Norman was the leader of what would come to be called the Jesus Rock movement. But secularists who loathed the very idea of rock music being infused with traditional spiritual messages had other names for Norman and other early pioneers of the movement who didn't adhere to the doctrine of separation of rock and faith: Jesus Creeps.
Reviewing another "Jesus Creep" record, a Rolling Stone writer was positively nonplussed: "Two-thirds of the songs on this album are totally devoid of any relation to the real world. No sex, no drugs, no booze, no cars, no worldly problems, no worldly happiness. Everything revolves around this f------ ghost Jesus."
Executives at Capitol--also apparently uninterested in Norman's spiritual journey--stripped Jesus off of the cover and changed the title to "I Love You."
Soon Norman and People had a top 20 hit, but the hostility he encountered eventually drove him to the Christian music ghetto, a parallel music industry run by and for fellow Christians, and generally cut off from the cultural mainstream.
Another '70s rock band called DeGarmo & Key reported similar responses from mainstream labels in the '70s. "Mercury Records offered us a recording contract to do a secular album," remembered singer Dana key, one of the group's founders. "It's always the same story...They always come out and see the band and love what we do with the exception of Christ."
Three decades later, USA Today had this to say about another faith-friendly band, Creed: "Unfortunately, the cozy dovetailing of gospel and grunge eliminates the crucial hell-raising and devil-may-care abandon that elevates rock to transcendent heights."
And so it has gone: Secularists often demanded that traditional Christians either shut up about their faith or leave the cultural mainstream and record hymns and religious songs in a market where their music would go unheard by anybody who wasn't listening to religious radio or shopping at Bible bookstores.
But ironically, at a time when religious expression is increasingly becoming forbidden in various courthouses and public spaces around the country, rock and pop artists with traditional spiritual messages like P.O.D., MxPx, Creed, Stacie Orrico, Chevelle, Switchfoot and others are being welcomed in some unlikely venues, so long as the music is good and the cash registers keep humming.
Two factors have begun to change that paradigm--demographics and rebellion.
First, music industry executives, though not necessarily religious themselves, have done the math. They understand that Americans don't separating their faith from their daily activities. They are deeply spiritual people, eager to hear music that doesn't leave out the critical element of faith.
Second, a new generation of young rockers in possession of a deep faith, are no longer willing to stay sequestered in Christian America. The kings of the God-rock set, P.O.D. is one of the biggest selling acts in the Warner Brothers system. (They record for Atlantic.) Alternative Rockers Switchfoot have moved from a Christian label to Columbia while Wilshire, a duo once operating entirely in the Christian music business, left their Christian-owned label Rocketown and now record for Sony. Universal Records has signed the hard-rock group Pillar. Rockers Creed, 12 Stones, Big Dismal and Evanescence have found a home with Wind Up.
It's not only artists who are breaking down the wall of separation. Mainstream radio programmers, traditionally unwilling to play overt Christian messages are increasingly responsive to listeners' desires for faith-oriented music. As a result, the label executives, traditionally shy about pitching such songs to radio, are increasingly coming in with songs with rather orthodox spiritual themes.
In 2000, the pop group Newsong, comprised of devout Christians, reached the top of the adult contemporary charts with a tearjerker called "The Christmas Shoes," about a child who wanted to buy a new pair of shoes for his dying mother that included the line: "I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight."
Today, a song the Los Angeles Times called the most overtly Christian-themed song in 30 years is climbing the charts at a shocking pace. (number 10 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary Chart as I write). "I Can Only Imagine," by the group MercyMe, entered both the adult contemporary charts and the Top 40 with the lines: "Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel? / Will I dance for you Jesus, or in awe of you be still? / Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall? / Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all? / I can only imagine."
Curb Records' Bob Catania pitched "I Can Only Imagine" to pop radio and was surprised by his succcess. "Any record that has a Jesus reference in it is going to be problematic for some people, especially in a major market like New York or L.A., especially where there's a diverse population," he said. "Since this record has come out, we have never received one call from a radio station asking for the 'Jesus-less' version. No one seems to be having an issue with that."
While various skirmishes continue in the legal and political worlds around the nation between traditionalists and secularists, in popular music anyway, a new consensus is emerging: The wall of separation that once kept rock and religion away from one another is coming down and the secularists and separatists who once held it in place are giving way to a new generation of artists and executives who believe that faith has a place in popular music.
If the music is good enough.