The contemporary evangelical church is, in a word, a rockin’ church. Walking into houses of worship today, we see the sanctuary replaced by a stage, stained-glass windows substituted by stage lighting, pews swapped with stadium seating, and the altar exchanged with a drum set. Contemporary Christian music and the contemporary church, in many respects, have become one.
It is therefore highly significant that a number of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) artists have recently come out in favor of gay marriage and LGBT equality. The most recent is Trey Pearson, the lead singer of the Christian rock band Everyday Sunday, who actually ‘came out’ as gay despite the fact that he was married with two kids. Pearson reported that he has received overwhelmingly positive support from his fans, including his wife, even though it meant divorce.
What’s going on here? From Ray Boltz, to Jars of Clay to Jennifer Knapp , why are so many Contemporary Christian artists endorsing secularized values and lifestyles?
In order to answer this, we have to explore the history of rock’n’roll a little bit.
Many people don’t realize that rock music actually came out of the Southern Pentecostal church in the early 1950s. The church served as the space for blending together the three main musical genres that syncretized into rock’n’roll: African rhythm (placing a primacy on drums), rhythm and blues instrumentation (namely the guitar), and gospel melodies and progressions.
The first rock’n’roll stars all came out of this Southern Pentecostal space: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis (the cousin of Jimmy Swaggart), and Little Richard. In fact his song Awopbopaloobop alopbamboom is a parody on the Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues.
Now there are two important points here. First, all of these original artists recognized that the burgeoning rock industry turned its back on its Christian roots. And it did so primarily through the secularization of the lyrics; loving Jesus is in effect replaced by a pretty woman.
Secondly, what doesn’t go away is what journalist Steve Turner calls rock’n’roll’s search for redemption: we need to break somehow from this fallen world. However, because of the secularizing tendencies, this fallen world is redefined as the social and cultural norms of the Fifties generation. God and Satan have nothing to do with it.
And one of the primary ways in which rock music rebelled against the Fifties was by challenging and subverting its gender norms. For example, what made Elvis so strange originally is that he sang like a man, indeed a gospel singer, but he moved on stage like a woman, gyrating his legs and swirling his hips. Of course, long hair shortly followed as the default rock fashion.
Thus, secularized rock’n’roll from its very beginning entailed transgender-like qualities. And with the advent of the Sixties era, it became a full blown call to cultural and sexual revolution in favor of a secularized vision of the sovereign individual. Rock began to celebrate a fully secularized vision of life that placed the self at the center of the universe.
It’s therefore not surprising that the wider church had originally serious problems with rock music. But this changed in the 1970s with the so-called Jesus Movement, which in effect re-adopted the musical forms of the counter-culture movements as a means of evangelism and worship.
By the 1980s, rock’n’roll came full circle back into the church, but this time it carried with it the secularizing tendencies of the sovereign self. In other words, rock’n’roll remained a powerful and profound call to redemption but with the self at the center of life. This is why so many of Contemporary Christian lyrics foreground the first-person pronoun of me, myself, and I.
Now the immediate response to this is: now wait a minute, the lyrics centering our minds on Jesus are able to make up for this. Well, as it turns out, no they don’t. And this is because Christianity as a whole has become radically privatized in our modern secular age, and thus what Jesus means to me personally is far more significant than what Jesus means to the historic church.
What we have to come to terms with is that CCM has an inherent ambiguity to it: on the one hand, it is a powerful medium for expressing redemption and worship; on the other hand, it has imported significant subjectivity and secularity into the contemporary church. And therefore we shouldn’t be surprised when our CCM stars begin to exemplify secular sensibilities such as identifying with LGBT values.
Does this mean we need to get rid of CCM? Not in the least. Instead, we need to recognize that we are called to transfigure the totality of secular life through the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And this means challenging the secularized privatization of our faith. We are not sovereign individuals; from the very moment of our conceptions, we are inescapably defined in terms of a relationship: we are either identified with the first Adam and therefore the old creation, or we are identified with the New Adam and therefore part of the New Creation, the return of Paradise in Christ. There is no such thing as privatized faith.
If we are faithful in calling the sovereign self to repentance, then I believe we will begin to see the dissipation of secular norms as a whole, and the redeeming of every aspect of modern life, most especially rock’n’roll.
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