The National Catholic Review
To Hell with the Devil, they proclaimed, dressed in black and yellow spandex, with hair that hung below their shoulders. They stood in that rock star pose that all adolescent boys from the 1980s knew how to emulate: legs apart, leaning back slightly, arms raised triumphantly, with an aggressive and intimidating look in their eyes. Their music was heavy and loud and the beat was inviting, the kind of music you could pump your fist to. The year was 1987 and the band was Stryper, a heavy metal band to be sure, but one that identified itself as Christian. As a teenager, I was intrigued by Strypers image and its music, which sounded quite similar to many other mainstream hair metal bands of the day. But after listening to their songs I understood why they were different from other rock bands. They did not sing about sex or the occult, nor did they guzzle booze or bite the heads off bats like Ozzy Osbourne. Their message was clearly very different from their more worldly musical peers.

In the 20 years since Stryper helped to popularize Christian Rock, the genre has grown substantially, and several contemporary groups have enjoyed a level of success their predecessors could not have imagined. According to a 2006 article on Beliefnet.com, Christian music is the sixth most popular type of music in the United States, outselling both jazz and classical genres. It appears that, in many circles, it is actually cool to listen to Christian rock. The genre has also expanded and includes several sub-genres. Indeed, almost every secular music genre now has a Christian counterpart. A few years back, I even heard a Christian Death Metal band called Mortification.

Rockin for Jesus

Christian rock grew out of Contemporary Christian Music or C.C.M., a genre popularized in the 1970s and 1980s by artists like Phil Keaggy, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and John Elefante. Originally influenced by folk and gospel, C.C.M. gradually incorporated elements of pop and rock music. The primary difference lies in the songs lyrics, which are meant to evangelize, spread the good news of Jesus and, presumably, win converts to the faith.

Using rock music as an evangelical tool would have been unthinkable to most Christians in the 1950s. This was not because the songs lyrics were necessarily objectionable, but because many worried that the sight of Elvis shaking his hips, coupled with rocks primal 4/4 beat, might encourage teenagers to engage in promiscuous behavior. Today the sound of Christian rock is nearly indistinguishable from mainstream rock n roll. The same aggressive guitar riffs and driving drum beats listeners objected to 50 years ago can be found in songs by Christian bands like Jars of Clay, Third Day and Audio Adrenaline.

There are few words in music that scare people more than Christian rock, the music journalist Andrew Beaujon wrote in his recent book, Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock. (The title comes from a T-shirt Beaujon saw at a Christian rock festival, which depicted the nail wounds in Jesus hands.) Christian rock has been derided for many reasons, including for what some see as the genres simplistic Jesus is my friend piety. Indeed there is not much theological substance to some Christian rock lyrics. Bands may legitimately be on fire for God, but few have the theological vocabulary to communicate their religious experience. Take dc Talk, a band that is often cited as boosting Christian rocks popularity in the early 1990s. The title track from their album Jesus Freak features lyrics I would expect to read in a second grade catechetical workbook: People say Im strange, does it make me a stranger/ That my best friend was born in a manger.

Christian rock has also been characterized as mediocre music that sacrifices quality for a message. Hank Hill, a character on the Fox animated show King of the Hill, told the lead singer of a Christian rock band during one episode, You arent making Christianity any better, youre just making rock n roll worse. This accusation can be leveled against a number of Christian rock bands, but in all fairness, some secular rock music is just as mediocre.

Reformation Rock

The religious roots of Christian rock are largelyevangelical Protestant. While there are likely many Catholics in the Christian rock fan base, I, as a Catholic music fan, have always felt uncomfortable listening to it. One reason for this discomfort lies in the foundational differences between Protestant and Catholic theology. Thomas Rausch, S.J., explains such differences cogently in his recent book, Being Catholic in a Culture of Choice. Rausch writes that Protestant theology has traditionally been more pessimistic than Catholic theology regarding the holiness of the world. The Catholic religious imagination, as portrayed by Andrew Greeley and others, helps Catholics to see the sacred in everyday life. The foundations of Protestant theology, however, focused on Luthers personal struggle over justification or his righteousness before God, which, according to Rausch, has resulted in Protestant theologys stressing redemption more than incarnation. This means that the world is more in need of being saved than it is good and holy. It makes sense that, if Christian rock emerged from this theological foundation, evangelicals would consider it vital to redeem rock music by baptizing it with Christian lyrics for a Christian audience. Yet for Catholic rock music fans, the approach is unnecessary.

Since the genre was born, many rock artists have addressed religious and spiritual themes in their music. Often they do it in a very subtle way, but the message can be quite powerful. As songwriter and BustedHalo.coms editor in chief, Bill McGarvey, wrote in a recent article in The Tablet, Although I was raised Catholic, I now realize that my first religious experience came through music. McGarvey is referring to secular rock music and, more specifically, to Bob Dylan, an artist with a history of grappling with transcendent themes in his music, but also one you would never find in the Christian rock bin at your local record store. The same is true for Bruce Springsteen and U2, who are often cited for the religious and social justice themes in their lyrics. Through much of their music, these artists, and others like them, evoke emotions and convey important messages about faith without any heavy-handed proselytizing. In this way, their spiritual and religious roots are more Catholic, meaning that God can be found incarnated in the music itself and in the transcendent experience of listening to it. These songs do not need to be baptized or redeemed. They are reflections of the human beings who created themsimultaneously beautiful and sinful, capable of great pain and great joy.

Post-Christian Rock?

Not all bands welcome the Christian rock label. Consider Switchfoot and Red. Although both bands are on the Christian rock touring circuit, they seem more comfortable referring to themselves as Christians who play in a rock band rather than pigeonholing themselves into the Christian rock genre. I first heard Reds recent single, Breathe Into Me, on Detroit rock radio. The D.J. seemed apologetic when he introduced the song: I guess these guys are a Christian band, but they sure do rock! What I find especially interesting about these bands is that their lyrics avoid the clichés often associated with Christian rock. Switchfoots song, American Dream, for example, cleverly and accurately addresses the problem of materialism in U.S. culture. I want to live and die for bigger things, the lead singer belts out convincingly, Im tired of fighting for just me.

Some contemporary indie-rock acts have also been addressing issues of faith, spirituality, sin and redemption in their music, approaching these themes with a refreshing maturity. Sufjan Stevens has gained much respect and acclaim, especially after his album Illinois was released in the summer of 2005. His 2004 release, Seven Swans, brims with Christian imagery. Grant Gallicho raved about this disc in the pages of Commonweal, calling the collection of songs a believers response to the call of God. Stevens has rejected attempts to categorize his music as Christian Rock, but is equally adamant about expressing his faith in his music. He is an extraordinary musician who records and tours with equally adept players. His credibility as a songwriter is not harmed by his open expressions of faith.

At the end of the day, people are going to listen to the types of music that appeal to them. There are plenty of genres from which to choose, and the number of bands grows daily. If you find Christian rock enjoyable, then, by all means, listen to it. If it helps bring you closer to God, that is even a better reason to listen to it. Christian rock, however, is not somehow ontologically purer than secular rock. Nor do Christians have to forgo the pleasures of listening to a mainstream rock band because they believe their faith requires a spoonful of Christianity to make the rock music go down. For those who do believe this, I am sorry for what they are missing. As for me, I will continue to take my rock music straight with no religion chaser.

David Nantais is a campus minister at St. Mary Student Parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has played drums in numerous rock bands over the past 17 years.

Comments

Adam Miller | 12/5/2009 - 5:29pm

Dear Mr. Nantais,


I just came across your article and found it quite interesting.  As I came to take my Catholic Faith seriously in the early 80s, I searched for rock groups with good lyrics and "discovered" bands like Petra, Resurrection Band, Degarmo & Key, and others. But of course the whole truth was always missing. Your point about Christian rock lyrics as primarily being the lyrics of Reform theology is so true. I knew it wasn't enough. 


I have since (thanks be to God!) discovered numerous Catholic rock bands such as Critical Mass, Katholicus, Seven Sorrows, Rise, and others. It would have been very interesting to see your take on these bands and what they do. Maybe you could research and write an article on the growing movement of Catholic rock bands who do sing about the whole truth. Such bands are hardly known by the "average" Catholic parishioner or even Catholic youth. I would think CYO groups and youth leaders would be most interested to find out that such a thing as Catholic rock music even exists. Surely our youth should at least be made aware of such music (heck, even many 30+ and 40+ folks would welcome such).


One place you could look is "Grapevine" magazine which features numerous contemporary Catholic music artists.


Again, thanks for the article