The recent release of Switchfoot’s new project Fading West led to more questions for lead singer Jon Foreman on how his band can be Christian when its songs lack explicit Christian content. Foreman’s answer has basically remained that his songs are Christian because they are deeply human. This latest episode is a minor bump on the long road of evangelical convulsions over music.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a swell of Christian musicians from within evangelicalism who ventured into various forms of Rock, including Heavy Metal. Stemming from the Jesus People Movement of the early 1970s, Christian artists began engaging in every form of music from Amy Grant’s Christian pop to Stryper’s Heavy Metal. Much of this occurred under the banner of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry, which in turn produced the 1980s “worship wars,” as Larry Eskridge calls them in his book on the Jesus People.
For those raised in holiness and pentecostal circles, what occurred in the 1980s was all too familiar because the issues had been debated in the 1950s and 1960s. The story of the contribution of holiness and pentecostal churches to American music has yet to be written in full although one can find chapters here and there. The emergence of figures like Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Richard Penniman (“Little Richard”), and Jerry Lee Lewis, vexed those communities because they took the musical ecstasy and congregational participation of the worship service and translated it into a popular medium.
The challenge of what could happen to such music is revealed in Solomon Burke’s song “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” which became the anthem of National Lampoon’s 1978 comedy “Animal House.” Burke took what was a song played for the offering in his pentecostal church and remade it into an R&B tune, incorporating the moments into its vocals when the preacher would point his finger at congregants and say, “I need you, and you, and you” in reference to giving money to God and the church. For Burke, the movement between the sacred and the profane was simply a transition from one form of ecstasy to another. As he stated in an interview, “that gospel feeling is in all of this music. It’s that feeling that just says release this yell now; release this feeling inside of you that lets people know that you feel these words.”
Most of the artists coming out of a holiness-pentecostal ethos were divided souls, split between the focus on holiness of behavior and the ecstatic moments of congregational worship. Theologically these two streams were supposed to flow together so that the love experienced in encounter with the divine through worship ordered the affections in such a way as to produce holy living. Having descended from union with God, the baptized soul now loved the law of God. In practice, however, holiness was reduced to a code of moral behavior that most people could not fulfill.
What was left was the ecstatic and this, at times, flowed into the erotic, as has occurred throughout Christian tradition. Given that Jimmy Hendrix first learned his musical craft while touring with persons like Solomon Burke, one can begin to see how the dynamic intensity of a holiness-pentecostal worship service was translated into a concert experience. Within both contexts desire was the vehicle for the divine. One identified divine activity with creative passion and erotic fervor while the other identified it with ecstatic union and holy living.
The rock historian Martha Bayles referred to it as the Dionysian impulse within music, which allowed her to connect early rock with Romantic composers like Weber, Liszt, Wagner, and, most of all, Stravinsky and his Rites of Spring. For both the point was to elicit the emotions, taking them up into a form of embodied transcendence.
What was needed in the debates over music during the 1950s and 1960s was a broader theological vision that could help the Cooke’s and Lewis’s of the world understand the continuity between the sacred and the profane in terms of the shaping and orientation of human desire. Cooke seemed to know this instinctively when he turned in the final years before his death to utilizing music in order to give voice to the emotions and desires of a people hungering for the Promised Land. In this sense, Cooke’s music was deeply Christian and an authentic expression of holiness because, as he well knew, the change that was going to come traded on the hope of the God who changes lives as persons are caught up in his presence.
As Bonaventure argued so many centuries ago, Christianity forms culture when the artist understands the creation of art as part of the journey of the mind into God. When placed in this framework the arts become a manifestation of the reductio artium ad theologiam, a path that leads back toward God as their final end. Any kind of culture-making that stops at the art itself becomes simply an aesthetic form of idolatry. Much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was taken up with idolatrous aesthetics as beauty became divorced from the good. To be a genuinely Christian artist does not require heavy theological content in one’s art, but it does require that one refuse to divorce the creation of art from the pursuit of the Triune God, which is simply another way of saying what Brother Lawrence said: One must practice the presence of God in all one’s acts.