Evangelicals and the Devil’s Music

“Much of what animates evangelical churches in the twenty-first century,” maintains Randall Stephens, “comes directly from the unlikely fusion of pentecostal religion, conservative politics, and rock and pop music.” In The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll, Stephens explores not just how rock music helped shape American evangelicalism, but how the intersection of rock and religion shaped large chunks of American culture.

The only thing that would make this book better is if it actually played the music. Stephens makes the history of American evangelicalism fun again. [For other tastes of Stephens’s ability to endow his work with humor and joy, see his book covers here]. But you really can’t go wrong in a book centered around Elvis, Jerry Lewis, Little Richard, and Larry Norman. There are heroes and anti-heroes, troubled souls and those troubled by those troubled souls.

The Devil’s Music is full of spot-on observations about its subject matter. While Stephens is not the first to notice the pentecostal origins of rock ‘n’ roll, he devotes sustained attention to the importance of Pentecostalism in this story. “The sensuality and driving rhythm of rock ‘n’ roll owed much to outsider pentecostal church worship,” Stephens explains. Pentecostal “churches tended to welcome revved-up music and instrumental innovations,” he adds. Rock musicians and Penetcostals were both known for the babel of unintelligible sounds, though the enlightened could understand everything perfectly clearly. Jerry Lee Lewis (and his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart), Elvis, Johnny Cash, James Brown, and Little Richard all had Pentecostal roots, some deeper than others. “I just sing like they do back home,” Elvis once explained:
We used to go to these religious singins all the time. There were these singers, perfectly fine singers, but nobody responded to ’em. Then there were these other singers — the leader wuz a preacher — and they cut up all over the place, jumpin’ on the piano, movin’ every which way. The audience liked ’em. I guess I learned from them singers.
Take a cue from one of Stephens’s photos and watch the King perform “Don’t Be Cruel” on the Ed Sullivan Show, backed by Jordanaires, a gospel quartet. Priceless!

The fact that many rock singers openly borrowed from gospel and other forms of church music outraged religious critics. It was blasphemy! Pentecostalism influenced American music, and then American music influenced Pentecostalism and other forms of evangelicalism. In later decades, Pentecostals such as Swaggart remained fierce opponents of rock music, but Pentecostals also led the way in reappropriating the new sounds their ancestor had pioneered. Listeners and performers alike converted back and forth between the two traditions.

Another important contribution is Stephens’s equally sustained attention to race. It wasn’t just the lyrics about sexuality or the beat. As jazz had once done in some places, rock music brought white and black young people together. Anything that combined interracial gatherings with the idea of sexuality was necessarily provocative and dangerous. It was no accident that white critics of rock panned its alleged African roots, just as critics of jazz had denounced “jungle music.” “Don’t Let Your Children Buy, or Listen to These Negro Records,” warned the White Citizens’ Council of Greater New Orleans. Interracial concerts were flashpoints across the South in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

As Stephens narrates throughout, evangelicals — and a good number of other Christians — believed themselves to be in a “war … for the souls of their teens.” Despite their success, evangelicals were never optimistic about the future, but music ended up being the salvation rather than the death knell of the old-time religion. For all of the furor about the lyrics of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, the words of rock ‘n’ roll mattered less than the beats, the licks, and the melodies. There were always naive teenagers — like yours truly — who enjoyed incredibly salacious songs without stopping to think about what they meant, at least most of the time. The sound and the atmosphere mattered. That proved true at many churches as well. Regardless of their message, many evangelical churches excelled at creating an atmosphere and utilizing music that young and sometimes not-so-young-anymore Americans loved. In some circumstances, the medium was the message.

Stephens also pays attention to the ways that music drove wedges between different groups of conservative Protestants. Having largely lost the argument over Billy Graham in the 1950s, fundamentalists castigated those evangelicals who embraced rock and pop music and the hairstyles and fashions that accompanied it. Eventually, they lost that argument as well. The Devil’s Music became the music of an evangelicalism that remained resurgent through the twentieth century.

The Devil’s Music ends with some absolutely necessary reflections about whether or not Christian rock and pop music was ever any good. “For the uninitiated,” Stephens writes, “Christian rock would always be unhip, substandard, or bogus.” One wag observed that Christian rock was the only musical genre “that has excellence-proofed itself.” As another noted, it amounted to “bad songs written about God by white people.” Well, it was cool to the initiated, as I can attest from personal 1980s experience. But the quality of Christian records and CDs didn’t matter as much as the way the music seemed to bring people together, whether at church or Young Life camp. Why should the devil have all the good music? He didn’t. Jesus got his share, of young people and the music they loved.

 

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