Thursday, June 7, 2012

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 3): Contemporary Christian Music

Coming into contact with outer entities / We could entertain each one with our theosophy ~ Blondie [1]

In 1974, Christian music composer and singer Ken Medema presented a song on his now-rare album Son Shiny Day that cleverly and subtly encapsulated the burgeoning new trends and inroads the Evangelical counterculture was creating in the entertainment industry. The lyrics of the song, entitled “You Can’t Go Back,” tells an imaginative, high-concept story that illustrates the importance and necessity of moving beyond the traditional, tried-and-true musical forms that conservative religion was accustomed to:
High in the towers of Ecclesia they heard it
They heard the wind blowing hard across the land
They saw the fire, it was burning down the statues
They tried to stop it but they did not understand
They sat in silence as they saw the disillusion
They looked for safety but safety wasn’t found
Within the walls of the fortress was confusion
Their mighty castles being burned down to the ground
I said you can’t go back
To the music of yesterday
You can’t go back
To the music of yesterday
You got to stop hiding
And you got to stop running away [2]
Despite its use of metaphor and allegory, the words of this song speak all too clearly about the growing recognition among young evangelical musicians in the early 1970s that they had the potential to express their faith in a far more culturally-relevant way than had hitherto been explored. This urge to break the barriers between sacred and profane was largely catalyzed by the general zeitgeist created by the music of the 1960s, a time when the Top 40 charts featured the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Henry Mancini, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin. The war in Vietnam was raging, and many people, particularly college students, were much more exercised and angry about the war than their counterparts are in our day about the war in Iraq. Intense protests took place that created a flood of “protest music,” a completely new musical paradigm.

The contemporary Christian music subculture emerged almost seamlessly from this new musical paradigm from among members of the significant fraction known as the “Jesus Movement” that branched off from the hippie counterculture [3]. Most of the young people who came into the Jesus Movement upon their conversion to southern California-style Christianity were disillusioned with the culture they once called home, finding that “free love” was often not free, and perhaps not even love. Calvary Chapel, which gained a reputation as a radical, edgy church at the time for allowing its congregants to attend services in jeans and barefoot, drew them in with offers of “real love” through Jesus [4]. The new religious music style they gave birth to “began as a fledgling venture, with members of the youthful Jesus Movement using existing rock and folk music to communicate the gospel message to alienated youth of the Vietnam era [5].” Larry Norman, whose 1969 debut album Upon This Rock is widely considered to be the very first Christian rock album ever made, was a hippie who came to Christ. Barry McGuire, a former protest singer famous for his song “Eve of Destruction” (one of the prototype protest songs of the 1960s) became a Christian believer as a result of the Jesus Movement. He went on to create a Christian album entitled Seeds, released by Billy Ray Hearn’s Christian label Myrrh Records.

Given the emotionally-manipulative nature of music, it is no surprise that music was the major force that drew in disillusioned youth out of the hippie movement. When combined with religious themes and imagery, music becomes an especially potent tool for conversion and then subsequently for reinforcing faith through the emotional responses it elicits. Robert M. Price, a former evangelical and current Bible scholar, made an especially revealing comment on the power of contemporary Christian music on his Bible Geek podcast:
When I think back on the period in which being a born-again evangelical was the most exciting for me (around 1976), I remember how I was listening to “Contemporary Christian Music” like Love Song, Chuck Girard, Danny Taylor, Randy Matthews, The 2nd Chapter of Acts, Larry Norman, and others. This wasn’t merely compatible with spirituality. I realized later that this was my spirituality. Having these songs (and what they meant) running through my head all the time in the background really did paint the canvas of my thinking and feeling all the time . . . this really was the lifeblood of my Christian consciousness. Yeah, I was reading a lot of apologetics and reading the Bible and trying to pray and all of that. But more than anything else, I found that this Christian music was the breathable atmosphere of spirituality for me. I imagine Christians of an earlier generation had some of the great hymns of the faith running through their minds in the same way [6].
The “music of yesterday” mentioned in Ken Medema’s song is a reference to these “great hymns of the faith” that ran through the minds of earlier generations of believers. Even classical and traditional church music had an aggressive side stemming from its emotionally-manipulative power. “[H]ymn-singing is, as a matter of fact, the most insistent and clamorous of all the ways in which the Christian faith and worship makes impact on the world around it . . . You can close your eyes; you can stay away from the church and so neither taste nor see that the Lord is good. But you cannot close your ears, and if a group of Christian people chose to sing a hymn under your windows you are defenceless [7].” When one spoke of “Christian music” in the late 1960s and early Seventies, one immediately thought of inspirational choir music or classic hymns, material that was more in the vein of a George Beverly Shea type of artist at a Billy Graham Crusade. In the early Seventies, people found the utterly novel concept of “Christian rock” utterly fascinating.

But even the classical, traditional and hymnological “music of yesterday” was not elevated from the use of appropriation of popular culture for religious ends. “With the Gospel Hymns came a more popular tone and greater effort to reach the man in the street; and out of the social forces at work a little later a demand for a hymnody specially adapted to the needs of the new age [8].” To take a strong example, Charles Wesley, a prominent figure in the Methodist movement of the 18th century, wrote about 6,500 hymns during his lifetime “on hundreds of Scripture texts and on every conceivable phase of Christian experience and Methodist [9],” the tune of most of them being lifted directly from a great number of popular tunes current at that time. This was mainly due to the fact that Wesley lacked any formal musical training and ability.

Compare the pop-culture appropriations of Charles Wesley over 200 years ago to the modern Christian rock band ApologetiX, a parody group that rewrites the popular secular songs they cover with explicitly Christian lyrics. Within their lyrical canon, Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock’n’Roll” becomes “I Love Apostle Paul” (“I love Apostle Paul / He put a lotta lines in the Good Book baby / I love Apostle Paul / From Romans into Philemon yes indeed10). Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” becomes “Learn Some Deuteronomy” (“Learn some Deuteronomy – can you name those laws / Learn from Deuteronomy – c'mon try because / Learn your Deuteronomy – you ain't good enough / God's Law – is tricky to keep – born again you must be, yeah11). Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” is transformed into “Smooth Grandmama,” a pious elderly woman who “karaokes to old tapes of Sandi Patty” and proselytizes the Christian faith to her grandson [12]. Even Eminem’s “Slim Shady” alter ego is given a pious reworking:
I've sinned greatly, but Christ's for real, baby
It's a wonder He saved me and just didn't hate me
So won't you tell Him "Save me," please stand up, please stand up, please stand up
Yes, I've been crazy, yes, I've been real shady
Always wanted Him to save me, but just didn't say it
So won't you tell Him "Save me," please stand up, please stand up, please stand up [13].
Music serves as an intertextual narrative to our lives, and when the story it serves as an enriching soundtrack for is a religious one, the modernized results can be very surprising and often humorous. But what about enriching or enhancing text itself?


1. Blondie, “(I Am Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear,” from Plastic Letters (Chrysalis Records, 1978).

2. Ken Medema, “You Can’t Go Back,” from Son Shiny Day (Word Records, 1974). This song predates a much more well-known song by the progressive rock band Rush, which dealt with a very similar story theme involving a freethinking individual living in a future dystopian totalitarian society, who rediscovers the long-lost guitar and presents the newfound musical form to the totalitarian authorities in the hopes of ushering in a new musical paradigm (“I can’t wait to share this new wonder / The people will all see its light / Let them all make their own music / The priests praise my name on this night” (Rush, “2112,” from 2112 (Mercury Records, 1976).

3. William D. Romanowski, “Contemporary Christian Music: The Business of Music Ministry,” in Quentin J. Schultze, ed., American Evangelicals and the Mass Media (Grand Rapids, MI: Acadamie Books/Zondervan, 1990), 143-169.

4. As the Christian rock band dc Talk put it in one of their hit songs, “The word ‘love,’ well it was once overused / Back in the 70s the word was abused / But I refused to let love be diluted / We can’t allow physical lust to intrude it” (“Say the Words,” from Free At Last [ForeFront Records, 1992]).

5. William D. Romanowski, “Evangelicals and Popular Music: The Contemporary Christian Music Industry,” in Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, eds., Religion and Popular Culture in America (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 105.

6. Robert M. Price, “December 23,” The Bible Geek Podcast 23 Dec. 2010 (TalkShoe Recordings [], accessed 4 June 2012), 14:26 - 16:14.

7. Erik Routley, B.D., D.Phil., Hymns and Human Life (New York: Philosophical Library, 1952), 2-3.

8. Benjamin Brawley, History of the English Hymn (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1932), 234.

9. Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns: Backgrounds and Interpretations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 84.

10. ApologetiX, “I Love Apostle Paul,” from Spoofernatural (Parodudes Records, 2001).

11. ApologetiX, “Learn Some Deuteronomy,” Spoofernatural.

12. ApologetiX, “Smooth Grandmama,” from Grace Period (Parodudes Records, 2006).

13. ApologetiX, “The Real Sin Savior,” from Keep the Change (Parodudes Records, 2001).

1 comment:

  1. Here's the Ken Medema track for those interested: