ins, experiences that no doubt cut tragically deep. Like many others who have left or deconstructed their faith, Semler turns these wounds into justification for doubts about the existence of God.
Yet as much as Semler wants to call her music Christian, what makes distinctly Christian art is not to bleed on the page, but to move beyond our blood to the Savior’s blood, which heals and saves. To be sure, suffering is part of the human experience and Christian art should never hide or avoid it. It’s human to be broken. But the beauty of Christianity is that we aren’t left to languish there. By his wounds, ours can be healed. That’s the sad irony of an artist denying Christ while declaring her music Christian. It’s like making peace with pain while denying the medicine.
Semler expresses the pain of those wounded by the church. She offers no solution except a platitudinous “I hope you’re doing well.” Christian music moves beyond the deep wounds to the deeper well of God’s saving grace.
A sort of last-ditch faith is clear in the opening track:
I’m more confused than I’ve been
And I don’t think this will pass
And I’m saying your name
When I think the plane will crash
While no doubt relatable to many struggling with their faith, songs like this leave listeners staring at bloody wounds but never drawing their eyes to the bloody cross that offers hope. The deep wells of our pain are not too deep for Jesus. Semler’s music is honest about the depths of sin and suffering, but dishonest in denying the redemption represented by the cross.
Scars and Wounds
Can Christian music rightly be accused of lacking depth and sugarcoating the pain of human experience? Yes. Much of it is formulaic, vapid, and far from the struggles so many experience on the journey of faith. One lesson of Selmer’s work might be that there’s a market for deeply personal music as it wrestles with faith.
But let’s not entertain the fantasy that there’s anything Christian about Preacher’s Kid. In the end, the EP is just another subjective singer-songwriter attempting to find meaning in pain, yet without transcendence. Christian music engages our subjective pain but also the objective transcendence that says, “Yes you’ve been hurt, your wounds are valid, but God became flesh, was tempted in every way you have been, and was wounded so that you could be healed.”
There’s a subtle difference between a wound and a scar. Both are evidence of pain, but the latter has the mark of healing. The resurrected body of Jesus bears the scars of the crucifixion (John 20:24–27). For the Christian, a scar is more than just a memory of past pain. It’s a testimony of healing.
For the Christian, a scar is more than just a memory of past pain. It’s a testimony of healing.
The inclusion Semler seeks seems to be on her terms of pain rather than Christ’s terms of healing. The irony is that Christ’s inclusion is so much better than anything offered by this world. His arms are open to any and all sinners; his invitation has absolutely nothing to do with our qualifications, talents, or ability to GameStop our way to the top of any list. Our inclusion in his family is based on his righteousness and our willingness to repent of our sin and accept his salvation (Luke 5:32), to surrender to his vision of healing, not our own.
In the end, to demand inclusion in Christianity without submitting to Christ the Lord doesn’t work. Christian identity without repentance is a fraud. If Semler is serious about wanting to retain the Christian title—and I pray she is—the path will be through Christ’s authority and his scars, not hers.