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By its very nature, Christian rock is a weird phenomenon. Rock has roots in gospel music, sure, but the genre exists precisely because musicians decided to transfer those raw, passionate sounds into a secular context, blending gospel, country, and R&B into this powerful new beast. At its foundation, as practiced by the likes of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, rock ‘n’ roll was a celebration of sensuality, materialism, and ego — in other words, “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life,” which the apostle John dismissed as “not from the Father,” but “from the world.” Those values have remained at the core of much of the popular music that spread out from rock ‘n’ roll’s initial burst of electricity, whether we’re talking Madonna’s “Material Girl” or Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” or any number of rappers who have called themselves God.
On the other hand, Christianity is woven into the history of Western creativity, and that certainly includes music. And as I’ve written before, the church is supposed to be a fluid in some ways, shifting shape and style to adapt to their culture while not budging on core values and doctrine. The apostle Paul laid out some basic necessities for Christian belief in 1 Corinthians 15 (mostly related to Jesus actually being God, actually dying for the sins of mankind, and actually rising from the dead), but in the same letter, he wrote, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” So it makes sense that while some 20th century Christians clutched their pearls with regard to rock music, others said “Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?” and started taking a stab at the genre themselves. It makes sense, but it also makes for, well, some bad music — or at least some truly bizarre music.
I cannot think of a better case study for this weirdness than Carman. Born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1956, Carmelo Domenic Licciardello got his start as a drummer for his mother’s band before starting a band of his own, moving to LA, becoming a born-again Christian, and embracing evangelicalism. After a stint on tour with the Bill Gaither Trio in the early ’80s, his records started to take off in the nascent contemporary Christian music scene. Some of Carman’s songs were straightforward praise and worship, like his 1986 hit “Revive Us, Oh Lord.” It’s the type of blandly emotive ballad that ruled CCM in the Reagan era and, in an updated form, still rules the scene now. Take a look:
Those kinds of songs were huge for Carman, but they’re not the ones I remember from growing up in an evangelical household. I remember Carman as the king of goofy, gimmicky Christian novelty songs. The song above, “Revive Us, Oh Lord,” was from his album The Champion. The album’s title track and grand finale was an eight-minute story-song framing the battle between Jesus and Satan as a boxing match. Carman spins a spoken-word narrative through many twists and turns before the song culminates in a triumphant chorus celebrating Christ’s victory. It’s the kind of cultural artifact you know is out there in the world, yet you don’t quite believe it until you hear it. So do that, if you dare:
Carman had other songs like that in the ’80s. Some of them were straight-up retellings of Bible stories like “Lazarus Come Forth,” the tale of Jesus resurrecting his friend Lazarus from the dead, or “Jericho: The Shout Of Victory,” an account of Israel’s invasion of the promised land from the book of Joshua. Others, like “Revival In The Land,” the title track from his hit 1989 LP, returned to the theme of a showdown between God and Satan. The music video is quite a thing to see:
Revival In The Land was Carman’s biggest album yet, and his CCM dominance rolled right on into the early ’90s, around the time I was just starting to buy my own cassette tapes. My parents successfully hipped their children to the world of Christian pop, getting us into adult contemporary stars like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith as well as more youth-oriented artists like Christian rap trio DC Talk. That put me squarely in the target market for Carman’s 1991 album Addicted To Jesus.
Carman’s discography was already bizarre before Addicted To Jesus came along, but this one took things to new levels of oddness. Specifically, the title track was a collaboration with DC Talk that found this quasi-televangelist 35-year-old white male trying his hand at rapping. Playing on the anti-drug message popularized by programs like D.A.R.E. and the This Is Your Brain On Drugs campaign, the song suggested Jesus Christ as a better way to get high. There are breakdancers and flaming trashcans in the video, and Carman flashes sign language for “A 2 J” (as in, “Addicted To Jesus”). He raps. The DC Talk guys back him up with ad-libs and melodies. It is a youth group nightmare fantasy come to life, but I have to give it credit for being catchy as hell:
Oh, but Addicted To Jesus had so much more to offer beyond its title track. What about “Holy Ghost Hop,” a ’50s-style novelty dance track produced like a Paula Abdul deep cut? Or “The Third Heaven,” an eight-minute album-closing epic on which Carman imagines his death and ascent into eternity? Or “Satan, Bite The Dust,” yet another story-song about fighting Satan, this time stylized as a Western saloon shootout:
Honestly, for all its corniness, all these years later the album has a certain charm to it. Whether or not Christianity can even be cool — and that depends on how you define “cool” and (especially!) how you define “Christianity,” a subject to debate some other time — this guy was trying so hard to make Christianity cool. And among kids like me, he succeeded for a while. The album’s main crime was its shameless poor taste. But Addicted To Jesus does contain one track that’s so embarrassing I shudder when I return to it now.
Opening track “Our Turn Now” is about taking America back for God, a wrongheaded idea the religious right has been pushing for decades. This movement is still going strong today, as demonstrated by the Satan, Back Off! book series. It’s predicated on a bunch of ridiculous and obviously false notions: that forcing your ideology on people has ever been a virtuous or successful strategy, that Old Testament promises to the nation of Israel now somehow apply to the United States, that either the Bible or the Constitution support a combination of church and state. Yet somehow a large subset of Christian conservatives convinced themselves that controlling the government was imperative, and somehow Carman and the hard rock band Petra decided it was a good idea to write a song about putting prayer back in public schools.
The lyrics here are cringeworthy regardless of where you stand spiritually or politically. Carman begins by hypothesizing that our culture went to hell the moment religion was removed from the classroom — “The ball got dropped in ’62/ They wouldn’t let children pray in school/ Violent crime began to rise/ The grades went down and the kids got high” — and things spiral downward from there, leading to triumphant visions of the church taking over and showing the rest of the world how it’s done. Now, I’m all for Christians bringing God’s love into the world, but the Inquisition-style overtones of “Our Turn Now” are unsettling. It makes Carman’s other anthems seem all the more appealing in contrast. Coercion is no way to get people “A 2 J,” but what better advertisement for God’s love and acceptance of freaks than someone preposterously goofy enough to make this album?