Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Rock and Religion: A Potent Mix

  • Mark Joseph Author of Rock & Roll Rebellion
  • 2004 20 Jan
Rock and Religion: A Potent Mix

For years, devout Christians had complained about the output of Hollywood, arguing that popular media failed to reflect their values and beliefs.  But amazingly enough, in spite of that history, instead of celebrating the presence of artists like P.O.D. in the mainstream entertainment culture and the real possibility that a Christian worldview might actually be introduced to a group of otherwise disinterested individuals, some in the Christian community resisted the idea of cultural penetration and engagement.

A book by former Nixon aide Chuck Colson, who went on to become a thinker and writer deeply respected in Christian circles, and philosopher Nancy Pearcey, a disciple of the late philosopher Francis Schaeffer, questioned the very notion that serious Christians could participate in certain corners of popular music.  Perhaps unwittingly, the duo was creating a climate which, were it to remain unanswered, would spook young people of faith out of popular music, returning to a time when MTV and American radio were dominated by groups like 2 Live Crew and songs like "Sympathy for the Devil."

In "How Now Shall We Live?" the duo included these lines:

The sheer energy of rock – the pounding beat, the screams, the spectacle – is intended to bypass the mind and appeal directly to the sensations and feelings.  Thus rock music by its very form encourages a mentality that is subjective, emotional, and sensual – no matter what the lyrics may say.1 (italics added)

To be sure, the authors did argue in other parts of their book for a more responsible and enlightened approach to popular culture, indicating that people of faith must not "ignore our responsibility to redeem the surrounding culture," and later added that "turning our backs on the culture is a betrayal of our biblical mandate and our own heritage."  They also cleverly noted the need to embrace "the cultural commission" and not just "the great commission."2

But in promoting the questionable view that rock couldn't and/or shouldn't be a conduit for Christian values, the authors seemed to throw cold water on the efforts of courageous artists like P.O.D. who had clawed their way out of the cultural gulag of "Christian Rock" and finally made their way onto the map of American pop culture.

Those in the rock music world who preferred that faith-based ideas stay off the airwaves found unlikely allies in the authors, for in essence they were telling Creed, Sixpence None the Richer, P.O.D., Lifehouse, and dozens of other artists that whatever they sang about simply didn't matter – it was inexorably overpowered by the "devil's beat."

The long march of people of faith out of the subculture and into the center of the marketplace of ideas – including popular music – would likely continue with or without the support of these important thinkers.  As orthodox Christian ideas increasingly became a staple on cultural outposts like MTV, the evening news, and on mainstream radio and in print, people of faith would be forced to decide which they preferred:  the good old days when their ideas were kept out of mass circulation, or a new world where their ideas were up for consideration because of courageous young artists who rejected arguments of cultural isolation.

By late 2002, the pace of Christian-oriented bands joining mainstream music had considerably accelerated.  Chevelle withdrew from their deal with Squint and surfaced at Epic with a record that opened at #14 on the album charts.  Swedish rockers Blindside saw their U.S. record debut on P.O.D.'s label, distributed through Atlantic.  Switchfoot surfaced with a stunning record, ”The Beautiful Letdown," on Columbia Records.  Pillar signed with Universal and rereleased a record that had previously only serviced the CCM market.  Seventeen-year-old singer Stacie Orrico signed with Virgin Records and rocked "TRL" with her song "Stuck."  And Evanescence, an Arkansas-based rock band, made a strong debut when its song was used in the "Daredevil" soundtrack.

The unusual turn of events was a victory for those believers who embraced the vision of cultural engagement over withdrawal, a fulfillment of the declaration by the old Dutch Prime Minister and thinker Abraham Kuyper who once said:  "There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out.  'This is mine.  This belongs to me.'"3

Still, for people of faith who had always had an uneasy relationship with the mass media culture and were fearful (sometimes with cause) that their fellow believers simply couldn't maintain their faith in the crazy world of rock & roll, the experience of '70s rocker Mylon Lefevre would serve as a haunting reminder of the dangers they would face.  Lefevre, who had gotten his start in music as a member of his family's gospel group, had earned millions as a teenager when Elvis recorded his song "Without Him," and gone on to a respectable solo career in rock, working closely with stars like Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and many others.  There were clearly dangers along the path of attempting to marry rock and religion, and Lefevre had been an early casualty of the effort.  His experience would serve as a constant reminder that rock and religion were potent and powerful forces that could destroy one another if they weren't carefully synthesized:

"We were a rock 'n' roll band who believed that Jesus was the son of God," the singer remembered.  "We didn't know the Word very well, we prayed before we went on stage, but we also smoked marijuana.  Naturally it was just a matter of time until the Gospel was taken over by the rock 'n' roll.  I got away from my family and I got away from the church.  If anybody had come backstage and talked to me he would have decided that he didn't want any part of the life I was leading.  I could not live for Jesus and be around rock 'n' roll.  I didn't have the faith or guts to do that."4

With or without the support of separatist Christians or militant secularists who both seemed to long for the good old days when rock was synonymous with sex and drugs and not God, it was clear that a new generation was intent on marrying rock music with rather orthodox notions of spirituality.  The novelist Jan Karon, who herself, though a devout believer, operated in the literary mainstream, seems to speak for many of this new crop of artists when she said of her own work:

Even if I never mentioned the name of Jesus Christ, I can't hide from you who I am.  In truth, the work that has no faith is for me not a whole work.  It may be an amusing or credible or clever work, but not a whole work.  Faith is a critical and urgent and necessary component of human wholeness.5

For the first time, on a mass scale and in the middle of the popular entertainment culture, rock was getting religion – understanding its power to transform, engage, and illuminate a generation hungering for spiritual renewal, enlightenment, and ultimate meaning.

Excerpted from "Faith, God, and Rock + Roll" by Mark Joseph.  Used by permission of Baker, a division of Baker Book House Company, copyright © 2003.  All rights to this material are reserved.  Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company.