The Unlikely Endurance Of Christian Rock (The New Yorker)
By Kelefa Sanneh
In 1957, less than a year after the end of the Montgomery bus boycott, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., took a part-time job as an advice columnist. His employer was Ebony, and his ambit was broad: race relations, marital problems, professional concerns. In the April, 1958, issue, King was asked to address one of the most polarizing issues of the day: rock music. His correspondent was a churchgoing seventeen-year-old with a musical split personality. “I play gospel music and I play rock ’n’ roll,” the letter read. Its author wanted to know whether this habit was objectionable.
King’s advice was characteristically firm. 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.”
Randall J. Stephens, a religious historian, views the relationship between Christianity and rock and roll as a decades-long argument over American culture, sacred and profane. In “The Devil’s Music,” released last March, Stephens reconsiders the judgments of King and other Christian leaders who viewed rock and roll with alarm. He points out that many pioneering rockers, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Jerry Lee Lewis, came out of the Pentecostal Church; for some preachers, he argues, rock and roll was worrisome precisely because its frenetic performances evoked the excesses of Pentecostal worship. In a sermon given in 1957, King, a Baptist, urged his fellow-preachers to move beyond unseemly displays: “We can’t spend all of our time trying to learn how to whoop and holler,” he said. Stephens wants us to think of rock and Christianity not as enemies but as siblings engaged in a family dispute.
Rock’s reputation quickly improved: less than a decade later, King’s protégé Andrew Young declared that rock and roll had done “more for integration than the church.” And by the end of the sixties a small but growing number of believers were helping to invent a style that King might have viewed as a contradiction in terms: Christian rock, which became a recognizable genre and, in the decades that followed, a thriving industry. Even so, plenty of religious leaders held fast to King’s belief in the separation of church and rock. In the eighties, as Christian rock bands like Stryper were filling up arenas, Jimmy Swaggart, the televangelist, published a book called “Religious Rock ’n’ Roll: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” And, for secular audiences, Christian rock became an easy punch line. In a 1998 episode of “Seinfeld,” Elaine borrowed her boyfriend’s car and made a horrifying discovery: “All the presets on his radio were Christian rock stations!” The studio audience laughed, and Jerry squinted his disapproval, but George didn’t see what the problem was. “I like Christian rock,” he said. “It’s very positive. It’s not like those real musicians, who think they’re so cool and hip.” A few years later, on “King of the Hill,” Hank Hill, the crusty Texan paterfamilias, confronted a guitar-wielding pastor and delivered an unsparing judgment. “You’re not making Christianity better,” he said. “You’re just making rock and roll worse.”
For the Christian rockers themselves, this double helping of disdain—from inside and outside the church—only bolstered the sense that they were righteous rebels, following Jesus by challenging both the priestly élite and the dominant culture. Despite decades of mockery, Christian rock has proven remarkably durable, creating a lucrative and sometimes lively cultural ecosystem, which generations of musicians have been happy—or happy enough—to call home. Earlier this year, Dennis Quaid co-starred in a feature film called “I Can Only Imagine,” which tells the story of how Bart Millard came to write the ballad of the same name, one of the most beloved Christian rock songs of all time. Most non-churchgoing Americans have likely never heard of the film, the song, or the singer. And yet “I Can Only Imagine,” which came out in March, has grossed eighty-three million dollars.
Many historians trace the birth of Christian rock to the release, in 1969, of “Upon This Rock.” It was an inventive concept album, by turns fierce and sweet, that was the work of a stubborn visionary named Larry Norman—the founding father of Christian rock. Norman, who died in relative obscurity, in 2008, has often been viewed as a tragic figure: a gifted and quirky musician who inspired a generation while…