- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2000

Not long ago, contemporary Christian music was walled off from secular culture and staffed by groups with Scripture-laden names such Second Chapter of Acts, Point of Grace and 4Him.

Now they are infiltrating the charts with monikers like Full on the Mouth, the Galactic Cowboys, MxPx and Burlap to Cashmere.

In an age where spirituality is the rage, where many evangelical Christian companies are owned by secular corporations and where one can order anything Christian or secular on Amazon.com, lines between religious and non-religious are blurring.

Leading the way are rock musicians, says Mark Joseph, the 32-year-old founder of MJM Entertainment Group in Los Angeles. His new book, "The Rock & Roll Rebellion," explains the failures of a 30-year trend to create a separate Christian culture.

Christian rock music, which started in the early 1970s, often was seen as reinforcing secular rock and inherently evil. Today, younger religious rock 'n' rollers such as the Flint, Mich.-based Full on the Mouth spurn Christian record labels for a spot on the Warped tour, a traveling show of mostly punk bands.

"In the great war of ideas and the battle for the hearts and minds of the culture, musical artists who were Christians exiled themselves from pop culture," Mr. Joseph says. The result: Their music was banished to "gospel" or "inspirational" racks in the stores, cut out of radio shows and absent from popular arenas such as Woodstock.

He compares it to baseball's Negro Leagues of the early 20th century, where major players such as Rube Foser, Martin Dihigo, Day Dandridge and Cool Papa Bell displayed their talents in obscurity.

In the music realm, "brilliant" artists such as Larry Norman, Steve Taylor, Charlie Peacock, Paul Clark, Russ Taff, Phil Keaggy, Rex Carroll, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green and others stayed in the contemporary Christian music "league," he says.

Steve Rabey, a Colorado Springs writer who covers contemporary Christian music artists, calls it the "evangelical-industrial complex" a parallel universe of book and magazine publishers, Internet companies and record publishers of Christian materials.

"Bach and other composers wrote sacred music, but it was also music the entire culture appreciated," he says. "Evangelicals and their fundamentalist ancestors have had a love-and-hate relationship primarily hate with the mass media for decades, so they've developed this subculture."

Mr. Joseph first woke up to how the label "Christian" was ghettoizing good music when he started distributing American records in Japan, where he grew up as the son of missionaries. When the artists were introduced simply as musicians, not as religious recording artists, their music was accepted in the Japanese music culture.

A new generation of American musicians with genuine spiritual concerns are not content with being told their messages are appropriate only for Christian listeners, he says.

Granted, some, like rock musician Steve Taylor and '50s crooner Pat Boone, have been shunned by the larger rock culture because of their outspoken Christian or pro-life views. Once word was out in 1983 that disco queen Donna Summer was a born-again Christian, disc jockeys refused to play her records and some records were publicly burned.

But the devout often obscured themselves, he points out. Fuller Theological Seminary near Los Angeles was founded as the evangelical response to the more liberal Yale Divinity School. Wheaton College in Chicago took the place of Dartmouth College. Evangelist Billy Graham started a film studio, World Wide Pictures, and a magazine, Christianity Today.

But the parallel culture, Mr. Joseph says, caused the dominant culture to grow hostile and unresponsive to them. Christian groups like DeGarmo and Key and the late Keith Green wanted to evangelize during their concerts more than perform. Music came in second and secular fans would not stand for that.

Part of the problem, he says, was contemporary Christian music's reluctance to address the underside of culture. Life's difficulties were underplayed while heaven's rewards were stressed. Struggles with faith could be addressed, but only if there was the appropriate spiritual conclusion at the end.

This dichotomy destroyed Christian rock ingenue Leslie Phillips. Even before she entered the secular arena and renamed herself "Sam" Phillips, her songs about depression, sexual temptation and the beauty of evil were raising hackles.

Then came her infamous 1987 appearance at a Christian concert at southern California's Knotts Berry Farm, where she sang Bob Dylan tunes and half of her audience walked out.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life," says Mr. Joseph, who was at the concert. "To be fair, I think she provoked it. She had this sexy outfit on, dyed her hair black and sang songs people didn't know. I think she handled it wrong, but her objections were real."

Despite plentiful accounts of human sexuality in biblical sagas such as that of King David, not to mention the sensuously written Song of Solomon, Christian music has been uneasy with songs about wedded love, much less anything dealing with sexuality.

"There have been a couple of cases where guys have written love songs about their wives," he says, "and stores have refused to sell them or the Gospel Music Association wouldn't say they were Christian songs."

"Sixpence None the Richer [a music group] wrote a song called 'Kiss Me,' an innocent boy-loves-girl song," he says, "but it was disqualified as the Gospel Music Song of the Year because it didn't fall into a Christian category. The same thing happened to Amy Grant's 'That's What Love Is.' "

Miss Grant raised eyebrows in her early 20s when she candidly admitted to the press that she had gone skinny-dipping, that she was a virgin when she married at 21 and that she enjoyed sex with her husband. She has since gone mainstream.

Mr. Joseph parallels Miss Grant's path to secular fame with that of columnist Cal Thomas, who resigned his position with Moral Majority in the mid-1980s and began to write for the Los Angeles Times syndicate. Now in 500 newspapers, his is the country's most widely syndicated column. Mr. Thomas also appears as a panelist on Fox News Watch.

"This proves," Mr. Joseph says, "that it was possible for serious believers, once they had disposed of silly separatism, to be accepted or at least tolerated by the culture."

Mr. Thomas says part of the secret is avoiding labels.

"I don't like them because they allow people to define me," he says. "When people ask me my denomination, I say 5s, 10s and 20s."

Whether it's this year's voting patterns or music preferences, people are overflowing the traditional borders, says Mr. Joseph, citing Bob Carlisle's "Butterfly Kisses," which sprang to the top of the charts in 1997.

"That," he said, "put to rest the thought that a song that clearly speaks of God or Jesus would not be accepted by pop radio."

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