In my courses on religion and popular music, students typically have trouble offering concrete historical answers to two questions: How do audiences come to understand particular chord voicings, instrumental arrangements, and lyrics as sacred or secular? How might one track historical conversations and controversies regarding sacred and secular music—focusing one’s source material so that a particular story emerges, yet broadening one’s gaze sufficiently such that constitutive cultural concerns come to light? The first question is difficult to explore in classrooms in which knowledge of music theory is neither a prerequisite nor a course goal. The second question is fundamental to inquiry across the arts and humanities, and students benefit from informative and readable models.
In The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘N’ Roll, Randall Stephens provides such a model. The three verbs in the Stephens’s subtitle hint at a linear narrative. In the mid-1950s, Christian aesthetics and liturgical forms underwrote early rock music. Over the next few decades, the music came under heavy Christian criticism. Starting in the 1970s and culminating in the century’s closing decades, many Christians reclaimed, reinterpreted, and redeployed the genre. While one could chart The Devil’s Music in such a fashion, the book partially resists such linearity. In Stephens’s wild and wide world, Christians’ inspiration, condemnation, and embrace of rock music are always happening at once. The picture of Christianity and rock music that emerges from Stephens’s study is not of a gradually settled relationship, but of a dynamic dance.
In a study replete with gems—from a chapter-length treatment of Christian responses to Beatlemania to an in-depth look at the Christian metal band Stryper—the book makes two particularly significant contributions. First, Stephens writes with sensitivity to intra-Christian controversies. While recognizing that the “Christianity vs. (secular) culture” conflict matters to his subjects, the more complicated and intriguing struggle takes place between conversionistic sectors of Christianity: among evangelicals, fundamentalists, and pentecostals. Having written a thorough examination of first-generation Pentecostals and their Holiness forbears (see his book, The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South), Stephens is especially well equipped to unpack pentecostalism’s ambivalent relationship to rock music and to other Christians. Several of rock’s pioneers came of age in raucous, holy-rolling churches, as did many early “Christian rockers.” To readers inclined to think of conservative Protestantism as a monolith, Stephens offers a lesson in both the depth and surprising persistence of evangelical and fundamentalist suspicion regarding charismatic forms of the faith, and how such suspicions historically were linked to worries over “the big beat.”
By most white Christians’ reckonings, the big beat was also a jungle beat. Stephens’s second significant contribution is his attention to the racialized dimensions of Christian attitudes toward rock—the theme of the second chapter but a thread that runs through the book. Through close readings of Christian journals, sermons, and anti-rock pamphlets, Stephens demonstrates how “unruly,” “uncivilized” black bodies—and whites’ encounters with them—were at the center of the conflict. Although race-baiting rhetoric was most overt during the Civil Rights era, Stephens reveals how such concerns lasted beyond the 1960s—by his estimation, flagging in the 1980s and diminishing significantly by the 1990s.
If race-baiting was for so long a central part of white Christian anxiety over rock music, it may have been helpful for Stephens to have pondered how the late twentieth-century growth of the Christian rock industry coincided with white America’s introduction to another, “hostile” African American musical genre. The flagging of racialized criticism may have signaled, not that such rhetoric had become “camouflaged” or “relegated to the fringes” as Stephens writes, but that it had found a new mainstream musical foil. Stephens notes that Graceland opened to tourists in 1982; it seemed that Elvis Presley had been redeemed in the eyes of his many erstwhile holy naysayers. The same year, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message,” the first widely heard “conscious rap” track, which candidly expressed the mounting rage of urban black youths trying to survive in an unjust social order. Whatever rock music’s hazards were, Elvis could be a hero to most white Christians in a decade that would see the rise of N.W.A. and Public Enemy. Christian rock labels were no longer peddling the most “dangerously black” beats on the market.
To be sure, Christian music also has its rappers; Stephens notes the achievements of the interracial Christian rap group dc Talk. But dc Talk’s major success occurred in the late nineties, after they had abandoned rap-exclusive albums. The group’s more popular projects steered closer to rock and rapcore—a hip-hop/hard rock hybrid that was a genre predominantly of, by, and for whites. Moreover, even in their early, rap-heavy career, dc Talk was nearly alone in their field. The Gospel Music Association began granting Dove Awards for hip-hop groups in 1993; in two of the first three years, no awards were given in some hip-hop categories due to a supposed paucity of eligible acts. The first decade of hip-hop Dove Awards was dominated by dc Talk and related acts, as well as groups that trafficked in rapcore and European dance music. A larger market of Christian hip-hop by African Americans that would be popular among the GMA’s demographic was several years away. Those years lie outside the scope of Stephens’s project, though his insights on how race figured in earlier Christian apprehension over rock provoke contemporary considerations of, say, Christian rapper Lecrae, or Chance the Rapper.
Stephens’s historical sweet spot is the middle-late decades of the twentieth century. He unearths an impressive array of sources and handles them with a deft combination of sobriety and cheer—managing to take fundamentalists’ hand-wringing over shaggy hair and electric guitars as seriously as they do, while preserving some of the wackiness of the debates (he gets assistance from a body of primary literature that contains some amusing one-liners). Stephens’s book is an insightful resource for scholars of Christian music, and a lovely example of writing for students.