Review by Joel Heng Hartse
Every few years, it seems, what some call the “mainstream media” rediscover Christian rock. Sometimes it’s treated with reverence and respect, as in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s now-classic 2004 account of tagging along at a Christian music festival for GQ. More often, it’s treated like a sociological oddity: a strange footnote in the history of American pop, a foreign culture to be explained with an anthropologist’s rigorous eye. Just this September, The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh wrote a mini-history of Christian music (“The Unlikely Endurance of Christian Rock”) that took the genre seriously, but still contained whiffs of the incredulous stance preferred by many music writers: Can you believe that band you like—take your pick from among U2, Bob Dylan. Paramore, Evanescence, Switchfoot, Sixpence None the Richer, The Killers, and the list goes on—might actually be Christian?
What Sanneh’s piece got right, thankfully, was its attention to just how common Christian pop music is today—how central it is, in sometimes unrecognized ways, to American popular culture. (Though when he says this would have been hard to imagine in 1969, I’m not so sure; “Spirit in the Sky” was a hit single that year, and the previous year saw the release of perhaps the most overtly religious rock record of all time, The Electric Prunes’s Mass in F Minor.)
Indeed, Christian rock has had a strange and circuitous journey back to the center of American culture. Randall J. Stephens’s The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Rolldescribes this sometimes paradoxical path. Stephens traces the roots of rock music to the Pentecostal church and catalogs the racial, political, and religious backlash from some of the same denominations that birthed it, forces that built to a frenzy in the mid-1960s. Later he shows how the tide turned, with rock being absorbed into the evangelical movement that created what we now know as “Christian music.”
Between Rock and a Hard Place
If this synopsis sounds complicated, that’s because it is. (I even left out a couple other pendulum swings.) Stephens is an academic historian, and this is perhaps the most comprehensive history of Christian rock yet published. Armed with an astonishing array of archival material, from pamphlets to sermons to newspapers and magazines, Stephens blows through nearly 70 years of church, music, and cultural history in 250 pages.
The book begins in the 1950s, when musicians who cut their teeth playing the emotional, high-energy music of the Pentecostal church began to take that same fervor to the emerging rock-and-roll scene, often to the chagrin of their pastors. Stephens details the anguish that both Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard felt about performing secular music: Both occasionally swore off rock out of what appeared to be genuine concern for their souls, but they usually came back.
These musicians were between rock and a hard place. Their churches often condemned them for embracing the worldly, sexualized tropes of rock and roll, while at the same time mainstream society rejected them for being associated with lower-class, low-culture Pentecostalism. Though Stephens is careful to maintain a focus on the music itself—a strength of the book; many academics take an interest in Christian culture for political or sociological reasons—he does have a thesis about what made the church, and indeed mainstream Christian culture, so squeamish about rock music: in short, racial (and occasionally gender) anxiety. He details stomach-turningly racist screeds against rock music, appearing in pamphlets and lectures associating rock with “primitive” and “savage” depictions of both African and African American culture.
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Source: Christianity Today