Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. That's a cliche, I know, but that's how I felt when reader Josh Carlton sent me a link for a Rolling Stone photo essay titled "Young and Pious: A Rock & Roll Story." Then it offered a read-out that told you what you needed to know: "Photojournalist Stephanie Keith goes inside the Christian rock subculture and finds sexy girls, hardcore bands and the strange marriage of rock and rapture."
It's hard to blog about a photo essay. Still, Carlton and some other readers thought that it was worth paying attention to this rather stereotypical piece, if only for the hathos of the caption that goes with the last of the 12 photos online. I cannot show the photo (the image with this post is from you know where), so dash over there and take a look. But here's the caption, with the key direct quote from "SK" the photographer:
A fan at Virginia's Acquire the Fire event, January 30th, 2003.
SK: "Jesus is their personal savior. He's almost alive to them."
Of course, traditional Christians of a wide variety of brand names and musical tastes would flinch at the "He's almost alive" reference. Nice touch.
But what struck me the most was that Rolling Stone seemed to think that this mixing of born-again, even "charismatic" Christianity and youth culture was a new thing, a strange, pseudo-hip development. Where in the world have they been? There are rock & roll churches with pastors in their 70s, by now. Five years ago, Christianity Today's witty weblog greeted a Newsweek cover story on this old topic with the wonderfully droll headline: "Newsweek Discovers Christian Music About Six Years Late."
Yet here is the introduction to this edgy new photo essay, explaining its origins:
Photojournalist Stephanie Keith's first Christian rock show was in 2002, when she walked into a Kansas City coffeehouse and saw a punk band playing staunchly Christian tunes. "It seemed like such a contradiction in terms," she says, remembering the incongruity between the band's brash sound and its intensely Christian message. Over four years, Keith attended dozens of major Christian rock festivals -- including the New Hampshire's Soul Festival, Pennsylvania's Creation Festival, New Jersey's Autumn Blaze event and Virginia's Acquire the Fire fest -- many of which showcase the abundance of Christian punk, emo and hardcore bands. The twelve photographs that follow capture what she witnessed within the tight-knit world of Christian youth culture -- from the prayer tent to the merch table, to the front row.
Like, wow, man. What a flashback to the magazine cover stories in the 1970s about the Jesus Movement, the mini-earthquake in evangelicalism that gave birth to the ghetto called Contemporary Christian Music.
You can, I am sure, sense that I am not a big fan of CCM, although I admire some artists who have released some material within that industry. I have, through the years, written quite a bit about the cultural issues raised by this "photocopy the culture" trend in which Christians market their own watered-down versions of whatever fad was hot at the cultural mall a year or two earlier. There's a whole chapter in my book, Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture, that talks about issues in popular music.
If there are journalists who want to tap into someone who knows what is happening right now on this subject, as opposed to what was happening a decade or more ago, they should look up Mark Joseph (editor of my book, I must note) of the MJM Entertainment Group in Los Angeles. For a sample of what he has to say about newsworthy angles of this marketplace topic, check out "How To Fix CCM" at ChristianityToday.com or take a trip back to 1995 and the classic article he wrote with music historian Patrick Kavanaugh and rock legend Kerry "Kansas" Livgren titled "Does CCM exist? Should It?"