[15 May 2006]
A few years ago I picked up Michael Haynes’ 1982 book, The God of Rock: A Christian Perspective of Rock Music, which sat in a free bin outside the magnificent McKay Used Books in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The unintentionally hilarious tome took predictable acts like Judas Priest, Kiss, Iron Maiden, and the Sex Pistols to task in a high-handed, stentorian tone, but I was surprised to see Haynes going after even such innocuous targets as Rush (for having a pentagram in their logo), REO Speedwagon (their 1980 album High Infidelity promotes affairs), and even the Moody Blues (“this occultish band”)! According to the author, rock music led unwitting children into Satanism, drugs, and homosexuality. Could there be no God in rock? Haynes was categorical in his answer: no. “There is no doubt that Rock music is destructive,” he concluded.
As Bob Dylan (spared by Haynes, as he had yet to emerge from his born-again era) once sang, things have changed. Instead of opposing rock, Christians now play it. Christian rock has become a massive semi-genre selling millions of albums annually, growing steadily even as the recording industry as a whole continues to languish. Spin writer Andrew Beaujon tells its story in Body Piercing Saved My Life, a zesty and informative stroll through the many chambers of Christian rock, from the metallic screamo of Underoath to the gentler strumming of singer-songwriter David Crowder. If a bit short of profound, the book is nonetheless consistently engaging, sharply written, and highly useful in filling a major lacuna in the rock-history knowledge of music geeks whose expertise extends only to the secular.
Effectively beginning in medias res, Beaujon offers vivid anecdotes of interviewing P.O.D. and Switchfoot, both of whom crossed over from Christian scenes to mainstream success in recent years, and both of whom are quite eager to efface that fact. Beaujon outlines the delicate negotiations through which such groups mediate their public images, as they strive for a balance between reassuring the faithful of their devotion while carefully policing their words to avoid alienating the general audience (i.e., instead of Christianity, they refer to the more vague “spirituality”). Though the author loses a few credibility points for calling the wretchedly bland Switchfoot “terrific,” his writing is captivating; the sudden increase in tension when he asks the bands about their Christian past is palpable, as Switchfoot’s singer offers evasions Beaujon charitably describes as “nonanswers.” Another thrilling moment comes when he confronts nu-metal stompers P.O.D. about their early song “Abortion is Murder.” “Spines stiffened around the table,” as the drummer weakly insists, “It was more like gangsta cred” and the singer quickly adds, “We don’t do that stuff anymore.”
From this stellar opening, Beaujon moves on to an enlightening history of Christian rock, detailing its rise out of the Jesus Freak movement of the late 1960s. The stories are fascinating enough to easily generate their own book (especially Marsha Stevens, who was “written out of Christian music history” after coming out as a lesbian but today runs a ministry called Born Again Lesbian Music), and Beaujon manages to maintain a brisk pace while dispensing enough detail to satisfy. The varied Christian rock of the 1970s melted into the bland “Christian mush” of the 1980s, punctuated only occasionally by crossover stars like Amy Grant. It was into this sanitized, Moral Majority-dominated Christian world that Michael Haynes launched his anti-rock salvo, and it was against this culture of dull adult contemporary that contemporary Christian rock defined itself.
Beaujon’s excursion into that hip new world forms the heart of Body Piercing Saved My Life. The new generation of Christian rockers lays claim to a cool that was absent from earlier faith-based music, witnessed in the clever t-shirt that gave the book its title (picturing a drawing of Jesus’ crucified hands). A visit to the Seattle label Tooth & Nail finds it as image-conscious as any other indie label but virtually unknown outside religious circles in comparison to secular hometown labels Sub Pop and Barsuk, despite comparable sales. Beaujon also profiles David Bazan of the popular emo band Pedro the Lion at great length, probably because Bazan proves endlessly interesting. While other Christian artists skirt controversial issues, Bazan openly interrogates what it means to be a Christian in today’s society, finding himself frequently opposed to what passes for the “Christian” consensus. In a telling moment at a Pedro show, Bazan tells a rapt Christian crowd he doesn’t even accept the religious classification, because he doesn’t want his identity to suggest he voted for George W. Bush. Cheers turn to boos as he continues, “or against gay marriage.”
The refusal of the Christian community at large to confront such homophobia and other forms of bigotry and extremism goes somewhat underplayed in Beaujon’s accounting. When a representative of the anti-choice group Rock for Life makes the outlandish claim that contraceptive devices like the pill and the patch constitute “chemical abortions,” Beaujon leaves it without editorial comment, which is fine—the zealot hangs himself effectively enough with his own words. 1 But when the author casually mentions a band with a song comparing same-sex marriage to “murder, date rape, and car theft,” the topic demands a bit of analysis: why do these young bands so unthinkingly accept homophobic dogma? How are these lyrics being consumed and experienced by their audiences? Are the bands or the fans cognizant of the Orwellian perversion of Jesus’ teachings of love and acceptance that institutionalized evangelism has perpetrated?
In general, Beaujon’s approach is insufficiently critical. He openly declares himself a nonbeliever, but after the exciting early interviews, rarely does he directly challenge his subjects. With few groups receiving such probing questioning, we get too little sense of how these musicians interpret Christian doctrine and exactly how it informs their music. Beaujon wins points for observing the tense race relations reflected in the Christian hip-hop scene, but like the recent movie Saved, his overall critique is too sympathetic to be incisive (of course, this makes sense from a marketing perspective, as the publishers are surely hoping to woo a Christian audience with Beaujon’s friendly secularity).
Another flaw mars Body Piercing: the paucity of substantive musical discussion. Beaujon is a talented music writer, and his descriptions of bands from Pedro the Lion to the improvisatory Mute Math are crisp and articulate, capturing in prose the experience of hearing them. But too often he mentions the general blandness of Christian rock without bothering to prove it; surely he suffered through a great amount of terrible music in researching the book, and it would have been nice to hear more detail about it at times.
Beaujon also misses the biggest story in current Christian music—the rise of Sufjan Stevens—because the artist’s publicist denied an interview request, explaining, “Sufjan is really not Christian rock.” Possibly not, but Beaujon observes his participation in the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan; having received massive critical acclaim (his 2005 album Illinois topped Pitchfork‘s best-of list and placed second here at PopMatters), Stevens merits more attention whether or not he submits to an interview.
Personally, I would have also loved more material on Christian metal. Beaujon mentions the infamous Stryper (for whom both Poison and Metallica opened in the early ‘80s!), but what about the death metal band Mortification? The liner notes to their 1999 album Hammer of God proclaim, “The time is near!!! Evangelism must prevail!!!” Oddly, the album was released by Metal Blade Records, better known as the home of such distinctly un-Christian acts as Cannibal Corpse. Some insight into the scene politics behind such an arrangement would be fascinating. 2
Despite its imperfections, Body Piercing Saved My Life remains an impressive work, one that uncovers an entire parallel world of rock, emo, metal, rap, and ska of which even secular music fans intimate with the Hold Steady’s Japanese import-only bonus tracks remain unaware. Christian music has evolved dramatically since Michael Haynes launched his 1982 jeremiad, and anyone interested in rock ought to be at least aware of Christian efforts. For informing the unsaved, Andrew Beaujon deserves praise, thanks, and a lengthy respite from Christian rock—one long enough to give him the critical distance necessary to reevaluate Switchfoot.
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1 As Russell Shorto’s recent New York Times Magazine, article suggests, the use of the term “chemical abortion” to describe birth-control devices such as the pill has found widespread legitimacy within the Christian Right, though it clearly reflects values at odds with mainstream society. For one example of the term, see Concerned Women for America’s “High-Tech ‘Birth Control’: Health Care or Health Risk?”.
2 For a wonderful academic look at 1980s Christian metal (that also, alas, concludes before reaching Mortification), see Eileen Luhr, “Metal Missionaries to the Nation: Christian Heavy Metal Music, ‘Family Values,’ and Youth Culture, 1984-1994,” American Quarterly 57 (2005): 103-128.