The streetwise aesthetic of the Jesus Movement had always been joined to a firm belief in Biblical inerrancy. 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?
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.”
Christian rockers sometimes defended themselves by asking critics to focus on the lyrics, not the music. Eddie DeGarmo was one half of a popular Christian rock duo called DeGarmo & Key, which drew huge crowds in the eighties and early nineties; he also became a powerful Christian music executive. In a new memoir, “Rebel for God,” he gives some advice to aspiring stars. “Christian music is a lyric-based genre,” he writes. “If you’re not passionate about delivering a message, this isn’t the scene for you.” DeGarmo & Key were sometimes accused of being overzealous in this regard: they specialized in songs so lumbering and artless that they resembled parodies (one was called “God Good/Devil Bad”). DeGarmo makes no apologies. “We always tried hard to come up with a title and a song that could end up being the theme to a summer youth camp and plastered on t-shirts everywhere,” he writes. “That was a badge of honor for us.” Stryper was a hair-metal band not known for its light touch: members tossed pocket-size Bibles into the crowd during concerts. In 1986, Stryper released an album called “To Hell with the Devil,” which became the first Christian rock album to go platinum.
The focus on lyrics exacted a cost, because it encouraged listeners and musicians alike to view music as a meaningless delivery system for meaningful words. (“It is the words that make a song sacred,” declared the megachurch pastor Rick Warren. “There are no spiritual tunes.”) One result was the rise of Christian soundalike songs, which sanctified the latest secular styles by adding righteous lyrics. “Jesus Freak,” for example, was a big hit in 1995 for a singing-and-rapping trio called DC Talk, whom DeGarmo discovered. It bore astriking resemblance to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” except for the lyrics. (“People say I’m strange, does it make me a stranger / That my best friend was born in a manger?”) In an interview from that time, one of the members, TobyMac, explained the group’s strategy. “Nirvana had a big influence on this generation musically, but lyrically it definitely rubs me the wrong way,” he said. “I think people are ready for something that’s a little more hopeful.”
In the margins, some Christian bands found that the obsession with lyrics gave them freedom: they could make pretty much whatever noise they wanted, as long as the words were sufficiently joyful. A Christian punk scene arose in California, where a group called the Altar Boys released an anguished, revved-up album called “Gut Level Music.” Another band, Vengeance Rising, recorded a first-rate thrash-metal album called “Human Sacrifice,” which had a cover that was shocking but, from a Christian point of view, irreproachable: a photograph of a hand on a wooden plank, with a stake driven through the palm. And, starting in the nineties, an innovative Pennsylvania metalcore band called Zao released a series of brutal and mysterious albums that evoked the torment of Hell on earth.
By the aughts, these mutant forms of Christian rock were no longer so obscure. An independent label called Tooth & Nail helped push punk and alternative bands into the Christian mainstream—and sometimes into the non-Christian mainstream, too. The most popular was Underøath, a screaming emo band, which found a place on MTV and helped lead a growing Christian contingent at Warped Tour, a travelling punk festival. Christian rock was growing more popular and less isolated, buoyed by the increasing visibility of the evangelical church. In 2001, Newsweek celebrated the genre on its cover, with a headline that resembled an endorsement: “Jesus Rocks!”
Separately, Christianity and rock and roll were at the center of twentieth-century American culture. Why was their combination so often viewed with disdain? One tempting explanation is a variant of King’s old claim: that it is a bad idea to mix rock and roll with Christianity. Greil Marcus, the rock critic, once wrote a brutal review of “Slow Train Coming,” one of the albums Bob Dylan released during his Christian period. (In those years, Dylan attended Vineyard Christian Fellowship, the church with roots in Larry Norman’s living room.) Marcus accused Dylan of trying to pass along “a prepackaged doctrine he’s received from someone else,” which he translated as “Jesus is the answer, and if you don’t believe it, you’re fucked.”
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.
A greater problem has been what Thornbury, in his Norman biography, mischievously calls “religious economic socialism.” Over the years, Christian rock has been generously subsidized, not just by church organizations but also by parents, willing to buy whatever albums and concert tickets might inspire their children to keep the faith. “When it came to art, evangelicals weren’t very discriminating,” Thornbury writes, and indeed it often seemed as if any halfway competent group of Christian rockers would be awarded a modest record contract and sent out to play concerts for youth groups for as long as they could stand it. Reviews in Christian publications tended to be kind—although not kind enough for some Christian musicians, who, in 1986, published an open letter arguing that “the whole area of reviewing albums and ripping apart one another’s offerings unto the Lord is disgraceful.” Compared with the greedy, ruthless secular music industry, the Christian music industry has often seemed rather soft, and consequently less effective at turning out good records.
The lousy reputation of Christian rock has also been self-perpetuating, encouraging the best bands to abandon the category—or to avoid ever associating with it in the first place. Few bands are more admired, in the world of Christian rock, than U2, precisely because Bono has spent four decades singing about his Christian faith, and his Christian doubts, without ever being boxed in. And many of the best albums to emerge from the Christian rock world have been the product of musicians who eventually distanced themselves from it, like Leslie Phillips, a singer-songwriter who renamed herself Sam Phillips and went secular, or mewithoutYou, a Philadelphia post-hardcore band that combined Christian teachings with Sufi poetry; each was as restless, in different ways, as Larry Norman.
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. In his book, Joseph quotes from an interview with Hayley Williams, from the band Paramore, who has been eager to keep her faith from defining her band. “Fortunately, we’ve never really been associated with the Christian rock scene,” Williams said. “I wouldn’t want to be a part of something so easily pigeonholed.”
Christian rock bands who seek broader audiences are invariably accused of greed. After “I Can Only Imagine” started getting played on secular radio stations, Bart Millard and his band, MercyMe, made a conscious decision not to cross over. “I don’t know how we got into this whole situation in the mainstream industry,” he said, at the time. “But we’re called to be worship leaders.” Joseph thinks that there is also a different kind of professional ambition at work—there are, he says, “market pressures” that induce Christian musicians to make “lyrically obvious ‘worship records.’ ” Within the industry, “worship” is shorthand for music that can be played during services, with the whole congregation singing along. Worship music is descended from songs like the ones that appeared on “The Praise Album,” in 1974, and in the past decade it has become the most important segment of the Christian music industry. Many churchgoers now expect to sing some of the same refrains on Sunday that they hear on Christian radio during the week, and bands know that writing a popular worship song means having an evergreen hit. Worship music is generally thought to be too theologically specific for the mainstream market, but perhaps those rules are changing. Earlier this year, the pop star Justin Bieber posted a video on Instagram of himself singing “Reckless Love,” by Cory Asbury, which is one of the biggest and most memorable worship songs of the past few years.
In 1972, when Larry Norman was still feeling optimistic about his musical career, he set out on a tour of Great Britain. Thornbury writes that he was met with curiosity and, in some cases, grudging respect. He quotes a British reviewer who wrote, “If, like me, you see Christianity as a reluctantly but irrevocably dying mythology, Larry Norman is still worth hearing for his music and himself.” What seemed irrevocable in 1972 may seem less so now—in fact, if Christian rock now seems less vibrant than it once did, that may say more about rock and roll than about Christianity. Mainstream rock is today a rather moribund genre. An ambitious pastor looking to minister to the nation’s youth would surely turn, instead, to hip-hop. Indeed, there are plenty of Christian rappers, including Lecrae, whose lyrics and professional choices attract the kind of controversy that Norman’s once did. His most recent album conjures up the image of a sanctified dope house; it is called “Let the Trap Say Amen.”
And yet, even now, Christian rock is all around us. On Billboard’s list of the twenty most popular rock songs of 2017, fully half of them were by bands whose members have espoused the Christian faith. This has something to do with a phenomenon that would have been hard to imagine in 1969: two of the country’s top rock acts, the Killers and Imagine Dragons, are led by Mormons. It also has something to do with the fact that faith no longer seems so alien to popular music—ours is an era when plenty of artists, not just religious ones, aim to send inspirational messages. (Think of “Praying,” the gospel-powered Kesha song about resilience and recovery.) This has made Christian bands harder to ignore, and at times harder to identify. Depending on your perspective, this could mean that Christian rock has triumphed or that it has gone soft. Either way, the genre endures, no longer preaching to the converted—and, sometimes, no longer preaching at all. ♦