God’s Awful Music, Pure & Clean

17 November 2004

We have been given a terrible choice: Michael Landon and Highway to Heaven or Angus Young and Highway to Hell.”

By Patton Dodd

Evangelical Christians can be an anxious lot when it comes to popular music. In the minds of young evangelicals, as in the minds of young nonevangelicals, music signifies overly much about social standing. We — especially those of us who grew up with two social circles (church youth group, and public school friends) — are fantastically worried about our status as cultural outsiders. We want to be in. We want to be relevant. But we know we are out. We fear we are irrelevant. We feel we have been given a terrible choice: either Michael Landon and Highway to Heaven or Angus Young andHighway to Hell. For us, Coolness and Goodness are completely polarized. All of the high school and college social terror that exists in the mind of every teenager is compounded for evangelicals. Do we have the right taste? Are our t-shirts hip? Is our hair long enough? Yes, we believe in Jesus, but please don’t group us with Pat and Jerry! We’re nothing like them. We go to rock concerts! We’ve seen Radiohead twice! We drink socially, if moderately. We read novels. We watch all the independent films. We’re trying, really.

Music is the biggest indicator of our dilemma. Our parents want us to listen to Steven Curtis Chapman and dcTalk. (If you do not know who they are, it just means you are inside the mainstream of American culture, or else you are outside in a different way. Chapman is a clean-cut singer-songwriter. dcTalk is, or was, a three-guy band whose music is either rap or grunge or rap-metal, depending on the nation’s musical mood. Both are, or were, rock stars within Evangelicaldom.) Our parents want us to listen to anything approved by a Christian label. We want badly to listen to anything approved by MTV. We may agree to attend the occasional Jars of Clay (also Christian rock stars) concert, but we will not breathe a word of it at school. This is a constant battle, and even church kids who are convinced, as I was, that they should listen to what their parents want them to listen to, often do not. And, like all teenagers seduced by the industry of cool, we mostly ignore the innocuous stuff and go straight for the foulest, the stuff that is sure to offend our parents and pastors. When I was fourteen, I knew that DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince had some cultural cachet and were nearly as harmless as dcTalk. But I listened to N.W.A., who were infinitely cooler.

Christian music is an industry and a culture, known as Contemporary Christian Music, or CCM. It is an alternate universe with its own techno, grunge, and pop-acoustic acts; for every popular rock genre, there is a CCM corollary. It began, by most anyone’s estimation, in the 1960s and ’70s with Jesus musicians such as Larry Norman and Phil Keaggy taking popular forms of rock ’n’ roll and using them to communicate clearly evangelical messages. Christian groups had descried the effect of rock music on the youth of America, but the Jesus musicians addressed the problem from within. Don’t bring the kids to the church, they said. Take the church to the kids in the only language they understand. Norman put the Christian music dilemma front and center in one of his most popular songs, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” Why indeed, went the consumer industrial response, and by the late 1970s Christian rock had its own production and distribution lines and was focused on getting itself into the hands of kids like me.

We were the first generation to have an opportunity to be raised entirely on Christian pop.

As a young kid in a Southern Baptist household, I assumed that the problem with rock music was one of style. Rock was evil because rock could only be evil. The guitar solos, the drums, the long hair — it had all the makings of a demonic scheme. But from its very beginnings, Christian musicians took the position that music is morally neutral. No matter what the form, they said, music is little more than a tool, a carrier of messages. CCM postulates that it makes no difference if one is strumming a harp and humming softly with eyes closed or finger-hammering a guitar and screaming into a microphone. It doesn’t matter, as long as the message is that Jesus Christ saves sinners. Step into a Christian music shop today and you can find a Christian band forged in the image of Korn — tattooed and pierced and angry, only their rage is directed at Satan — or a Christian diva who is a fully clothed version of Britney Spears.

And they are plenty good at what they do. The Christian industry of cool is adept at whitewashing the popular sounds and fashions that inhabit the mainstream industry of cool. Popular Christian musicians are often just as skillful and professionally produced as the stars of Top Forty radio, and if you put a Christian Country artist next to a mainstream Country artist you might not be able to tell the difference unless you pay attention to the content of the songs. Both will sing about broken hearts, but one will suggest that hearts can be mended by Jesus.

Growing up evangelical means that turning on the radio involves a moral decision. Baptist churches like the one I grew up in encouraged us to take a moral high ground in our music selections. Sunday School and youth group made the matter black and white: I could listen to Christian music and please God, or listen to secular music and please Satan. That’s what I was told as a twelve-year-old in church youth group, and the things you hear as a twelve-year-old in church youth group stick with you. The music sounds essentially the same on both sides, parents and preachers would say, so why not listen to music that glorifies God? The logic was hard to refute, partly because to admit there was a difference was to admit that cool mattered overly much. And it should go without saying that the strict moral dichotomy between secular and Christian music rang true every time I listened to the radio or watched MTV.

When I was a sixth grader grappling with these complexities in 1986, Steven Curtis Chapman was singing about how much God loves everyone and about trying to be a good husband. Motley Crüe was singing about strip clubs. God’s music was cheesy, but it was clean. The devil’s music was evil, but it was cool. I was always much more interested in Cool than Clean, but I was never able to quite give myself over. Even in my most rebellious days, I kept a couple of Christian albums around for good measure. The things you are told as a twelve-year-old in church youth group stick with you.

For years, Christian music was the only kind available in my house. I didn’t even know there were any options other than the Beach Boys, who my parents felt were harmless enough (if only they knew), and movie soundtracks like Annie and Robin Hood and The Rescuers, all of which we had on vinyl and all of which I memorized. When I was in the third grade, I was given my first Christian rock audio tape, Not of This World by Petra—a long-haired, leather-clad glam band, equal parts Toto and Air Supply. Petra was like a gateway drug, ensuring that I would forever be hooked on rock music. Electric guitar. Drums. Synthesizer. A lead singer with a girlish, screeching voice. The album cover had a guitar-shaped spaceship flying through outer space. I knew the music would take me to the outer reaches before I even turned it on. I had a hot pink shirt and black sunglasses and I’d play Petra on my oversized 1984 boom box and sing to the crowd in my room. I took Petra to school and showed it to all my friends. I had the vaguest notion that it was a Christian album, but mostly I just knew it was rock music. My friends didn’t seem to know the difference either. It wasn’t as though Petra sang about Jesus much, anyway — they sang about the dead rising and angels warring and feeling like an alien. (Perhaps their outsider status was not lost on Petra. The title track goes: “We are strangers; we are aliens. We are not of this world.” The song is about how Christians are not supposed to feel at home in the world because our home is in heaven, but it might also be about how Petra could never get play on Top Forty radio.) Regardless, they were momentarily hip to my fourth grader friends and me.

Extremely momentarily. My buddy Chris had a slumber party for his tenth birthday; we rocked out to my Petra tape for a while and then watched the world premier of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video on MTV. Entranced by Michael and the Creatures of the Night, everyone forgot Petra immediately. I slid Petra into my bag, a little saddened that my parents had bought it for me while Chris’s parents had bought him the Thriller album.

When I was in the fifth grade, my sister Kaysie began to listen to secular radio stations loudly in the house. It was her own mild rebellion, and Mom and Dad let it go. She still sang in the church youth group choir, after all. Every morning I would wake up to the sounds of Chicago, Whitney Houston, and Prince. Petra and other CCM favorites — WhiteHeart, Mylon LeFevre and Broken Heart, Michael W. Smith — gathered dust. How could they compete with Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off”? With WhiteHeart, I could multiply forgiveness seventy-times-seven. But with Jermaine, I could dance-and-party-all-night-and-drink-some-cherry-wine-uh-huh.

There was nothing catchier. Within a few weeks of listening to secular radio, I knew that it was not the music that was better, but the whole package. The effect. The affect. The ethos. The deejays. Everything was carefree and modish and it offered immediate entry into What Everybody Else Is Doing. The allure of this music on my mind and body and soul was something that Petra simply could not duplicate. Phil Collins and Culture Club and the Bangles: I knew I should resist them, but I could not. These folks were not just cool — they were the arbiters of cool. They Built This City on Rock and Roll.

Still, I could not escape the feeling that listening to secular music was doing something dirty. I loved that feeling, but I knew I shouldn’t. In the sixth grade, I lived in the basement of our rental home, far away from Mom and Dad and the world upstairs. Every night I would go into my room, shut the door, and listen to the Top Nine at Nine on 98.9 MAGIC-FM. For weeks, I could count on the fact that George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” would be played during the countdown. It was the most titillating thing I had ever heard (well, it might have been the first titillating thing I ever heard). I would dance and dance and sing and sing, making sure to stay near enough to the radio that I could change the station the moment a parent walked in. “Sex is natural, sex is fun. Sex is best when it’s one on one.” Oh, they would not want their twelve-year-old singing those words. And, yes, well, I should not be singing them. True, true. It was wrong. It was dirty. It was so much fun to listen to.

So from Petra to George Michael to Eazy-E I went, though in high school my moral code was more complex. Drugs and alcohol could be consumed without guilt, but I felt a terrible twinge whenever I listened to Black Sabbath. Led Zeppelin was fine as long as I didn’t believe the rumors about what happened when you played the album backwards, but Metallica was evil. (Until the Black Album.) Of course, I listened to everything, whether it was evil or not, but I had to carefully monitor my guilt in order to enjoy it all. For a while, I felt that actually attending concerts was not something I should do, so I let tickets for Alice in Chains opening for Van Halen pass me by, though I had both bands’ songs memorized.

Later, when Kaysie was back home and God was back in the air and I had confessed my sins and gurgled in tongues but was still wondering whether I should make the leap into faith full and complete, it was perhaps inevitable that Christian music would be my entry point back into Christianity. Based on my upbringing and all that I had ever been taught about Things Secular and Things Christian, I knew that listening to Christian radio was a sign that I was trying to improve my life. It was like supporting a starving child. It made me feel that I was doing something good.

• • •

And as a teenager in the summer of 1993, in the midst of all the pot and LSD and beer and girls and lies piled upon lies, in the midst of wondering about whether my conversion the previous January had meant anything at all, there was Christian music, acting as an annoying, convenient, and ideologically reliable rudder, directing me to where I (partially) wanted to go. I was not quite ready to give up my wicked ways or read the Bible, and I was certainly not willing to talk to the Holy Spirit Guy again, but I wanted to keep the question of conversion open to discussion, and Christian music was a much safer dialogue partner than Kaysie. It didn’t require any immediate response. It just gave me an opportunity to think about God.

dc Talk

On days after parties when I had done something especially awful, I would drive around town and listen to a Christian radio station. The songs that played on that station were about love and forgiveness, and they opened up a space for me to consider what it would be like to live a supermoral life, a life dedicated to God. The deejay’s syrupy sweet voice made me cringe, but she always hoped that I would have a “blessed” day, and I could hear her straining for authenticity. She meant it, or she wanted to mean it. The music was bad — horrible, actually, inexcusably lame — but I felt drawn to it nonetheless. I learned that Stephen Curtis Chapman and dcTalk were still around, as were Michael W. Smith and WhiteHeart, just as they had been seven years earlier. But their competition had changed from George Michael and Motley Crüe to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, so it was even more hopeless than before. Still, listening to Christian music was the Right Thing to Do, and it felt great to do something right.

It also felt great to be able to say, “Kaysie, have you heard of that group Pray for Rain? I like the first single off their new album.” (Which was called “That Kind of Love.” The song asked, “Where does that kind of love come from?” The answer: “They say that it runs in His blood.”) Christian music did not merely answer a spiritual thirst; it answered a need for a homecoming. It was my childhood. It was my roots. It was pure and separate.

Patton Dodd is the author of My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion,published by Jossey-Bass, from which this essay is excerpted. He is a contributing editor toThe New Pantagruel and Killing the Buddhaand a contributor to The Revealer.