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Response to Review of The Devil’s Music. How Christians inspired, condemned, and embraced rock ‘n’ roll

I would like to thank Peter Webster for his generous, thoughtful, and critical engagement with my book. It’s also wonderful that Reviews in History decided to feature it. Webster’s review has helped me think through some of the problems I faced in the research, planning, writing, and editing stages. In that process, I asked myself on quite a few occasions how I could best write a ‘braided narrative’, as David Hackett Fisher calls it, that would combine both some critical analysis and a strong story. I’m sure that in some sections of the book I didn’t quite manage that feat. I’m particularly grateful that Webster describes the project as ‘required reading for students of modern American cultural history’ and that ‘specialists in the religious history of other countries will also find much of value in it . . .’. Briefly, I will address some of his insightful criticisms.

The balance between analysis and narration can be a tricky one. As a historian, I think it’s true that I tend to be more interested in telling a story, or even taking the documentary approach, than in offering a sustained analysis, bolstered with the scaffolding of theory. Webster contends that the project could have used more of an ‘argumentative thread’ and had more of an ‘analytical framework’. Perhaps, in part, because the book was placed in Harvard University Press’s trade history category, I spent less time on analytical categories, historiographical debates, and methodologically driven arguments.

My aim as a historian was to, first and foremost, tell a story that helped make sense of the shifting patterns of modern American religion. I also wanted to explain how born-again Christians came to identify with the very form of pop music that they had once spent so much time denouncing. Characters like the evangelist Billy Graham, the promoter and radio personality Scott Ross, or the legendary pioneer of Christian rock, Larry Norman, were essential to that narrative.

To set this narrative, I had mostly drawn on history, cultural studies, and religious studies. Some of the more nitty-gritty historiographical interventions, definitions, and methodological issues I relegated to the extensive notes. The book would certainly be quite different had I been approaching the topic as a religious studies scholar, an ethno-musicologist, or a theologian. Other approaches like these would perhaps highlight different aspects and likely would have been attuned to things that were beyond my scope.

Webster believes I could have been more explicit in describing the style of the music I write about. I certainly intended to capture what the music and performance styles on pentecostal church platforms (pp. 32–6) or on rock ‘n’ roll stages (pp. 68–70) looked and sounded like. I also was eager to say something about what the music meant to fans and critics alike (pp. 39, 52, 68, 78, 100, 125). This was difficult to do without getting overly technical or getting out of my depth. I greatly admire books like Walter Everett’s The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul or Anthony Heilbut’s The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, but I could never write about music, composition, and style the way that they do.(1a) (I’m certainly no musicologist, and don’t know the tierce organ stop from phrasing in late-stage bebop.) Still, to take one more example, I hope I’ve captured something about the new, shocking music that Christian teens and 20-somethings started experimenting with in the late 1960s.

Webster also thinks that the book ‘never quite defines the differences between those who are “evangelical”, “fundamentalist” and merely “conservative”.’ I had hoped that this definitional work would come through clearly. At several points, I described how there were many reasons for conservatives, or general commentators in the media, to denounce rock ’n’ roll (pp. 12–13, 121, 150). Then, I detailed how religious critiques took a different form or tone. I also tried to make explicit what I meant when I talked about pentecostalism, fundamentalism, evangelicalism, or mainline Protestantism. Passages deal with these matters of definition on pp. 4–5, 24–5, 28, 81, 131, 188, 191-193, 194, 244, 247, 250, and elsewhere. In some of these sections, I was particularly concerned with explaining how pentecostalism, fundamentalism, and evangelicalism differed from each other. Concerning fundamentalism, Webster writes that ‘cultural separatism seems insufficient as a definition of the term’. I hope I have made clear that conservative Christians, fundamentalists included, are defined by much more than just their separatism. I’ve taken some cues here from recent scholarship – by B. M. Pietsch, Timothy E. Gloege, Molly Worthen, William Romanowski, Daniel Williams, and others –in defining conservative Protestants through their political outlook (pp. 21, 26, 101, 106, 147-148, 155, 193–4, 225, 244), infighting and bickering (pp. 226–30), views about race (pp. 18, 24–5, 64, 81, 90, 99, 209), sense of persecution (pp. 134, 246), and relationship to consumer culture, the media, and capitalism (pp. 175, 184, 205, 247). Their theological subtleties only figured in for me when considered as part of a larger framework. (I’ve done a bit on religious and theological peculiarities, too. In sections on pentecostalism in chapters 1, 4, and 5, I’ve tried to tease out the religious and theological distinctives of tongues-speaking groups.) As I got further into the book, I realized that defining these groups primarily in terms of theology and belief – as perhaps David Bebbington has done – did not work so well.

As far as other defining aspects, maybe one of the most important is fear. Fundamentalists were more guarded, defensive, and perhaps more fearful than their evangelical cousins were. But, even evangelicals were an anxious and dyspeptic lot. Webster questions why I focus so much on the heightened sense of fear or anxiety of the characters in the book. He also questions some of my wording and emphasis. The radio and television transcripts of the devout, as well as the pages of evangelical, pentecostal, and fundamentalist periodicals – including Christianity Today, King’s Business, Moody Monthly, Christian Crusade, Christian Beacon, Sword of the Lord, and Pentecostal Evangel – positively brim with hyperbolic accounts of dangerous pop culture, warnings against liberal Christianity, strident critiques of ecumenism, and denunciations of communism. I did not find the same amped-up rhetoric and harsh moralizing tone in mainline Protestant or Catholic publications. (I also didn’t see the same level of fretfulness in the British evangelical and pentecostal publications I explored.) I have recently been writing about the importance of anti-communism for both fundamentalists and evangelicals. It seems that this kind of reactionary activity was a powerful force in the politicization of the faithful. Jason Bivins, Matthew Sutton, Kelly Baker, and, more recently, John Fea are right in emphasizing the critical role fear has played within conservative American Christian circles. I saw that over and over again in the sources. I found few voices of moderation. When I did, I tried to incorporate those, too.  

All that said, I enjoyed reading Webster’s perceptive and fair review. He’s brought up several points that other reviewers have not discussed. It’s been a pleasure to take part in this forum.

Notes

  1. Walter Everett, The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul (Oxford, 2001); Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (Montclair, NJ, 2002)Back to (1a)