Jesus Rocks! Or Does He?
Long ago I relinquished any youthful claims to rapier wit, unique insight, mental gigantism, and a millennial reputation for intellectual excellence. All that I gave up, recognising that my only gift is the Gift of Stating the Obvious. Whoa, now! Before you sneer at such a mean gift, before you preen yourself on your superior endowments, I would point out to you that I have discovered, glancing over Christian “book” catalogues and an article in Newsweek about the rise of Christian popular music, that it appears I am the only man left in all Christendom who has that gift. All the rest, all the vast multitude, have been struck dumb before Stupidity.
Now before I write this, I will have you note that I am laying aside the Sword of Sarcasm. I am throttling back my only other gift, the Gift of Snide Remarks. Intentionally, with compassion aforethought, I am dulling the Knife of Sharp Sayings and damping down the Steam of Boiling Invective. I am doing all this not because I am natively more generous, more compassionate, or more understanding than most men, but only because the objects are so cosmically ridiculous on their own and out of their own mouths reveal themselves so completely impoverished, that these gifts and weapons are not needed. I disdain the cheap shot. Besides, how could art improve upon nature? I only need State the Obvious, and I will strive to display the first and greatest evangelical virtue, Being Nice. Along the way, however, I will pass a few discrete comments about the lowest cultural nadir of Christendom since Attila the Hun took up watercolours.
LOTS OF MILK, NOT MUCH MEAT
This meditation began not long ago when I picked up the catalogue of Christian Book Discounters. This is a noble effort I will not deride, to provide Christian literature inexpensively to the masses. However, I could not help but feel a faint and passing twinge of despair as I thumbed through the offerings. Yes, buried in the back I found a few old trifles like Spurgeon, Calvin, and Henry. But they seemed woefully out of place amongst the myriad intellectual gee-gaws and pap. Christian literature, it seems, has been taken over by the theological equivalent of Wal-Mart.
Then the July 16, 2001 issue of Newsweek arrived. There on the cover was a splendidly multi-cultural cultural group of over-amped teenagers growling, dripping adrenaline, rolling all over each other, and making hand signs ranging from the Ba’al horns to Clintonesque thumbs up to V for—what? “Jesus Rocks!” screamed the headline, “Christian entertainment makes a joyful noise.” Noise. Well, I couldn’t have said it better if I had tried.
Now I ought to know better than to attempt any musical criticism. From my perspective, music has been on a downhill slope since Bach died, with only brief respite from Beethoven and Mozart. But one suspects that if one mentioned “Mozart” to this crowd they would assume one meant the comic genius of the Three Stooges.
With trembling fingers I turned to the page with the cover article. It was a two page spread of a crowd with closed eyes and expressions ranging from peace to painful indigestion. One appeared to be hailing an unseen taxi. The caption informed us, “Smells like Holy Spirit—the prayer pit [sic—prayer pit] at a Festival Con Dios Christian rock show. 'It’s different enough from a church service,’ a mother says, 'yet has all the moral values we believe.'” Now there’s a statement I could work on a while. And I am somewhat bemused at the picture of Christians coming out of the prayer closet and clambering down into the prayer pit.
The next page treated us to pictures of two teenagers, one with balloons on her head and an “Abortion is Homicide” tee shirt. In the other picture a 13 year old pimped at us wearing an “Apostle Paul’s casual tees” shirt. Be still, my beating heart. The millennium surely draweth nigh.
And thus began the article: “‘Are you ready to rip the face off this place?’ screams the lead singer of Pillar. A hyped-up crowd of teens—6,000 strong—goes nuts. The aggressive rap-rock band launches into a pummelling kickoff number, the surly singer pounding the stage with his steel-toed boot, sweating right through his baggy Army fatigues and black bandanna. He gestures like a member of some vicious street gang as he screams and roars in to the mike, his arm swinging low as if on the way to the requisite crotch grab. This crude move is as integral to rap-rock as the blown kiss is to a lounge act, and is usually accompanied by a testosteroid explosion of expletives. The singer’s hand slaps down hard on his thigh—and stays there. Gripping his pants leg with conviction, he screams, 'Jesus Christ!’ [Somehow or the other, that’s exactly the same thing I wanted to scream.] Pause. 'Is he in your heart?’”
All this, the article informs us, is part of the Festival Con Dios, “the first [and, if we can still count on divine mercy, the last] Christian alternative-rock concert” that will descend upon no less than 30 cities this summer and fall. But rest assured, restive reader, that all has been redeemed. “It’s all in the name of Jesus.”
CUI BONO? FOLLOW THE MONEY
Let us gather facts before we comment. What we are talking about here is BIG money in what Newsweek calls the “gigantic cathedral of Christian entertainment.” The Left Behind novels have sold 28.8 million copies and Christian records sold $747 million, not to mention the turnover amongst legions of Christian bands and videos and who knows what all else. Christians are moving out of the entertainment ghetto and into the “mainstream.” “The heavenly ring of cash registers has finally grown so loud that major publishers (including Warner Books) have started Christian book divisions, and independent gospel-based labels are being snapped up by such corporate giants as Sony and Universal.”
“It took more than prayer to revitalise the industry. Christian music underwent a makeover, hipping itself up for the approaching millennium. Starting in the early ‘90s, its artists began borrowing from more relevant styles of music and fashion to promote their words of praise.” [emphasis added] “To young Christians, these rock artists are Gospel-spreading heroes. Like the kids, they exist between duelling cultures, forming an unlikely bridge from explosive teenage rebellion to steady, unwavering faith.” Yet again, I forbear comment. Not necessary. The duel has too obviously been forfeited.
Looking for theological, philosophical, or linguistic depth? Don’t look here. “'I think rebellion and Christianity go together,’ says Mark Stuart, 33, lead singer of Audio Adrenaline, a veteran CCM group that recently started their own label ... They are the second highest grossing band on this tour, selling more than 2 million albums since 1992. 'Singing about sex and drugs is the easiest thing to do. It’s old by now. So pretty much the most rebellious rock-and-roll person you can be is a Christian-rock frontman because you get people from every side trying to shut you down.’ In another twist, much of the consternation over Christian rock comes from evangelical circles. 'The Christian people protesting our shows call it high-decibel Devil worship,’ says Stuart. 'They don’t even know what we’re doing. They’re just afraid. They probably saw Jerry Lee Lewis shaking his hips 50 years ago and are still like “Rock and roll, it’s Devil’s music’.’” Like, get it? Cool, no? But, like, if 6,000 people show up, who is trying to shut them down? And, like, is it persecution when they pull down several million bucks a year? What a bummer!
JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT IT COULDN’T GET WORSE . . .
The second article didn’t get any better. It scanned the whole field of Christian entertainment as a cash cow. It starts with an interview with one Matthew Crouch, director of The Omega Code, “a film about an evil media tycoon who steals a secret Biblical code and threatens to take over the world with it, only to be thwarted at the last minute by a God-fearing motivational speaker.”
Hooooot, hooot, hooooot, guffaw!! I did not make that up. It’s right there on page 45. Bill Shakespeare, eat yore heart out! And here’s an even bigger hoot: The Omega Code made more than $12 million in 1999, the highest-grossing independent film that year. Crouch is now busy visiting 1,900 preachers before the sequel hits the theatres in September. “The secret: preachers, both in the churches and on TV, exhorting their flocks to support an unabashedly Christian action drama.”
Okay, if nobody else will do it, I will state the obvious: this is not Christian, it’s silly. Contrary to mainstream evangelical thought, just being silly doesn’t automatically make anything Christian.
On the other hand, maybe it does. Look at what else Christian entertainment offers. There are “Bibleman” videos featuring a Scripture-quoting super-hero. (Look out, Batman!) The Holy Land Experience, a Disneyworld clone in Orlando. The Creation Festival East, the country’s largest Christian music event. And don’t forget the Christian Wrestling Federation, with names like “The Saint.”
Other than taste and cerebral matter, what is missing in all this? Where did so many professing Christians get the idea that they could become the slaves of Jesus Christ and still pander to the world? Pondering this, I found these words:
“If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
And whatever happened to “be in the world, but not of the world”?
Goodness, who doesn’t feel the dilemma? When Lynyrd Skynyrd cranks up “Sweet Home, Alabama” I start shouting, too. I grew up on rock and roll. I watched Elvis Presley the first night he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Things are not evil in themselves, but what we make of them. But how can you sanctify the unsanctifiable? Some of this stuff is just screeching and noise, some silly posturing. Neither can be redeemed, because they intend to be ugly or to rebel against the rule of God. How do you leave the world behind when all your efforts are bent on looking just like the world? Exactly how much confidence in the Gospel does that express?
These articles kept talking about Christian entertainment entering the “mainstream.” What these Christian people apparently have missed is that until this century, Christian art was the mainstream. There wasn’t any other kind, except trash.
That doesn’t mean that we are condemned forever to keep on doing the same things they did in the 15th century. God does not change, but he has made change the rule of this world. Our knowledge of him is supposed to progress throughout history until “the knowledge of God covers the world as deep as the waters cover the sea.”
And art isn’t always “nice,” because life in this world is not always nice. Think about somebody like Flannery O’Connor. She wrote stories as funny, and as bizarre, sometimes as raw, as anything the 20th century has produced, yet through it all courses a deep and unmistakable undercurrent of the grace and sovereignty of God. Whether she mentions his name or not, it is always the presence of Christ that overshadows her world, the Great Fact.
Precisely because change is the rule of history, Christian artists ought to try to take their work beyond previous excellence. They ought to explore new avenues. But how can they do that when they are content, nay, eager, to remain a ghettoised footnote in the “mainstream” of the secular sewer? Whose mainstream is it, and who’s the mainstream?
Certainly not the secular world’s, nor the wicked’s. The irony is that no artist can portray any part of the true or the beautiful except by revealing the existence and glory of God. The joke is that even if men curse God, they can only do it with the mouth he gave them. Any skill, any insight the artist owns, he owns only because God is, and he is gracious. Thus in an upside down way, even the wicked praise God. Even the art of a thorough God-hater—Pablo Picasso, for example—is possible only because God exists, and is gracious both in his gifts to men and his forbearance toward the wicked. The arts can focus on the true and beautiful only because God is all truth and all beauty. Without him neither exists. Whatever part of truth the artist teases out can only lead directly to God, because apart from him no truth exists and every truth contains all truth.
Maybe all these Christian entertainment folks are stronger than I am, but who can judge his own case when Mammon bids such a high price? Newsweek writes, “Already, many of the Christian pop-music groups omit the word 'Christian’ from their CDs. 'Our artists tend not to be very political,’ says the Gospel Music Association’s Breedan. 'They do not want to label themselves in any way that would disinvite anybody from considering their art.’” Disinvite? Is that a word? Well, if it is, count me disinvited. (Personally, I’ll take my heathenism straight, without the sprinkling of Bible verses, thank you. It may be poison, but at least it’s honest poison.)
The issue is not whether they explicitly bear the label “Christian” or not. You can’t wash the outside of the cup to make the inside clean. The issue is truth and beauty. The issue is money.
And of course, the issue is theology. Richard Weaver said that ideas have consequences. Well, theology has consequences, and bad theology has bad consequences. Si monumentum quaeris, circumspice. If you are looking for a monument, look around you. Bad theology has produced bad art. The fruit of two centuries of shallow revivalism, guilt manipulation, escapist millennialism, do-goodism, easy-believism, baptised psychology, and legalism have gutted Christianity. The power of emotionalism will not substitute for the power of the Holy Ghost.
VERITAS FILIA TEMPORIS
I wouldn’t worry too much. Truth is the daughter of time, and God will not long suffer himself to be made ridiculous through his followers. The Church must return to the truth of the Gospel that the world always tries to seduce us away from. We are not our own. We belong to Christ. We are his, and we must live for him, fight for him, and if need be, die for him. That is the faith delivered once for all to the saints, and the world will never applaud us for it.
In his commentary on Acts 5:19, 20, John Calvin explains the faith that is needed. The apostles had been imprisoned for preaching, and an angel miraculously delivered them from prison. Calvin writes, “[L]et us be aware that God will increase his Church with spiritual good things, even though he allows the wicked to vex her. Therefore we must always be ready for combat; because our condition today does not differ from theirs...
“The Lord brought the apostles out of prison, not because he would free them completely from the hands of their enemies. Indeed, afterwards he allowed them to be brought back again and beaten with rods. Rather by this miracle he meant to declare that they were in his hand and under his protection, so that he might maintain the credit of the gospel, partly to confirm the Church again, partly to leave the wicked without excuse. Wherefore we must not always hope, nay, we must not always desire that God will deliver us from death. Rather, we must be content with this one thing: that his hand defends our life, as far as it is expedient...
“What is the end of their deliverance? That they employ themselves in preaching the gospel stoutly, and provoke their enemies courageously, until they die valiantly. [emphasis added] For at length they were put to death when the hand of God ceased, but only after they had finished their course. Now, however, the Lord opens the prison for them, so that they may be free to fulfil their function.
“That is worth our marking, because we see many men who, once they have escaped out of persecution, afterwards keep silence, as if they had done their duty towards God and were no more to be troubled. Others, also, escape by denying Christ. But the Lord delivers his children, not to the end that they may cease from running the course they have begun, but rather that they may more zealously run it afterward. The apostles might have objected, “It is better to keep quiet for a while, since we cannot speak even one word without danger. If they arrest us now for only one sermon, how much more will we inflame our enemies’ fury when they see us speak without ceasing?”
“But because they knew that they were to live and to die to the Lord, they do not refuse to do what the Lord commanded. So we must always mark what function the Lord enjoins on us. Many things will meet us which will discourage us unless we content ourselves with the commandment of God alone and do our duty, committing the success to him.”
Now somehow or other, this passage and its imperative—“that they employ themselves in preaching the gospel stoutly, and provoke their enemies courageously, until they die valiantly”—does not evoke a mental image of a Christian rock concert. It does not call up pictures of the Christian Wrestling Federation, or marketing knock-offs like “Left Behind” canvas bags or WWJD sunglasses. It does not make me think of posturing musicians raking in mega-bucks while supposedly being “persecuted” for Christ’s sake because they sneak the word “Jesus” into their lyrics, or backmask it in so the name will be there but nobody will be “disinvited” from spending their money.
All of this is just baptised self-centeredness, self-promotion, and self-indulgence. Some of it is merely silly, the rest, pernicious. When the writer of Hebrews was confronted by childishness not nearly as wanton as this, he stated the obvious: grow up. (Heb. 5:12-14) What else can we say to the Church today? Nothing. Grow up.
Originally published July 2001