Review: No Sympathy for the Devil
David W. Stowe. No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. 291 pp. ISBN 978-0-8078-3458-9.
With No Sympathy for the Devil, David W. Stowe provides a new history of the formative years in Christian pop music. This is ground covered before by Jay Howard and John Streck’s Apostles of Rock (1999) and Eileen Luhr’s study of Christian youth culture in southern California, Witnessing Suburbia (2009). But Stowe adds to this scholarship by focusing on Christian pop music’s political output, a point of emphasis that requires—as he argues—“a more expansive definition of politics than is often assumed by people analyzing U.S. history” (4). Drawing from theoretical models that cast musical or artistic forms as “cultural politics” that flow “from both social affiliations and aesthetic ideologies,” Stowe concludes that the boomer and countercultural ethos of spiritual rebellion, self-discovery, and self-fulfillment—which Mark Oppenheimer’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door (2003) showed was pervasive in American religion during the 1960s—shaped the early Christian folk-rock-pop scene. By the late 1970s, Christian pop musicians and an ascendant Christian music industry had laid the cultural groundwork for evangelical musicians and listeners to bind with an ascendant conservative movement while ironically ending up “hermetically sealed in its own new niche, the parallel universe of Christian popular culture”(9).
Stowe begins conventionally enough, opening with the Californian “Jesus People” scene that Lisa McGirr and Darren Dochuk have also documented. (Unlike their archive-based works, Stowe mostly relies on secondary sources and interviews to reconstruct the Jesus People and their music, as he does with his other subjects in the book.) Focusing primarily on how music created a sense of community alongside and intertwined with congregational communities like Calvary Chapel, Stowe chronicles the early and later careers of musicians like Larry Norman, Randy Matthews, Keith Green, and Barry McGuire. Praise bands like Love Song and Children of the Day also appear as important vehicles for evangelical expression, as do Andraé Crouch and the Disciples, an African American soul group who Stowe contends were “the first to achieve crossover success outside a Christian music audience” (93).
Stowe convincingly describes how musical and theological porosity defined the Jesus People in the late 1960s and Christian pop by the mid-1970s. Borrowing theoretical insights from Thomas Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling (2006), Stowe details the spiritual interests and voyages of numerous artists generally considered by musical taxonomy as “outside” the boundaries of Christian pop. For instance, though not technically produced by evangelicals, Broadway hits like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar were vital for clearing the way for Christian musicians to believe they had an audience for their message and countercultural stylings. Top 40 artists like Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Marvin Gaye also represented a kind of Christian pop music, simultaneously dwelling in black and white spiritual traditions and crossing “back and forth between spaces understood to be properly religious and spaces thought to be profane or worldly” (141). The mid-career interest of Bob Dylan—himself “born again” in 1979—in demons and the apocalypse also bespoke of a popular theology roughly “consistent with the conservative Christian worldview reshaping American politics” (235). By framing his argument around such religious interchanges, Stowe maps out the multiple roads into and out of Christian pop music and expands the definition of “Christian pop,” showing it to be a distinct but dynamic musical genre more pervasive than previously thought.
In the book’s last chapters, Stowe moves into a consideration of Christian music’s influence in a political age defined by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Explo ‘72, Campus Crusade for Christ’s “Godstock” youth festival in 1972, showed the potential payoff to conservatives for appropriating rebellion and countercultural self-expressiveness for the sake of evangelical identity politics. And, by the mid-1970s, the “Religious Right was starting to beat the New Left at its own game, using methods developed by sixties activists” (214). Advanced by the rise of Christian music stations and corporate labels, the “Jesus Movement-spirituality affected the way many evangelicals defined themselves politically” (248), encouraging a union of individual self-interest to moral restorationism to Christian nationalism, especially among younger voters who began to tilt into the GOP camp in the late 1970s.
Stowe’s book is most persuasive when considering the contours of Christian pop and rock in the 1970s and 1980s, namely the various ways that Christian musicians understood themselves and their self-defined purpose in promoting revivalism and religious boundary crossing before and after 1976, famously called the “Year of the Evangelical.” He is less persuasive when trying to connect the “cultural front” that Christian music advanced with the political restructurings of the day, bordering on reductionism of the “rightward turn” or “rise of the Christian Right” in American politics to youthful verve for spiritually-inflected music. There is also an odd omission of certain hot button issues of the 1970s and 1980s—such as the controversies over sexual normativity—among the Christian musicians that Stowe studies. Stowe mentions Marsha Carter and Lonnie Frisbee, both Jesus People who later came out of the closet to cold-shoulder opposition from many of their contemporaries in the Christian music scene. But such curtailing of sexuality by Christian musicians and by the industry itself is not detailed further; rather, marquee Christian Right activists and high-level politicians, not Christian musicians, remain the primary agents in Stowe’s account—as they are in countless other accounts—for pushing a heterosexual agenda. Thus, sexuality and, to a lesser extent, race, appear not as analytic tools for understanding the boundaries that Christian musicians may or may not have wanted to maintain in modern America but as the lines crossed by the musicians. This sets up Stowe’s analysis of Christian music to overlook, rather than explicate, the cultivation of legitimizing and de-legitimizing power by culture-making institutions and individuals. It also limits his book’s ability to explain the tendency of Christian pop to dwell in its own sub-market of like-minded producers and consumers instead of crossing more often and more fully into the broader music market.
Still, Stowe has provided an intriguing, important, and readable book, ably showing both the sympathies that conservative Christians held toward the “devil” of rock ‘n roll and countercultural affectations. Though it might not have “transformed” evangelicalism into a cultural front or political force as thoroughly or as fundamentally as Stowe implies, Christian pop music has been suitably recaptured by the author as an important facet of the contemporary religious marketplace.