By Michael Henningsen
MARCH 30, 1998: It was an interesting year, 1987. Within the space of seven days--the Lord's number and exactly as many as it took to create the heavens and the earth, if you count a day of rest--I witnessed the gospels according to Stryper and, on the very same stage, Alice Cooper. It was an exercise in extremes to say the very least, the "Yellow and Black Attack" flinging miniature Bibles and the king of shock rock flinging fake blood and body parts into not altogether different audiences. And, looking back, that was the most interesting element of either show--different bands, different music, different message, same crowd.
The hard-core Bible thumpers--the ones who came on church buses to see God's own glam-metal band--weren't present, of course, at the Alice Cooper show, but it was the rest of us, the kids who simply liked the music, who seemed to be able to collectively justify our attendance at both events. Saints and sinners each of us in our own way, but with one common bond that brought us together for outwardly dissimilar events: the rock moved our spirits.
It's always been that way with music. From the gospel hymns that kept hope alive for black slaves in the South to the be-bop jazz that kept many a beat poet from fatal heroin overdose, music has been the great preacher, the reliable provider, the answered prayer. And Christian music, though difficult to define, has always been there, too--at least for the past 2,000 years or so. But because its definition varies greatly among its supporters and detractors, Christian music--particularly of the rock, alternative, punk and ska varieties--remains somewhat of an enigma, a subgenre exalted in one camp and stigmatized in another.
But while everyone else has been struggling with falling record sales and depressed financial status, the Christian music industry grew 33 percent in 1997, making it the most rapidly expanding genre bar none. Christian rock albums reside no longer in the corner bin of the local record store, but in plain view, beside secular mainstream albums. Audio Adrenaline, dc Talk, MxPx and a handful of other Christian rock bands have made it onto MTV--MxPx have toured with NOFX and the Sex Pistols, Five Iron Frenzy with Less Than Jake and MU330. Jars of Clay play the same bars in which their secular contemporaries gig. The Danielson Family grace the pages of the March issue of Spin. A Petra tribute album is in the works. Christian rock, it would seem, is no longer an oxymoron, nor is it simply a novel sideshow. The message is strong, the music palatable and the business booming.
Allan Freed was the devil. Just visit any one of the 200 or so (out of 275 total) Web sites revealed in a simple Yahoo! search using the keywords "Christian rock," and you're likely to get spoon-fed some extremely detailed assertions that Christian rock--and rock music in general--is music from Hell. Many such sites point to Freed as the catalyst for what has become the most popular and most decried music in history, simply because he was the man who named the heavily blues-influenced style "rock 'n' roll," allegedly taken from a then-street phrase for sexual fornication. And ever since, the line between rock music and the rock 'n' roll lifestyle has been irreparably blurred.
When asked to comment on the preponderance of Internet material charging Christian rock as an unnecessary evil, James Morelos, promotions director at the Seattle-based Christian label, Tooth and Nail Records, says such assertions are misguided. "It's weird that it's even an issue," he begins. "That's so Bible Belt. We deal with a lot of issues here, and the fact that once in a while that one comes up is, like, 'What?'"
"One of the stances that we take and that I take in my personal life," says Eddie DeGarmo, of Nashville's Christian-run ForeFront Records, "is that our God through Christ is a God of redemption--he redeems all sorts of things. I don't think you can make music the culprit. People who live the (rock 'n' roll) lifestyle live that kind of lifestyle whether they work construction or play rock music. I think that if you start damning any style of music," he continues, "you find yourself in a very awkward theological position of having to describe what kind of music God likes."
Still, the debate over rock music as an appropriate medium for the Lord's message is ongoing and not likely to be resolved anytime soon. With the Bible as their witness, people are eager to line up on both sides, to either discount Christian rock as a tool of the Devil or to praise it as a viable--if alternative--curriculum with which to teach the current generation a system of values that developed 2,000 years ago and has not often been modified for a changing world. But attitudes toward Christian rock are changing, more rapidly and on a larger scale than ever before. Where the music was perhaps the most easily pigeonholed genre in the past, it is now bubbling just under the waterline of the mainstream. And while it's not likely to ever run neck-and-neck with secular rock, its integration seems inevitable.
Matt Gentry, production director at KLYT Christian radio station in Albuquerque, NM, credits the changing view and expansion of Christian rock to increased public desire and the increasing quality of the music itself. "It's a demand thing. Bands like dc Talk and Jars of Clay have really broken down a lot of barriers," he says, "and the music and production is so much better now. There seems to be this preconceived idea that Christian music is this mom-and-pop, Bible-thumping, hymn-singing music, when, actually, Christian music is some of the most innovative out there right now. Even bands like King's X and Collective Soul, who aren't labeled 'Christian bands,' have members who are born-again Christians."
DeGarmo agrees, saying that people have definitely begun to notice the trend toward higher quality music. But there's more to it, he adds: "With ForeFront being owned by EMI, we have access to their system to get our products into the general marketplace as well as the Christian marketplace. On any given Sunday in the United States, there's an enormous captive audience, something like 40 or 50 million people, who have a persuasion to like what we do. And we're just barely cracking that audience even now."
Morelos says the roots of the current trend reach back at least two decades. "Back in the '70s, there were these artists who came out of the Hippie Movement who were doing very valid music and who were also Christians. All of a sudden, you had these ministers who were into Led Zeppelin. Christian rock isn't new as in 1990s, but it hasn't become a part of popular culture overall until bands like Jars of Clay broke commercially. But, then, on an indie level and on a commercial level to some degree," he offers, "not really until Tooth and Nail came around (in 1993)."
Despite the trend toward Christian rock's integration into music's mainstream, there are differences. But they're becoming increasingly difficult to identify. "Christian music is the only style of music on the face of the planet that is described according to its lyrical content rather than sound," says DeGarmo, "Every other form of music that I know of is described by what it sounds like--blues, jazz, whatever. So under the umbrella of Christian music, you've got blues and jazz, heavy metal, alternative rock, country and everything else. I think it's the focus of the artist that makes it Christian. It's a little bit of a gray line."
Rock 'n' roll has long been considered the ultimate outlet for boundless, free expression. The scope of the philosophy behind the art form is broad enough to include Christian rock, but some Christians find the idea of rocking, skanking and moshing in the name of the Lord difficult to digest and somewhat unnerving. To some degree, Christian rock is required to meet certain criteria that vary from individual to individual. And although no one is willing--or perhaps even able--to offer a clearly defined philosophy that encompasses all of Christian rock, people working in the industry are constantly called upon to justify what they do in the face of skepticism and the threat of damnation by their own brethren.
"As far as a philosophy behind Christian rock goes, we don't believe there's any such thing," says Morelos from his office at Tooth and Nail in Seattle. "It all comes down to connotations and such and how you define terms. We don't like to deal with that, but we have to. To us, music is music, just like playing football is just playing football. There isn't Christian football. We just look at it as music and people expressing themselves through music. (Our bands) are allowed to do whatever they want with the platform they've been given. If they do want to send a message, a more ministry-oriented message, then that's fine. But as a label, we're like any other business--we're concerned with good packaging, marketing and promoting records."
Morelos' employer, Brandon Ebel, started Tooth and Nail out of his bedroom mainly because he was interested in putting out good music and creating opportunities for the musicians that he knew. And because he is a Christian, those musicians naturally tended to be Christians as well. "He didn't set out to be the alternative to secular music or anything," says Morelos of Ebel. "Tooth and Nail doesn't have an agenda."
"The spirit behind the music, God's spirit," according to Gentry, is the real governor. "The message and the lifestyle of the artist (count) to some degree as well," he continues. "Especially the lifestyle because if that's there, then the message is going to be there as well." Somehow, having been held to a higher standard than mainstream rock, has enabled Christian music to mature and even thrive. "The music is so much better now," Gentry says. "I think a lot of people would be shocked to find out that some of their favorite bands are Christian. The music really holds up against the mainstream stuff."
Even so, many non-Christians--as well as some Christians--shy away from anything labeled "Christian rock" for a variety reasons, both real and perceived. The sad truth is that most such reasoning amounts to little more than uneducated guesswork. "When I think of Christian music, I think of something that's sung in a church to God, not a three-chord punk band," says Morelos, with the slightest hint of laughter in his voice. "There is spiritual music that's for the church, but anything else--especially in a capitalist society--is just music. To me, a Christian band is a band with Christian members, but to a lot of other people--non-Christians--it means that they're part of the right-wing Christian coalition, which just isn't true."
Still, the stereotypes often prevail among vast secular audiences. "It's mostly just ignorance," Morelos continues. "People read things and hear things, and they just don't know. And I understand, you know, that they have huge reservations about Christianity. But the same things they hate about Christianity are probably the same things we hate about Christianity."
For years, secular bands have had success with Christian music, momentarily becoming publicly "spiritualized" by recording music that has a definite Christian theme or is regarded as gospel music. U2's version of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and even Diamanda Galas' bloodcurdling rendition of "Amazing Grace" have been embraced by mainstream audiences without a second thought. So why, then, are Christian acts so often written off before they've even been given a chance? "The Christian label is threatening," Morelos says. "There have always been Christians in secular bands, like Sunny Day Real Estate and Eric Matthews, but no one cares. With Tooth and Nail--being a so-called Christian record label--all this stuff gets attached to (our bands). A lot of our bands have always functioned--they do function--like normal bands. They start out playing the same rooms as any other high school band."
It isn't easy being a Christian band, but it does seem to be getting easier. "With the success of bands like dc Talk whose message is strong, that kind of made it OK for young and rising bands to be forward in their faith," says DeGarmo. And while some bands, like Seven Day Jesus, Grammatrain and most of the rest of the ForeFront stable, choose to send a clear message through their music, the consensus among those in the industry and an ever-growing Christian rock fanbase is that the message doesn't have to be cumbersome or unwieldy for a band to be considered on a walk with God.
According to Morelos, Tooth and Nail operates just like any other indie rock label. "With several of our records and anything we do as far as a catalog or an ad," he says, "you wouldn't instantly know. Not that we're trying to hide (Christianity), but just because we do what we do. We're not marketing God, we're marketing music."
But again, Christian music comes under strict scrutiny from all sides. DeGarmo says that several of the artists he handles have reported the occasional picketing of their concerts by conservative Christian groups. And, perhaps due in part to the wake created by a handful of crooked, extortionist televangelists, grumbling over the money being made and generated in the Christian music industry--particularly with regard to its rock, punk and ska factions--resonates at greater depth in the minds of its critics than it would if the issue of religion was not constantly moved to the foreground. The fact is, Christian bands, labels and promoters alike have the same right to make money at their chosen profession as their secular counterparts. Critics, though, have a tendency to dramatize the industry by suggesting however subtly that some Christian bands are incapable of drawing a line between the message of Christian rock and what has become a rather lucrative business.
"I think a lot of Christian bands run into that problem," Gentry says. "It all just depends on how strong your walk is with God. Each situation is different, and each artist or group has to decide for themselves: 'Is this something that is going to keep our integrity strong?' Integrity is very important in the Christian music industry."
And while it's quite a common practice for churches and other Christian groups to foot much of the bill when it comes to promoting concerts within their various organizations, money is quite clearly not the issue. People who express speculation over Christian bands taking advantage of captive audiences or assert that some bands may simply fly the Christian flag for financial gain have, more often than not, overlooked the fact that there just isn't enough to gain from such actions to justify a motive. Gentry puts it in plain terms: "Using Christianity as a marketing tool would be ridiculous. Christian bands struggle like any other band. It just wouldn't be worth it to anybody to fake it. There's not all that much money there and far less opportunity. Most of these bands live hand to mouth."
Though many of the hurdles that have long kept Christian rock from achieving the same success as mainstream rock have been overcome, either by the bands themselves or the gradual moderation of churches and their subscribers, there remain monumental obstacles. Most dangerous to Christian rock, in fact, may be Christians themselves. "Sometimes Christians are quick to judge certain things about an individual," Gentry says. "The fact that a Christian band would be playing in a bar, for instance, I've heard so many people say, 'Man, I can't believe that--Jars of Clay--why are they playing in a bar? What's up with that?' You know, Jesus hung out with the sinners, man. And that's where we need to be. But for some reason," he continues, "we elevate these artists onto a soapbox. It should be God who's elevated. The problem is that we elevate the artists, and as soon as they do anything that you think goes against your personal convictions, then it's wrong for them."
Christian artists touring with and sharing the stage with secular acts has come under fire as well. It seems that some Christian groups feel that true Christian bands have little or no business playing shows that are anything but Christian in theme and execution. "There's probably an inherent lifestyle conflict between secular and Christian bands," says DeGarmo, "but I don't know that Christian music has necessarily got a problem fitting in with other music." And that raises questions about what audiences could benefit most from the positive message provided in Christian rock. Is it the devout followers of Christ who need to hear the Word most, or is it perhaps the faithless and lost? So far, the answer has been shrouded in a haze of disagreement among various factions. Morelos doesn't see the dilemma as being quite so terminal. "There's simply a period when all bands are just trying to get in, you know, and as they get bigger, they get on better bills. But I don't think there's necessarily been this huge crossover."
The stigmas attached to the genre make it difficult for bands and artists to achieve the widespread acceptance and level of respect many of them so deserve. "Christians are always going to find themselves in trouble if they try to please the world system," DeGarmo says. "The Bible says that we're supposed to be in the world but not of the world. It's very confusing for all of us, how you do that. But I think that what it means for musicians is that they're supposed to be the light in the darkness." And thanks to equal parts perseverance and unflinching faith, that light is burning ever more brightly.
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