Microinterview with Eileen Luhr

Nick Poppy
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This issue features a “micro-interview” with Eileen Luhr, conducted by Nick Poppy. Luhr (a friend of the interviewer’s from college) is an Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach, and the author of the recent Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture (UC Press). In her book, Luhr studies the rise of Christian youth culture, particularly Christian rock, and how evangelical Christianity colonized (and was colonized by) secular culture. The book describes a moment and a movement that has had tremendous influence in American life, even as it resembles a bizarro version of a more recognizable pop culture.


THE BELIEVER: You’re a contemporary cultural historian. You’ve done years of research and have written a book on Christian rock (Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture). So… what is Christian rock? What are its defining qualities?

Eileen Luhr: Christian rock emerged in the late 1960s out of the Jesus Movement. Small churches sought to reintegrate hippies into American society, and they permitted the young people to bring their music into the church. During the 1970s, Christian rock grew to include record la- bels, magazines, pop festivals, and radio stations. During the 1980s, the genre grew beyond iconic pop acts like Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant to include “edgier” music such as Christian metal and Christian punk. Christian bands sought to induce a religious experience in their listeners, whether it was proselytizing to nonbelievers or intensifying an existing believer’s devotion. Thematically, the genre has tended to emphasize personal salvation and morality, often tinged with “outsider” identity. Conservatives worried that bands like U2, whose members were known to be religiously devout but who were not “Christian rock,” were akin to “gateway drugs” in the sense that parents and ministers worried that if kids were allowed to listen to these bands, they’d move on to more dangerous  secular stuff. More recently there have been some critics and bands who have refused to use “Christian” as an adjective because they felt the usage consigned bands to a subcultural audience of existing believers. But it’s be- come a huge industry—last year the Gospel Music Association reported  sales of over fifty-six million albums and digital tracks.


THE BELIEVER: What are the musical/cultural antecedents to Christian rock? Can you trace its development from an earlier point in time, or is it revolutionary and sui generis?

Eileen Luhr: Protestants, especially revivalists, have a tradition of incorporating contemporary musical forms into their worship practices. The most common quotation one sees in articles about Christian music is the saying “Why should the devil have all the good music?” which was also a Larry Norman song. The quotation dates to a nineteenth-century Methodist clergyman named Rowland Hill. Examples abound. African-American churches during the Great Migration provide the best antecedent to Christian rock. Mainline churches refused to allow migrants to bring their music into church, so migrants joined small Pentecostal churches instead. Finally, Thomas Dorsey, who played in Ma Rainey’s band, blended religious themes and the blues to create gospel blues. Eventually, musicians like Sam Cooke, the son of a minister and veteran of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, brought the sound of the black church into the “secular” marketplace. When it comes to the “usable past” for Christian rock, the origin story that I find interesting is white evangelicals’ claims on Elvis, who grew up in an Assemblies of God church. Elvis’s backup group, the Jordanaires, was a gospel quartet; he sang a Thomas Dorsey song, “Peace in the Valley,” on The Ed Sullivan Show; and when Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins recorded the impromptu Million Dollar Quartet sessions, they sang traditional gospel songs because they were all familiar with the music from their upbringing.


THE BELIEVER: Is there some inherent simpatico between evangelical Christianity and pop music that makes Christian rock an effective tool? Are there other faiths and religious groups that have used popular music to fish for men?

Eileen Luhr: There are a few factors at work here. Evangelical Christians believe in the Great Commission, which demands that they proselytize among nonbelievers to induce a personal conversion. Also, since there’s no established church in the United States (the First Amendment essentially de-regulated religion), revivalists have needed to innovate in order to “win” converts. Music has been one of those innovations. On the other hand, faiths such Catholicism and Islam have tended to focus on institution building as a means for seeking converts. This is not to say that there isn’t Catholic or Islamic youth culture; there’s quite a bit of syncretism, although some of it is better than others. When Pope Benedict XVI visited New York City in 2008, the archdiocese sponsored a skateboard design competition. I’m not sure it made the Pope seem cooler to preteens. There are Islamic heavy metal bands in the Middle East, and they’ve been written about as providing resistance to cultural restrictions. I’m surprised there aren’t more identifiably Mormon bands (Randy Bachman of Bachman-Turner Overdrive notwithstanding!), although the Osmonds released a prog-rock Mormon concept album, The Plan, in 1973.


THE BELIEVER: Secular metal and punk bands, especially in the ’80s, liked to foster a rebellious, dangerous reputation. Was the same thing true for Christian acts in those stylistic genres? What sort of misbehaving did Christian acts do?

Eileen Luhr: Christian acts tried to redefine what “misbehaving” meant. They believed that they lived a “post-Christian world” where few lived by God’s law. In this environment, true “rebellion” was resistance to sin and obedience to parental, church, and divine authority. My favorite examples of this kind of “misbehavior” come from an obscure band from Texas called Stryken. In 1987, the band attended a Mötley Crüe concert wearing futuristic suits of armor (the idea for the armor came from a biblical verse). Band members somehow managed to get a 14’ x 8’ wooden cross into the arena and took it to the area in front of the stage. They were eventually kicked out of the concert for proselytizing. The entire episode seemed like an effort to recreate either Daniel in the lion’s den or a situation from the Acts of the Apostles in which early Christians faced persecution for their faith. Other metal bands pulled similar “antics” at secular nightclubs by, for example, proselytizing instead of playing their sets. Punk bands also used audience rejection as a sign of their authentic punk status. One Bad Pig tried to reverse the meaning of “Anarchy in the UK” by writing a song called “Anarchy is Prison.” When nightclub fans swore at them, the band took the rejection as a sign of their status as true rebels. They titled their first release, which was rejected by a major record label, “A Christian Banned.”


THE BELIEVER: The Christian rock movement infused evangelical and religious content into pop music. Does/did that mechanism ever work in reverse, where some aspect of pop culture worked its way back into the religious message? Does it, or did it ever backfire?

Eileen Luhr: Conservatives debated whether popular culture could ever be Christianized in a way that fully erased the “negative” influence. When conservatives argued about effects of syncopated beats and backmasking, Christian bands responded that music was neutral and that the lyrics were the most important part of the music anyways. When conservatives criticized long hair, makeup, legwarmers, and tight leather costumes (one parents magazine had an article that asked “Is Leather ‘Of the Lord’?”), Christian bands argued that what really mattered was their intended message. The result of bands’ emphasis on “intentions” was that they spent a lot of time explaining to their audience exactly how their work should be interpreted. An example: in 1986, the Christian heavy metal band Stryper released “To Hell With the Devil” on Enigma. In the cover image, culled from the Revelations 20:10 description of the “lake of fire,” band members were portrayed as long-haired, musclebound, and loin-clothing wearing angels who were escorting a guitar wielding metal-head devil (his left foot was a cloven hoof and his right foot was a motorcycle boot). The message seems self explanatory, but prepositions are tricky things. The band had to place a sticker on the cover explaining the illustration: the meaning was not that the members of Stryper are going to hell with the devil but rather “The devil belongs in hell, not in your heart.”

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