Show me an evangelical between the ages of 15 and 50, and I'll show you an evangelical who can tell this story (or something much like it): I used to listen to secular music, then I discarded it all and listened only to Christian music. Then I realized I didn't like much Christian music, so I slowly started listening to secular music again. Now I listen to the David Crowder Band in the mornings and Radiohead on the drive home.

Such is the tortured state of popular Christian music: It's of the world, but not in it. It exists, as Andrew Beaujon attests in his engrossing Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, in a "parallel universe," never fully intersecting with the trendsetting sonic landscapes of mainstream or alternative rock. Christian music may approximate the sounds of popular rock, and the labels may even be owned by the same parent companies, but to many people's ears, Christian rock is just one long cover. 

It doesn't take Beaujon long to note Christian rock's tortured existence. Not only does the audience choose it as an oft-reluctant alternative to mainstream music, but many Christian musicians are themselves forever sorting out their own relationship to the non-Christian artists they esteem, the non-Christian listeners they covet, and the non-Christian labels with whom they'd like to sign.

Beaujon opens with a scene at the Cornerstone Festival, Christian rock's biggest and baddest rock fest. (Beaujon's title comes from t-shirts sold at Cornerstone featuring the pierced hands of Jesus.) On stage is Pedro the Lion, fronted by David Bazan, who looks "more like the bobble-head doll of an antiglobalization activist than the bad boy of Christian rock." Pedro the Lion is a critical favorite, a band that excels at slowed-down, pulsing emo-rock. Pedro is also a favorite among young Christians who know the band was originally a Christian band; though Bazan has rejected evangelicalism (or, rather, evangelical culture), his lyrics deal with Christ, faith, sin, and redemption, and his Christian fans still take him as one of their own.

At the Pedro show at Cornerstone, the central question—for Beaujon and the thousands of packed-in teenagers, if not for Bazan—is whether Bazan will flaunt the festival's unwritten ban against curse words and include his lyrical f-bombs. He does, the audience squeals, and Beaujon marvels at how evangelical kids can love someone who has rejected their culture: "Bazan has become a leading figure in alternative Christian culture because he is a reflection of those who cannot square their desire to believe with their contempt for the system in which they find fellowship." In other words, Christian music has entered its punk stage, and as Beaujon notes throughout, Christian rock's aggravation with itself is resulting in some fantastic music.

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Beaujon is not an evangelical, and he does not expect to become one. He is not religious in any way, but he is "kind of a fan" of religion. As a rock journalist for Spin, he became fascinated with Christian rock. The book's early pages try to account for this fascination and anticipate criticisms from his rock journalism peers. "Making Christianity cool is a tall order," he writes. "When I started researching this book, the reaction of most of my colleagues was 'better you than me.'" But Beaujon takes those same colleagues to task for not covering evangelicalism fairly, and worse, for covering it ignorantly. Body Piercing is a travelogue into a world at odds with his own, but as Beaujon explores the history of Christian rock, the logic of the industry, and the key players in the field, he develops a reliable map of the territory.

At Tooth & Nail Records, Beaujon discovers a label with equal parts dedication to Christian music, quality art, and business acumen. At Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Beaujon inspects the clean, hip spiritual clarity fashioned by Pastor Mark Driscoll and his church of fashionable twenty-somethings. (My favorite line: "Advertising executives would slide naked down a splintery board to reach these people.") At Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Music, he meets a series of people who are ambivalent about the industry of Christian-anything. At the Gospel Music Awards, Beaujon is fed up with mediocre music and Christian culture in general, but manages to say a good word about "the honest and deep beliefs" of people who work in Christian music.

If you're looking for ire, there's not much here—until the sections on worship music. Today's worship music, Beaujon writes, "is the logical conclusion of Christian adult contemporary music—not just unappealing but unbearable to anyone not already in the fold." He dissects the makeup of the modern worship song—openings that "portend the imminence of something celestial in glacial 4/4 time" and choruses that "could put U2 out of business for good, they're so huge." Worship music "isn't music to appreciate; it's music to experience." Even the lyrics focus on a relationship with Christ, rather than Christ himself.

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Beaujon's beefs with worship music are predictable enough. What's compelling—and, frankly, admirable—is his determination to understand how evangelicals could like the music enough to sing it over and over (and over) and purchase enough CDs and concert tickets to keep an industry afloat.

Late in his sojourn into the Christian parallel universe, after numerous Christian concerts, interviews, and enough Christian pop to madden all but the most dedicated youth pastor, Beaujon attends a David Crowder Band worship concert. As impressed as he is with Crowder's performance, Beaujon doesn't appreciate what works about worship music until a moment in the concert when he notices—after initially not noticing—that Crowder has left the stage. The crowd still worships even after Crowder steps out of the spotlight. "There was only one star at that evening's show," writes Beaujon, "and he hadn't been onstage at all."

Which raises a question, one that Beaujon's project and the entire Christian music industry begs: What makes music Christian? Is it the mission statement of the labels? The theological content of the lyrics? The faith of the musicians or producers? The faith of the listeners? The profit margins devoted to the poor? Surely none of the above, for all exist on a sliding scale.

But the question persists, because in evangelical circles there's a lot of chatter and concern over whether particular music is "Christian" or "secular." Well—here's a fool's axiom: Both inside the parallel universe of Christian music and in every other universe, the only one who can make music Christian is Christ. No matter what we make of Bazan or Crowder, Rebecca St. James or Michael W. Smith, Mute Math or Newsboys—or, for that matter, U2, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Sufjan Stevens, and a million other acts—when we're talking about music, we'd do well to remember our categories are too simple, too inflexible, and too earthy to contain the truth.

Patton Dodd is the Christianity Editor for Beliefnet and the author of My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion (Jossey-Bass).

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