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The Article: When Evangelicals Were Cool

The Source: RealClearReligion

The Author: Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University

The Gist: While historians tend to downplay the effect of popular culture on religion, rock music played an integral role in the spreading evangelicalism in America.

The Excerpt:
Historians do a fine job of showing how Christian movements and leaders developed during these years, highly influential groups like Campus Crusade for Christ. But those groups faced a daunting challenge in reaching out to a non-believing audience that was at first deeply unsympathetic to the moral and cultural messages they preached. To say the least, the years around 1970 were not a promising time to be preaching chastity, heterosexuality, and a drug-free lifestyle, all the more so if the media stereotype of evangelical ministers was drawn from Inherit the Wind, Elmer Gantry, and even the homicidal pastor in Night of the Hunter.

In turn, many evangelicals were also deeply suspicious of the whole rock music culture. And however trivial this issue may seem in retrospect, hair length constituted a stark cultural boundary. Young Christian groups could organize to their hearts' content, but they were not going to have a wider impact on the secular world until they could span that cultural gulf. And yet, obviously, they did succeed. By 1970, evangelical Christianity was having a real impact on hippyish subcultures and Jesus People groups were becoming commonplace. By 1972, Campus Crusade attracted tens of thousands to Dallas for Explo '72, a kind of Christian Woodstock.

Divine intervention apart, how on earth did they manage it?

The Bottom Line: While Jenkins may be overstating the case for particular artists ("If we can't exactly claim [the Byrd's] Sweetheart of the Rodeo as the album that changed America's faith, then it made a mighty contribution."), the role of rock music in shaping American Christianity---for good and ill---has been underestimated. Much of the music Jenkins discusses certainly served a pre-apologetic function during the 1970s, making evangelicalism palatable to younger audiences.

While it is too soon to say for certain, the rise of Christian hip-hop may be playing a similar role in broadening the appeal of conservative evangelicalism. Unlike in the 1970s, when Christian rock was viewed with suspicion by older believers, many evangelical leaders are embracing and encouraging this movement. The unlikely alliance of pastors and performers is also producing a more theologically informed musical form than in previous decades. If the Reformed tradition becomes more popular within the African American community, future historians will certainly have to credit the influence of Christian rappers.

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Joe Carter


Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter.

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