As a staid academic with the internal passion of a Bruce Springsteen or Lou Reed, if I had any musical ability I’d have opted for a life on the stage. As I struggle to forge my passion into words on paper (or in electrons) I consider those who should have perhaps considered other options as well. I have never really been a fan of Christian Rock. The whole rebelliousness and sense of sticking it to the man lose something when you bow your head in submission the Sunday after and ask some ordained member of the establishment for forgiveness. It tastes even worse than Light Rock, the talc of real rock world. Nevertheless, there have emerged in the strange history of Christian Rock a few true innovators who have not only challenged Christian convention, but who have taken music itself in new directions.
My favorite among the innovators has always been Larry Norman. The original “Jesus Freak,” Norman appeared on the San Francisco rock scene only to be rebuffed by Christian artists who held Pat Boone as a kind of icon, and rejected by mainstream rock as being some kind of Christian fanatic (he was). Norman’s music, however, was a strange blend of tradition and visionary foresight. When they saw there was money to be made, along came other artists trying hard to match Norman’s footsteps, most of them falling far short. Daniel Amos, probably one of the most unusual Christian groups ever, proved themselves way ahead of the curve, and if they’d had a good publicist might have made secular airtime based on their forays into retro and punk before they were trendy. Stryper, a hair band of heavy metal stripe, threw Bibles into the crowd at concerts.
They later disbanded because of their concern with hypocrisy, something a true rock-n-roller would never feel compelled to do. Meanwhile, mainstream Christian Rock rendered itself into treacle that would easily wash off with a shower of pure intentions.
Rock addresses head-on those gritty, messy, and even dangerous elements of human life — our emotions. After some 4000-plus years of organized religion we still have difficulty addressing or accounting for their insatiable pull on us. Staring out over the lecture theater and toting up the number of ipods present, I would have to guess that music still meets a need that religion might have missed.
A few years back, in a wave of nostalgia, I went to see Larry Norman in concert. I’d grown beyond any real enjoyment in the genre, but here was a true innovator, one whose name very few Christian Rock aficionados even recognized. The concert was held at a Christian college where there were maybe forty folding chairs arrayed in a depressingly small space in the gym. Norman could still rock, his acoustic guitar and spare band providing all the support he needed. I even had the chance to chat with him after the show; no security guards need apply. As I later reflected, perhaps this is what my life would have been like if I’d had some ability and taken to the stage instead of rocking the glamorous adjunct professor gig. While having my eardrums taken through their paces at an Alice Cooper concert last fall along with a bunch of other fat, balding, wannabe rebels I experienced a kind of secular epiphany. Alice had converted to Christianity some years back — seen chumming with none other than Pat Boone himself — and his music at the time suffered. Now that he’s returned to his macabre fantasy world, his ability to churn out compelling music has returned. Outside, away from the cannabis fumes and liquor-enhanced air, although I didn’t personally participate in their consumption, for a moment it felt like I’d lived my rebellious dream.