Chapter 26: Common Ground — New Controversy

While praise music and contemporary music often found a common meeting ground by the eighties, there were even encouraging signs that southern-gospel advocates and musicians and contemporary supporters were becoming more tolerant of each other and mutually less antagonistic. One of the groups to pioneer the crossing of southern gospel into contemporary and vice versa was the Imperials.

   As early as 1976, the seemingly ever-popular male quartet began contemporizing their music, while they maintained vestiges of their southern-gospel heritage. Producers Chris Christian, Michael Omartian, and Bill Schnee helped carry the Imperials into high standing with contemporary music fans.

   Up to a certain point their music got progressively rockier, and the sales of their albums continued to be healthy. In 1984, however, in the year of their twentieth anniversary, they wisely recorded an album of modern-day standards in a middle-of-the-road vein. Classics rapidly became a hit and possibly reestablished their contact with the more conservative listeners, although not southern-gospel music.

   From the other direction, rock group Petra successfully crossed over from contemporary into southern gospel with their recording, ''The Coloring Song,'' which showed up on the contemporary, the inspirational, and the southern-gospel popularity charts, an unparalleled feat.

   Other artists and groups dabbled in fields ordinarily foreign to their expertise, and the audience didn't seem to mind at all. In fact, by 1984, there were many albums of music released which defied description due to their wide variety of music styles. Artists such as Petra and Shiela Walsh continued to put a softer cut or two on their otherwise rock albums, thus increasing the chance for airplay on the traditionally conservative medium. This caused a bit of confusion

Page 175

when listeners purchased a favorite song they had heard on the radio station, then found that the rest of the album contained other styles of music. On the other hand, it introduced music to people which they otherwise wouldn't have tolerated, and more than a few people found themselves liking the varied styles.

   There is no doubt that some of the tolerance for varying styles of gospel music and a new, peaceful coexistence between factions came as the result of the efforts of the Gospel Music Association. The GMA opened new categories within their annual Dove Awards, allowing the various facets of gospel music to be recognized and highlighted in their own right. Gospel music was no longer lumped into one category. Nor was it all southern gospel, as had been the original domain of the GMA. As gospel music grew, so did the number of categories.

   By 1983, however, questions surfaced regarding the hybridizing of gospel music. Many of the questions came from people whose own favorite styles of gospel music had been somewhat eclipsed by the rapid burgeoning of contemporary Christian music.

   ''Why do the Christian rockers look down on traditional and southern-gospel music?'' one leading publisher asked privately in a candid conversation in 1983. The query was an ironic reversal of questions asked by Jesus musicians in the early 1970s such as, ''Why is everyone ignoring or criticizing Jesus music?''

   Sitting next to the writers for a major southern gospel publication at that year's Dove Awards in Nashville, one would sense their chagrin over the increasing dominance of contemporary music evidenced by each consecutive award. A year later, the discontent grew in the form of a scathing editorial in that publication from a southern-gospel performer who lashed out at the GMA for supposedly neglecting his type of music. As more contemporary influence grew in the GMA, the debates continued.

   Meanwhile, onstage it was almost the sixties and seventies revisited, at least in a few cases. In one southern town the lead singer of one of the top southern-gospel groups in the nation stood before a large audience and ridiculed Christian rocker Mylon LeFevre for his long hair and his hard music, the same ridicule that had sent Mylon off onto a prodigal trip which took years to repair before he returned to the fold and to Christian music in the early eighties. Yet, only a few weeks after the critical remarks were derisively made in the downtown concert hall, Mylon appeared with his band, Broken Heart, in an Assembly of God church across town, with young people kneeling at the altar after the rock concert, yielding totally to Jesus Christ after hearing the message in Mylon's music.

Page 176

   While these flareups showed that some distrust and discontent existed among the various types of Christian music, the majority of the performers and workers were getting along fine. There was enough room for all types of music, they reasoned. They saw the caustic remarks and intolerant attitudes as an embarrassment for a field of music which should show the greatest unity of all.

   Much of rock music had always been experimental, explosive, and progressive, preaching a message and trying to win concerts. One of the great differences between secular and Christian rock was what the music preached, and the lifestyle it supported or represented. In secular music, hard-core rock often (though not always) promoted licentiousness, violence, anger, despair, and self-centeredness. There is hardly any dispute of that fact, even among the rock performers; the only question is perhaps how much is dominated by those philosophies and mindsets.

   Christian rock, on the other hand, though a musical relative by nature of style, preached a totally different message: moderation, peace, love, hope, and selflessness. If there was a true core of contemporary Christian music that was in the 1980s still ''Jesus music'' in the original, radical sense of the word, it was Christian rock. It was the experimental, cutting edge for gospel music, constantly looking for new styles, instrumentation, recording techniquesany new way to tell the old gospel story to a new audience. Of course, Christian rockers could do that job well or poorly, and they did both. Some hit the mark; others missed it by a mile.

   The line of demarcation between secular and Christian rock, two similar but really vastly different music fields, was virtually ignored by many antirockers who in their written and spoken tirades against the evils of rock lumped all rock musicsecular and Christiantogether in one ''evil'' category.

   Christians were even briefly implicated during the early eighties when a controversy developed over the use of backward masking, a technique which had actually been used in recording since around the midsixties. Backward masking involved the recordingin reverseof lyrics, music, or sound effects, usually with (or on top of) music recorded in the standard, frontward direction. The Beatles, Black Oak Arkansas, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and other giant rock acts employed small segments of backward masking in their recordings, often creating otherworldly sounds.

   What bothered Paul Crouch, Jr., and some other Christian observers was that in some cases the otherworldly messages apparently were in reality nether-worldly, satanic messages, being slipped into

Page 177

music and thus into young people's minds in reverse. Backwards or not, Crouch and others contented, the mind's subconscious can receive and interpret the satanic praises.

   Other Christians countered that the concern about backward masking, though sincere and well-meaning, was a general waste of time, because much secular rock frontwards was enough to worry about. Why search for satanic messages in reverse, they maintained, when rock performers such as Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Van Halen did their antichristian damage blatantly frontwards?

   During the controversy, even Christian rock musicians became suspect by the ultra-antagonists of rock. But Christian rock group Petra tried to allay the controversy (with their tongues in their cheeks) by inserting this phrase backwards in between two songs on their More Power to Ya album of 1983: ''What are you lookin' for the devil for, when you oughta be lookin' for the Lord?''

   To further confuse matters, by 1984 some of the backward-masked messages on secular rock albums had positive, even religious or quasireligious content. Prince, one of the eighties' most controversial rock performers, put in such a message on one of his albums.

   A California representative went so far as to recommend a bill which would require record companies to print a backward-masking warning, similar to cigarette health warnings, on each album containing backward masking. Several ambitious dissertations and books were written on the subject, but by 1984 things had calmed down a bit.

   The backward-masking affair in the eighties did bring focus back on the true dangers of secular rock and roll, however. Rock had become increasingly and more blatantly blasphemous and contrary to Christian ethics, much as movies had done. The lyrics, the performances, and the lifestyle of many rock performers lived up to the charges leveled at them by many of the antirock evangelists. For many Christians, it further pointed to the desperate need for alternative Christian rock music for young people in the body of Christ.

   Although by the eighties contemporary Christian music had support of an increasing number of pastors and evangelists, such as Bob Larson, there were other speakers and writers who still maintained staunchly that all rock, Christian or otherwise, was of the devil.

   During the late seventies, evangelist John Todd spread vitriolic venom against Jesus music, directing his most vicious attacks at Pastor Chuck Smith and the music ministries out of Calvary Chapel

Page 178

in Costa Mesa. Todd's impact, however, was lessened greatly when his ministry was proven to have serious, fraudulent credibility gaps.

   Anticontemporary-music writer David Noebel continued to write and rewrite prolifically on the subject of rock music. ''Christian rock is a compromise with the world,'' he accused in a 1980 personal interview. ''They (the Christian rock musicians) are preparing the next generation to accept rock and roll when they think they're leading them to Christ.'' Noebel went further and said that the use of the term ''contemporary'' to describe the new Christian music was a case of ''hiding under the term contemporary because they're somewhat fearful of (using the term) rock and roll.''

   Noebel authored an antirock (Christian and secular) book entitled The Legacy of John Lennon, an extension of his earlier, self-published diatribes against rock. In it he said, ''We don't need more rock musicpagan or Christian.''

   On a more moderate level, national seminar instructor Bill Gothard continued to somewhat passively raise doubts as to the validity of contemporary Christian music, citing an instance he had heard about when someone from Africa testified that the contemporary Christian music was virtually the same as the music which the natives used to call up evil spirits. This recounting left a trail of questions after his seminar left whatever town he was in, sometimes reigniting dormant arguments about Christian rock in homes.

   Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart created the most controversy there had been in a long time over the subject in 1980. In his The Evangelist magazine, he categorically denounced all contemporary music as sinful. (Ironically he himself had used instruments and arrangements on his own recordings which would have been considered heretical only a few years earlier.)

   Swaggart's published views were quickly followed by those of Lowell Hart, a teacher of Praire Bible Institute in Three Hills, Alberta, Canada, who authored a 189-page tirade against just about every kind of music short of classical, hymns, and Sousa marches. Christian music was included in his criticisms. Part of the notes on the back of the book said: ''Like the hamburger-french fry diet of today (that has replaced the nutritious foods of Grandfather's day), frothy, candy-coated 'Christian' music is being substituted for the solid meat of Luther, Wesley, Watts, and Sankey.''

   In at least one area of the United StatesDenverthe main Christian book and record distributor refused to carry the first edition of Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? because of its tolerance and endorsement of contemporary Christian music. The bookseller instead opted to stock bookstores and even grocery store book racks with the Hart book.

Page 179

   In 1982 evangelist David Wilkerson, who admittedly had serious misgivings about any rock music, became the second major evangelist, following Bob Larson's lead, to change his tune on Christian rock. In a pamphlet he wrote and published entitled Confessions of a Rock Hater, Wilkerson shared how he had felt in the past.

   ''As I saw it,'' he said, ''(converted rock and rollers) should have forsaken everything from their pastrock music included. But I could not deny that most of them were sincere, deeply in love with Jesus, and God was blessing their efforts.

   ''In all sincerity,'' he added, ''I preached against what I thought was compromise. I condemned a music style that was born in rebellion and idolatry. Looking back, I wonder how many innocent young converts I hurtthose who were giving to Christ the only talent they had.

   ''In the past few years, my battle with rock ''n'' roll came to a head. . . . It began when one of my music associates started singing what I thought was rock in my crusades. I equated it with backsliding. A grieved young man had to part company with me, deeply hurt that I thought he had forsaken 'the old paths.' Some will think I have become too soft in my middle agebut we so desperately need to love one another and quit judging. I probably will never like 'Christian' rock and rollbut now it is not an issue with me. And I can truly say that I love all who differ with me.''

   In spite of Wilkerson's courageous adjustment, Swaggart remained one who differed and held the fort against contemporary Christian music. Once again in The Evangelist in 1984, he categorically threw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, saying that contemporary Christian music was ''incompatible with true biblical Christianity.'' He said it was ''designed to mimic as closely as possiblethe fetid music of the world.''

   Throughout the same year, the battle against rock continued in several forms, including yet another book, The god of Rock, written by Michael K. Haynes and subtitled ''A Christian Perspective of Rock Music.'' Jim Peters, one of the three Peters brothers who began nationally publicized antirock seminars in late 1979, released the fourth book to come out of that ministry on the subject.

   ''We became alarmed at the amount of time people were spending listening to secular music,'' Peters recalled of the early days of their ministry. ''At the most, kids were maybe in church four hours a week, but there was a survey which came out and said that teens were listening to about six hours of music a day. We figured it had to be having some kind of influence on them. Since we got started, God has allowed us to see literally tens of thousands of young people accept Jesus Christ and get set free from the bondages of secular

Page 180

music and other things that have really hindered their Christian growth.''

   While touring for the various seminars and multimedia presentations, Peters' Gentle Touch Ministries utilized a contemporary Christian music group called Gentle Touch. ''We've been in eight countries in the last two years,'' Peters explained in 1984, ''with God allowing us to preach the gospel through music, plus sharing what is really going on with the major secular artists in rock 'n' roll and country music, and what they have to say about morals or the Lord. We talk about four aspects of music: the lyrics, the lifestyles and the intentions of the musicians, and the album covers themselves. The Bible says we should expose the unfruitful works of darkness by the light of God's Word, and that's what we try to do.''

   Al Menconi, an evangelist based in Southern California, used the same verse as quoted by Peters, Ephesians 5:11, to open up his first issue of Media Update, in which he discussed the question: Is rock music really the devil's music? His Media Update covered not only music, but also other forms of media, such as movies and television, covering it all from a Christian perspective. As his newsletters progressed into the eighties, Menconi began putting extra emphasis on how to listen to, criticize, accept, use, and encourage the use of contemporary Christian music, mostly as an alternative to secular music. Rather than accept or reject it lock, stock, and barrel (as Swaggart had), Menconi attempted to approach the subject with consideration of both the pros and the cons, encouraging his readers to do the same.

   Thus, by the 1980s there were definitely two schools of thought among preachers and evangelists concerning contemporary Christian music. There were a growing number of ministers who had become its advocates, even though many opposed much of the current secular rock and pop music.

   At home, parents who were raised through the early Jesus-music years had survived that sort of musical environment, including Christian rock, and they in turn for the most part saw that there was no good reason why their children couldn't be raised in the same way. Indeed, for younger families the music often served as a common point of fellowship, especially in places where contemporary Christian radio or concerts existed.

   In fact, the parents were the first generation to have contemporary Christian ''oldies'' to reminisce around. In communities where contemporary Christian music was available on the radio or in concerts, people began growing up with the music, as an alternative to the normal secular pop music.

   And Christian rock didn't invade church services as some had

Page 181

feared in the earlier years. It found its place in home listening, in concerts, on car stereos. It was for the streets, for parks, for coffee-houses, for prison ministries.

   For awhile, though, Harvey Jett agreed with the antirock arguments. Formerly the lead guitarist with the infamous raunch rock group Black Oak Arkansas, a band which helped rock get its bad name, he had left them in June 1974 after accepting Jesus into his life.

   ''For three years after I become a Christian,'' he recalled ten years later, ''I was totally against rock music of any kind.'' As late as May 1977, in a private interview while at the Festival of Joy in Wichita, Kansas, he said, ''There's just something about it I don't like. When I hear it now, it brings me back into the same mood, the same feelings that I used to have. I have to battle with that spirit of bondage, that lost spirit.

   ''I believe that I saw exactly what rock is,'' he continued, ''right to the point of how it's being used of Satanthe actual beat and the chord harmonies and just the whole spirit of it itself, how it can affect the human body, mind, and spirit.'' At that time, Jett included Jesus rock in his admonition. ''It does the same thing to me that secular rock does. It's the music itself that has a spirit with it.''

   Jett then went into the same story (the voodoo beat being recognized by the missionary's children in contemporary Christian music) that Bill Gothard was telling at his seminars.

   Jett's denouncement of all rock, even Christian, ended only a few months after the above-mentioned interview. He was playing at a recreation center, where he had been invited to play his nonrock music for the ''messed-up'' kids. Some were on drugs.

   ''I told him if he'd get 'em to church, I'd play for 'em. He told me if he could get 'em to church, I wouldn't have to play for 'em!''

   There were three hundred young people at the center that night. After the first song, he recalls, they started getting up and leaving.

   ''I'm just standing there, thinking, 'God, what did I do?' and he spoke to me, saying, 'If you do it for my glory, and not to glorify yourself, I don't mind if you play your guitar.'

   ''I walked over and picked up a guitarit wasn't even mineand I plugged it into an amplifier and started playing. The kids started packing back in. I could see that all of a sudden the guitar was my bait. I was a fisher of souls, but until then I had been losing all the fish.''

   Jett would from that moment on perform rockChristian rockwith new resolve.

Chapter Twenty-seven  ||  Table of Contents