By Kelefa Sanneh
The New Yorker
In 1957, less than a year after the end of the Montgomery bus boycott, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., took a part-time job as an advice columnist. His employer was Ebony, and his ambit was broad: race relations, marital problems, professional concerns. In the April, 1958, issue, King was asked to address one of the most polarizing issues of the day: rock music. His correspondent was a churchgoing seventeen-year-old with a musical split personality. “I play gospel music and I play rock ’n’ roll,” the letter read. Its author wanted to know whether this habit was objectionable.
King’s advice was characteristically firm. Rock and gospel were “totally incompatible,” he explained: “The profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with the transitory quality of rock and roll music.” And he made it clear which he preferred. “The former serves to lift men’s souls to higher levels of reality, and therefore to God,” he wrote. “The latter so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.”
Randall J. Stephens, a religious historian, views the relationship between Christianity and rock and roll as a decades-long argument over American culture, sacred and profane. In “The Devil’s Music,” released last March, Stephens reconsiders the judgments of King and other Christian leaders who viewed rock and roll with alarm. He points out that many pioneering rockers, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Jerry Lee Lewis, came out of the Pentecostal Church; for some preachers, he argues, rock and roll was worrisome precisely because its frenetic performances evoked the excesses of Pentecostal worship. In a sermon given in 1957, King, a Baptist, urged his fellow-preachers to move beyond unseemly displays: “We can’t spend all of our time trying to learn how to whoop and holler,” he said. Stephens wants us to think of rock and Christianity not as enemies but as siblings engaged in a family dispute.
Rock’s reputation quickly improved: less than a decade later, King’s protégé Andrew Young declared that rock and roll had done “more for integration than the church.” And by the end of the sixties a small but growing number of believers were helping to invent a style that King might have viewed as a contradiction in terms: Christian rock, which became a recognizable genre and, in the decades that followed, a thriving industry.
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