With a chicken sandwich in one hand and a copy of Peter Guralnick's Elvis-epic Careless Love in the other, I sit in the Foxfire Coffee Lounge, reading about the King's mid-'60s spiritual rebirth. At a turning point in the book, Elvis is driving across the desert when he sees a cloud transform first into Joe Stalin, then into the smiling face of Jesus Christ. "It's God!" he cries. As I read this, a throbbing roar shakes the building.
"Oh, that's the Bible study," says owner Elizabeth Larson on her way out the door for the evening. "They have their own sound people, so we get to take Tuesday nights off." Bible study? Sound people? Intrigued, I stick around until the Bible students begin exiting the back room, many of them bearing tattoos and other punk gear. When I ask who the minister is, I'm directed to a tall man with a short black beard and a curly mane tucked behind his ears.
Mark Johnson's eyelashes are thick enough to look as if he'd given them a coat of mascara, but if this lends him a slightly goth look, I get the sense he doesn't mind. At 36, he's far older than the college-age kids still milling around the coffee shop, and as a preacher to the punk flock, he could use some freak cachet. Sure, he says guardedly, I'm welcome to come to the Hardcore Bible Study. He tells me that the group is "Christian," which I take to mean nondenominational and evangelical. It's open to anyone, he says: Members chose the name because it sounded cool, not because the music performed at services is uniformly punk.
When I return later that month, the noisy band I heard before has ceded the stage to a charmingly self-depreciating alt-folk singer with an electric guitar. Dan Scott looks younger than his 25 years, with a left ear full of piercings and a shock of faded orange hair. After performing one of a series of "worship songs," he quips, "I like that one because it says, 'I'll seek you in the morning,' and I hate the morning." The audience laughs empathetically.
Casual as these proceedings sound, it's still church, and the song lyrics, displayed on an overhead projector so you can follow along, are interchangeable with any from a traditional worship service. The song "Magnify" is typical: "In my eyes and with my song/Oh Lord, be magnified/I will worship you with all of my heart," and so on. I later deduce that even when thrash bands like locals Fed by Ravens perform, the lyrics are still displayed on the wall and often read very much the same. Tonight, the crowd of about 40 sits on the floor or on couches, singing every note with no apparent need of the projector.
Christian rock is hardly new, but the Hardcore Bible Study represents an interesting wrinkle. From self-proclaimed "antichrist" Johnny Rotten to the hardcore punk of the Crucifucks and Dead Kennedys, punk culture has always been virulently and explicitly anti-Christian. It still is, judging by the punk protesters who hand out leaflets at Fed by Ravens shows. The irony is that many Christians were once just as fanatical about strangling "that devil music" rock 'n' roll in its crib.
But like those record-melting crusaders of old, many punks ignore rock 'n' roll's Christian origins. Postwar rhythm and blues lifted its propulsive beat and shout-along euphoria straight out of gospel music. And by the 1950s, the line between secular and religious black music had largely become a matter of lyric sheets, especially after Ray Charles scandalized the pulpit and shook up radio with his gospel-styled steamer, "I Got a Woman" (a play on the old spiritual "I Got a Savior").
Still, the white church looked down on popular music of any kind until well into the 1960s, when the folk revival came in through the back door strumming an acoustic guitar. My father, Peter R. Scholtes, was a priest and choir director on the South Side of Chicago when he recorded one of the first (and perhaps only) Christian songs to incorporate a bossa nova beat, 1966's "Missa Bossa Nova." His folk-rockish call for universal brotherhood, "They'll Know We Are Christians (By Our Love)," remains popular among Christians of all stripes, particularly evangelicals, and it's covered by local alt-folkies Trace. ("If the born-again Christians knew what my political and religious beliefs were, they'd probably disown me," Dad says.)
But for the most part, organized religion ignored pop's recruiting potential until ex-hippies in the Jesus movement created "Christian rock" in the late '60s. Larry Norman's 1972 song "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" summed up the new attitude, and he helped pave the way for the entire "contemporary Christian" music industry that blossomed in the wake of Jesus Christ Superstar. Christian music now charts more than $550 million annually in cassette and CD sales alone, with Amy Grant's mellow pop and DC Talk's arena mosh-rap finding a remarkable--and largely underreported--crossover audience.
Meanwhile, the sort of pop spirituality pioneered by Madonna and the dirty preacher formerly known as Prince has gained some currency of late, and there's not an R&B or rap singer who won't give it up for God before dispensing shout-outs to family and friends. But as a genre, "Christian music" is only just beginning to shake off a well-earned stigma.