In the spring of 1998, in a Seinfeld episode called “The Burning,” Elaine, sitting with Jerry and George at the diner, tells them she had just borrowed her on-again, off-again boyfriend Puddy’s car and found all the radio presets programmed to Christian rock stations. “I like Christian rock,” George announces. “It’s very positive. It’s not like those real musicians, who think they’re so cool and hip.”
Jerry reminds Elaine that Puddy drives a used car and might never have changed the presets.
“Yes,” Elaine says. “He is lazy.”
Alternatively, Jerry adds, Puddy may not know how to reprogram the radio.
“Yes,” Elaine says. “He is dumb.”
“So,” Jerry asks, “you prefer dumb and lazy to religious?”
Elaine, beaming, answers, “Dumb and lazy, I understand.”
While most things in the world of Seinfeld bear only hazy resemblance to life as we know it today, the show’s attitude toward Christian rock seems to endure. The bulk of mainstream music writers and critics betray their discomfort with Christian rock by ignoring it. I suspect that, like Elaine, most music journalists think of Christianity and rock as incompatible, the former less acceptable than dumbness and laziness, the latter, however musically dumb and lazy, still perceived as cool.
In truth, though, rock music owes much of its claim to coolness to the Christian faith. Rock and Christianity have had a deep and complicated relationship since the earliest days of early rock ’n’ roll, as Randall J. Stephens, a professor of history and American studies at Northumbria University in Great Britain, explores in The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ’n’ Roll. Indeed, Christianity—particularly, the fiery, wildly emotional, speaking-in-tongues strains of Pentecostalism and the “holiness” church long entrenched in the rural South—helped create rock ’n’ roll.
As other historians have discussed and Stephens notes, the sacred and the profane had entwined roots in the blues and black gospel music that predated the commercial mutation of blues that came to be known as rock ’n’ roll. Thomas Dorsey, an African American composer esteemed as one of the seminal pioneers of gospel, gave us the Sunday-morning classics “Peace in the Valley” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (beloved by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.). Dorsey also, under the stage names Barrelhouse Tom, Georgia Tom, and Texas Tommy, wrote or cowrote gems of Saturday-night blues, such as “It’s All Worn Out” and “It’s Tight Like That,” in the early decades of the 20th century.
To members of holiness and Pentecostal churches, opulent emotionality, physical abandon, and release were taken as evidence of the Holy Spirit at work.
“It’s Tight Like That,” released on a 78 rpm single by the bluesman Tampa Red in 1928, is said to have sold some 7 million copies at a time when “race records” created by and for African Americans were severely hobbled by racist marketing and distribution practices and had practically no airplay. Working under different names in distinct musical idioms, Dorsey reinforced the wall between religious and nonreligious music in public, while exploiting its permeability by slipping from one side to the other on the sly.
About 25 years later, African American musicians of the mid-century such as Ray Charles explicitly brought sacred and secular music together by turning gospel songs into R&B numbers. Charles changed a word here and there, pushed the beat, and shifted the emotionality from reverential adoration to unfettered sensual euphoria. Charles took “Talkin’ ’Bout Jesus” and produced “Talkin’ ’Bout You”; he used “This Little Light of Mine” to make “This Little Girl of Mine”; and he adapted “It Must Be Jesus” into “I’ve Got a Woman” (working with cowriter Renald Richard). Charles took a jackhammer to the wall dividing the two worlds Thomas Dorsey had navigated by adopting dual identities. Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Mavis Staples, and other African American artists followed Charles’s suit, calling the music that linked spirit and body soul.
The most important early rock ’n’ roll stars were similarly engaged in adapting or transferring the robustly ardent aesthetics of Southern Christian churches to their conceptions of music, emotional expression, and just about everything else in life and after death. “In the American South, a region that consistently ranked as the most conventionally religious section of the country, musical influences crossed back and forth over the thresholds of church doors,” Stephens writes. “The culture of southern pentecostalism helped give birth to the new genre of rock ’n’ roll.”
As Stephens points out, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, James Brown, Johnny Cash, B. B. King, and Jerry Lee Lewis (cousin of Jimmy Swaggart, the now-defrocked televangelist) all grew up under the influence of Pentecostal or holiness churches. In those settings, religious experience for congregants of all colors was defined by its deep emotionality, submission to otherworldly forces, and all-consuming, overwhelming physicality. It shakes your nerves, and it rattles your brain. It breaks your will, but ooh, what a thrill. Goodness gracious, great balls of hellfire!
Johnny Cash, in adulthood, held dear his childhood memories of the holiness experience. “[The] writhing on the floor, the moaning, the trembling, and the jerks,” Cash recalled, as Stephens quotes him. “My knuckles would be white as I held onto the seat in front of me.” Elvis Presley, asked to explain his performance style when it was seen as scandalously licentious, said, in an interview Stephen cites, “I just sing like they do back home. … When I was younger, I always liked spiritual quartets and they sing like that.” Elaborating in another early interview Stephens quotes, Presley recalled, “We used to go to these religious singins all the time. There were these singers, perfectly fine singers, but nobody responded to ’em. Then there were these other singers—the leader wuz a preacher—and they cut up all over the place, jumpin’ on the piano, movin’ every which way. The audience liked ’em. I guess I learned from them singers.”
To members of holiness and Pentecostal churches, opulent emotionality, physical abandon, and release were taken as evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, proof of the transcendent power of their faith to move them, literally, through the body to the soul. “A lot of folks talk about getting too emotional,” notes a holiness congregant Stephens quotes. “I wouldn’t give two cents for a religion that wouldn’t make me move. My God is a living God.”
Because this God is thought to reserve the display of unleashed emotion and free body movement to the domain of the Holy Spirit, the Pentecostal fire in the performances of the first generation of rockers was taken by church leaders to be blasphemy, rather than homage. Homer A. Tomlinson, a prominent figure in the Church of Gody, a Pentecostal denomination based near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, recognized how Presley had drawn directly from the ritual practices of his faith, and he derided him precisely for that. Presley’s style, Tomlinson said, was “just a vulgar adaptation of our dancing and rejoicing in the Spirit of God in our Church of God services.” A leading voice of the Pentecostal movement in the time of Presley’s rise, David Wilkerson, saw “the shaking, the prostration” at rock concerts as an “unholy baptism—as far even to speaking in vile tongues.”
Wilkerson, who is probably best known as the author of a “scared straight” inspirational book about the evils he witnessed as a holiness missionary in New York City, The Cross and the Switchblade, railed against rock in a Youth for Christ event in 1959. “Satan is now staging a rock and roll rally!” Wilkerson warned. “Satan has used rock and roll to imitate the work of God at Pentecost! Satan has come down to baptize with an unholy ghost and unholy fire.” In later years, Wilkerson founded the first megachurch in Manhattan, the Times Square Church, which found its home in the former Mark Hellinger Theater, a 1,500-seat showbiz palace that had once housed the first Broadway production of My Fair Lady.
the Pentecostal fire in the performances of the first generation of rockers was taken by church leaders to be blasphemy, rather than homage.
Distrust of rock ’n’ roll was widespread across Christian denominations in the music’s early years, and it was fueled by racism in white religious circles, particularly among fundamentalists entrenched in the South. Stephens quotes the 1950s tirade of an evangelical broadcaster: “This ‘rock and roll’ business” of “wild, savage dancing to jungle drums and blaring disharmonies have caused riots and bloodshed.” This was sheer fearmongering. It recognized that rock owed much to the historical African lineage of the blues, but for that very reason denied that rock could be aesthetically significant.
Over the course of the ’60s, rock and Christianity seemed to drift apart. The panic in the pulpits over the demon of popular music settled down, though it would never disappear. Rock entered its psychedelic phase. By the end of the decade, the hippie craze had inspired a countercultural sect of Christianity, the “Jesus movement,” in which the historical European iconography of Christ as a peace-loving figure in sandals, long hair, and a beard suddenly seeming strikingly contemporary. The theology was essentially Baptist, with a conception of Jesus as an activist personal savior; the youth-centered culture of the movement’s congregations was rock-friendly.
Jesus Christ Superstar represented a new, post-’60s convergence of Christianity and rock—one that even today remains cool. Created by the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and the lyricist Tim Rice, it appeared at first as a double-LP “concept album” (released in 1970 in the United Kingdom, then later in the United States) and was eventually adapted into a stage musical and a film. The American edition of the album was the number one record on the year-end Billboard chart, above Carole King’s giant hit Tapestry. The album’s mishmash of theological and musical ideas broadened its appeal, but also ensured that purists of all kinds would find Jesus Christ Superstar disappointing.
I saw the original Broadway production, staged in the Mark Hellinger Theater before Wilkerson made it a megachurch, on a high school trip. Being a garage band guitar player, I rejected it on the grounds that it was not true rock ’n’ roll—not raw and gnarly enough for a connoisseur of three chords. The school drama teacher, who organized the trip, criticized the play for its limited character development. My friend Brian, a “Jesus freak,” found it offensive for ending with the crucifixion and failing to include the resurrection that, for Christians, made Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. The New York Times critic, Clive Barnes, didn’t like it much, either, targeting its problematic hybrid conception.
Nothing Has Been Done Before
More than four decades later, Lloyd Webber arranged for Superstar to be revived in a concert version broadcast by NBC on Easter Sunday 2018. Staged in the repurposed old Marcy Avenue Armory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, performed before a live audience, and broadcast as it happened, the production was the grandest effort yet in the network’s ongoing initiative to revive the “must-watch TV” idea of the Seinfeld era for the on-demand age. In media terms, Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert was designed to enact its own kind of miraculous resurrection.
The NBC version was a considerable improvement over earlier incarnations of Jesus Christ Superstar. Staged as a lavishly theatrical concert, rather than a concert-influenced work of theater, the production had kinetic life. In fact, it had a little too much life at points, particularly in the first 20 minutes or so, which felt overly frenetic, desperate to prove that this was something really exciting and happening right now, not just a relic from nearly 50 years ago. Brandon Victor Dixon, who has played Aaron Burr in Hamilton on Broadway, dominated the show as Judas, deepening the role through internal complexities he implied with the nuances of his performance—deliberative restraint in the movement of his body, particularly his hands, and subtle, filmic acting with his eyes. Sara Bareilles, the pop star, made a sensuous Mary Magdalene, pawing Jesus and purring the song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
The weakest part of Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert was the superstar at its center. The opening credits read: “John Legend as ‘Jesus.’” The quotation marks were appropriate for a portrayal that felt weirdly, frustratingly detached. Legend, a genuine superstar but no actor, was never anything other (or more) than John Legend, dressed up in super-stylish robes. Legend came across, for sure, as a “real musician,” if not as a credible Jesus. Like Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert as a whole, Legend seemed to be trying too hard to show that Christianity and rock belong together.
Elvis and Little Richard made the point much better.