OVER THE LAST three-and-a-half decades, American evangelicals have created a musical shadow world. Contemporary Christian music (CCM) mimics secular pop, following it from a distance of several years, adopting its styles, falling in step with its trends, and rewriting it to conform to evangelical beliefs. Popular music fans who aren't themselves members of this religious subculture, and who don't shop where evangelicals shop, read what they read, and tune in to the radio stations that they support, only rarely hear the records that climb Billboard's Christian charts. Secular listeners are also likely unaware of the church-basement coffeehouses and church mega-auditoriums that constitute the Christian concert circuit.
Under the noses of the pop mainstream, a genre more popular than either classical music or jazz has evolved a type of romantic balladry in which the beloved is not of this world. In it, Christ is sighted from afar, drawn close, pleaded with, and ultimately made love to.
Though the popular phenomenon of Jesus Christ Superstar coincided with the continuing rise of Jesus music in the early '70s, it was, and remains, controversial among evangelicals. Still, when Yvonne Elliman sang "I Don't Know How to Love Him," she explicitly addressed the conflict between sexual and spiritual love that has haunted contemporary Christian music in the decades since. Confessing to having "had so many men before, in very many ways," her Mary Magdalene struggles to confirm Christ's similarity to the men she has serviced. It's a classic whistling-in-the-dark scenario. Having faced Christ in the flesh, she is awed by his unlikeness to ordinary men. Not fully saved she considers reacting in the way a prostitute knows best. It is dawning on her, however, that a carnal response will not be adequate or appropriate to the man she has met.
Grappling with religious ideas from the prospect of a secular subculture, and not at all convinced of their validity, Superstar lyricist Tim Rice faced exactly the opposite problem to that confronting his counterparts in the world of CCM. To them, it was the presence and relevance of Christ that were in question, not his divinity; they needed to establish not his uniqueness but his familiarity. Having found the God of their parents to be forbidding, stern, and dictatorial, requiring formal petition in traditional settings, the new evangelicals of the Jesus movement sought to make a friend of his son.
In the rush to depose Christ from his pedestal so that young followers might establish a "personal relationship" with him, he became sexualized-friend-turned- to-lover. Lyrics in which he stood in for an earthly object of affection came to be known in some quarters as "Jesus-is-my-girlfriend" songs. They have drawn no end of criticism from both supporters and detractors of the genre. But the durability of their conception of Christ has left two large questions remaining: What kind of girlfriend has Jesus been? And what does that say about those who crave his affection?
Glenn Dixon, a contributing writer for Washington City Paper, talks about contemporary Christian music as part of the "Cock Rock" discussion at 3 p.m. on Sat., April 13.