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’ Roll describes 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.
By the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the backlash against rock reached perhaps its zenith with anti-Beatles sentiment, which, Stephens shows, actually predates John Lennon’s 1966 boast that his band was “bigger than Jesus.” This was the age when the clash between the “Christian establishment” and the “rock counterculture,” which can seem today like a tired (and untrue) cliché, was actually a vital national debate.
Stephens then describes the surprising shift—and it was surprising, in 1972—that happened when conservative Christianity embraced rock music, driven in part by the musings of Christian leaders who wondered if churches really were failing to offer an exciting alternative to the ascendant counterculture of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Incredibly, it worked. The Jesus movement, with its “combination of the hippie counterculture, neo-pentecostalism, and a general antiauthoritarian primitivism,” led to an explosion of Christian rock music that helped fuel the growth of non-denominational churches like Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard—which in turn, Stephens writes, went on to “reshape” evangelicalism. (As, indeed, they would shake up secular rock music—Stephens devotes several pages to the dismissive reactions from rock critics to Bob Dylan’s Vineyard-influenced Christian albums.)
Though the rock-ification of the evangelical church ultimately seems to have won the day, given the current prominence of Hillsong-style worship music, Stephens’s final chapter describes the fundamentalist backlash against the evangelical embrace of rock. Televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart— Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin, as Stephens occasionally reminds readers; a fact which basically sums up this whole tangled business in a nutshell—denounced Christian rock as worldly, Satanic, and theologically suspect. We know how this turned out: Stephens describes the continued acceptance of rock music in the late 80s, leading to the second explosion of Christian rock in the 90’s, which he touches on briefly in his epilogue.
More to Be Written
The Devil’s Music ends its dense exploration of Christian rock history here. As someone whose primary interest in Christian rock is ‘90s-oriented, you might expect I would find this disappointing. Even so, I have to conclude that the scope of the book feels appropriate. We are just now beginning to gain enough historical distance from a phenomenon as big as DC Talk’s Jesus Freak to truly understand its cultural, historical, and musical significance. Stephens’s work is broad, and it takes the interplay between church, music, and secular culture seriously. Those who grew up with Christian rock as an utterly normal part of their lives, who can’t imagine a time when it would have been controversial to have an electric guitar in church or to listen to a Beatles album, will find this history revelatory.
Ultimately, though, I want to see more: not just more Christian rock history, though that would be interesting, but more writing about Christian rock that takes the music itself seriously. The Devil’s Music is one of only a handful of recent books—there are maybe a dozen in the last 20 years—that does so. There is more to be written about Christian rock: maybe an ethnography that will make Christian rock pop off the page the way James Ault’s Spirit and Flesh or T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back did for church life; maybe an anthology of Christian music criticism (it exists, stretching back to Christian youth magazines of the 1970s); maybe an oral history of ‘80s and ‘90s underground Christian rock; or maybe more explorations of classic Christian albums. (In fact, the Bloomsbury Press’s popular 33 1/3 series, which consists of small books on classic albums, has just released a volume on Jesus Freak.)
This stuff is worth documenting, and not simply as novelty. Christian rock is a large, complex, and important cultural phenomenon. As Sanneh points out in The New Yorker, fully half the top 20 songs on last year’s Billboard chart were performed by acts with (at least) Christian roots. The history of Christian rock is strange and fascinating, and it is our history—not just as evangelicals, but as Americans.
Joel Heng Hartse is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He is the author of Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll: My Life on Record (Cascade).