I grew up in a faith community that frowned on contemporary music. And by contemporary, I mean anything post-1950. Drums, breathy singing, electric anything–all verboten, although there were inexplicable exceptions for southern gospel music.

As a teenager, I rebelled and began listening to forbidden music. One of the artists I discovered and devoured was Keith Green. It wasn’t the long hair, or the beard, or the beat–it was the message of his songs, a “no compromise” take on the Christian faith that grabbed me and shook up my views of what it meant to be a believer. [1]

You might be wondering why I’m telling you this. Green was my first contact with the “Jesus People” movement, which David Stowe has written about in his new book, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism. [2] He argues that “the music of the late sixties and seventies . . . helped create a space at the heart of America’s commercial popular culture for talk of Jesus, God, and all things spiritual.” Additionally, “the spiritual emphasis of much of the decade’s popular music helped baby boomers and their offspring form an image of religion that reinforced the message delivered with increasing effectiveness by conservative evangelicals and the Religious Right” (2).

Proposing that southern California was “the epicenter–the ‘Burned-Over District’–of the Jesus Movement,” Stowe begins with a look at the Jesus People (essentially Christian hippies) and their pairing of modern musical styles with Christian lyrics and themes (17). Larry Norman and Love Song were two of the popular artists emerging from these early years, with Second Chapter of Acts and Keith Green coming later in the 1970s. Maranatha! Music was also a major factor in early Jesus People music, eventually spawning the modern praise and worship genre exemplified today by Hillsong, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and the soon-to-be-defunct David Crowder Band (200).

The Jesus People were only part of the movement toward a more Christian-oriented popular music, though. Broadway plays (Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar) and mainstream artists (Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan) also created music that incorporated Christian lyrics and themes. Some, such as Dylan, even witnessed (passionately, in his case) from the stage between songs:

“I told you ‘The Times They Are a-Changing,’ and they did,” he reminded an audience in Albuquerque. “I said the answer was ‘Blowing in the Wind,’ and it was. I’m telling you now Jesus is coming back, and He is!–And there is no other way of salvation.” (230)

B.J. Thomas, Barry McGuire, Kris Kristofferson–the high-profile converts lined up to join the Jesus Train to Somewhere.

Although oddly placed in the development of the book, the chapter on gospel music is well done and highlights an aspect of contemporary Christian music (CCM) that is often ignored. Most Christians probably view CCM and gospel as distinct entities, but Stowe clearly outlines the connection between the two during this period. Artists one might expect to see, such as Al Green and Aretha Franklin, appear, but so do Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. The use of Gaye struck me as more of a counterpoint to the other gospel artists than a contributor to the Jesus music movement. Even Stowe questions his inclusion, calling him a “fellow traveler in the loosest sense” (139). Still, I appreciate Stowe’s recognition of these African American artists, who often seem to be marginalized today among the white, middle-class believers targeted by CCM.

The political reach of this music movement might surprise readers. Democrat Jimmy Carter found himself supported by the likes of the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, an unlikely pairing if ever there was one. Some of the political issues with which Christian conservatives have struggled made an appearance during the period. Lonnie Frisbee, for example, one of the early leaders of the Jesus People movement, came out as a gay man, was ostracized, and later died of AIDS. Keith Green’s widow, Melody,  became an outspoken opponent of abortion through the Last Days Ministries organization that she and her husband co-founded in Texas in the late 1970s.

Stowe agrees with Donald Miller’s conclusion that CCM and Christian rock have created significant conservative Republican voting blocs among the some of the most well-known megachurches, specifically Chuck Smith’s Calvary and the Vineyard (244-247). I think Stowe could have teased out this last point by looking more extensively at modern CCM artists and their political leanings, but maybe that’s the topic of a future book. [3]

In sum, this gives a different slant on the rise of the Religious Right. It offers a good introduction to the early years of CCM but doesn’t simply rehash the usual focus on Larry Norman and Keith Green.

For more from Stowe on his research, read this interview.

[1] Some of you are probably tired of hearing about conspiracy theories, but I came across one about one and by Green.

[2] According to his faculty page, Stowe is looking to make a documentary based on this book. I’m sure he’s aware of Fallen Angel, the recent documentary about Larry Norman’s turbulent life.

[3] While not specifically on CCM artists and their politics,  if Stowe’s book piques your curiosity, I recommend Jay R. Howard and John M. Streck’s Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music (University Press of Kentucky, 2004).

One thought on “The Music of the Jesus People: Review of Stowe, No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism

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