No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalismby David W. Stowe
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In this cultural history of evangelical Christianity and popular music, David Stowe demonstrates how mainstream rock of the 1960s and 1970s has influenced conservative evangelical Christianity through the development of Christian pop music. The chart-topping, spiritually inflected music created a space in popular culture for talk of Jesus, God, and Christianity, thus lessening for baby boomers and their children the stigma associated with religion while helping to fill churches and create new modes of worship. Stowe shows how evangelicals' increasing acceptance of Christian pop music ultimately has reinforced a variety of conservative cultural, economic, theological, and political messages.
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NO SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVILChristian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism
By David W. Stowe
UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESSCopyright © 2011 David W. Stowe
All right reserved.
IntroductionSex, drugs, and ... what else is there? The storied triumvirate of American youth culture since the Beatles. Three pillars that propped up much of the counterculture of the late sixties and that seem, despite the best efforts of moralists, politicians, and parents, to have fastened a kind of permanent grip on adolescents (and often postadolescents) coming of age in the leisurely fashion of recent decades.
Focused on one of the most powerful forms of American music, this book shows how that other famous trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—came to rub shoulders, hips, and thighs with rock 'n' roll. To some, the term "Christian rock" still rings oxymoronic, something like "Hindu abstract expressionism" or "Islamic comedy." But for many millions of Christians in the United States, Christian rock—more commonly known as contemporary Christian music, or CCM—is the default music of worship, sounding forth on Sunday mornings and evenings in thousands of churches across North America. The genre is familiar to anyone who has idly spun a radio dial, landing on a station that plays songs with a vaguely familiar sound but unexpected words dropped in—"Lord," "Jesus," "praise," and the like. CCM is now one of the fastest-growing genres of music, its records outselling those of classical, jazz, and New Age combined.
With roots stretching back to around 1970, the tail end of what most people consider the golden age of rock, Christian pop music has been around for forty years now. For the most part, these songs have existed in a kind parallel universe, off the radar screen of mainstream listeners and rock critics. But at some key junctures, they crossed into the world of mainstream pop music—or, perhaps, godless rock crashed into the tranquil subdivisions of young Christian listeners. This book tells the story of those crossings: what they reveal about rock 'n' roll music, American religion in the last generation or two, and the permanent changes occurring in American society during the seventies.
Popular music is often thought of as antireligious—look at the tension that long simmered between the blues and gospel—and this was especially so during the sixties and seventies, when rock 'n' roll was still relatively new and possessed of its in-your-face freshness. The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" captures this well, as do many other songs one could name: "Born to Be Wild," "Kick Out the Jams," "Paint It Black," "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?," and "Heroin."
But this impression is way off target. Popular music and religion have always been joined at the hip in America. I argue that the music of the late sixties and seventies, bookended by 1967's Summer of Love and the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, helped create a space at the heart of America's commercial popular culture for talk of Jesus, God, and all things spiritual. Endorsed by several of the giants of American music, spiritually inflected pop offered an alternative to the nihilism and hedonism that accompanied the hangover from the sixties. The forms of music that emerged during the seventies can also, I believe, tell us a lot about the polarized, red-and-blue America of the twenty-first century, which is periodically addled by culture wars and paranoia. In short, I show that the spiritual emphasis of much of the decade's popular music helped baby boomers and their offspring form an image of religion that reinforced the messages delivered with increasing effectiveness by conservative evangelicals and the Religious Right.
Music did this in several ways. By getting the name of Jesus out into commercial culture through songs that rose high on the pop charts, music helped lessen the stigma of a religion that had seemed inextricably linked to square, Silent Majority culture. By inspiring new styles of worship, it made traditional religious beliefs seem relevant, even cool. The turn toward more-casual dress, less-formal liturgy, more-straightforward spiritual messages, and contemporary-sounding church music that everyone could sing without burying their nose in a hymnal-all this helped pack the evangelical Christian churches that sprung up after the seventies.
Once in church, the boomers and their kids imbibed a theology that emphasized traditional morality and gender roles—"family values" that helped conservative Republican politicians gain traction among voters. And the particular version of Christianity emphasized by much Jesus music focused on the imminent return of Jesus and the end of human history, a theology that emphasized personal transformation—saving souls for Jesus while there was still time—rather than attacking social inequalities or pursuing peace and justice.
This conservative turn among younger evangelicals has been well documented. A survey of members at influential megachurches to which many boomer evangelicals flocked found that only 6 percent identified themselves as liberal in 1992, while two-thirds labeled themselves conservative; their pastors leaned monolithically to the Right. By 2005 a survey of members at more than 400 megachurches found that the percentage of self-identified liberals remained at 6 percent, while 83 percent described themselves as somewhat or predominantly conservative. Even among the young people comprising the original Jesus Movement, many of whom began as political liberals, few remained liberal as they reached middle age, while the proportion of conservatives increased markedly. Studies that analyze voting patterns in terms of age and church attendance show that beginning in the 1970s, younger voters were becoming more conservative and Republican, while church-attending voters, including large numbers of baby boomers, were voting significantly more Republican. Evangelical Christians were also becoming increasingly well informed—and strategically mobilized—about political issues and elections at the local, state, and national levels.
What role did music place in all of this? When we contemplate how music operates in people's lives, we face a conundrum: does music reflect the times, or does it shape them? The idea that popular music catches a particular tempo of the time or spirit of the age turns up in commentary about American music throughout the twentieth century but has its origins in the European Romantics of the early nineteenth century. But does music do more than reflect; does it actually alter the contours of history by working on people's conceptions of themselves, their communities, and their nation?
The answer is yes—of course it does. Our national life since the seventies simply would have unfolded differently in the absence of the musical developments that are described in the chapters that follow. To develop these arguments, I emphasize an understanding of music not as an artifact-a sound recording, sheet music, a set of song lyrics, or even a specific live performance—but as a social practice. Music draws on the contributions of artists and performers as well as audiences, listeners, and dancers. But music's meaning is also shaped by less obvious mediators: arrangers, producers, managers, agents, publishers, and critics. In the realm of religious music, ministers, worship leaders, and deacons also play crucial roles in determining which music gets heard and in what circumstances. This broader understanding of music less as a cultural object experienced individually through the sense of hearing than as a social activity produced by the complex interactions of people will guide my investigation of the emergence of Christian pop music as a pillar of evangelical culture. Likewise, my analysis depends on a more expansive definition of politics than is often assumed by people analyzing U.S. history. The seventies saw a major reorientation of U.S. politics as the nation was buffeted by traumas: the massive student strikes that followed the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, including the Kent State killings; the landslide election of Richard Nixon; recurring oil shocks and chronic inflation; Watergate; military defeat in Vietnam; and the protracted hostage crisis following the Iranian Revolution. But politics were being recast at the level of community, family, and the individual as well. People sought new answers to fundamental questions: How should one live a good life? What had become of the American Dream, or was that term obsolete? What did they owe their families, their communities, and their nation, and what was owed them?
Growing numbers of Americans were compelled to rethink basic assumptions about gender roles, about the proper arrangement and authority within families, about sexuality, and about the importance of ethnic or racial roots in determining one's personal allegiances. Increasingly, the personal was becoming the political. Well outside the domain of electoral politics, new forms of personal and group identity were being forged that would help reorient the political economy of the United States.
Popular music, along with many other cultural products like movies, television programs, journalism, and fiction, played a critical role in giving people a fund of resources for sorting out and positioning themselves in response to these challenges. In popular culture, people found narratives that helped make sense of their experiences and emotions; role models with which to identify; language to guide self-understanding and expression; and sound to move the body, lift the spirit, challenge the mind, and create bonds of community. Though ostensibly far removed from the world of institutional politics and generally experienced as entertainment or pleasure, music serves as a linchpin of this broad category often called cultural politics.
To map out these complex relations between society, art, politics, and religion, I draw on the notion of a "cultural front" developed by Michael Denning in his study of U.S. Popular Front culture in the 1930s and 1940s (which he in turn derives from the writings of Antonio Gramsci as interpreted and refined by Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall). To borrow Denning's terms, my project involves seeing how American pop music converged with the social location known as the Jesus Movement to create a peculiar new cultural formation with unexpected consequences for the religious and political affiliations of large numbers of Americans. In broad terms, the music and movement were part of a larger groundswell that we call "the sixties": both shared what Raymond Williams called a "structure of feeling" with the hippie counterculture and, to a lesser degree, the politically charged New Left.
This theoretical model helps make sense of the cultural politics of the Jesus Movement and Christian pop music as flowing from both social affiliations and aesthetic ideologies—the politics of allegiances and the politics of musical form. It also offers a useful way of sorting out the various units of the "cultural apparatus" that inspired, produced, and distributed Christian pop: the spiritual and musical pioneers in the Bay Area and Southern California; the "movement culture" of the churches, intentional communities, and parachurch organizations that supported the Jesus Movement; and the interwoven culture industry of the record companies, radio stations, news media, Hollywood, and Broadway.
The roots of the late Cold War evangelical resurgence were diverse and complex. In the early sixties, many evangelicals cut their teeth on the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater. At the beginning of the seventies came the widely publicized appearance of the Jesus People—"Jesus Freaks," they were sometimes labeled—emerging from the drug-ravaged counterculture. These were kids who looked liked hippies but praised the Lord. For evangelical Christians, the twin national traumas of Watergate and the OPEC-led oil shock of 1974 were accompanied by a third catastrophic event: the decriminalization of abortion by the Supreme Court.
The Christian revival took on human form at mid-decade in the figure of Jimmy Carter, a born-again Baptist who taught Sunday school and made no bones about it. Newsweek declared Carter's election year, 1976, the "Year of the Evangelical," and Watergate convict Chuck Colson's Born Again became a best seller. More militant Christians were getting fed up and organized. Anita Bryant launched a crusade against gay rights in 1977. Two years later, Jerry Falwell proclaimed the might of the Moral Majority and within a year had helped elect a president and depose several Senate liberals. By 1982 Phyllis Schlafly and her coreligionists had succeeded in derailing the Equal Rights Amendment, passed by wide margins in Congress and most state legislatures only a decade before.
These politics were often sharpened by an upsurge in Christian prophecy beliefs: the conviction that the end of human history is clearly foretold in the Bible, and that Cold War rivalries with the Soviet Union and shifting power balances in the Middle East signaled that the Second Coming of Christ—with its accompanying Armageddon—could be expected nearly any time. Thanks to best-selling books like Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, prophecy thinking penetrated the highest echelons of political and cultural power, from Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to Bob Dylan.
The religious awakening was not only Christian and American; the seventies saw a dramatic rise in sectarian activity across the Muslim world, centered in the Middle East but stretching from North Africa in the west to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east. In 1979 an Islamic revolution exploded in Iran, catching most of the world by surprise. And in a strange sort of synergy, Iran's Islamic revolutionaries joined forces with conservative Christians to drive a fellow evangelical from the White House. Much of our national life since then has involved an effort to understand and deal with the consequences of the worldwide revival of militant Islam and the fury and heat of politics in the Middle East, complicated further by the ascendancy of Christian revivalists in American politics.
My narrative thread begins in 1967 San Francisco during the Summer of Love, when a young couple from Iowa began witnessing for Jesus in Haight-Ashbury. Their most momentous catch was a young art student they met on the street, tripping on acid and ranting about flying saucers and Jesus Christ. Lonnie Frisbee would go on to become the emblematic Jesus Freak, a charismatic exhorter and healer who would ultimately die of AIDS. Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel on the coast in Orange County, invited Frisbee to join him as a youth pastor, and the congregation grew from 200 to 2,000 in six months. Teens gathered by the hundreds to be baptized in the surf, providing the iconic image of the Jesus Movement that burst into mass media consciousness in 1971. Pioneering Christian rocker Larry Norman enters the narrative at about the same time. Norman grew up attending a Baptist church in San Francisco but left because he hated the hymns. He started playing in rock 'n' roll bands and was offered a contract by Capitol Records at age eighteen. As a solo artist, Norman cut two of the founding albums of Christian rock, Upon This Rock (1970) and Only Visiting This Planet (1972), which contained the manifesto of the new music: "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?"
Excerpted from NO SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL by David W. Stowe Copyright © 2011 by David W. Stowe. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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David W. Stowe is professor of English and religious studies at Michigan State University.
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