Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll: Part Three
This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith.
Welcome to week three of my series on Christianity and Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. We’ve explored the relationship between Christianity and sex, emphasizing the importance of the virtues of respect and equality over principals of purity culture. We’ve explored the relationship between Christianity and drugs, emphasizing the racial implications of the so-called “War on Drugs” alongside of the importance of greater reflection upon the impact of anything we consume.
Now, it’s time to tackle the third: Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Of course, in this day and age, there aren’t a lot of Christians who think Rock ‘n’ Roll is a sin. It’s instructive, perhaps, to remember the origins of this phrase, an article in a 1969 edition of LIFE magazine that listed sex, drugs, and rock as the “sacraments” of the counter-culture. So, some Christians in the 60s weren’t concerned about rock ‘n’ roll, per se, they were concerned about the moral implications of the content of rock ‘n’ roll.
This is clear because, as the historian Randall Stephens describes in his book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll, the origins of rock are found in Christianity. The first generation of rock ‘n’ roll artists all had shared backgrounds in Pentecostalism, where they experienced something different than traditional church music at the time. This includes Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, James Brown, and the great B.B. King.
The initial criticisms of Rock ‘n’ Roll were because Christians were upset about how artists like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin were taking sacred music like spirituals and turning those forms into secular music. Stephens points to one Pentecostal youth pastor who said that rock ‘n’ roll was “Satan’s Pentecost” and who also portrayed rock ‘n’ roll concerts “as a kind of inverted Pentecostal worship.”
As the genre developed, the criticisms of rock ‘n’ roll in white churches began to have racial undertones, being called “jungle music” or “savagery.”
When the Beatles came to America, Christians were concerned about their long hair and the hysteria they seemed to inspire in some young girls. Their hair was based on the styles of beatnik existentialists in Germany, and Christians were sure their music would corrupt the youth of today.
Now, it’s easy for us today to poke fingers at these fears and criticisms. There aren’t many Christians I know of who think the music of the Beatles is a danger to young people, but what’s interesting is that it did not stop there, of course.
When I was a kid, Christian leaders were warning about the Satanic influences of artists like KISS, Alice Cooper, and eventually, Marilyn Manson. What these fears missed was the performative aspect of the genre of “shock rock.” The artists sought to perform outlandish and shocking acts so as to push the edges, to get people to question their assumptions, and, of course, sometimes just for the attention Christian leaders were only too happy to give them.
Perhaps one of the best current examples of a musician pushing the boundaries (and freaking out some Christians at the same time) is Lil Nas X, the American rapper and singer-songwriter. When his country rap single “Old Town Road” achieved viral popularity and hit number one, he came out as gay—the only artist to come out while having a number one record.
His song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and the accompanying video has been claimed to be sacrilegious and devil worship by some. His video for the song is also uncomfortable, but that’s largely because of the discomfort many Christians have with male homosexuality… with male bodies. He released a modified pair of Nike’s that he called “Satan’s Shoes.” The shoes are black and red with a bronze pentagram, filled with "60cc and 1 drop of human blood."
What some Christians often miss about Lil Nas X, along with other musicians that have pushed the boundaries over the decades, is that they push the church to ask what is and is not actually OK, what is and is not actually sin.
Early rock ‘n’ roll confronted the sins of racism and war, pushing boundaries about hairstyle and language in ways that were important, in ways that helped several Christians begin to question what the church had told them about race, about the war in Vietnam, about people who look different than them.
Lil Nas X is doing the same thing today, his artistry is satirizing the demonization of LGBTQ people, asking Christians to question if they really think being gay is of the devil… something Lil Nas X was told by the church growing up.
In the end, Christianity shouldn’t be afraid of Rock ‘n’ Roll or modern forms of music that push the edges. Rather, we should be curious about the artistry and message, humble about our own hang-ups and pre-conceptions. And this priest, for one, thinks the artistry of musicians like Lil Nas X is fantastic for the way it forces some parts of the church to confront its own homophobia.
Rock on, Lil Nas X.
Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today.