Christian Punk Meets American Pop; Evangelicals in the ’Burbs

Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture, By Eileen Luhr (University of California Press, 2009).

Mainstream evangelicalism is fairly well-known, thanks to the cultural warfare and legislative efforts of the religious right over the past several decades. What remains overlooked by the popular press is how Christian subculture has often intersected with secular culture—sometimes blurring the lines between the two.

In her first book, Eileen Luhr, Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach, traces the rise of politicized, evangelical youth culture over the past forty years. Investigating the complex relationships between popular culture, suburban piety, and youth alienation, she shows how Christian youth culture has been commodified and sold to secular audiences.

Drawing parallels between topics as divergent as homeowner rights and school prayer, Luhr explores the “suburbanization” of evangelicalism and the “Christianization” of popular culture. From Christian fanzines to religious summer music festivals, her work focuses on key components of religious secularization, including religious heavy metal and punk music. Religion Dispatches recently caught up with Luhr to discuss the book and its implications.

In Witnessing Suburbia, you briefly explain the roots of your academic interest in the convergence of popular culture, music, and evangelism. Can you say more about how you came to write the book?

My interest in Christian conservatism began when I was home from college and watching the 1992 Republican National Convention. The convention took place at a bad time for Republicans—the Cold War had ended and George H.W. Bush had raised taxes despite a pledge not to. As a result, he didn’t have much to run on other than the concept of “family values,” which the Republicans invoked following the riots in Los Angeles (this was when Dan Quayle condemned the TV character “Murphy Brown” for having a child out of wedlock in a speech to the Commonwealth Club).

In Houston, Pat Buchanan gave a primetime speech in which he declared a “cultural war” for the “soul of America.” I was appalled by the speech, but I had siblings who thought it was great. So my initial interest in the topic was that “family values” could provoke vastly different reactions—I found it exclusive, but others found it inclusive. A few years later, I went to graduate school to write about the culture of “family values,” and I found that not much had been written about the music and popular culture of Christians.

Do you have a personal connection to the movements you describe in the book?

I do not have a personal connection to evangelical Christianity. I don’t think I met a born-again Christian until college. Still, I’m familiar with religious subcultures. I grew up as the youngest child in a large Catholic family in Buffalo, New York, and attended parochial and private Catholic schools for K-12. But the Catholic culture in Buffalo is centered on institutions and religious orders—there are high schools and colleges, hospitals, and parishes that have educated or cared for generations of white ethnic Catholics—it’s a city where people still designate whether a family is “Irish,” “German,” “Italian,” or “Polish.” I was the next generation who attended those schools.

Have you attended Christian heavy metal shows or Christian music festivals? Was your impression that religious bands were in fact bridging the divide between secular and Christian cultures?

I attended my first Christian music festival, the Harvest Crusade in Anaheim, in 1998. I was already in graduate school and knew I’d end up writing about Christian conservatives. I attended with three friends (no one was a Christian), and we were outsiders at the concert. There was a capacity crowd, and I remember the crowd standing up and singing along to the opening act. Since none of us was a Christian rock fan, we stuck out because we didn’t know the words and remained in our seats. Here’s another detail that struck me as being really strange: after the bands finished playing, there was a sermon (I remember it was about Princess Diana, which was odd because she had died a year before). During the sermon, the crowd was quiet and attentive—except for the girl in our section who was returning to her seat with a big plate of nachos.

It’s interesting that you ask whether “religious bands were in fact bridging the divide.” In this instance, I think it’s more important that they perceived themselves to be bridging the divide. As I write in the book, the event was really about sacralizing public space. Metal and punk shows had a different dynamic, since audience members were often not Christians and rejection could be interpreted as sign of authenticity. I’ve never attended a Christian metal or punk show, although I saw Danielson Famile, who could be described as Christian indie rock, at a music festival.

You talk a lot about the authority Christians have given to rock musicians, and how in turn, they wish to co-opt or reclaim that power for their own spiritual message. Didn’t Christians, at least in part, bestow that authority on musicians when they began treating their work as a symbol of larger secular culture?

Conservatives are true believers when it comes to idea that culture has power—that is, that culture induces individuals to behave in a particular way. I start the book by talking about the “moral panic” among conservatives when Elvis became famous in the mid-1950s. Their fear and condemnations helped make Elvis more interesting.

This tendency goes back farther than Elvis, too. In the 19th century, Protestant ministers—as well as moralists like Anthony Comstock—worried that believers’ choices in reading material might tempt them into moral failure. There was a real power struggle between ministers and believers over what type of material was appropriate to read. The struggle extended to music, too. When people write about Christians and music, they commonly cite the saying “Why should the devil have all the good music,” which was also a Larry Norman song released in 1972. The actual saying, however, dates to a Methodist clergyman in England named Rowland Hill. So the concerns about the power of culture go back farther than the past forty years.

Why do you think heavy metal and rock music became such a focal point for ways that Christians could break into secular culture? Aren’t other types of secular media just as influential?

Music wasn’t the only way that evangelical Christians tried to break into secular culture. Billy Graham established World Wide Pictures because he thought films would be useful for evangelism, and there’s a recent book entitled Writing the Rapture that examines prophecy in fiction. Organizations like Fellowship of Christian Athletes are active in high schools all over the U.S., too.

I decided to write about music because evangelicals focus so much on converting young people, and, as I mentioned earlier, Christians have often had an adversarial relationship to popular music. The desire to make music into a focal point for breaking into secular culture was generational. The effort to fuse rock music and Christianity began with the Jesus People in the late 1960s, and it flourished in Sunbelt megachurches that were more inclined to experiment with culture in order to draw new members. I ultimately decided to write about music at the margins rather than the material that was might be played during Sunday worship services.

There are some historical parallels here to African American churches during the Great Migration—rural migrants wanted to bring their music into their new churches. Mainline Baptist and Methodist churches refused and lost potential members to storefront Pentecostal churches. Finally, the Reverend Thomas Dorsey invented gospel music, which blended (explicitly) religious themes with the blues. A generation later, people like Sam Cooke, the son of a minister and a member of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, brought the musical sounds of the black church into the so-called “secular” marketplace.

In your writing, you show a lot of respect for youth. As the youngest of thirteen children, how is your personal history reflected in your attitude toward the power and authority youth can have in cultural debates?

I don’t think it’s anything from my personal history that explains why I have respect for young people. I didn’t identify as being part of a youth culture, and I think I listened to whatever music my older siblings liked. This might be a little boring, but in graduate school, I liked the literature about British youth subcultures written by Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall. At the same time, I found that a lot of historians—many of whom were baby boomers—wrote very nostalgically about the 1960s, as if youth culture could only serve progressive ends. I wanted to see if youth culture could be deployed by the other side of the political debate.

You mention the debate among Christians about whether heavy metal and rock music are symptoms of youth alienation or ways that youth escape from difficult realities that will ultimately lead to their demise. Which do you personally believe to be more likely?

I’d say that heavy metal and rock music are both symptoms of perceived youth alienation and an escape from difficult realities. I don’t really think that music is a gateway to demise, so I find it interesting that so many Christians think music can serve as a gateway to salvation. Then again, I have known people who say that a particular band changed their political consciousness.

In our previous correspondence, you mentioned that reaction to the book has been mixed, mostly split between now-reformed Christians and active believers. Can you talk a little bit about how people in these specific groups have received your work?

Since the book is relatively new, the reactions I have are mostly anecdotal. The chapter about the metal bands has been around longer, and I’ve met several people who say the material accurately describes their adolescence. A lot of people have what I would describe as a rueful nostalgia for their days in youth groups. If I were still revising the book, I might write a chapter that follows what you refer to as “reformed” Christians. Some attitudes are becoming more liberal, and while the book lays out the possibility of this trend, it doesn’t follow it to any conclusion.

My experience with active believers has been more limited. I’ve taught a lot of Christian students who believe that I must be a born-again Christian (I’m not) because I take religion seriously, and they don’t always expect that.

What was your favorite part of your research?

My favorite research was for the chapter about Christian metal bands. I was never a fan of “mainstream” metal music, so I felt that I could treat both Christian and “secular” bands fairly. Still, I found the claims and the stunts to be pretty outrageous.

Christian bands had some really strange ideas and some interesting justifications for wearing makeup and having long hair. I had a database of hundreds of Christian metal bands, and I poured through all kinds of fan magazines to follow them. My favorite anecdote is the one about an obscure band from Texas called Stryken. They attended a Motley Crue concert wearing futuristic suits of armor. They somehow managed to get a 14’ x 8’ wooden cross into the arena (who knows what people bring to these shows?) and took it to the area in front of the stage. They were eventually kicked out of the concert for proselytizing.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered?

In researching chapter two, which looks at Christian youth subcultures, I found a really interesting punk zine called “Thieves and Prostitutes” that had intricate artwork (I believe one of the editors is now a tattoo artist) and articles that tried to claim Jesus as the original punk. A student in Florida was suspended from school for distributing the zine, in part because the principal misunderstood what the art signified—he was afraid it was blasphemous. The 700 Club featured the suspended student because they felt his religious rights were violated by the school. This was one of the moments where political and cultural activism intersected.

You remain quite objective throughout your writing. Do you ultimately feel that Christian metal and rock bands—like other forms of “alternative” Christian media—have successfully infiltrated secular culture?

I don’t know that “infiltrate” is the right word. I’ve re-framed the way we look at Christian bands so that Christians are part of the broader cultural conversation. When Christian punk bands and fans claimed to be the real punks because they were “outsiders,” the themes were in alignment with the overall sentiment of punk culture—even if secular punks didn’t like it. I think the result is that there’s less distance between evangelical culture and mainstream culture.