In pacey style, The Devil’s Music traces the turbulent relationship between pop music and American evangelicalism from the 1950s to the present day.
The story begins in the revivalist meetings of Pentecostal churches in the southern states, characterised by shouting, foot stamping, ‘holy dancing’ and flamboyant showman preachers. This is the world in which Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Little Richard developed their love of music and from which they went on to develop and popularise the phenomenon that was dubbed ‘rock ’n’ roll’.
Through extensive research, Randall J. Stephens shows how the new music was seen almost universally as antithetical to Christianity. He documents the condemnations and moral panic of church leaders and Christian parents, who saw it as the devil’s tool to lead young people away from the Lord and towards rebellion and delinquency. It is striking that several of the above-named stars acknowledged as much, suffering longstanding conscience pangs over the path they had chosen.
The antipathy only increased with the hysteria of Beatlemania and the ‘British Invasion’. Records of contemporary sermons and denominational publications show repeated warnings against the quasi-religious adoration of the effeminate, long-haired Liverpudlians. Their detractors found vindication in John Lennon’s claim that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus’, and the band’s endorsement of Eastern meditation, psychoactive drugs and ‘free love’ in the late 60s.
However, by the beginning of the following decade, many younger believers were taking up pop music as a means of evangelising their peers. The book outlines the rise of the ‘Christian hippy’ movement in California and how ‘Jesus rock’ acquired credibility when famous singers (Cliff Richard, Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Barry McGuire) began releasing ‘Christian’ records.
Stephens cites teen magazines, television footage and popular books to show older Christians’ growing concerns about the ‘generation gap’. This led many to start catering for young people’s tastes, so as to ‘not lose the youth’. Francis Schaeffer encouraged serious analysis of art and pop culture; Billy Graham completed his volte-face when he addressed an audience of 200,000 at a 1972 Christian rock festival.
With growing acceptance and support, the 1970s and 80s saw Christian music explode into a fully-fledged industry. It had its own record labels, radio shows and award ceremonies. The author references Christian artists of every genre — from disco to heavy metal — whose collective record sales accounted for a significant proportion of the US market. A handful, like U2, Amy Grant and DC Talk, found success when they ‘crossed over’ into the mainstream; but Stephens argues that Christian music has always suffered from accusations of being ‘unhip, sub-standard or bogus’ (p.45), second rate derivatives of the real thing.
A minority of Christians continued to speak out against rock ’n’ roll, with widely-publicised claims of Satanic messages being hidden in the music. However, by the 21st century it had been welcomed back to its place of origin, with the vast majority of evangelical churches playing and singing rock music in their services. Stephens concludes that ‘in the new millennium, the old debates seemed a distant memory’ (p.250).
Is that a good thing or not? That question is not within the remit of this book, which is a largely objective and academic social history, albeit in readable prose. It does not distinguish between the use of pop music for private listening, evangelistic performance or church worship. Readers seeking biblical guidance on these matters should look elsewhere.
Have Christians succeeded in reaching the lost through music? Or has the church unwittingly ceded ground to the world? Those with an interest in the intersection of Christianity and popular culture will find The Devil’s Music a thought-provoking read which will help them reach their own conclusions.