Review of ‘The Devil’s Music’ by Randall J. Stephens
Randall J. Stephens. The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. 337 pp. Hbk. ISBN 9780674980846.
Last year saw the publication of two landmark books about Christians and rock music: Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock (New York: Convergent) and Randall J. Stephens’s The Devil’s Music. The works complement one another, with Thornbury focusing on Christian-rock pioneer Larry Norman and Stephens giving a general overview of American Christianity’s complicated relationship with rock. Stephens’s ambitious project, while not the first book to address the subject, is nevertheless a foundational early work in this area of study and will doubtlessly serve as a major source for future papers and histories. Fortunately, the book is more than solid enough to live up to this role, as I will endeavour to show in this review.
The introduction provides an overview, perhaps better called an overture, of the book. In a somewhat winding fashion, Stephens explores the basic themes and ideas he will detail in the body of the volume, starting with a 2014 interview with Jerry Lee Lewis and moving through such events and movements as the release of racy rock and roll records in the 1950s and the later emergence of the “Jesus people.” The flow of the chapter roughly traces the large-scale progression from Christians’ condemnation of rock music to an acceptance of it, culminating in an observation about the prominence of rock and pop music within today’s Christian world.
The first body chapter is entitled “Pentecostalism and Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950s.” Beginning by highlighting the influence of Pentecostal music on Elvis Presley, Stephens explains how Holiness and Pentecostal expressions of Christianity in the south of the United States influenced early rock music. After giving an accessible introduction to these religious traditions, including their liveliness and their soulful music, he explains that many stars of early rock music and related genres, people such as Jerry Lee Lewis and James Brown, were from the American south and were steeped in the rhythms and melodies of Holiness and Pentecostal churches. From here Stephens moves on to discuss the explosive reactions against early rock and roll from Christians, who found many reasons to detest and fear the new music. As in the rest of the book, the information here is abundant and specific; the reader is not simply told that people were unhappy but is shown through specific examples how people reacted negatively to rock. Stephens also offers memorable accounts of celebrities, including Elvis and Little Richard, who in various ways distanced themselves from the rock scene and pursued a life more in line with the accepted Protestant devotion of the day.
In the next chapter, “Race, Religion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Stephens gives a more complete account of the rise of rock music in 1950s America, focusing on Christians’ reactions and the complex relationship with racial issues of the day. As with the previous chapter, he gives many accounts of negative responses to records and dances, but here the focus is often on white critics’ prejudice and racism. Because of the close association between African-American culture and rock music, Stephens claims, many Americans disapproved of it and sometimes smeared it with labels like “jungle music” (e.g., p. 70). The chapter also addresses realities that contrast with these racist sentiments, explaining that the African-American population’s struggle for equality was strengthened by the popularity of black musicians and that some preachers, including Billy Graham, denounced racism. Some attention is also given to concerns about rock music’s negative influence on youth, concerns that were addressed by, among others, Graham and the evangelical parachurch organization Youth for Christ. Having said all this, Stephens concludes the chapter by observing that the hostility against rock largely subsided by the early 1960s, when the genre became less shocking and included artists like the Beach Boys.
Chapter 3, “The Beatles, Christianity, and the Conservative Backlash,” focuses on Beatlemania and other cultural trends that interacted with American Christianity during the 1960s. Stephens places the rise of the Beatles’ popularity in the States within the context of momentous changes in American society, such the banning of Bible reading in public schools and the Time magazine “God is dead” controversy. Against this backdrop of anxiety and confusion for evangelicals, Stephens presents the fame of the Beatles and the devotion—sometimes strikingly religious—offered to them by almost innumerable girls and young women. As with the previous two chapters, much of the material records the aggressive negative responses from Christian critics, who were concerned about the spiritual health of their youth and what they believed was the ongoing moral breakdown of their society. Particular attention is paid to John Lennon’s infamous “bigger than Jesus” comment and the ensuing outrage. At the close of the chapter Stephens offers a foreshadowing of later material in the book, noting that the Beatles’ popularity led some Christians to believe that they should work harder at captivating young people.
The book explains the outworking of this realization in chapter 4, “The Advent of Jesus Rock.” After introducing 1960s hippie culture and explaining the threat it posed to Christianity and political conservatism, Stephens delineates some Christian attempts to relate to and influence young people. He explains that many embraced a more hippie-style aesthetic and even took a more positive stance with regards to rock music. From here the chapter moves to an exploration of early Christian rock, starting with little-known pioneers such as the Crusaders and moving to more enduring artists like Larry Norman. The chapter also explores the Jesus People, with their hippie-influenced way of life, their mainly Pentecostal approach to faith, and their love for the developing Christian-rock genre. The various threads of the chapter come together impressively in an account, introduced at the beginning of the chapter and expanded on later, of Dallas Explo ‘72, a Christian-rock festival that, remarkably, drew an attendance half the size of Woodstock’s.
Chapter 5 is entitled “The Fundamentalist Reaction to Christian Rock.” Here Stephens continues to recount the story of Christian rock and relates it to an upturn in American Christianity’s cultural influence and, contrastingly, to strong reactions against it from fundamentalist circles. With respect to Christian influence, he describes, for example, the appearance of Bible-based musicals such as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. As the chapter title suggests, however, the focus rests mainly on the reactions of stanch fundamentalists against the emergent subgenre. Stephens recounts criticisms and objections from a large host of pastors and other religious figures, from Jimmy Swaggart to Jerry Falwell to Bob Jones III. Here, as elsewhere, Stephens is careful to show the substance and reasoning of these reactions and often includes direct quotations. The close of the chapter takes a different turn, recounting some remarkable victories for Christian rock. Stephens tells of, for instance, Jerry Falwell’s change of heart regarding Christian rock and the tremendous popularity of the Christian band DC Talk.
At the end of the book an epilogue looks to more recent events in the story of Christian rock. Stephens briefly examines Christian artists such as U2 and Jars of Clay and also introduces some of the ongoing issues with the genre, like the controversy over some musicians supporting or perhaps taking a soft stance on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. A major emphasis in this short part of the book is the acceptance of rock music within American Christianity, a reality that contrasts sharply with many twentieth-century realities and events delineated throughout the book. The final sentence of the book speaks of born-again Christians finding “innovative ways to worship, entertain themselves, and evangelize” (p. 250).
With this book Stephens has done a great service to researchers of rock-music, Christian, and American history. Most notable is the work’s staggering abundance of information, the fruit of extensive research and much hard labour. Much of the content is specific and detailed; Stephens is not content merely to tell the reader that, for instance, fundamentalists were unhappy with Elvis and his popularity. Instead, he offers concrete examples of people railing against the hip-swinging star. Since the book explores an area of study that has been not been thoroughly tilled and ploughed by historians, this kind of documentation is helpful and adds credibility. At points the content feels repetitive and the level of detail excessive, but even so, Stephens is to be commended for compiling a vast wealth of information.
While much of the content is focused on the facts and can be somewhat light on analysis and interpretation—a feature that some might take issue with—Stephens does an excellent job of relating rock music and Christian opinions of it to racial issues in the United States. It is especially interesting to learn about how racism fuelled many white people’s rejection of what was nefariously labelled “jungle music.” This important reality would be easy for some contemporary historians and readers to miss, so Stephens’s decision to address it explicitly is to be commended.
Stephens also deserves praise for representing people and events accurately and maintaining an appropriately objective tone. This book does not work with the crude caricatures that so often come into play in discussions of musicians and of conservative Christians. Of course, Stephens shows no sympathy for racism, but neither does he satirize Jerry Falwell, and he portrays hippie culture with calm insight instead of nostalgic fondness or conservative disdain. In this respect his work is exemplary.
Another admirable aspect of this book is its clear and engaging prose. Stephens employs a smooth journalistic style that fits well with his detail-oriented approach and increases the appeal of the book to a popular-level readership. After about a hundred pages this energetic kind of writing can be tiring for the reader, but not greatly so, and it is incisive enough to hold the interest of most serious readers. Certainly this prose is preferable to the dry, bloated writing of some history books. Again, the book is exemplary in this way.
As respectable and enjoyable as the book is, there are a few objections and issues I would like to raise. First, the book is not quite what it declares itself to be. It is not the story of Christianity and rock music. It the story of American Christianity and rock music, though it does refer to some events outside of the States. I realize that being upfront about the scope of this book could be detrimental to the marketing strategy. Adding a word or two to the title, for instance, would weigh it down. Still, it would have been good for the book to be clearer in this regard, and a suitable solution likely could have been found.
A second shortcoming of the book is the lack of attention paid to secular rock music of the 1970s. The body—that is, the main content of the book excluding the introduction and epilogue—discusses the mainstream rock music of the 50s and 60s and then, as it reaches the next decade, switches its focus to Christian rock, never to return again to the secular scene in any major way. Because of this decision Stephens misses out on an abundance of rich material, such as Black Sabbath’s alleged satanism and AC/DC’s provocative lyrics.
I have one final criticism of this book: its structure and flow can be confusing. The greatest instance of this is the introduction. Instead of giving a twisting and turning overture of the body content, this space could feature much more focused material that flows well into the first body chapter. Similar issues exist at the chapter level, with the narrative taking a winding approach rather than a more focused and roughly linear one. Revisions in this area would constitute a significant improvement to the work.
In conclusion, this book excellently recounts the history of the tumultuous relationship between American Christianity and rock music. Well researched and skillfully written, it promises to be a useful standard text on this subject and the inspiration for further historical study. There may be some room for improvement, but the book’s merits clearly outweigh all its shortcomings. Stephens deserves prolonged applause for this contribution.
Harvard University Press provided me with a free review copy of this book.