Evangelicals and Doomsday: Death By Christian Rock?

Gray Sabbath

“The power of rapture theology (the belief that Jesus will secretly return and sweep born again Christians into Heaven) remains strong for many [evangelicals]. And it often influences political decision or indecision.” — Shawn David Young

This week our featured book is Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, by Shawn David Young. In this, the final post of the week’s feature,

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Evangelicals and Doomsday: Death By Christian Rock?
By Shawn David Young

Doomsday is always upon us, or so we are told. Belief in the apocalypse informs the way many view time, and it often works against active politics. But this belief has grown diverse, complex. Left-leaning evangelicals such as Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, and Shane Claiborne continue to challenge evangelical policies. For Wallis, “Many American Christians are simply more loyal to a version of American nationalism than they are to the body of Christ.” With sarcasm, McLaren also notes the disconnect: “If the world is about to end…why care for the environment? Why worry about global climate change or peak oil? Who gives a rip for endangered species or sustainable economies or global poverty if God is planning to incinerate the whole planet soon anyway?” His questions tap the core of a belief that continues to affect social activism. “If God has predetermined that the world will get worse until it ends in a cosmic megaconflict between the forces of Light (epitomized most often in the United States) and the forces of Darkness (previously centered in communism, but now, that devil having been vanquished, in Islam), why waste energy on peacemaking, diplomacy, and interreligious dialogue?”

Positions held by McLaren, Wallis, and others on the left indicate a growing trend among evangelicals. Still, conservative Christianity remains a powerhouse. But even when Jesus People USA fully embraced conservative theology, their social activism was unfettered, in spite of evangelicalism’s near-fanatical dedication to the writings of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. The power of rapture theology (the belief that Jesus will secretly return and sweep born again Christians into Heaven) remains strong for many. And it often influences political decision or indecision.

Evangelicals value Creation, but they remain divided over God’s timeline and their responsibility. Christian author Frank Schaeffer recalls how Richard Cizik, former vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, “had almost been forced out…when James Dobson [Focus on the Family] wrote to the NAE [National Association of Evangelicals] board demanding Cizik’s dismissal for saying that he thought global warming was real.” The moratorium placed on environmentalism has been cloaked (at least in the past) in a shroud of religious determinism, and the specter of doomsday continues to fuel economic theory. Doomsday has been made readily available to be gobbled up by consumers who hope to catch a glimpse of the wizard…or at least decode his message.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s there was a growing fascination with the apocalypse. Barry McGuire’s classic “Eve of Destruction” (1965) gained notoriety within the context of radicals, revolutionaries, and those who were convinced the world was on the brink of either cosmic or physical annihilation. Along with Bob Dylan, McGuire’s conversion to Christianity gave credibility to the rising Jesus-freak revolution. As celebrities such as Johnny Cash and Eric Clapton converted, “revivalistic” Christianity emerged within the entertainment industry, launching a groundswell of activity. Peter, Paul, and Mary’s Paul Stookey preached Christianity on the Berkeley campus. In the 1980s Kerry Livgren ended his search, proclaiming faith in Jesus openly through his rock group Kansas. And Fleetwood Mac’s Jeremy Spencer joined the rigid and controversial commune the Children of God, a notable doomsday group.

Secular rock music has not escaped our collective fascination with Heaven and the apocalyptic. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, rock stars explored religious themes, adding to the already enigmatic culture of Christian hippies. The Byrds’ version of “Jesus is Just Alright” (1969), Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky” (1969), Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” (1969), and Ocean’s “Put Your Hand in the Hand” (1970) all implied that some expressions of the Cultural Revolution were beginning to change focus—to a point. A paradigm shift occurred as young people wove tales of doomsday. But the result was not simply the quieting of existential angst. Quite the contrary. Minstrels of the apocalypse emerged to enjoy cultural traction in the religious mainstream. After all, what sort of lyrics would you find more interesting? Stories of reflective social activism or tales of demons, dragons, and death? (To be fair, a number of songwriters have successfully combined the two.)

Early Jesus freaks were largely apolitical, but their fascination with the end of time (evidenced by their music) underscored the ways in which they engaged society. In Children of Doom, John W. Drakeford (1972: 36) refers to the phenomenon of this fledgling movement as a “strange shotgun marriage of conservative religion and a rebellious counterculture.” New converts expected the imminent return of Christ and the battle of Armageddon. And they viewed global events as predictors of things to come. McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” painted a cynical picture of a hypocritical, violent world contributing to its own demise. But the immediate concern over catastrophic events such as the Vietnam War faded as Jesus freaks turned their attention to the big picture. In the early 1970s evangelical rocker Larry Norman warned of the coming Rapture. David W. Stowe rightly notes that belief in the Rapture became a “central thread” in the music of baby boom evangelicals, touching the music of everyone from Jesus rockers Larry Norman and Keith Green to the enigmatic Bob Dylan. Norman’s classic “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” (1972)—part of the track to the film series that mirrored author Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth—highlighted evangelical urgency; it was the anthem of the Jesus Movement’s rapture theology throughout the 1970s, and it formed the seedbed for what would come to define evangelical pop music throughout the 1980s.

Christian rock emerged in the 1980s as an expression of Christian conservatism. Seated in Nashville, contemporary Christian music eventually became associated with political positions that were nationalistic, anti-abortion, pro-military and to some extent, anti-gay. In this sense, Reagan-era Christian rock operated in contrary to many of the cultural values established during the Cultural Revolution. Rock groups developed strategies, often depicting their “brand” as rhetorically combative: Stryken, Bloodgood, Guardian, Rage of Angels, Sacred Warrior, and Holy Soldier. Song lyrics portrayed a universe embattled with darkness and emphasized a world on the brink of nuclear, cultural, or spiritual holocaust. Christian rock warned of the impending close of history. Petra’s “Grave Robber” (1983) and “Not of This World” (1983), as well as Mylon Le Fevre’s “Crack the Sky” (1987) all portrayed a transitory world for born again Christians.

In Eileen Luhr’s analysis, evangelicals needed a way to rescue their kids from the world. Families believed they could co-opt converts to restore Christianity to the “dominant spaces of suburbia.” The elimination of school prayer and the legalization of abortion mobilized a new generation of culture-savvy evangelicals. Couched in the rhetoric of war, social issues were presented (through Christian rock) in a way that tapped youth rebellion, serving conservative organizations such as the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority. In fact, Christian rock and metal “products” were an integral part of the Christian Right’s cultural work, according to Luhr, which developed into a vast infrastructure designed to locate conservative voters.

Mainstream Christian rock presented Cold-War evangelical tension, with Petra contributing songs that portrayed either cultural embattlement or apocalypticism: “This Means War” (1987), “He Came, He Saw, He Conquered” (1987), ending the decade with “Armed and Dangerous” (1990). But metal brought with it the headiest representations of human anxiety. Stryper’s Soldiers Under Command (1985) capitalized on teen angst; listeners were part of God’s army.

Popular Christian music has often highlighted the human condition and the hope for a divinely orchestrated cataclysm. Yet the forces of pluralism have begun to redefine boundaries long cherished by evangelical musicians, allowing dialogue for conversations defined by mutual respect and understanding. A lot of great music came out of this movement. And it’s still populated by a number of talented musicians. Let’s hope the trend continues.

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