Read it all: The New Yorker offers a stunningly good take on the 'Christian' rock wars

First, here is yet another tmatt confession: I am so old that I attended one of the original “Jesus music” rock festivals held in Texas in the early 1970s. Then I went to Baylor University during the era when various branches of Word Records in Waco were releasing early albums linked to what would become Contemporary Christian Music.

There’s more. Anyone digging into the roots of “folk” and later “rock” music inside church doors will eventually hit a 1967 landmark — the “Good News” folk musical by Bob Oldenburg. Who played the role of the “skeptic” the first performances? That would be my big brother, Don, who was playing a ukulele before it was cool.

As a journalist, I have been covering the “Christian music” wars since the late 1970s and, of course, that topic ended up in my book “Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture.” The key theme: CCM is music defined by unwritten rules about lyrics and the belief that all “Christian art” should, in reality, be evangelism in disguise.

Hold that thought. I wrote all of that to add punch to my praise for an almost unbelievably good New Yorker feature by Kelefa Sanneh that just ran with this epic headline:

The Unlikely Endurance of Christian Rock

The genre has been disdained by the church and mocked by secular culture. That just reassured practitioners that they were rebels on a righteous path.

It opens with a quotation that left me stunned. I have read shelves full of books about “Christian rock” and have never been clubbed over the head with these words.

Try to guess the minister who had this to say in 1957, addressing whether gospel music could be wedded to rock ‘n’ roll. This Baptist pastor from the South was blunt:

Rock and gospel were “totally incompatible,” he explained: “The profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with the transitory quality of rock and roll music.” And he made it clear which he preferred. “The former serves to lift men’s souls to higher levels of reality, and therefore to God,” he wrote. “The latter so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.”

Who said that? That would be the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Take it away, Aretha Franklin.

It’s hard not to quote every other passage in this must-read piece, which punches all the right buttons — from the copycat “Jesus is my boyfriend” style of worship music to battles over loud drums and heavy-metal guitars. Yes, U2 is in here. Ditto for Bob Dylan. However, this passage about the impact of the early ‘70s “Jesus Movement” is essential, including the reference to that era’s Zelig figure, Larry Norman:

As the movement grew more organized, and more church-oriented, pastors figured out that they could attract young people with services that were theologically strict but culturally contemporary: anti sexual revolution, pro denim. (This, more or less, is the ethos of the modern megachurch.) Calvary Chapel grew into an international network of thousands of churches, and so did the Vineyard movement, which is descended from Bible-study groups in California, one of which used to meet in Larry Norman’s living room.

As the Jesus Movement became part of the evangelical mainstream, its soundtrack mellowed further. Christian radio stations, which were proliferating, favored gentle crooners like B. J. Thomas, a pop-country singer, and Evie, a balladeer whose voice and lyrics hinted at romantic love: “Anybody here want to live forever? / Say, ‘I do.’ ” In 1979, stations began playing “My Father’s Eyes,” a pious ode to good behavior by a precocious teen-ager named Amy Grant. Grant evolved into the first purposively Christian pop star, as well as a stylish, subtle singer-songwriter. (One of her best songs, “1974,” evoked the shivery excitement of her high-school conversion: “We were young, and none of us knew quite what to say / But the feeling moved among us in silence, anyway.”) In 1991, Grant released “Heart in Motion,” which sold millions, making it the most popular Christian pop album of all time—if, that is, you consider it a Christian album at all. It gave the world “Baby, Baby,” a lighthearted and wholly secular love song, which took Grant to the top of the pop chart, forcing some listeners to ask a complicated question: what counts as Christian music?

If you want to know more about Norman, you have to read the "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music" biography by philosopher Gregory Alan Thornbury (a guitar player and friend who is the former president of The King’s College in New York City). For a quick overview of that book, see my recent two-part “On Religion” column: “Larry Norman and the never-ending culture wars over ‘Christian’ music and art.” Click here and then here for those.

Thornbury is in the New Yorker piece, of course, along with other solid sources.

The key to the CCM wars, as I said earlier, can be found in the ongoing arguments about lyrics. Sanneh knows that. Thus:

In gospel music, form and content are joined: the term denotes both a style and a message, leaving no room for theological ambiguity. Likewise, the sound of seventies Christian pop was warm and sweet, designed to reinforce the hopeful spirit of the words. But, in the eighties, many Christian rock bands embraced snarling guitars, which were harder to interpret. Tim LaHaye, who turned prophecies of the Rapture into a series of “Left Behind” movies and books, warned, in 1982, that “the sound and beat of rock” could arouse “fleshly lusts.”

In my book, and in the second column about the Thornbury book, I offered this typology while focusing on how lyrics define these musical products:

… Gatekeepers and consumers in the marketplace use six definitions. Thus, "Christian" music is:

(1) Hymns — period.

(2) Any style of music considered appropriate for use in worship services.

(3) Openly Christian music in all genres – except rock 'n' roll.

(4) Any music – even hip-hop or heavy metal – built on evangelistic lyrics.

(5) Music with sufficient "God-talk" (CCM's "Jesus-per-minute rule").

(6) Music made by Christians that expresses their Christian worldview.

I am glad to report that the executive editor of my book shows up in the New Yorker piece, as well, right after a discussion of the 2001 Newsweek cover story with this headline, “Jesus Rocks!” Note the subtle reference to the concept expressed in my sixth definition:

In a new book called “Rock Gets Religion,” the journalist and producer Mark Joseph writes that, by the time Newsweek published that cover story, “Christian rock was giving way to Christians in rock.” In the aughts, the airwaves were full of bands led by Christians: Creed, P.O.D., Evanescence, Daughtry, the Fray, Lifehouse, Skillet, Chevelle, and plenty more. But many of them declined to be labelled “Christian rock.” One of the best examples was Switchfoot, from San Diego, which found success with a song whose refrain had as much, or as little, theological content as listeners wished to hear: “We were meant to live for so much more.” Joseph sees this as a heartening development. For years, he writes, “short-sighted religious businessmen” had been “sentencing artists of faith to cultural obscurity” by marketing them solely to other Christians, creating an insular market that left nonbelievers untouched.

Joseph was even more blunt two decades ago, writing in a major industry publication.

"As with baseball, strange bedfellows have colluded to keep musicians with Christian beliefs in the modern-day equivalent of the Negro Leagues," he wrote, in Billboard.

As I said, it’s hard to know what NOT to underline and praise in this New Yorker article. It’s that good. #REALLY

I will end with this bold thesis statement from Sanneh:

Do Christian bands have a propaganda problem? It is certainly true that most Christian rock bands were obliged to follow doctrinal rules. But, in their determination to deliver clear messages, these bands weren’t necessarily much different from the many secular bands that wrote protest songs: in the history of rock, furious conviction has been neither rare nor necessarily unhelpful. There is no easy way to distinguish between a musician who spouts “prepackaged doctrine” and one who boldly stands up for what is right.

By all means: Read it all.

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