By John J. Thompson
Photographs by Dina K. Kotthoff
References to "Christian rock" have lately become hip. Most recently, Newsweek ran a cover story on the phenomenon, while on the past season's "The Sopranos," Tony's teenage daughter and her boyfriend have taken to writing "Christian rock" lyrics, and "Sopranos" creator David Chase told The New Yorker magazine, perhaps jokingly, that his next show would be about Christian rockers.
The media's sudden curiosity about Christian rock (or CCM, short for Contemporary Christian Music) doesn't mean everyone has changed their view of the genre.
Late in the "Seinfeld" run, George Costanza tried to calm Elaine, who had discovered that all the programmed radio buttons in her boyfriend's car were set to CCM stations. George spoke for many Americans when he said he found Christian rock refreshing: It was safe and nonthreatening, and nothing like real rock music.
But "Christian rock," or more accurately the idea of Christians in rock, is definitely having a moment. The end of the millennium brought a flood of books about devout Christians, rock music, and the reaction to the unfortunate decision to create a new genre called Contemporary Christian Music. Charlie Peacock's book "At the Crossroads," my own "The Rock & Rebellion," and Jay R. Howard and John M. Streck's "Apostles of Rock" came out within a few months of each other, covering different aspects of the same scene.
"Raised by Wolves" is another look at this phenomenon, by the multitalented John J. Thompson. Thompson's title is based on his very original idea that CCM grew up with two strange parents: "Christian rock was an infant in those days [the 1970s]. One of its parents, pop culture, decided that it was irrelevant and old-fogeyish and kicked it to the curb. The other parent, the church, saw too much of the world in it and was frightened by it. The young musicians, wanting nothing more than to use their music to reach a hurting world, thus found themselves orphaned. They were left to be raised by wolves."
It's a great start and a compelling analogy. What's lacking is any idea of how this child, raised in such a dysfunction, can overcome its upbringing and become a productive adult.
Thompson's book gives comprehensive attention to the minutiae of the players and events of the last 30 years in CCM. Anyone in any way remotely associated with CCM ought to pick up a copy, as chances are that Thompson lists your contribution. In this respect, Thompson's work stands out from other recent volumes by providing a full accounting of the key and not-so-key players who shaped the scene.
Thompson's history is as comprehensive as his rock roster. He takes us on a journey through the bowels of Christian rock, chronicling every major event and every so often dropping very valuable tips about the viability of music produced in the CCM community.
Today, bands try hard to avoid being labeled "Christian rock." Thompson points out that artists like Creed, Sixpence, and P.O.D. have learned from U2, a band that has allowed faith to deeply influence their music while avoiding the label "Christian music." "The lesson seems to be that executives of record labels don't listen very closely to music," Thompson writes. "Hence, as long as a band isn't tagged as Christian before they make it, they'll be let through the gates, especially if they are a hit. Thus after U2, many Christian musicians used stealth."
Thompson himself can't seem to decide whether Christians who make music should allow themselves to be labeled "Christian Rock" or not. He makes the pitch for both sides of the argument at various points. Speaking of Tooth & Nail Records founder Brandon Ebel, Thompson notes approvingly: "His point was that a record label couldn't be Christian, that bands were Christian, but that a label was just a label."
But Thompson then proceeds to label Sixpence None the Richer (who I have worked with) a "Christian group." He calls King's X and P.O.D. "Christian bands," and Squint a "Christian label," despite the fact that all have refused those tags.
Thompson also needs to tighten up his fact checking. Glaring mistakes will create serious credibility problems for this important work if anyone at Rolling Stone or Billboard gets hold of this book, which misspells names like Lauryn Hill, Glen Campbell, Boys 2 Men, Parents Music Resource Center, Mask of the Great Deceiver, 2 Live Crew, Pakaderm, Kurt Cobain, Magdallan, Brian Ray, Cliff Richard, John Mellencamp, Marina Del Rey, John Fischer, Sanhedrin, Andrae Crouch, and Pete Townshend.
For the CCM buff, the problems continue, as Thompson gets wrong the name of Jars of Clay's most recent album, Rex Carroll's first band, Stryper's final album, Charlie Peacock's book, the chart position of Sixpence's hit song "Kiss Me," and the substance found in Andrae Crouch's car that led to his arrest.
But there is charm enough in Thompson's style to let us forgive a multitude of sins, at least when Thompson gets out of his Sgt. Joe Friday "Just the Facts, Ma'am" mode. Thompson, who has published his own magazine and website, can turn a phrase.
"It had the delicacy of an Amtrak train on a bad night," he writes, referring to an early Steve Taylor song, "Whatcha Gonna Do When Your Number's Up?" Later, he notes that a song has "more hooks than a meat locker" and critiques the mainstream music business as "an industry that raised Attention Deficit Disorder to an art form."
What the reader may find a bit off-putting is Thompson's injection of himself and his various companies into the mix. While his band, "The Wayside," and his newsletter/magazine/website, True Tunes, may be worthy of a mention or two, since they're indeed part of the history of God-Rock, nine mentions for the Wayside and 22 for the various True Tunes enterprises are way too much and leave the reader feeling overly solicited.
Still, all in all Thompson has produced an important work that will help fill in those areas that weren't covered by earlier books. Thompson continues to cover these issues at his site, Truetunes.com, and all his good works make the important point that just because rockers are believers doesn't mean they shouldn't be taken seriously and heard by the entire culture.