A joyful noise: Contemporary Christian music
In 1966, The Beach Boys released "God Only Knows." The song became a hit, and a classic. More than 50 years later, the duo For King and Country used that old title for a new song (with some help from Dolly Parton):
Australian-born brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone, who comprise For King and Country, are two of the biggest stars in the world of contemporary Christian music.
"If you look at 'God Only Knows," I think we said 'God,' you know, 24 times or something," said Joel. "Let's just say that there is a God, and let's just say that He knows all about us, maybe even better than we know ourselves. The fact that God only knows all that stuff, that's a fascinating concept."
Christian rock is as old as rock 'n' roll itself. A gospel singer named Sister Rosetta Tharpe helped create rock 'n' roll.
"Sister Rosetta Tharpe" performs "Up Above My Head":
But a new documentary, "The Jesus Music," highlights how, in the late 1960s, a religious movement grew into a genre of its own … and an industry. First, there was a clash of cultures.
"Sunday Morning" contributor Kelefa Sanneh asked, "Did this all start with a bunch of Christian hippies?"
"It actually did!" said David Stowe, who teaches religious studies at Michigan State University. "You can trace it back to around 1969, 1970 in southern California. From there it slowly gathered, and now we have a huge genre of popular music."
The Jesus movement, as it was known, took hold in the national imagination with scenes of beach baptisms in the Pacific Ocean.
"Was music always an important part of it?" asked Sanneh.
"Right from the beginning," Stowe replied. "I think music was sort of the entering wedge for popular culture to come into the churches … the gateway drug, exactly!"
Amy Grant, who is Christian music royalty, told Sanneh, "I felt so energized and alive, because of this group I had found at this hippie church."
This time of year, Grant tours, performing Christmas music with fellow Christian pop mainstay Michael W. Smith.
Grant started making records in high school, inspired by Carole King, and by her Christian faith. "I always saw myself as somebody that used music to try to create an environment that made people feel welcomed, and seen," she said. "I never thought that was, like, my career. I really didn't. My senior year I thought, 'I gotta get a real job.'"
Sanneh asked, "How many records had you made by then?"
By the 1980s, she was redefining Christian pop, winning Grammys and selling millions of records.
"I had conversations early on with the record company, just saying, 'How flexible are we with this?'" Grant said. "He said, 'Jesus told a lot of stories … Just tell good stories.'"
In 1991, her song, "Baby, Baby," reached #1 on the pop chart. She'd gone mainstream. "That song threw me onto a world stage that I had never been on before," Grant said.
But not everyone was applauding. A 1997 Christianity Today article was headlined, "Where's the Gospel?"
Sanneh asked Stowe, "What's the reaction when all of a sudden Amy Grant is making big secular hits?"
"People are raising their eyebrows," he said. "They're beginning to wonder about her spiritual bona fides, that maybe she's been corrupted by secular success."
The Christian rock industry sometimes encourages bands like For King and Country to be explicit about their faith. "I think it's called 'JPMs' … your 'Jesus Per Minute,'" laughed Joel Smallbone. "We hadn't heard it. And we didn't really care to know anything about it. We just wanted to write the songs that felt real."
In concert, the brothers combine a slick, high-energy spectacle with earnest appeals. Luke asked the fans to help feed starving children; Joel implored them to stand up against human trafficking.
But in mainstream entertainment, Christian rock is sometimes treated as a joke. In a 2003 episode of the cartoon series "King of the Hill," called "Reborn to Be Wild," Hank Hill tells the leader of group of Christian punk rockers, "Can't you see, you're not making Christianity better; you're just making rock 'n' roll worse!"
"There is this rock 'n' roll mythology of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll," said Sanneh. "And the question is, how can you just have the third and leave out the first two?"
"Sex is certainly acceptable within certain bounds of marriage," Stowe replied. "A lotta coffee gets [you] drunk."
"Marriage, coffee, and rock 'n' roll doesn't have quite the same deal!" laughed Sanneh.
The Christian music industry remains a world of its own. But Amy Grant says she's grateful to be part of it.
"There are times, you know, even surrounded by my own people, that I'll go, 'Man, we got some weirdness happening here!'" she laughed. "But I love the family of faith. You know, do I agree with everybody? No. You know, we're all on a faith journey, whether we're singing about it, or not even admitting it to ourselves."
Both Smallbone brothers, Luke and Joel, want to be seen as family men, and men of faith. Luke said, "'Little Drummer Boy' has become such a thing for us that, if we don't play it, people are upset!"
This year, following their most recent album, "A Drummer Boy Christmas," they were named Artist of the Year at the Dove Awards – the Christian version of the Grammys.
Sanneh said, "There is this hunger for the kind of music and also the kind of message, right? A message of faith, and hope?"
Joel Smallbone said, "There's two ways to get to a place of hopefulness, right? One way is to sort of slap on a smile and think positive thoughts. The other way is to actually recognize the struggle, probably share it with someone that you care about, and have them help you out of the ditch. And to me, that's what music does."
For now, at least, Joel and Luke Smallbone say they're staying the course – and spreading the word.
"At the end of the day," said Luke, "there's two genres of music. There's good music, and there's bad music. And we try to be on the side of good music!"
Joel added, "That said, we certainly want to stay 1,000 miles away from biting the hand that feeds us. If I could speak to a hope, I hope the walls will start to crumble a little bit so that we can all recognize that we're not that different."
For more info:
- For King and Country
- Amy Grant
- Michael W. Smith
- David Stowe, Department of Religious Studies, Michigan State University
- "The Jesus Movie" (documentary), available on demand, Blu-Ray and Digital
Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: George Pozderec.
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