A Review of No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism, by David Stowe, The University of North Carolina Press, 291 pages
by Garrett Baer
There is a certain (dead) art to the mixtape, difficult to theorize but easy enough to hear. It’s not quite captured in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, though the fuzzy explanation offered by Hornby’s Rob Fleming gets close:
A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with “Got to Get You Off My Mind”, but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and…oh, there are loads of rules.
Though David Stowe is a professor of English and religious studies and No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism was published by an academic press, don’t let the jacket—or Stowe’s ambitious claim to demonstrate that Christian pop music of the sixties and seventies was central in laying the very “groundwork for the reorientation of American society, politics, and religious culture”—fool you: No Sympathy is a mixtape, and it follows Hornby’s rules to a T.
…she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two.
No Sympathy’s best chapter, delivering better than any other on the promise of Stowe’s thesis, is the last. Stowe juggles Bob Dylan’s born-again conversion, the Iran Hostage Crisis, Reagan’s presidential election, the theology of Vineyard Church and its minister Kenn Gulliksen, and the Last Days Ministries of Keith Green, the communitarian almost-rock-star associated with the Jesus People. It’s a diverse set of building blocks, but they form a coherent whole in a way that No Sympathy itself does not.
Stowe begins with Green, who met Dylan through Vineyard. This evangelical Dylan of the eighties leads in Stowe’s account to the earlier apocalyptic Dylan, refusing to play the part of the prophet. The two share the apocalypticism, at least, and that common thread winds back toward Vineyard’s millennial theology, which shaped not only contemporary evangelicalism but, through Gulliksen’s mentorship, Dylan as well. The events of the Middle East were, of course, interpreted by the emergent Christian Right, and Dylan, in terms of Biblical prophecy. And so, by the end of the chapter, the disparate pieces fall into place perfectly—that Dylan contributed a harmonica solo to one of Green’s albums is just icing on the cake.
Stowe’s writing is sharp, his story engaging, and there certainly is a story to be told about popular Christianity in the sixties, a rapidly centralizing music industry, and Moral Majority politicking. But in No Sympathy Stowe is too busy telling good little stories to ever get to the great big one. He introduces the Jesus Movement and affiliated musicians like Larry Norman, takes detours to some boomers’ eclectic spirituality, along with artists like Stevie Wonder who exemplified that tendency, before turning to the birth of the Moral Majority and contemporary conservative politics. Each narrative works on its own terms, but Stowe never quite draws them together into a convincing whole.
As a result, the book’s greatest strength—Stowe’s obvious passion for the lively details of the artists, political leaders, and flunkies that make up the revolving cast of No Sympathy—proves a problematic virtue. Stowe consistently unearths such gems as one Christian rock road warrior’s final take on the touring life:
I learned that materialistic things, they just all pass away… Another lesson that I learned was that dill pickles can be a great comfort to you. You can buy a five-gallon jar of pickles really cheap, man. What you do is get it and put it in the trunk of your car, and when you get hungry you open up that five-gallon jar of pickles, stick your hand down in the pickle juice, and you take out one big, green, warm dill pickle. After you’ve eaten one of those, you don’t want to eat for a couple of days, anyway.
But this attention to engrossing minutiae is too often donned by Stowe as a pair of blinders, producing an historical tunnel vision that leads to some baffling assertions.
…and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music…
Stowe’s microcosmic chapters derive their import from the broader significance that he grants to the sixties and seventies as a whole. In Stowe’s narrative, contemporary Christian pop music has “roots stretching back to around 1970” and this music decisively shaped contemporary evangelical culture and politics. As its subtitle suggests, No Sympathy offers a snapshot of an America in transition; however, in order to show the nature of that change, Stowe’s snapshot needs a frame that his unabashed love of biography and primary documentation does not provide.
The confluence of Christianity, popular entertainment, and capitalism can be traced back to at least the Second Great Awakening. As a result, many of Stowe’s arguments are preempted by those offered in a work like Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus; just add a century to Prothero’s analysis of the nineteenth century to find Stowe’s analysis of the twentieth: “Jesus the friend came alive for nineteenth century Americans first and foremost in song;” “[A]s evangelicals weighed the challenges of modernity, two distinct positions emerged… By the 1880s, liberal Protestants had left the evangelical fold, and evangelicalism had come to refer not to the broad center of American Protestantism but to the conservative right.”
Prothero identifies the period between 1925 and the late sixties as an exception, rather than the rule, to American evangelicals’ cultural engagement. Thus, for Prothero, “the Jesus movement represents a culmination of key trends in American Protestantism rather than a diversion from them.” Stowe, on the other hand, too often seems to suggest that evangelicals in the sixties and seventies accomplished a theretofore unaccomplished feat; as he writes, “I argue that the music of the sixties and seventies, bookended by the 1967’s Summer of Love and the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, helped create a space at the heart of America’s commercial popular culture for talk of Jesus, God, and all things spiritual.”
Stowe’s fixation upon such a narrow span of time, which underemphasizes not just the profound influence of Christianity in pre-sixties popular culture, but that of African Americans as well, is compounded by his chapter divisions, which follows the High Fidelity rule almost too rigidly. The chapter “Soul on Christ” features Aretha Franklin, Andraé Crouch, Stevie Wonder, and pre-”Let’s Get It On” Marvin Gaye; Stowe is careful to note, though, that “the eclectic nature of their spirituality, among other things, set them apart from the majority of boomer evangelicals.” In “Let’s Get Married,” a chapter on sex and the Jesus movement, Stowe focuses on Al Green, Scott Ross (the white DJ husband of the mixed-race Nedra Talley of the Ronettes) and post-”Let’s Get It On” Marvin Gaye. On the other hand, Billy Preston, who was once considered as a possible fifth member of the Beatles, is prominently placed in the “Jesus on Broadway” section next to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, while—in the chapter “Shock Absorbers”—Earth, Wind & Fire is discussed as an example of “eclectic spirituality” before being converted to a more straightforward Christianity by Santana’s lead vocalist in 1975.
Though Stowe properly presents rock’s foray with Christianity as part of the “cultural front” of the sixties and seventies, he fails to analyze this as of a piece with the genre’s complicated relationship with long American traditions that included both African American music and evangelical Christianity. Collections like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, consisting of early twentieth-century field recordings, reveals Christianity to be a pervasive influence in the music that was to serve as the Bible of the folk revival, of the emergent country music, and of rhythm and blues. But if these pre-World War II origins, often Christian and even more often African American, serve as rock ‘n’ roll’s Genesis, then in the beginning—yes, of this too—was the Word. In other words, Christ may have swooped down into sixties and seventies music with a vengeance, but he was really there all along.
You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention…
Stowe is writing for a general audience and is succinct in laying out his theoretical considerations before moving on to all of the good stuff. In order “to map out” the Jesus People era’s “complex relations between society, art, politics, and religion,” Stowe puts cultural historian Michael Denning‘s concept of a “cultural front” to use. The explanation of how Denning’s theory informs Stowe’s own work is concise:
To borrow Denning’s terms, my project involves seeing how American pop music converged with the social location known as the Jesus Movement to create a peculiar new cultural formation with unexpected consequences for the religious and political affiliations of large numbers of Americans. In broad terms, the music and movement were part of a larger groundswell that we call “the sixties”: both shared what Raymond Williams called a “structure of feeling” with the hippie counterculture and, to a lesser degree, the politically charged New Left.
Stowe draws upon British Cultural Studies theorists like Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, but the only apparent influence is phraseological: ignore the traces of Marxism, excise extensive theorizing, and you’re left with British Cultural Jargon. The “structure of feeling” or “cultural front” typically appears in the closing pages of each chapter, where it provides a semblance of conceptual unification to the argument’s not-quite-tied-together strands:
Moreover, when taking a long view of the sixties and their aftermath, it’s clear that this music—whether or not it was endorsed by Campus Crusade or Calvary Chapel—shared a similar structure of feeling, both musically and lyrically, with the most powerful (if not always the most popular) of the early Christian rockers: a grounding in African American vernacular music, a comfort invoking the name of Jesus, regard for Golden Rule Morality, a prophetic stance toward U.S. society, and the sense of an impending apocalypse.
The squirming is palpable and typical of the book’s struggle to fit compelling sections of individual biography or social history into an equally compelling whole, with equivocal wording and broad standards of comparison all too often leaves the connections cloudy. Since a structure of feeling is “a political and social charter for a generation” (Denning’s definition, and the only one offered by Stowe), Stowe’s argument that music, religion, and politics of the sixties and seventies shared a common “structure of feeling” sometimes borders on tautological: of course the generation’s cultural movements shared the political and social charter for the generation.
Stowe’s tendency to favor the anecdotes of boomers, who are themselves sometimes inclined to overstate their own generation’s distinctiveness, over-scholarly accounts that recognize broader religious continuity even among the technological, economic, and social changes of the sixties, reinforces the forgetting of pre-World War II America. These primary sources, however, are a delight more than a hindrance. Genuinely frustrating, though, is Stowe’s refusal to analyze much of anything himself. Citing lyrics from the Jesus Movement teenaged pop group Children of the Day is great. Stowe’s citation of Mark Allan Powell’s assertion that the song “expresses adolescent piety better than any other Christian song every written,” rather than adding his own analysis is disappointing from a writer so obviously conversant with this material. This is troublesome when it comes to Stowe’s central argument, in which he relies no less on secondary sources. In his seven page epilogue, for example, Stowe cites Robert Ellwood, spends a page summarizing sociologist Donald Miller’s statistical work, proceeds to quote Jon A. Shields, summarizes Andrew Louise Campbell on boomer demographics, cites Michael Denning heavily for half a page, and then has nearly an entire page of block quotations from contemporary CCM figures.
Lost in the shuffle are some big questions, like what were the political repercussions of the spiritually eclectic? Where does the civil rights movement fit in? Are yesterday’s Jesus People really today’s Republicans, or did both just happen to emerge from overlapping cultural milieus? Does the rise of CCM tell us more about Christianity or the centralization of American cultural industries in general? And what, exactly, is so special about an American decade in which Christian-inflected music, a personalized Jesus, individualistic ethos, and grassroots politics cross-bred?
…oh, there are loads of rules.
There is a story here in which the distinctiveness and complex influence of an era could be identified, but Stowe presents in each chapter only compelling mini-narratives that miss that mark, mostly because he fails to establish the larger historical context in which his story might rest as a whole.
No Sympathy for the Devil aspires to be a concept album, in which each section segues into the next, culminating with the climactic cultural politics of the 1980s, and thus revealing a whole greater than its parts. But ultimately it’s just a mixtape—albeit a good one—of the kind you give your kid sibling: an introduction with deliberately built-in obsolescence as individual songs fade away to reveal a richer story of albums and artists and movements. I might not pick up No Sympathy for the Devil again—though I would recommend it to those looking for an introduction to Christian popular music, or even just the culture of the seventies—but I’ve already ordered works by Stephen Kent and Larry Eskridge, all the while listening to Larry Norman’s Only Visiting This Planet. And maybe that’s high praise. After all, a good mix tape is hard to do.
Garrett Baer is an associate editor at Killing the Buddha and a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.