The Devil’s Music by Randall Stephens, Harvard, 344pp, £22
Catholic priests emerge with honour from Randall Stephens’s new book, subtitled “How Christians Inspired, Condemned and Embraced Rock and Roll”. The Pentecostals and Evangelicals he writes about seem to be forever overreacting to music, torn between seeing it as the key to converting millions of the young and condemning it as a helter skelter ride straight to hell. Meanwhile, as Evangelicals force Christian rock on the world, hipper Catholics are more likely to favour jazz, with many adding jazz Masses to the church schedule.
This is a timely book. Currently in the American top 10 films is a movie called I Can Only Imagine, which tells the story of the biggest Christian rock song ever. It’s by a band called MercyMe, who are an essential part of the Christian rock story. Unfortunately, they’re missing from The Devil’s Music, which offers only the broadest of overviews. Another story I would have expected to find here would have been the tale of the rap band Insane Clown Posse, who startled their fans when they indicated that there might be a Christian message underlying their strange and violent songs.
Instead, Stephens rehashes stories we all know. He devotes more than 40 pages to John Lennon declaring the Beatles “bigger than Jesus”, but the only detail new to me was that the evangelist Billy Graham broke his Sabbath to watch the band perform on the Ed Sullivan show. In fact, Graham, whom I’ve never taken that seriously as a theologian, emerges from these pages as a surprisingly thoughtful figure, able to meditate on rock music’s relationship to Christianity and come to intelligent conclusions. But the Catholic response is best, with one Catholic journalist writing of the band: “How disconcerting to discover four tea-drinking young adults with nothing more noxious about their demeanour than a weird tonsorial get-up.”
While Stephens is weak on the 1960s, and hopeless on the contemporary age (he focuses almost exclusively on U2), he’s better on the 1950s, 70s and 80s. Writing about the 1950s, he illuminatingly explores the connections between Pentecostalism and the origins of rock ’n’ roll. Stephens believes that, although some have previously paid attention to the impact of gospel music on rock ’n’ roll, the more specific religious and cultural roots of the music remain largely unexplored. He explains how Pentecostalism shaped what he calls “first-generation” rock performers such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. The inclusion of Cash is problematic, as most would see him as a country singer rather than a rock ’n’ roller, and Stephens’s laxness with taxonomy is another failing, but he still manages to make a convincing case that all four of these musicians were shaped as much by the church as any other influence.
Elvis Presley borrowed his performance style from spiritual quartets. Johnny Cash appeared regularly at Billy Graham rallies after undergoing a public conversion experience to try to conquer his amphetamine addiction. Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin Jimmy Swaggart was almost as famous a Pentecostal preacher as Lewis was a rock star, and Little Richard considered giving up the rock ’n’ roll life to become a minister.
For these artists, religious impulses were central to their artistry, and each of them considered himself in a lifelong battle with damnation. But they also created some of the most important and lasting art of the 20th century. Sadly, the same cannot be said for most of the Christian artists that emerged in the 1970s and 80s, which Stephens defines as “Jesus Rock” and “Christian Rock”. It is not that these musicians were entirely without talent or merit, but for the most part they are of more sociological interest than artistic or theological.
In these sections, Stephens mostly confines himself to exploring fundamentalist reaction to Christian musicians, and again he misses a trick. The story of the Christian metal band Stryper, for example, might have been more interesting with a stronger sense of how they survived in the dark world of the heavy metal scene, or even with a comparison with some of their atheist (or Satanic) rivals.
Still, there is some humour in the conflict between fundamentalists and the music designed to please the faithful. The Reverend Joseph Pyott had a good line, responding to Stryper’s spandex stage costumes: “If you put the name Jesus on whisky, it would still make you drunk.”
Much of this argument is now in the past. As Stephens points out, Christian artist Pat Boone now feels comfortable dressing up in leather and singing (non-Christian) heavy metal songs as a joke for his Christian fans. Meanwhile, the indie charts are full of records by “hipster Christians” of varying quality, such as Sufjan Stevens or the execrable Arcade Fire. It would be as foolish to call a rocker evil for recording albums as it would be to call a novelist evil for writing novels. What counts, as ever, is not the medium, but the message.