Thursday, June 14, 2018

Mark Joseph Talks About His Latest Book: Rock Gets Religion

His book, published in 2017, is titled Rock Gets Religion: The Battle for the Soul of the Devil's Music. It's actually Mark Joseph's third volume of anecdotes and insights related to the relationship between rock music and musicians of faith.

A speaker at one of the writers conferences I attended in the 1980's described how all the major New York publishing houses had a wing devoted to Christian publishing. With the upheavals of the Sixties, a "Jesus Movement" followed in its wake, along with a return to the kind of fundamentalism that the publishing houses didn't understand. The Charismatic movement was similarly a strange animal to these publishers who weren't sure how to produce books that connected with this surging demographic. They lost money on many new product intros and most washed their hands of it all as numerous new Christian publishing houses sprang up, along with Christian book stores. This same process must have been happening in the music scene as a new genre emerged called Christian Contemporary Music.

Mark Joseph's newest book is about Christian artists who have crossed back over from the CCM pasture into the all-encompassing mainstream. Many of these artists never identified with the CCM subculture. Others, like Amy Grant, were successful in the CCM world but moved into the mainstream and had some success there as well. Separatists can quote Bible verse to support their view: "Love not the world..." The other side of the coin is Jesus's admonition to be "in the world but not of it."

In reading about the life of St. Augustine I learned that his first brush with a Bible turned him off. He was given a very poor translation of the Scriptures and felt it could hardly be God's word if it were so badly written. He was a lover of Greek philosophers and the writings of Cicero were among the most beautiful words in literature. Ten years later he did indeed encounter a good translation of the sacred texts when his life was bottoming out. He became receptive.

Augustine, however, never stopped appreciating the writings of Greek scholars. When criticized for this, he pointed out how the Israelites when they left Egypt brought gold with them. Augustine justified this love of classic literature by declaring that the gold of Egypt was still gold.

When it comes to rock and rap and other genres, some of the issues become controversial. Is it a compromise of one's religion, or the fulfilling of urgent need to affirm faith in the midst of the culture as opposed to standing on a pillar in the desert, a la 4th Century pillar saints. Mark Joseph delves into all of it in this volume.

EN: What was your purpose in writing this book?

Mark Joseph: I like to tell stories, whether through films, music or books and this is a great story that I've been telling in different formats for a quarter of a century and for the most part it's one that has slipped under the radar of popular culture. It began with a piece I did for Billboard Magazine back in 1994. When I was just getting started I realized the parallels between what was happening in Christian rock and what was then called the Negro Baseball Leagues and how in both cases the story was more complicated than it appeared to be--it wasn't as simple as black hats and white hats. I realized that it wasn't just racists who wanted to keep blacks out of major league baseball, it was also those who ran the leagues that were for blacks only--they had a vested interest in keeping the races separate. And the same was true in music. While many Evangelicals claimed they were being kept out of mainstream music, and there was some truth to that, there were also leaders of Christian music who were actively working to keep the music industries separate because that's how they made a living.

EN: In the 60’s and 70’s there appeared Christian publishers, Christian music (CCM), Christian television, Christian movies… Often of quite uneven quality. How did this “Christian” subculture develop?

MJ: It's a frame of mind that many Christians fall into--a kind of 'if I can't get my way on everything I'll take my marbles and go home" attitude. Life is about give and take and working together and sometimes you don't get everything you want and you have to keep at it, not run away. There has been cases of more secular people trying to block religious expression in popular culture, I document it in the book, but the answer isn't to run and create a safe harbor but to stay put and negotiate those differences. The LGBT community has done a great job in this area and Christians would do well to emulate their success. They don't escape and create gay subcultures in media, they work hard to be a presence in the mainstream. In my view, attaching the term "Christian'" as an adjective to describe various art forms is a huge mistake. First, it's not theologically accurate since Christian is a noun not an adjective and no thing can be Christian. But it's also a huge turnoff to those who aren't already devout. It makes art feel like it's not for them. American popular culture should be a place for everybody to share their ideas without being segregated into this or that camp by religion or political views.

EN: You produced the soundtrack for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Based on your own experience and observations, what are the special challenges that Christian actors, producers, screenwriters face in Hollywood?

MJ: The challenge that Christians in Hollywood must face and succeed at is working hard to not just preach to the choir but also to ensure that their art simultaneously reaches those who don't agree with them as well and this can be done. Narnia is a great example--a good part of the audience believed as C.S. Lewis did that Aslan as a stand-in for Jesus Christ. Others just enjoyed the story of a kind-hearted lion--and both groups enjoyed the show. That's something to shoot for. It's ok and important to tell religious stories or films that faith is present in--but it has to be done in a way that still allows the story to make sense to those who don't believe. Christians should always try to remember their own frame of mind back when they didn't believe and never forget to tell stories that can reach the people they used to be, in addition to the people they've become.

EN: Music has played such a major role in shaping our culture. What’s interesting is how many musicians of whom we’re all familiar with have been influenced directly or indirectly at one time or another by The Vineyard Church and its offspring. (eg. Bob Dylan, Mumford & Sons). Who are some others that come to mind? And how was it that the Vineyard was so successful in this regard?

MJ: The Vineyard has had a massive impact in this area--it and Calvary Chapel are largely responsible for much of this. Lifehouse is another band that grew out of the Vineyard. These were two churches that took music seriously and didn't look down on musicians but celebrated them. If more churches emulated that attitude, we'd see another explosion of talent in the next two decades.

EN: Alice Cooper’s foreword is very direct and thought provoking. How did that come about?

MJ: Alice and his wife Sheryl have been friends and always supportive of the things I've been doing. We talk often when they're on the road. In many ways he has lived out the premise of the book that runs counter to the popular narrative that religious people have to flee public life. I've always maintained that if you're good, people will put up with your views even if they think they're archaic or quaint. That's Alice. He believes. And who better to listen to than a guy who knows and has experienced the dark side and the bright side? I had originally just asked him for a one line endorsement. But when the publisher sent me the cover I just thought it was such an Alice looking cover that I asked him to do the foreword instead. And he did. Our culture needs more Alice Coopers who are winsome, excellent at their craft, unflinching in their beliefs, but still fun to be around.

Related Links
The Rock & Roll Rebellion: Why People of Faith Abandoned Rock Music and Why They're Coming Back (1999)
Faith, God and Rock & Roll: How People of Faith Are Transforming American Popular Music (2003)
Rock Gets Religion: The Battle for the Soul of the Devil's Music (2017)

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