While recording his "Beyond Nature" album, Phil Keaggy spent many hours doing three things -- playing acoustic guitar, taking long walks in the woods and reading books by C.S. "Jack" Lewis.
"I took all that in and it influenced the music, which was quiet and contemplative and that fit with that moment in my life," said Keaggy in a recent interview. "All of that was connected. ... I think you can feel a spirit behind that music."
So it isn't surprising that this 1991 classic included song titles such as "Brother Jack," "Fragile Forest" and "Addison's Walk," referring to a Magdalen College footpath that Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and other Oxford friends often walked while discussing literature, faith and life.
While "Beyond Nature" was an instrumental recording, the liner notes included this Lewis quote: "Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. ... Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.
"And in there, and beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life."
So this was a "Christian" album, one inspired by the apologetics of Lewis? That's the kind of question musicians often hear after recording instrumental music during an era in which "Christian music" debates almost always focus on lyrics.
"I just play," said Keaggy. "I don't try to analyze all that."
In recent years, Keaggy has recorded a series of instrumental albums with keyboardist Jeff Johnson, who -- like the guitarist -- has for decades mixed folk, rock, jazz, classical and Celtic music into a style that writers struggle to label. Both record most of their music in home studios on their own terms. Both draw the attention of critics outside the "contemporary Christian music" niche.
The duo's latest work, for Johnson's Ark label, is "Cappadocia" -- taking its name from an arid, volcanic region in what is now Turkey. Early Christians hid in this isolated haven during persecutions, and the Apostle Peter addressed his first epistle to "exiles" in several places, including Cappadocia.
Johnson visited this region in 2017 and was struck by remnants of Christian life, from pieces of frescoes and engravings to a rose-shaped window in a sanctuary carved into a hillside. Thus, the disc includes song titles like "Chapel of Stone," "Parousia (A Presence)" and "That Which Is Hidden."
"The things that inspire me inspire me, and lots of that is going to be spiritual in nature," said Johnson. "An artist can't help but create from their own worldview, whether they have thought about it or not. ... You're trying to take people on a journey of some kind. You're headed somewhere."
Many of his own recordings, noted Johnson, have included melodies from folk and classic hymns, including ancient liturgies. Also, he has composed music inspired by specific works of fiction, such as the novels of Stephen Lawhead, whose tales often include themes and images from Celtic Christianity.
Labels are inevitable. Journalist John Diliberto recently picked "Cappadocia" as the CD of the month for his Public Radio International show "Echoes." Yes, he noted, many of the song titles are "Christian references."
"However, the music they create transcends earthly spirituality," he wrote. In commercial terms, this "album will be slotted into New Age, but in another time, this would've been a progressive rock album, sitting alongside instrumental passages of early Genesis and Yes." His bottom line: "Cappadocia" is a "journey through the spirit and geography of one of the most exotic places on Earth."
Truth be told, almost all music -- sacred or secular -- is "conceptual" to one degree or another, said Johnson.
"Musicians are almost always trying to serve a larger concept, but that doesn't mean that we're limited by it," he said. "Yes, there is a bigger picture in what we do, but there is lots of freedom inside of that."
Ironically, said Keaggy, the "people who have the least trouble with this issue are the musicians themselves. What comes out of our hands is just a form of communication of what's going on in our hearts and minds. ...
"You can sense that in our work over time. What's happening in your soul is going to end up in the music."
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)