The first album of music to enter my life was Beat the System by Petra. Not the most dignified or noteworthy, I know. I only remember flashes of my first experiences with that album, since I was so young. I was 5. But even at that young age I had a strong sense of there being a unifying, binding force that held a thing together, and that was what drew me to the album. That’s something that’s stuck with me to this day; the idea of disparate parts and individual units coming together to form a structured whole.

It was that sense that aided me when I learned in my 4th grade science class about the human organism. Cells, tissues, organs, systems, and so forth; all different levels of things becoming more and more complicated until they finally form a complete, beautiful edifice called the human being. I understood that concept through the lens of popular music, through the album. Because it’s the same concept: notes, measures, verses, songs, and so forth. They represent different levels, get gradually more complicated, and eventually form the beautiful thing called an album. The mastery and grace of it all took my breath away.

I first discovered Beat the System as a cassette in my parents’ collection. My parents are recovering Jesus People. I remember seeing pictures from their wedding; my dad had long brown locks and a full, wild beard. My mother had flowers in her hair, and they were both wearing what looked like ancient white tablecloths. My dad (and he admits this) was dressed in glorified pajamas, and my mom’s wedding gown had a simple, almost earthy characteristic to it. They were both so far gone into the hippie thing that it makes me sigh and smile. Of course, when I say something like that, my dad takes umbrage. “We weren’t hippies; we were Jesus People.”

Jesus People were the Christian equivalent of hippies; for all intents and purposes, they were just hippies plus Christianity. A lot of people in the late 60’s became fed up with the status quo modernist lifestyle and constantly serving “the man;” they became hippies. Soon after, some of them found that the hippie lifestyle was just another form of bowing to “the man.” Their quests of getting out from under his thumb eventually lead them to Christ and into freedom. Enough of them got together that a movement was born.

Arguably the biggest part of the Jesus Movement was Jesus music, and the effect the movement had on Christian music even to this day. The movement gave birth to numerous artists, all of which were in my parents’ music collection. Phil Keaggy, Keith Green, Larry Norman, Barry McGuire, Second Chapter of Acts, Andre Crouch, Paul Stookey, etc. Petra was part of that ilk, though Beat the System came out long after they had left their Jesus People roots behind them.

Petra – Beat the System

Petra had always been rock and roll (petra is even Greek for “rock”), but they added a decidedly 80’s element around their fourth album. By the time Beat the System was released in 1984, they hardly resembled their long-haired origins. The dawn of the personal computer loomed large in the minds of the American public, and it came out in the lyrics of Beat the System. Shortly after it was released, Greg X. Volz abandoned his post as lead singer and bid Petra farewell. It was 1987 by the time I discovered it. I remember after I became obsessed with it, my mom brought me home a magazine with Petra on the cover. The photo was of the new configuration of the band, with John Schlitt as the lead singer. But I couldn’t really read yet, so I thought the title of the magazine was “Petra,” when it was in fact “Premiere.” I vividly remember one incident where I notified my mom that I wanted to listen to Petra – since they had control over the stereo – and, because I was just learning to read, spelled the band’s name out for her. I had the magazine in front of me at the time, and referred to it when identifying the letters to read to her. I said I wanted to listen to P-R-E-M-I-E-R-E, thinking my intentions could not have been clearer. I was quite proud of myself.

Long and short of it, albums are in my blood. They were a touchstone from a very early age, and the concept of albums is one of those cosmic ideas that the universe is founded on. It can be seen in our very bodies, in chemistry, business and education; in cars, buildings, the trees of the field, and the organization of the planets. Ever since people started breaking things into pieces, they were putting them back together in fascinating and innovative ways. That building tendency within all of us is more than just a trait that we’ve developed over our evolutionary history. I think it’s a reflection of our Creator and ultimate divine origins. Taking parts and making a sum is a holy act.

For my part, I don’t see this any stronger than in an album of music.

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