The Devil’s music: a review

[A review published in July in Reviews in History.]

The Devil’s Music. How Christians inspired, condemned, and embraced rock ‘n’ roll
Randall J. Stephens
Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780674980846

When viewed in a long perspective, the modern history of popular music has very often been one in which new styles are adopted by the young in spite of (and indeed because of) the incomprehension and disapproval of their elders, only to enter the mainstream as those young people age. At the same time, Christians, when confronted with the arts of the societies in which they find themselves, have variously ignored, embraced, adapted and tried to replace or eradicate those arts both in worship and in public. It is in these two ongoing stories (in their American variant) that Randall J. Stephens makes a timely and important intervention. It will be required reading for students of modern American cultural history, but specialists in the religious history of other countries will also find much of value in it, as will the growing number of theologians and musicians concerned with the relationship between the churches and the arts. No serious academic library will want to be without it, and since it is generously produced and sensibly priced, it should find a wide readership outside the academy amongst Christians and ageing rock fans alike.

Stephens’ argument is relatively easily summarised, although the introduction to the book does not do so adequately. Chapter one shows the close linking between the early development of rock and roll and the music of the Pentecostal churches, such that (although some Christian critics did not care to admit it), the stylistic differences between music inside and outside some churches were small, even if the lyrics were very different indeed. Striking here is the relationship between the Pentecostal televangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, his cousin, but similar debts of influence were owed by James Brown, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and indeed Elvis himself. Stephens’ exploration of the agonies of conscience that some suffered as a result of the disapproval of their own churches is vivid and convincing.

Chapter two describes a short but intense period of concern, not to say panic, over the dangers of rock and roll in the years before 1958, followed by a period of relative calm as several of the stars either died or were kept out of trouble in the armed forces. Stephens evokes the cluster of interrelated concerns in play: of the impact of ‘savage’ music (the possession of a subjugated culture) on white America; a more general anxiety about the young in an increasingly affluent and consumerist context, and their apparent slipping out of the control of their elders; there are overtones too of the fear of Communist infiltration. This is all deftly done, but it would have been useful to examine more closely the degree to which these concerns were distinctively religious (or, the prerogative of religious people), as opposed to those of a particular race, class and generation. After this period of calm, chapter three then shows the remarkable storm of dispute with which the Beatles were met after John Lennon’s famous comment to the London Evening Standard in 1966 that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus now’. Though Stephens is not quite right in saying that the comments made little impression among British Christians, the protests were of a quite different order in the USA: radio stations ceased playing their records, death threats were made, and effigies of the band burned in Dixie.

Chapter four and five, taken together, deal with the central paradox of the story: from the late 1960s onwards, how did part of the evangelical constituency come to see that these forms of popular music were not passing phenomena and as such were to be reckoned with, and perhaps used, rather than simply rejected? Stephens is vivid on the interconnection between the new ‘Jesus rock’ and an ongoing Christian negotiation with the wider counter-culture of the period, as Billy Graham, previously an opponent, grasped the need for a different approach to the extent that for a time he wore his hair long. For proponents of Christian rock then and since, it was possible to adopt an artistic form while changing its content; medium and message were separable. At this point Stephens’ book intersects with other recent work on the subject, notably that of David W. Stowe, and it appears at almost the same time as a new biography of the Christian musician Larry Norman, by Gregory Alan Thornbury.

Chapter five documents the backlash amongst other Christians, which Stephens calls the ‘fundamentalist reaction’. For these preachers and moralists, the proponents of Christian rock were variously too effeminate, too emotional, their stage acts too sexualised, and too closely associated with the charismatic movement. More often, though, the issue at stake was one of genre: rock, because of the associations it carried, could never be turned to a positive use and had to be shunned. Nonetheless, as Stephens’ story ends in the years after the millennium, Christian rock had become ubiquitous in American churches of an evangelical kind, with the remaining redoubts against it becoming fewer, and crossover artists had achieved mainstream recording and touring success.

All of this is wholly convincing as a characterisation of the period and as a chronology. This reviewer would wish, however, to make some criticisms on grounds of method and analysis, not so much to contradict the argument as to draw out and make explicit some things that are latent in it but which Stephens does not spell out.

Stephens’ method is documentary rather than narrowly analytical, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Having unearthed a vast, teeming field of Christian voices arguing about rock and roll, Stephens’ evocation of this cacophony is brilliant; his ear for the cadences of the preacher and the moralist is acute, and his ventriloquising of their concerns rings true throughout. Just occasionally the style becomes overripe, however; preachers ‘thunder’ and ‘howl’ in ‘raging fires’ of controversy but rarely just speak; guitars blast and drums thump but rarely do musicians just play or sing. In short bursts, the heightened register that Stephens adopts is vivid and evocative; over the length of a whole book it becomes somewhat wearing. It is also the case that quite often the argumentative thread is lost amongst the clamour of voices, and there is a tendency to repetition, as the same themes recur again and again; we hear about the length of Billy Graham’s hair at least four times.

Some of the impression of repetition could have been avoided had Stephens included a more precise analytical framework in which to work, into which his narrative could have fitted well. The first such structure that is missing is a musicological one. The music here is ‘driving’, ‘revved-up’, ‘blasting’ or (in the case of the Christian metal band Stryper) ‘schlocky’, but to really apprehend what is at stake this reader at least needed a clearer sense of genre, instrumentation, performance practice, melodic and harmonic structure and so on. To borrow a quotation often attributed to Elvis Costello amongst others, writing about music is like dancing about architecture: exceptionally difficult to do well, but here the reader needed more nonetheless. As it is, readers without Stephens’ prodigious knowledge of this music are left with a great deal of work to do.

Stryper in concert, 1986, promoting their album To Hell with the Devil
Image via Wikimedia Commons: By Rafael Faria, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The second area in which the book would have benefitted from a clearer analytical framework is in the definition of different strands of Christian opinion. There are here pentecostal voices, Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics: denominational divisions that are reasonably robust as analytical categories. But Stephens never quite defines the differences between those who are ‘evangelical’, ‘fundamentalist’ and merely ‘conservative’. The term ‘fundamentalist’ is particularly difficult to define, and Stephens only meets the task head on in chapter six. ‘Fundamentalism’ has often been defined in strictly doctrinal terms, particularly concerning the authority of the Bible; the virgin birth, nature and eventual return of Christ; and the doctrine of the atonement. Defined in this way, several of those within the Christian rock movement appeared very ‘fundamentalist’ in their views of the Bible and on the issues that tended to trouble those with a conservative view of Biblical authority, such as gender, sexuality, and creationism. Stephens instead defines fundamentalism in terms of a determination to separate the faithful from the culture around them. This is clearly what is happening amongst some Christians during the period, but even if such cultural separatism was a marker of those Christians who were ‘fundamentalist’ in doctrine, it is not at all clear that they were the only Christians who took such a view of culture. On its own, cultural separatism seems insufficient as a definition of the term.

And it is the theologies of culture in play here, the guiding principles that underlie the rhetoric, that are often submerged in Stephens’ account and that most needed to be named and analysed. From time to time they briefly break the surface only for the reader to be swept downstream in the chronological and rhetorical flow. Christians have historically taken the arts seriously for two main reasons. The incarnational sense that all human creative endeavour was a sharing in the creative work of God was the key element in the Catholic recovery of the modern arts in the 20th century. Stephens notes in several places the pervasive sense amongst secular critics that Christian rock was more often than not mediocre, a poorly executed example of an art form. This ( at least in the British context) was also the objection raised by Christian critics of ‘church pop’ in the 1950s and 1960s; if there were Christian voices in the USA making the same point, it would have added to the narrative to hear more of them.

However, this incarnational understanding of the arts has historically been a minor theme at best in evangelical thought, with many being prepared to embrace bad taste in the service of the gospel. Evangelicals have been more interested in how the arts can be made to communicate a message, and (correspondingly) most exercised by the particular dangers posed if the arts were made to carry the wrong kind of message. The phenomenon of Jesus rock, far from being an anomaly, is part of a long tradition of evangelical efforts to adopt an artistic style for use in worship and/or evangelism while rendering it safe by supplying appropriate words, performed by those whose personal lives met the required moral standard. The insistence that a certain style of music – a certain arrangement of sounds in time, produced by a certain combination of instruments – could never be sanctified; that an element in God’s creation could never be redeemed for His use, is only one of the several theological options available to evangelical Christians, and has been the option least often chosen in evangelical history at large. All this is implied in Stephens’ account but only comes into focus in chapter six; it would perhaps have added to the impact had it been placed front and centre, earlier in the book.

To reiterate, none of these criticisms is fundamental to Stephens’ argument, and to adopt a more analytical structure and style may have lessened the significant media attention which the book is attracting at the time of writing, which it deserves. That said, although The Devil’s Music is a timely and important book, it leaves the reader with some work to do.

[See also Randall Stephens’ response.]

Lecture: Understanding religious networks in the archived web

Back in April I was in Jerusalem to give a paper at a two-day conference on web archiving at the National Library of Israel. The majority of the lectures are now available on YouTube, and mine is below.

It draws on material from three projects, some published, some not. The first was my forthcoming piece on religion in Web history in the Sage Handbook of Web History; the second, another forthcoming piece on cross-border religion in the Irish web (due later this year), and thirdly, this (so far unpublished) paper on British creationism.

(It starts about 28 minutes in).

British creationism in the web archive

Some time ago (2014) I wrote a short post on some work I was doing on the link patterns in the archived UK web surrounding the web estates of British creationist organisations. That post has since attracted a certain amount of attention, including a citation or two. I have not yet pursued formal publication of that work, but I did give a short paper at a conference in 2015 which provides fuller documentation of the case. With all the necessary caveats about its status as a preprint, without having been through formal peer review, I make it available here: Reading British creationism in the web archive (ReSAW conference, June 2015, Aarhus, Denmark)

Early Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

I now have a new article published by the journal Internet Histories, which is available online.

Here’s a summary. Alternatively, read the accepted version in full (Open Access PDF)

Technology, ethics and religious language: early Anglophone Christian reactions to ‘cyberspace’

The article falls broadly into two halves, both concentrated not so much on the history of the Internet and Web as technologies as on the kinds of terms Anglophone writers used in order to understand them. The time frame is what I’ve called the ‘long Nineties’, beginning in 1989 and ending in 2001.

Between 1992 and 1996, as Thomas Streeter has shown, ‘the Internet ceased to be imagined as merely a cluster of imperfectly connected technologies that interested computer scientists and became instead an integral system with an agency of its own to promote change: change that could not be resisted, only shaped’. This was followed by ‘a remarkable effusion of writing in English between 1996 and 2001 that addressed the spiritual and ethical implications of the coming technological revolution. At the same time as the dotcom bubble inflated, writers across Europe and North America were seeing visions of future utopia and dystopia fashioned by this seemingly unstoppable technology.’

The first half pays particular attention to language, and the degree to which discourse about the Internet was cast in religious terms. The article looks at the whole range of metaphorical and metaphysical framings of the internet and Web: from purely metaphorical talk of the ‘soul’ of the Internet (meaning an idealised culture of its users), to its use as a metaphor for God (and of God as a metaphor for the Internet). These ideas were related to the notion of the ‘technological sublime’ (David Nye), but some went further to attribute to the Internet something very much like a consciousness and (at the extreme) a manifestation of the divine. There was little in this complex bricolage of concepts and images from several religious traditions to form anything like a coherent theology of the Internet, and the very imprecision of the concepts involved was part of their valency across apparently antithetical fields of discourse. I suggest that contemporary imaginings about the Web were one example where religious sentiment, broadly defined, had transferred its focus to something other than mainstream religion. If the secularisation of language has never been completed (assuming it could ever be), it should be no surprise that moral and ethical debate was often conducted in terms derived from the Christian history of the West.

The second half looks in particular at Christian reactions to the Internet in general, and this pervasive use of religious language in particular, since its very syncretism was a source of acute discomfort to those Christians attempting to understand it. It first puts these reactions in a longer context of Christian criticism of computerisation more generally, dating back to the early 1980s and indeed earlier. Some Christians responded simply to the likely effects of particular manifestations of life online, seeing ethical challenges in relation to economic and social exclusion, and the subtler impact on the health of interpersonal relations; others, though in the minority, elaborated a semi-mystical evolutionary understanding of the Web, inflluenced by Teilhard de Chardin, that had parallels with those more influenced by pagan or Buddhist thought. Others again set aside high-flown imaginings, either positive or negative, and adopted the Web as a pragmatic means of achieving their ends. I concentrate in particular on some of the reactions to shifts in the conceptual vocabulary of the West in relation to personality and the soul, human capability and its limitations, and the relationship between humankind and God. The more overheated rhetoric that surrounded virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the capabilities of the network seemed to threaten the Christian notion of human uniqueness and the right relationship of fallen imperfect humans to their Creator.

Evangelicals, culture and the arts

[This is an edited extract from my essay in the Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones.]
Download the full text (PDF)

One evening in the early 1960s Michael Saward, curate of a thriving evangelical Anglican parish in north London, went to the Royal Festival Hall to hear the aged Otto Klemperer conduct Beethoven. As the Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng played the Violin Concerto, Saward unexpectedly found himself

‘sitting (or so it seemed) a yard above my seat and experiencing what I can only describe as perhaps twenty minutes of orgasmic ecstasy. . . . Heaven had touched earth in the Royal Festival Hall. . [It was]  . .  a taste of [God’s] work as creator of all that is beautiful, dynamic and worthy of praise . . . speaking of his majesty in the universe which he has made, goes on sustaining, and fills with his life force, the Holy Spirit, who draws out of humanity an infinite range of talent, skill and glorious creativity in artistic works.’

Saward’s words were part of a memoir and not a work of theology, but they challenge many received views of the relationship between evangelicals and the arts. Here was a graduate of the conservative theological college Tyndale Hall, Bristol, sitting in a concert hall, listening to a German Jew conduct a Polish Jew in a piece of wordless secular music, and yet attaching such significance to the experience. Even though music was the art form most likely to be appreciated within the evangelical constituency, rarely does the historian find such a positive evaluation of the arts, their effects, and their place in the theology of creation and of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelical theologies of culture have at root been theologies of the Fall. Anglican Catholics in England in the twentieth century began to recover a much older incarnational sense, thought to have been lost since the Reformation, of human activity as a subordinate participation in the work of creation. Not only could the maker of a work of art communicate something to the viewer about the aspect of creation that he or she was representing; the act of making could also in some sense be co-operating with God. In contrast, the evangelical view of human capability has tended to be more pessimistic. At its strongest, this view was that sin so defaced the divine image in human beings and so clouded their perception that their unaided attempts at understanding God and creation would be at best partial and incomplete, if not indeed corrupted and thus useless. Any attainment of virtue would be accidental, the product of external influence rather than any effort on the part of the individual. To attempt to create anything of beauty would be futile, and all participation in secular activity prone to the corruption of pride and self-interest.

At base, this is the centre of theological gravity in what remains, even after thirty years, the most sustained historical treatment of the question of evangelicalism and culture in Britain, Evangelicals and Culture by Doreen Rosman (1984). In the early nineteenth century, Rosman found many individual evangelicals who were able to engage in the arts in positive ways, and indeed to delight in their performance. However, evangelical theology was never able to develop its instinctive rhetorical claim on the whole of human life into a framework that could comfortably encompass the arts. Unable to sanctify the senses, it was often forced instead to seek to subjugate them. Evangelicals ‘were never confident to assimilate such worldly activities within the framework of their world-denying theology.’

This chapter examines evangelical encounters with the arts in several modes: as both consumer and performer in the apparently ‘neutral’ sphere of the home; as users of the arts in the context of public worship; as users of the arts as tools for evangelism; and as moralist and reformer of the artistic pursuits of others. It concerns itself mainly with music, literature, the visual arts and drama, and its examples are drawn chiefly from Britain and the USA, and from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That said, its overall analysis makes a claim to be applicable to the evangelical movement as a whole.

In certain cases there were evangelical principles that went to the very basis of the art form concerned, such as the stress on the intelligibility of words sung to music, which as a result were both widespread and persistent. At the same time, there were other evangelical concerns, such as the taboo on attendance at the theatre, which were not so much issues with the medium itself, but a particular social context in which it was produced. As a result such prohibitions could be, and were relaxed at other times and in other places. Evangelicals at times enthusiastically embraced certain art forms and individual works; at others they rejected them on principle; in other circumstances the story was one of resistance, adaptation, and the replacement of secular versions with safe and edifying substitutes.

Implicit in much of the chapter is a wider question: how far was evangelical engagement with the arts conditioned by the cultural power that they were able to exercise in general, and the extent to which their cultural presuppositions were shared with their neighbours? At the height of influence of British evangelicalism in the mid-nineteenth century, evangelicals shared many of the same presumptions as their neighbours about the moral purpose of the arts, and about the conditions that should surround their production and reception. As Elisabeth Jay has shown, this cultural closeness was mirrored in the degree to which evangelical life itself was the subject of the Victorian novel; an interest which waned as did evangelical influence in society, reaching a terminal point in Samuel Butler.

In contrast, evangelicals in late-twentieth-century Britain and America found themselves marooned by the processes of secularisation in societies in which any consensus about the purpose of art had fractured, and in which middle-class consensus on morality (the consensus that mattered) had disintegrated. It is no coincidence that this period saw a spate of evangelical writing on the supposed death of Christian culture in the west as reflected in the arts, by figures such as Francis Schaeffer and H.R. Rookmaaker. In this context of perceived cultural and moral crisis, the paradox was that evangelicals were in confrontation with secular artistic production for its godlessness, whilst domesticating its forms for their own purposes – in popular church music, or in religious drama – to a greater extent than ever.

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