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"You people aren't making Christianity any better," no-nonsense TV dad Hank Hill tells a young Christian-rock enthusiast in a landmark episode of King of the Hill. "You're just making rock 'n' roll worse."
Hallelujah. Sort of. As someone who holds Arcade Fire's Neon Bible in higher esteem than the King James Bible, I feel obliged to second Hank's motion — with key reservations. After all, Christian Contemporary isn't the only sector of the rock-music economy to pollute the airwaves from time to time. Uh, hello? "We Built This City"? A million Amy Grants could never produce anything that toxic.
By the same rationale, one cannot get too indignant over the likes of pop-punk rockers Relient K, second-billed in this weekend's Christian-themed Winter Wonder Slam Tour. What's the worst thing you can say about them? They're like a more wholesome version of Jimmy Eat World? That's a heck of lot more appealing than, say, Nickelback, who are like a more lecherous Creed.
So I'm not really onboard with the whole Christian-rock-marginalizes-mainstream-rock idea. In fact, I think the inverse is more likely: Christian rock marginalizes Christianity. Now we're talking.
The Christian co-opting of pop music's dominant genre has been going on at least since the days of '70s perm-rocker Larry Norman ("Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?"), but it didn't get seriously popular, or evangelical, until the mid-'80s. In 1992, I let a girl drag me to one of the very first Harvest Crusades — a pastor-organized evangelical rock festival held every year at Anaheim Stadium. Music was only part of the show. There was also testimony, prayer, mass hand-holding, and an orgiastic finale in which many of the 60,000 tear-stained fans in attendance streamed onto the field and collapsed into piles of quivering, Jesus-induced rhapsody. Under the floodlights. Where, on any other given night, California Angels center fielder Devon White would have been hocking tobacco juice and shagging fly balls.
The Harvest Crusade wasn't just gaudy and exhibitionistic. It felt antithetical to everything I respected about the Christian church: reverence, humility, spiritual intimacy. Here, finally, was your chance to connect with Jesus and act like a rock star. No wonder the Christian kids loved it — a lifetime of bland Sunday tortillas; now here's your bag of Doritos.
At least the Harvest Crusade was a proudly, outwardly faith-based affair. More recently, it seems the only criteria for labeling oneself a "Christian artist" is to not drop the f-bomb or perform onstage visibly stoned.
Consider the Winter Wonder Slam Tour. Founded and headlined by Nashville-based Christian rapper TobyMac, it doesn't bill itself as specifically faith-based. When I saw the event flier — which features a cartoon, googly-eyed yeti poised to devour a scared little reindeer — I thought it was advertising a DJ rave event. "Wow, that yeti is trippin' balls," I chuckled upon seeing it.
TobyMac, Relient K, and the other Winter Wonder Slam acts are part of Christian music's new guard. Yes, they're faith-aligned bands, but they don't always sing about Jesus, and when they do, the lyrics are usually about "Him" and "He." These divine pronouns are integral to the Christian-rock cottage industry; specifically, they make it okay for conscientious Christian parents to let their teenagers attend Winter Wonder Slam vis-à-vis secular festivals such as Edgefest.
Ultimately, it's a meaningless distinction — but, then, meaning is never Christian rock's strong suit. Did you know there are bands that identify themselves as "Christian punk" and "Christian death metal"? It's true. Christ has now been embraced by our most violent, transgressive rock forms. Yeah, I know — Jesus was a transgressor himself, a revolutionary. Still, I'm having a hard time picturing Him in black eyeliner, let alone jackboots.
NDon't get me wrong — the gospel clearly has a place in rock 'n' roll. Hereditarily speaking, Jesus is part of rock's very flesh, from the gospel albums of Elvis to the The Doobie Brothers' exalting "Jesus is Just Alright" (which has actually made me want to go to church, from time to time).
But the current wave of self-identified evangelical rock bands make me think of John Lennon's scurrilous claim of The Beatles being "more popular than Jesus." It might be true. But isn't it beneath Jesus to compete?