Rock music has had sympathy for God as well as the devil – Kennedy Center winner Amy Grant is just one big star who has crossed the line between “Christian” music and “secular” music.

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David W. Stowe, Michigan State University

(THE CONVERSATION) After three multi-platinum and six platinum albums, 30 million albums sold and more than a billion streams, singer Amy Grant is about to receive one of the biggest awards in American music: the Kennedy Center Honors.

Grant, the so-called queen of Christian pop, won’t be the first honoree whose music is steeped in religion. The only 2022 winners include Gladys Knight, who converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and U2, whose lead singer, Bono, is known for his lifelong faith. But Grant is the first to come from the world of CCM: contemporary Christian music.

As a scholar of religion who wrote a book on the origins of the CCM, I know that the genre has long occupied an unstable rung in the hierarchy of popular music. It may seem far removed from the mainstream industry, but the line between religious and non-religious music has long been porous. No one personifies this fluidity better than Grant.

New mode of worship

In popular culture, the CCM is often the butt of jokes, shorthand for “uncool”. In the sitcom “Seinfeld”, Elaine panics when she discovers that her boyfriend’s car stereo is preset to Christian rock stations. In the HBO drama “The Sopranos,” when Tony Soprano’s sister Janice hits rock bottom, she moves in with a narcoleptic born-again hippie who plays in a Christian rock band.

The contempt has often been mutual. At times the CCM has jealously guarded its borders against the encroachments of the non-Christian world. Since the 1970s, American evangelicals have created a sort of parallel cultural universe of religious radio stations, television stations, movies, magazines, bookstores, and music, most of which fly under the radar of non- believers.

While researching my book “No Sympathy for the Devil”, I was most interested in the roots of the CCM in the late 1960s, when baby boomer evangelical youth were pushing to create relatable worship music. Like other young people, they loved rock ‘n’ roll. But they wanted lyrics that reflected their Christian values ​​– so they created their own.

Mainstream Music Finds Jesus

But while CCM drew inspiration from broader pop culture, mainstream music itself was no stranger to Christian themes. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, songs with lyrics that referenced faith regularly charted in the Top 40. Many musicians outside the evangelical camp had at least superficial interest in Christian themes.

In 1966, the Beach Boys recorded “God Only Knows” on their influential “Pet Sounds” album. The song “Jesus is Just Alright” became a hit when it was covered by the Byrds and the Doobie Brothers. Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”, which tells listeners they must “have a friend in Jesus”, was a hit in 1970. English supergroup Blind Faith, whose self-titled album reached No. 1 in the US and UK, featured Eric Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord”.

The list keeps growing. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Earth, Wind & Fire highlighted spiritual, sometimes explicitly Christian themes. In 1972, Aretha Franklin returned from her position as queen of soul to her musical training ground – gospel – to record the best-selling album “Amazing Grace”. The late 1970s brought perhaps the biggest surprise of all: Bob Dylan, who was raised Jewish, now “born again” and spouting Christian prophecy.

Most visible, perhaps, were the rock musicals based on the life of Jesus. “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell” brought a countercultural Jesus to stage and screen, attracting a huge amount of publicity and controversy. Released in 1970, the album “Superstar” reached the top of Billboard’s US album chart.

Broad spectrum

Even then, however, there was strong pressure among influential church leaders against integrating the CCM with the rest of the world. Figures like televangelist Jimmy Swaggart continued to demonize music that featured electric guitars or drums.

June 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of Explo ’72: A Christian Youth Festival in Dallas hosted by Billy Graham and Johnny Cash, the latter of whom turned to Jesus after a wilder few years on the road, like many evangelicals of the boomer. Sometimes dubbed “Godstock”, the event was conceived as a Christian response to the 1969 Woodstock festival and made the cover of Life magazine in 1972.

A pioneering work on CCM published in 1999, “Apostles of Rock,” distinguished three distinct modes of Christian rock: separational, integrational, and transformational. The three labels were inspired by the writings of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, who used them to categorize Christian attitudes toward engagement with secular society in general.

At one end of the spectrum, according to “Apostles of Rock,” is the separational CCM. Separatist music drew a clear line against the world, as conservative leaders wanted. This vision was exemplified by pioneering Christian hair metal band Stryper, known for their militant lyrics and for throwing Bibles at the public.

In the middle is the integrative CCM, embodied by Amy Grant, who has managed to find a niche in mainstream culture. She may have topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1991 with “Baby Baby,” but the uninterrupted physical flirtation in the clip was a little mundane for some of her Christian fans.

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum is the transformational CCM, which aspired to change the wider culture – U2 could serve as an example.

dig well

In recent decades, most of the innovative and widely acclaimed activity in Christian popular music has taken place in the area of ​​integration.

Several prominent Christian bands—Creed, Skillet, Switchfoot, and Pedro the Lion, among others—have migrated out of the evangelical subculture to find wider audiences. Justin Bieber and Katy Perry both cut their musical teeth on CCM before going mainstream. Two of recent rock’s hottest bands, Imagine Dragons and The Killers, are fronted by singers who grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brandon Flowers, lead singer of The Killers, even appeared in a promotional commercial for the LDS Church.

Interest in evangelical youth culture seems to increase approximately every 20 years. The unexpected Christian revival called the Jesus Movement made the cover of Time in 1971; in 2001, Newsweek ran a cover story titled “Jesus Rocks”. Twenty years later, 2021 has seen a feature-length documentary, “The Jesus Music,” which delivers a sympathetic and industry-sanctioned story from the CCM. Grant gets the film’s first and last words; she is also one of its executive producers.

Like all popular music, CCM struggles to adapt to rapidly changing tastes. Yet Christian rockers have found unexpected popularity in a genre that prided itself on iconoclasm, observed music critic and journalist Kelefa Sanneh: “Perhaps in the 21st century, mainstream rock fans dig less into the evil than they dig the good.

This article has been updated to correct the description of Bono’s religious affiliation and the spelling of the songwriter who wrote “Spirit in the Sky”.

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