It is really hard for me to know where to begin this tribute. Mark Heard died 25 years ago today, August 16th, 1992. He had suffered two heart attacks within two weeks of each other that summer, the second of which left him in a coma that eventually ended his life. I discovered Mark Heard just under 10 years later, over 15 years ago, when I picked up the book “CCM’s 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music History” at my local library and began thumbing through it.
As I was nearing the end of my freshman year of high school, I was in a definite dry spell within my faith. It was spring of 2002 and I began to realize that I was seeing a strange dichotomy between the real life we all live, with it’s trials, challenges, heartache and sadness, and the “Christianity” I was seeing being taught within the American Church of “accept Jesus as your savior, pray a prayer and be saved.” That seemed to be all that was being taught in one form or another in both the main church services and the youth group I was attending each week. Looking back now, we know this was the tail end of the what is now known as the ‘Seeker” movement in the Church, and an it is an era not looked back on fondly today.
As people my age are now leaving the Church in seemingly endless droves, we can look back at that time as being perhaps a contributing cause…..but I digress….
With all that swirling inside my head, I looked to my favorite medium, music, for consultation. Sadly the music I was hearing on Christian radio and saw being sold in Christian bookstores was, well, also lacking in an acknowledgement of the harder parts of life. I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me, that I was somehow feeling things that everyone else was immune to, or if nothing else, didn’t understand well enough to talk about.
Enter Mark Heard’s “Satellite Sky” album into my life, which I managed to borrow a cassette tape copy from a library in Illinois! (This was back when my local library had this cool option called “Interlibrary Loan” where they could get items from anywhere in America at no cost to you as the patron. Pretty awesome!)
I converted this long out of print cassette to mp3 files on my computer and pretty much listened to it non stop during the summer of 2002! Here was a man who wrote about the challenge of life and the “friction born of living” in a fallen world better than anyone I had ever heard, and to this point in life, never have heard again.
“Satellite Sky” was an album for a person who felt deep things, and longed to understand how those feelings should be channeled. Heard took on the struggles of realizing the world doesn’t understand that the presupposition of “in the beginning, God” packs such a powerful and meaningful message for our lives in his song “Orphans of God”
In “Long Way Down” he laments the fact that we have reached the point in America where the once glorious “purple mountain majesties” now have ‘ratings that are poor’ due to the depravity that has caused society to fall in darkness.
America, in Heard’s mind was slowly becoming a “Freight Train To Nowhere,” a place where ‘the wages of spend is debt.’
No one else had dared to speak these things, especially in the Church.
But there was also a deep understanding of the Good News of the Gospel, though with Heard it needn’t be spelled out directly.
In “Love Is So Blind” he champions a woman who ‘spends her evenings singing songs to infidels and thieves’ and ‘sees unselfishly’ at all times. A reminder to all of us that there are truly selfless people in the world.
In “Treasure Of The Broken Land” he wrote an ode to his father, who had died in December of 1991. In it he exudes the hope of every Christian who knows he will one day see a loved one who also knew Christ again in Heaven.
“Hammers & Nails” speaks of the love of Jesus that can ‘pierce me’ on a never failing basis.
Hopeless situations were expressed right alongside the ultimate Hope of the Gospel.
Needless to say from hearing this album I did all I could to track down everything Mark Heard have ever put out. This included happening on some cassette tape copies of albums in the discount bin of Christian Bookstore Outlets in Tennessee while on a family vacation, and admittedly a use of file sharing software on the computer, though I would eventually purchase all of his albums in one format or another.
I also read everything I could read on this man. I found books written about the history of Christian rock and Yahoo Groups, the start of social media back then, that exclusively had members who liked and appreciated Heard’s work.
Then the following summer a Mark Heard biography came out, alongside a CD of previously unreleased material!!!! That spring it was the only item on my birthday wish list. My parents were kind enough to pre-order if for me :-)
The CD was great! It featured unreleased material of Heard’s written and demoed during his three year album hiatus between 1987-1990.
The book was equally thrilling, as author Matthew Dickerson spoke with almost any artists he could find who had known and worked with Mark Heard during his lifetime, and painted a picture of a deeply feeling man, who loved deeply and sought to make the best art he possibly could to honor Jesus.
Mark Heard was heavily influenced by Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer, who’s L’Abri retreat center Heard visited multiple times in Switzerland. Schaeffer loved art, and taught that the Christian should strive to make the very best art possible, because it was a way of worshiping the God who had given the artistic talent. This was a philosophy that Mark Heard not only strove to implement in his own body of work, but challenged his friends to emulate as well.
Christian music veteran Randy Stonehill tells the story of the time he played an album’s worth of songs for Heard, only to be told by Heard that the songs weren’t good enough, and that Stonehill needed to strive for further levels of excellence in his songwriting. While shaken and a tad annoyed at the time, Stonehill recounts that he now looks back on that as one of the best things Heard could have said to him.
Heard’s belief that the Christian should create the best art to the best of his human ability did not endear him to radio folks. Sadly, as it has well been documented, Christian radio tends to gravitate towards the most cliche sounding, as many mentions of Jesus per minute as possible in a four minute song, format for the music they play. Mark Heard’s songs, that spoke of wrestling with the current reality of the world versus the eternal reality of Heaven did not have a place in a format such as that.
In the early 1980’s Heard did actually have a minor hit on Christian, ironically enough, with the song “The Pain That Plagues Creation” off of his 1983 acoustic album “Eye Of The Storm.” That album was made to appease Heard’s label Home Sweet Home Record’s owner Chris Christian, who asked Heard to make an album of acoustic songs to make him more marketable to Christian radio. Heard appeased him, but still used his incredible songwriting craft to speak what was on his heart, regardless of the sound.
Heard’s relationship with Home Sweet Home Records was always a bit strained, though to be fair Chris Christian never told Heard what he could and could not write when it came to lyrics.
During those years 1981-1986 Heard crafted some amazing songs about the world we live in and the comfort and challenge for us who do know Jesus (“Heart Of Hearts,” “We Believe So Well,” “All Is Not Lost”) and the pain and blindness of those who don’t (“Victims Of The Age,” “One Of The Dominoes,” “Heart On The Line”)
In 1987 Heard participated in an artist run subsidiary label of Word Records called “WHAT? Records” alongside other fringe artists like Tonio K., Dave Perkins, and T Bone Burnett. His lone album contribution was under the band pseudonym “Ideola” and the album was “Tribal Opera.” The sound was on par with 80’s synthesizer bands like The The and The Five Young Cannibals. The lyrics were solid, especially on “How To Grow Up Big And Strong” where Heard laments the disastrous effects of a culture that values aggression without love. The song would later be covered by both Rich Mullins and Olivia Newton John.
Then, WHAT Records folded and for three years, Heard had no label. He continued to write and produce work for other artists and shopped his own demos to record labels of all kinds, but none were interested.
So in 1990, alongside his friend Dan Russell, Heard formed his own label, and would begin recording a trilogy of albums (“Dry Bones Dance,” “Second Hand,” and “Satellite Sky”) that would boast the best and most honest songwriting ever put to magnetic tape.
Songs like “Rise From The Ruins,” “Dry Bones Dance,” and especially “Strong Hand Of Love” reminded us all of the hope we have in Christ, even if they didn’t mention Him by name. He is of course the “Strong hand of Love hidden in the shadows” through whom we will ‘rise from the ruins one day” and with whom we will one day live in a paradise “where the orphans sockle and the slaves go free”
“Nod Over Coffee” from “Second Hand” reminded us of the fact that time is constantly moving under ‘the curse of the second hand’ and that we need to make even the seemingly most mundane moments count.
“Another Good Lie,” “All Too Soon” and “It’s Not Your Fault” lamented the human condition of living in a fallen world, but were balanced by songs like “Look Over Your Shoulder” and “Love Is Not The Only Thing” where we were reminded of the fact that “it takes more than your passion and more than your pain, for the Rock of Forgiveness to melt in the rain” (“Look Over Your Shoulder”) and that “Love is not the only thing, but it’s the best thing” in this life.
As I said way back at the start, “Satellite Sky” was the best of the three, and is the album I contantly come back to for reassurance both that I am not going crazy at the world’s deep pain, and that God is faithful at the same time.
Perhaps the greatest reminder of that on the entire album comes down to the song I mentioned a while back, “Orphans of God” and particularly the lines that so many of us Christians walk around “unaware that the struggle is the blood of the proof, in choosing to believe the unbelievable Truth.”
What is that “unbelievable Truth” that our struggle in life reflects? My opinion, and I firmly believe Mark Heard’s was as well, is that by believing the fact that Jesus died and rose again to set us free from our bondage of sin, we will have a struggle in life. There will be times we doubt, and times we truly wonder if it is worth it. However, the fact that we struggle only reinforces the fact that Jesus is the way and truth and life (John 14:6). If it wasn’t true, and something we could hold to as a huge part of our presuppositional apologetics, there would be no struggle.
So my friends, as the apostle James once said “consider it joy my brothers, when you encounter trials of any kind” (James 1:2). That struggle is proof that you are making the choice to believe in the Gospel.
Mark Heard declared that choice over 25 years ago. He reminded us that our struggle is normal, our pain is temporary, and our joy can be sustainable. He modeled what it meant by ‘choosing to believe, the unbelievable truth.”
Happy 25th anniversary in Heaven Mr. Heard. May I one day get to tell you how much you have encouraged this ‘broken man’ in a ‘broken land.’