Randall J. Stephens‘ deeply researched The Devil’s Music charts the long and oftentimes contentious relationship between evangelical Christianity and rock ‘n’ roll. Along the way, it offers some surprising historical insights and a somber lesson for social progressives who have long scoffed at their evangelical adversaries in America’s ongoing culture wars.
Stephens opens the book by outlining the intimate connection between Pentecostalism and rock ‘n’ roll’s originators, declaring that “The culture of southern Pentecostalism influenced early rock in startlingly powerful ways and helped give birth to the new genre”, then carefully cataloging its development through the work of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, all of whom shared Pentecostal or similar holiness church backgrounds. “The leap from unbridled sanctified music to rock ‘n’ roll,” Stephens notes, “was not a great one. “Pentecostalism was itself as outside of mainstream religion at its inception as rock ‘n’ roll music was from the ’50s-era mainstream; further, he notes that one of early Pentecostalism’s most controversial characteristics (paralleling early rock ‘n’ roll) was its welcoming of racial mixing amongst adherents, though by the ’30s most Pentecostal congregations had self-segregated. Nonetheless, its high energy worship practices and embrace of all forms of music within the church service proved a fertile breeding ground for the first generation of rock ‘n’ rollers.
The intersection of rock ‘n’ roll and American Christianity is, Stephens contends, an under-investigated subject in popular culture scholarship, though he neglects to reference my and David Janssen’s Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music, which examines the influence of Christian millennialism on rock’s early proponents. The Devil’s Music, nonetheless, succeeds in providing the deepest account yet of their contentious shared history and how each worked to shape the other, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes deliberately. Stephens is particularly effective, as well, in examining how “fears of religious impurity” inspired by rock ‘n’ roll reflected deeper and more insidious “fears of racial contamination”. His chapter on “Race, Religion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll” examines how, for Southern segregationists and members of such rapidly growing, ethnocentric organizations as the White Citizens Council, rock ‘n’ roll’s racial intermingling was a perceived as a direct “attack on American values”.
By the turn of the ’60s religious conservatives had justification in feeling like they’d outlasted the rock ‘n’ roll fad as the first wave of major rock ‘n’ rollers had been effectively silenced, with Elvis drafted, Little Richard returning to the ministry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry disgraced by sex scandals, and with the deaths of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and others taken out of the game by tragic accidents. The rise of the Beatles, however, reignited the flame of concern, which erupted into an unwieldy pyre following John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comment. However, as Stephens shows, the pseudo-spiritual striving inspired by Beatles worship and associate experiments with psychedelics actually served to strengthen the rising Christian movement among young people by the time of that band’s breakup. Many hippies, pilgrim or poseur alike, became disaffected with the movement and disappointed by its many false prophets and so found themselves returning to Jesus for inspiration, though their religious expressions were quite distinct from the conservative churches they’d left behind. This new youth movement and its “Jesus freak” proponents gained such momentum that, only three years after Woodstock, the Jesus Music Festival of Dallas’s Explo ’72, or “Godfest” as it came to be called, drew 200,000 young people to celebrate the new Jesus Rock.
Christian rock would build from there to become a multi-million dollar industry by the ’80s, launching superstars like Amy Grant, Petra, The Newsboys, and the hair-metal “yellow and black attack” of Stryper. Stephens ponders at length the perpetual outsider status of this popular genre and its near-universal snub by rock’s professional critics. But, as he points out, evangelicals who care little for popular culture in general care even less for other’s opinions of their forays into it. With rock music as a central example, Stephens shows how evangelicals have shifted in their perspective regarding the evils of the secular world and its mass media in particular: “In the same years that evangelicals publicly embraced politics and linked their denominations to the GOP in particular, they were also realizing that it was far better to borrow from and exploit popular culture than to reject and condemn it outright.”
And herein lies perhaps the most important lesson of The Devil’s Music. Religious conservatives have spent as much time studying popular culture as they have condemning it, and they have arguably learned its lessons more effectively than social progressives. It is the passion of rock ‘n’ roll that draws in its converts, but evangelicals have arguably harnessed that power more effectively than secular progressives in the decades since the ’80s. It is, of course, an oversimplification to say that liberals think while conservatives feel, but when one observes the patterns of argument within the debates of the culture wars, it is nonetheless true that liberals tend to favor logos while conservatives lead, more often than not, with pathos.
If the culture wars are a conflict between thought and feeling, then it would appear, at this juncture in the least, that feeling is winning, and religious conservatives not only have a much deeper well of that passion to draw from but they do a better job of harnessing it from America’s secular institutions than do progressives. As Stephens concludes, “Much of what animates evangelical churches in the twenty-first century comes directly from the unlikely fusion of pentecostal religion, conservative politics, and rock and pop music.” The progressive left and secular thinkers ignore this at their own peril.