MSU prof David Stowe plugs into Christian pop
In sixth grade, I transferred from Immaculate Heart of
Mary Elementary School in Detroit to a public school in the suburbs. I
missed singing hymns every morning, but I wasn’t done with Christian
In the 1970s, Jesus made his own big move into the secular
world, backed by infectious tunes, electric guitars and drum kits. My
new friend across the street, George, couldn’t stop talking about “Jesus
Christ Superstar.” (He played it for me when his disapproving parents
were gone.) A year later, I sang in a choral junior-high version of
Back then, I didn’t recognize the
sweeping winds of cultural change that were penetrating my suburban
world, but Michigan State University historian and religious studies
Professor David Stowe explains it all in his new book, “No Sympathy For
the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American
“Christian rock was a big force in
keeping the baby boomers involved in the churches,” Stowe said in an
interview last week. “They could have drifted away.”
In “No Sympathy,” Stowe assembles a wild cast of
characters and bit players, from born-again Bob Dylan, joyous Stevie
Wonder and gospel-toting Johnny Cash, to lesser-known names like Larry
Norman and Lonnie Frisbee, recognized primarily in the “parallel
universe” of Christian pop.
Along the way, he shows how the 1970s Jesus movement and
the music it spawned set the stage for the Reagan Revolution, played a
role in the rise of evangelical influence in American politics, and
helped shape today’s polarized cultural landscape.
“The evangelical churches and megachurches were very
successful in retooling themselves for baby boomers, and generation X, Y
and up to today,” Stowe said. “Christian rock was a crucial part of
that. It allowed Christianity to rebrand itself for a new generation.”
While teaching in Japan in the late 1990s, Stowe was
invited to create an American culture course for undergraduates. He
realized it might be the only such course many of the students would
get, so he decided to concentrate on the two mainsprings of the national
psyche: God and music.
“I thought, if they get a taste of American pop music and
religion, they’ll really get a sense of what the United States is all
about,” Stowe said.
The ambitious course grew into Stowe’s first book, “How
Sweet the Sound,” a dizzying tour through American religious music from
the hymns of early Puritans through the Shakers, Moravians, Mormons,
Jews, and Buddhists to the mystic vibes of jazzmen like John Coltrane
and Sun Ra.
The course and book came to an end with
the 1970s Jesus movement and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but it was clear
to Stowe that another great story was waiting to be told.
Oddly, it took a Japanese teacher to nudge him further
into the world of Christian pop. One of Stowe’s assistants in Japan was a
fan of Amy Grant, Christian pop’s biggest crossover star. “It was
bizarre to discover this quintessential American Christian musical form
from a Japanese guy,” Stowe said.
Stowe’s personal taste runs to jazz, but professionally,
he’s interested in music as a “social practice,” not an “artifact.” Once
he began to dig into the history of Christian pop, he found a wave of
distinctively American religious feeling that compares with the Great
Awakenings of the 1740s, 1810s and the early 20th century.
The story begins with the 1960s “Jesus freaks” of Calvary
Chapel Costa Mesa in Orange County, the incubator of Barry Goldwater’s
and Ronald Reagan’s political careers.
That’s where a barefooted, rebel Jesus stepped out of the southern California hippie culture, to a rock and roll soundtrack.
For young people who didn’t try sex and
drugs, or already had their fill, the Jesus movement was a new way to
rebel. Christian rocker Thom Granger is quoted in the book as calling it
the “perfect rebellion.”
“Not only was I able to stand up to (my dad), but I had
the authority of God, supposedly,” Granger says. “It worked really well
and made him absolutely livid.”
Using first-person accounts, Stowe shows how the early
Jesus movement influenced a generation of evangelicals. Rick Warren, the
best-selling author and Saddleback Church minister who spoke at Barack
Obama’s inauguration, pops up early in the book, as a lifeguard at a
summer Christian camp in California. Warren describes himself leading a
string of youth revivals in 1971 “with the requisite Martin D-35 guitar,
long hair and sandals.”
As the Jesus movement grows, older preachers like Pat
Robertson and Billy Graham look for ways to tap into the youth energy,
resulting in strange episodes like Robertson’s unlikely generational
alliance with New York Christian radio pioneer Scott Ross, whom
Robertson describes as “a hippie-type DJ with a black wife.”
Around the same time that grassroots
Christian rock sprouted in California, slicker East Coast product like
“Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” penetrated the rest of the
country (including my junior high school). Before long, drum kits and
amps were being hauled into churches across the country.
Stowe points out that in the late 1960s and early 1970s,
God was all over the pop charts. Aretha Franklin scored with a
blockbuster gospel album (“Amazing Grace”), Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going
On” burned with apocalyptic visions, George Harrison topped the charts
with “My Sweet Lord” and the Beatles sang of “mother Mary” in “Let it
“There was that extraordinary period when all these
secular bands and artists were referencing Jesus in their songs,” Stowe
But the mainstream moment quickly cracked into a permanent
divide. Material girls and material rappers took over the pop charts,
and Christian rock seemed to float away on a floe of Miracle Whip.
“It became an industry with its own music companies,
agents, and awards, called the Doves,” Stowe said. “It’s slick and
Stowe called it the “final irony.”
“Music that had been created to break down boundaries
between Christians and non-Christians ended up hermetically sealed in
its own new niche, the parallel universe of Christian popular culture.”
It’s been a long, strange trip, but in what direction?
Stowe cited two films, made 31 years apart, on the same subject, to
dramatize the gulf between past and present.
In 1973, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was
praised for bringing psychological complexity, and even authenticity, to
the story of Christ. A generation later, the hippie Jesus was as
old-fashioned as macram plant hangers, and a new Christ, with tight abs
and a vengeful eye, was spitting blood on the screen in “The Passion of
“Those kids that were in their early 20s or teens in the
early Jesus movement, probably listening to ‘Superstar’ on the sly, are
now middle-aged folks bringing their kids to see ‘Passion of the
Christ,’” Stowe said. “That’s a huge cultural distance, but it’s the
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