In Christian music, the line between sacred and secular can be blurred.
Could anything be less cool than Christian rock? The very term sounds like an oxymoron. Rock ’n’ roll is cacophony, rebellion, and sex. Church music is staid tunes, reverence, and abstinence. Squaresville. Christian rock is “bad songs written about God by white people,” in the words of comedian Joe Bob Briggs. The journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan called it “a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself.”
Randall J. Stephens might beg to differ. In The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ’n’ Roll, he tells an engrossing story about American Christianity’s long and ambivalent relationship with what Fats Domino dubbed “the big beat.” Stephens says rock ’n’ roll prompted Christians to reconsider “how their churches and denominations could or could not relate to the larger culture and to a secular society.” Even more interesting, though, is the way rock music troubled the easy distinction between the sacred and the secular.
A single thread ties most of rock ’n’ roll’s pioneers together: From Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to Little Richard and James Brown, many of the founding giants of rock grew up in Pentecostal churches. Pentecostal services were dramatic affairs. Worshipers shouted and danced until they fell to the floor, then sprang back up, healed of what had ailed them or speaking in tongues. Behind the hellfire preaching and general pandemonium was hot music: pianos and drums, tambourines and triangles, saxophones and trumpets, all whipping the congregation into ecstasy. Skeptical journalists and respectable Christians alike scoffed at the miracle cures and snickered at the “thinly veiled eroticism of the devotees,” but as one black Pentecostal told a curious anthropologist, “A lot of folks talk about getting too emotional. I wouldn’t give two cents for a religion that wouldn’t make me move.”