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Jesus’ role in the “devil’s music”

It’s one of the most popular music genres today but rock music has traditionally had a complicated relationship with Christianity. Nick Mattiske reviews a pair of recent books on the topic to explore the intersections between music, race, religion and politics.

In the early 1990s Christian music superstar Amy Grant was the subject of controversy for her “crossover” into mainstream music fame. Her hit singles didn’t mention Christ and she (shock, horror!) danced in her concerts. Within the Christian music industry there was much hand wringing and forelock tugging about how much she should embrace the wider world.

This was just one incident in the long, uneasy relationship between Christians and rock ‘n’ roll. Randall Stephens relates in The Devil’s Music how in 1960 Billy Graham’s view on rock music was that if he were younger he “would stay as far away from it as I could”. Yet Elvis Presley, James Brown, Johnny Cash and Little Richard were all inspired by Pentecostal church services with their rhythm-heavy singing. Ironically, some reporters compared Billy Graham’s preaching to charismatic rockers like Elvis.

Even though rock came out of the Pentecostal churches, conservative commentators, speaking for the majority, insisted that the beat of rock ‘n’ roll contained an animalistic sexuality that inflamed the desires of youth. Its very name was a euphemism for sex. This even worried some early rockers. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, both prodded by their Christian consciences, aimed to kick the rock habit, with Little Richard planning to become a preacher.

There was a racist element to criticism of rock. Conservative white Americans labelled rock as “jungle” music tied to voodoo. They worried about the mixing of races, particularly sexually. Bill Haley was targeted because he toured with black musicians. And indeed white fears were justified, as rock broke down colour lines. Rock concerts featured mixed black and white audiences. But criticism was complicated and was not solely restricted to whites. Many black preachers, including Martin Luther King, condemned rock, not for reasons of racial mixing, but for loosening sexual inhibitions. There was also middle-class snobbery at work. Rowdy Pentecostal churches, often black, were frowned upon by staid, white, mainstream churchgoers.

The link between drugs and rock was also not merely a fantasy of conservatives, of course. Drugs were prominent in the Beatles’ turn to psychedelic rock, and drugs and music were central in the hippie movement. By the late 1960s parents and authorities were at fever pitch about the bad influence of rock music, which they saw as contributing to moral decline and the gulf between generations. Many sermons and much newspaper ink were expended on what to do with young people’s obsession with rock and whether the craze would last.

Hippies were the epitome of youth off the rails, yet the movement reacted against hypocrisy, warmongering and materialism. No wonder then that when some hippies read about Jesus in the gospels they found similar sentiments, and it was from the primordial cultural soup of San Francisco’s hippie scene that the Jesus People evolved. These self-proclaimed “Jesus Freaks” rose and fell quickly as a cultural phenomenon but their influence has been profound, particularly in the area of using pop culture to spread the gospel, as Larry Eskridge documents in the impressively researched God’s Forever People.

The Jesus People movement began with a few key hippie converts in San Francisco who ministered to their peers, then wandered into churches, where they received a mixed reaction, sometimes because they asked awkward questions about why the contemporary church wasn’t like the early church. These ex-hippies were happy to live communally (they’d been doing that anyway) and be expressive in worship.

But Jesus Freaks were also thought to have not given up enough hippie cultural baggage. They had long hair and dressed in loud colours and jeans. In church they went barefoot and sat on the floor. They also brought guitars and wrote their own praise songs in the style of the simple folk tunes hippies preferred. This was the genesis of Jesus Music. By the early 1970s a number of bands of varying degrees of talent played at coffee shops, revival-style churches and even large, outdoor festivals. By then Billy Graham had changed his tune and made appearances at the festivals.

While cultural fashions moved on and most Jesus People grew up, got married and became respectable, Jesus Music spawned the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) genre, whose most prominent artist in the 1980s was Amy Grant, and the simple folky church music of pioneering Jesus People churches became praise and worship music, an ever-increasing sub-genre of CCM and a transformational and not uncontroversial movement within most denominations.

By the 1990s the debate about whether Christians should “accommodate” cultural fashions in order to preach and praise was won by the team for the affirmative. Still, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there were those who thought the medium didn’t match the message. While fundamentalists waged war particularly on heavy metal, they also went after Christian rockers because they still believed, unlike most Westerners, that rock was the devil’s music.

Those who sought to live out faith in the mainstream (U2, Amy Grant) were criticized on two fronts—both by conservative churchgoers who thought they compromised too much and watered down the message in order to enjoy worldly success, and by secular fans and journalists who laughed at the incongruity of Christians posturing as rock ‘n’ rollers, forgetting that rock had its origins in gospel music, but sharing conservatives’ long-time unease about the compatibility of rock and Christ.

In U2’s particular case, they never saw themselves as part of CCM, but Christians nevertheless rebuked them for not being more evangelistic, while secular critics heaped scorn on them for mounting their soapboxes (well, Bono mostly) on social justice issues.

By this century few believed rock was the devil’s music, even in fundamentalist circles, but it was on good terms with Mammon. Rock remains lucrative. While commercial radio still bans “Jesus”, there is a thriving market within the Christian culture industry. Unlike the hippies-turned-Jesus People, buyers of CCM tend to be evangelicals who uphold American militarism and other conservative values—at least in the United States, but of course CCM is now a global phenomenon reaching beyond its American evangelical heartland. There is even a hipster CCM culture, with its ironic nostalgia.

Musicians taking few risks, particularly in the praise genre that apes the simplicity of early Jesus Music but lacks the spontaneity, find a home in this safe market place, creating further distance from the mainstream secular pop industry that still trades on a tired mix of faux rebellion and sexual solipsism. One of the few concerns remaining, for those nostalgic for the shock value of rock, and for those who think it can be a medium for conveying the radical message of Jesus, is that in the 21st century rock has become another product in the relentless churn of commercialism.

Nick Mattiske

Nick Mattiske is a bookseller and blogs at Coburg Review of Books.

The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned and Embraced Rock ‘N’ Roll
Author: Randall J. Stephens
Publisher: Harvard University Press
To order a copy of The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au 
Please use discount voucher code BCLUB18 at the checkout to apply the discount.

God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America
Author: Larry Eskridge
Publisher: OUP USA 
To purchase visit Amazon Australia 

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