Son of a Preacher Man

Mark Curtis Anderson's '70s memoir looks at what happened when white evangelicals first embraced the devil's music

 Jesus Sound Explosion is about a crisis of faith--two faiths, actually. From the moment in the 1960s when he first heard "jazzy music," his mother's phrase for anything with a backbeat, Mark Curtis Anderson loved it. As a pastor's son at Central Baptist Church in St. Paul, he also loved the Lord. And for a while he believed with all his viscera that anyone who did not would burn in hell forever.

The notion that those passions might be opposed seems as anachronistic today as a record-burning party. (When R. Kelly wraps himself in the choir, irony, not God, is dead.) But Anderson's hilarious memoir recalls a forgotten moment in American history when some white evangelicals, clueless for so long about rock's roots in black gospel, began to let the devil's music in the front door to keep their children from slipping out the back. Jesus Sound Explosion is about the hip-a-fying of born-again Christianity--the origin of today's booming Christian music industry.

And Anderson, who no longer believes in hell, is the perfect, wry storyteller to put you in the front pews of this world. In some ways, his book is an elaborate explanation of how he went from fearing the "bored looks" of older kids at church to covering the Clash's "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A." in bars with his House of Mercy band. The freethinking Lowertown congregation of the same name (where he drums every Sunday) is home to many "recovering evangelicals"--which is what Anderson calls himself. Despite his obvious admiration for his forward-thinking parents, Anderson is a shell-shocked Christian soldier on permanent leave. "Eternal love exists, and it cannot be won or lost," he writes. "When I believe, I believe that."

God gave rock 'n' roll to you: House of Mercy drummer and memoirist Mark Curtis Anderson
Richard Fleischman
God gave rock 'n' roll to you: House of Mercy drummer and memoirist Mark Curtis Anderson

Still, he doesn't waste any words cursing the holier-than-thou of his youth. When the author shows up for a City Pages interview at the all-ages New Union nightclub on September 19, he resembles, to me, a more handsome version of character actor J.T. Walsh--bearish and intensely withheld. This is a good time to come here, I tell him. In October, the 14-year-old Christian music venue will change its name to Club Three Degrees, relocating from northeast Minneapolis to downtown, the den of sin. Anderson has never been here before, though he remembers seeing Paul Cebar at the "old" Union (located in the Central Avenue business district, before the Living Word Christian Center took over the bar).

"It strikes me how much they've taken the 7th St. Entry look and put it in here," he says, noting the black decor.

Onstage, the band Stillday is leaping into an original alt-rock song, but with a guitar-drum intro that sounds a little too familiar.

"Smells like Jesus' spirit, eh?" Anderson remarks, meeting my smile. The jumping and screaming teenagers either don't mind or don't notice the Nirvana lift.

Anderson seems too sheepish about his previous self-righteousness to be disdainful toward this scene. But he's hardly blasé about it. When we head to the downstairs lounge, past the air hockey players and the DJ spinning techno, he notices that our table is covered with torn-out biblical verses, affixed beneath a layer of laminate.

"In a way, it's this kind of stuff that makes me feel more uncomfortable," he says. "Because this is where the proselytizing comes in."

The black lights, the pulsing beat, and the darkness remind him of the Wreck, a fluorescent-painted basement hangout at Central Baptist in the early '70s, which he describes in the book.

"It seems like a lot of pop evangelical culture is trying to be like, 'This is not the usual uptight evangelical culture.'" Anderson says. "But what are people saying in Sunday school? To really understand what the New Union's about, you'd have to go to one of their Sunday evening services. You'd have to go into Northwestern Christian bookstore, which sells tickets to the New Union, and take a look at the 'Left Behind' series."

He's talking about the best-selling books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which fictionalize a sort of hysterical, Jack Van Impe version of biblical prophecy. The heroes are newly converted evangelicals in a post-apocalyptic United States who band together against the Antichrist, the Secretary General of the United Nations.

"If you want kids to feel like they're in the world and not of the world," Anderson continues, "you bring them something that looks like the world. The whole idea of the Rapture is that God will come and everyone who's not saved will be 'left behind.' But that's one thing that's always struck me about evangelical culture: It's trying to catch up to secular culture so it doesn't get left behind. It's this big attempt to keep these kids in this subculture."

 

Reading Jesus Sound Explosion, I have to wonder: What if the facsimile grows more popular than the original? Even among the Jesus freaks and rock-opera youth choirs that Anderson's father welcomed through the door, no one would have anticipated a 21st century where nearly half of all Americans consider themselves "born again," or where Christ rockers like Evanescence and P.O.D. dominate music television.

You sense an anticipation of this hegemony in Anderson's story. After his family moves from St. Paul to an affluent suburb of Los Angeles in the 1970s, his remaining high school days are a zealous whirl of Christianity and progressive rock: "No guys got invited to Jon's Jacuzzi gatherings if they didn't profess a love for both Jesus and the band Yes."

Upon hearing that Bob Dylan ("The Voice of a Generation") was "now speaking for the Jesus Generation," the teenage Anderson imagined a guitar-fueled, born-again utopia--one big Wreck. To illustrate these hopes, Anderson quotes a '60s folk hymn my father (Peter R. Scholtes) wrote as a priest, before his own disillusionment with his church, "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love."

Then the bottom fell out--or maybe it had fallen out earlier and Anderson just hadn't noticed. Skipping around chronologically, the author approaches his loss of faith from many angles at once, a method of juxtaposition and suspense that feels almost musical. He was "left behind" somewhere between a more secular girlfriend who ran away from home, a depressed family member he couldn't help, and a new album by Bruce Springsteen--always a point of division with his surfer friends. Like all great records, it brought buried feelings into focus:

As I listened to Darkness on the Edge of Town, I couldn't call this darkness "sin," I couldn't call the people who lived in the darkness "sinners" or "degenerates," and I couldn't positively say that they needed Jesus. I hadn't yet lost my desire to proselytize, but I knew that I didn't have the words to save these people, and they didn't need anything that I had to offer.

Saying the Boss defeated the cross in Anderson's mind would hopelessly simplify a story that the author leaves messy and open. Better to say Jesus Sound Explosion presents a life lived through two prisms, each altering the colors of the other until the light from one direction simply gave out.

The book's defining episode barely even counts as a climax. The "short-lived dance revolt that took place at Bethel College in May 1983" is described with apparent sadness. The incident took place at a school where dancing was actually banned, during a live concert where students began forgetting the rule (at least until a dean rushed out to remind them). Anderson takes pride in his small part, playing drums in the band onstage. But the brevity of the rebellion leaves a chill (Footloose it was not--students did as they were told), and the author emphasizes its pathos. It's as if the whole thing were part of a past that he's trying to chew up and spit out.

Without declaring or even knowing it, Anderson has given us the real "clash of civilizations" up close. He's taken sides in the battle between those who would hide us from the world and those who would join it. And though he avoids politics in his book, you can imagine him seeing this struggle as more "Rock the Casbah" than "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue"--a series of small cultural shifts within each country, each church, each family. At a time when fundamentalism of every stripe is resurgent, Jesus Sound Explosion is an important book, which is why I'm glad it has been published internationally by the University of Georgia Press. Maybe it will even be carried at Northwestern Books.

As for Anderson, his fight is a quiet one. He treats the Electric Fetus record store as his own secular sanctuary (having worked there on and off for years), bonds with his devout parents over Al Green, teaches writing at the University of Minnesota General College, and plays Louvin Brothers-style country at the House of Mercy, where a commitment to social justice mingles with an openness to ambiguity. "They're okay with people not knowing quite why they're there," he says.

On October 19 the church brings Violent Femmes singer Gordon Gano to perform there (and also at the Turf Club). Remember, this is a place where the house band once played an instrumental version of the Replacements' "Unsatisfied" during communion. Anderson laughs at the memory.

"We also played Neil Young's 'Motorcycle Mama,'" he says, laughing harder. Anderson doesn't have the answers, just the beat.

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