Some of the answers to this and other questions can be found in Mark Joseph's new book, "The Rock & Roll Rebellion: Why People of Faith Abandoned Rock Music-And Why They're Coming Back." (Click here to buy the book.) Joseph, who works in the entertainment industry and is associated with bands such as Sixpence None the Richer, grew up listening to the likes of Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, and Phil Keaggy. He wondered why these talented performers were virtually unknown outside of white evangelical circles.
This anonymity was the result of an almost complete separation between what Joseph calls "mainstream" pop music and what came to be known as contemporary Christian music, or CCM for short. Joseph draws an analogy between this separation and the Negro Leagues of the interwar period that provided African-Americans with their only opportunity to play pro ball before Jackie Robinson--a Christian, by the way--broke the color line in 1947: "A generation of musicians with genuine spiritual concerns were told, in effect, that their voices were welcome only in the CCM ghetto," writes Joseph. "As a result, the mainstream-music community and the average listener heard very little serious Christian thought expressed in the music that defined much of the '70s, '80s, and '90s."
If Christian musicians were discouraged from "crossing over" by their co-religionists, those in the mainstream pop world weren't anxious to see pop music's tenor shaped by people of faith. Joseph writes that "those who preferred their music morality-free perpetuated the 'Christian/Secular' split, and an entire generation of musicians, disc jockeys, music journalists, and record executives who happened to be Christians were diverted out of the music scene and into the world of CCM." The result was that freed from any leavening influence that Christians might have exerted, pop music's downward spiral accelerated.
Joseph correctly notes that the withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream pop-music scene was part of a larger pattern whereby American evangelicals refused to engage the larger culture. Usually dated from the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, the evangelicals' withdrawal resulted in a parallel culture, with its own schools, colleges, seminaries and, yes, music.
This stance was fairly easy to maintain during the '30s and '40s, before rock & roll arrived. But no one could ignore rock. Imbued with (pagan) African rhythms, or the "devil's beat," the music was seen as evil. This racist response overtook any chance for a thoughtful response to the music's strengths and weaknesses and furthermore made any rational, aesthetic objections to rock suspect.
Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, rock & roll penetrated the evangelical subculture. Musically inclined Christians wanted to express their faith through the musical style that had become equated with pop. But evangelicalism's ambivalence had created terrible obstacles. Joseph's case in point: Larry Norman.
Norman started out on a mainstream label, Capitol Records, but his lyrics and themes left no doubt about where he was coming from. Capitol, like other mainstream labels, didn't know what to do with artists like Norman. Their difficulty in fitting him into their artist roster gave birth to the genre we know as contemporary Christian music, the first musical genre, Joseph points out, defined almost entirely by its lyrics, not its sound. In barely two decades, CCM went from a few pioneering labels and promoters to a category that rated its own Grammy and separate Billboard charts.
But in Joseph's estimation, CCM is in the midst of a "conceptual collapse." That is, many Christian musicians are questioning the need for a separate pop music category for Christians. Michael W. Smith, just before he swept the "Dove Awards" last year, told reporters that in his estimation, CCM was a mistake. Imagine Carlos Santana, on the night before the Grammys, calling rock & roll a mistake, and you get the idea.
Others chafe under the creative restrictions of the CCM market. All problems raised in a song must have a solution; no criticism of fellow Christians, especially on "controversial" issues such as race or class; songs that admit the attractiveness of evil are definitely verboten. These restrictions strip rock & roll of its emotional force: no angst and no rebellion. It produces music that doesn't ring true--not only to non-Christians but to many Christians as well.
While CCM considers itself separate from the mainstream rock world, it imitates it consistently. Wilson Phillips sells millions of records--viola!--you've got Point of Grace. Charts displayed in Christian bookstores say, "If you like [name of mainstream artist] you will like [name of CCM equivalent]." CCM executives aren't the only ones playing this game. But with CCM's creative limitations, the copies turn out even paler than mainstream imitators.
C.S. Lewis wrote that the world needed not more Christian writers but good writers writing good books whose Christianity was woven into the content. In the same way, what we need is not a Christian version of the latest chart-topping act, but an act good enough to top the charts that presents an alternative to rock's worldview.
This has begun to happen. Joseph points to the success of bands like Sixpence None the Richer, Creed, and more recently, P.O.D. (Payable On Death), which will be touring with Korn. These bands strongly suggest that the mainstream music market is prepared to accept music that makes reference to Christian ideas. This not only deprives CCM of its raison d'etre, it provides people with an incentive to say "later" to bands like Korn.