From Oratorios to Elvis
Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has entered the (church) building.
Imagine a mutton-chop-whiskered, white-jump-suited Anglican priest, posed dramatically on one knee, arm raised skyward, belting out, before a cheering crowd of the pious and the curious, the Elvis hit "Where Could I Go But to the Lord." (Yes, Elvis covered that song in 1968. His Majesty is not in the Gospel Hall of Fame for nothing—he garnered all three of his Grammies for gospel hits, not rock tunes.)
The priest then regales his riveted audience with Christian rewrites of such secular Elvis perennials as "Blue Suede Shoes" ("Well it's one for the Father, two for the Son, three for the Holy Spirit and your life has just begun.")
That's the Rev. Dorian Baxter—"Elvis Priestly," he likes to be called. Last Sunday, January 5, Baxter held the inaugural service of his "Christ the King, Grace-Land, Independent Anglican Church" in a Newmarket, Ontario Legion Hall. Two hundred potential members showed up, along with a bevy of paparazzi.
Baxter uses the hyphen in "Grace-Land" to emphasize "Grace." (He also recognizes that the King lived a less than saintly life, but he insists the rock'n'roll star held firmly throughout his life to faith in Jesus and died with a pure heart.)
He uses the "Independent" because Canadian Anglican officials have found his shtick "in poor taste," and demoted him to "priest-on-leave" from the Diocese of Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
This kind of reaction is a familiar one for those through the centuries who have drawn on secular cultural forms in their efforts to bring sinners from the world into the church.
In their defense, such churchly pop-culture innovators have pointed out that Jesus always showed up where the people were and ate and drank with them. As a result, the Savior, too, suffered harsh critiques ("winebibber and a glutton") from the religious folk. The innovators have also looked to the consummate evangelist, Paul, as a model. After all, he preached to the Greeks, quoting their own pagan poets, and avowed he would become "all things to all men" in order to win even a few.
Then there's the oft-told tale of how Martin Luther used tavern songs' melodies for some of his hymns, defiantly defending his actions by saying, "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?" alternate versions of this story have Charles Wesley trolling the public houses for usable melodies and offering up the same question in his defense.
What is more certain is that the English evangelist Rowland Hill (1744-1833) did indeed ask why the devil should get all the good tunes, and did use popular music in his meetings.
In both the use of that phrase and the practice of adapting pop music to evangelistic settings, Hill was followed even more famously by the nineteenth-century founders of the Salvation Army—the Booth family.
Ian Bradley, author of Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns Â (a wonderful source on these matters and, believe it or not, a ripping good read), tells the story. When the patriarch William Booth was told that certain kinds of music were too much "of the world" to be used in evangelistic meetings, he retorted crustily,Â "Not allowed to sing that tune or this tune? Indeed! Secular music, do you say? Belongs to the devil, does it? Well, if it did, I would plunder him of it. … Every note and every strain and every harmony is divine and belongs to us."
Another story places Booth at a revival meeting in a Worcester theater, enjoying a popular Christian chorus titled "Bless His Name, He Sets Me Free." Booth was surprised to discover that the song's tune came from a music-hall ditty, "Champagne Charlie is My Name." Turning to a family member, he delivered Hill's famous line, "That settles it. Why should the devil have all the best tunes?"
The Army proceeded to adapt for their own use such popular music as Stephen Foster's minstrel songs, music hall favorites, and—yes—even drinking songs.
In doing so, Booth and his followers were tapping a tradition that dated back at least to the sixteenth-century origins and seventeenth-century elaboration of the sacred "oratorio" form. This form borrowed much from secular opera and chamber pieces in order to attract people to church.
Whatever the roots of the practice, Booth could soon testify that songs adapted from the streets often triggered "overpowering scenes of salvation," both in England and in America.
Hmm. OK, so there are historical precedents for Baxter's Elvis song rewrites. But surely the dramatic elements—the costumes, the poses—are something new.
In fact, the rousing Salvation Army meetings of the nineteenth century featured not just upbeat popular music but innovative uses of "illustrated sermons" and dramas. This tradition, too, had venerable roots, dating (despite the church's often violent objection to secular theater) back to medieval "mystery plays."
Nor did this highly effective practice die with the Army. To give just one example, when near the turn of the twentieth century a young girl attended Salvation Army meetings in Canada with family members, a new era of evangelistic pop-culture absorption was launched. This was Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel in Los Angeles, California.
From the founding of her Angelus Temple a block from Sunset Boulevard in that city, on January 1, 1923, McPherson wowed her Hollywood-savvy audiences with the lavish dramatic productions she offered under its vaulted dome. These included everything from punchy vignettes ("Sister" once brought a motorcycle on stage with her to make a point) to glittering extravaganzas presented on a stage festooned with flowers and illuminated with batteries of lights (Read Edith L. Blumhofer's Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister).
And so it has gone, in every imaginable area of artistic expression. The church has eagerly borrowed from the most popular forms offered by the world. Next week, we will look at some of the results of that borrowing and ask, How have Christians reacted? And, from purely aesthetic and pragmatic points of view, how successful have such Christian forays into popular forms been?
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
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