The Common Good
February 2012

Power Ballads for Jesus

by Brittany Shoot | February 2012

No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism, by David W. Stowe.

MAKE NO MISTAKE: David Stowe glorifies longhaired hippie Christians with acoustic guitars. Moreover, he loves their successors, Christian rock stars who fill stadiums and blow out speakers with eardrum-shattering songs about living in the light. In his new book, No Sympathy for the Devil, Stowe doesn’t just hail the way that evangelicals effectively embraced aspects of 1960s popular culture to suit their needs. He celebrates the Jesus-loving leaders of the era who carved out a place in contemporary worship practice, where many believers felt estranged from mainstream values and society at large. Using music to spread their message, 1960s evangelicals began experimenting with rock and roll and folk music as a way to reach deep into—and beyond—their base. Stowe believes their work was both transformative and highly successful in making worship relevant to the post-World War II generations of believers.

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Stowe’s premise is that the imagined conflict between evangelism and popular culture, in the 1960s or the present day, is just that: imagined. Rather, a symbiotic relationship between the two means both flourish, dependent on the other. Accordingly, Stowe dives into his animated, comprehensive history of the rise of Christian rock the way some believers might dive in for an ocean baptism. His chronicle begins in 1967 California, when the Summer of Love and the Jesus Movement sprang up harmoniously parallel to one another. He lovingly describes a time when Beatles songs were appropriated for covers such as “Jesus in the Sky with Angels,” and notes that many young Christians “found it easier to give up (or never try) free love and drugs than to give up rock music.”

In every chapter, he offers key examples of how evangelism became an intentionally inextricable force in popular culture. He explains how musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell helped saturate the theater world with religious themes. He details the success of the final day of Explo ’72 in Dallas, the Saturday Jesus Music Festival, sometimes called Christian Woodstock, or “Godstock.” There, devout rockers such as the Maranatha! Praise Band and country rebel Johnny Cash headlined for 200,000 spectators alongside Billy Graham. The following year, Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, starred in The Gospel Road, a dramatic film about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. These high-profile trends in marrying pop culture and religious fervor meant that by the time the nation’s first megachurches were being built in the mid-1970s, outfitting a sanctuary with sophisticated sound and video equipment had become normalized.

Following Stowe’s timeline, it seems obvious that by 1976, the country was primed to elect socially conscious Baptist Jimmy Carter as president. The same year, sexy soul singer Al Green became an ordained pastor, and Newsweek declared the “Year of the Evangelical.” Around that time, believers splintered and waged war with one another and mainstream society at large over issues such as gay rights. Still, Stowe maintains, it was the preceding decade of grassroots organizing and glitzy stage shows that forced those debates into mainstream culture. Anita Bryant might want to thank Andrew Lloyd Webber for building the platform from which she shrieked. Stowe also argues that Ronald Reagan’s successful bid for office, with a heavy emphasis on social conservatism, can be attributed to the rebranded Christianity with which many Baby Boomers resonated.

Through his elaborate mix of storytelling and historical record, Stowe normalizes the rise of Christian rock, the expensive sound systems in nondenominational megachurches, and the transformation of evangelism. May the spiritual heirs of the Jesus Movement use their social and political power wisely. Stowe demonstrates that they—we—wield tremendous influence.

Brittany Shoot is a writer living in San Francisco.

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