Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock

Andrew Beaujon

(Da Capo Press)

There’s a video game coming out soon where you can play as a Christian paramilitary trooper prowling the streets of New York City, capping Muslims, gays, and other non-Rapturable beings while yelling (really) “Praise the Lord!” The culture wars are really getting out of hand. Christian rock, created 30 years ago by Jesus Movement hippies, has spawned a wider Christian cultural market, and it’s gaining ground fast. Now a whole universe of Christian-only media–a Christianized pop culture running parallel to the mainstream–offers a retreat from and defense against the taint of secular entertainment.

To an outsider the entire concept seems doomed to fail, starting with the rock. Here’s a musical form aping a secular style whose lifeblood is venality and sin being shackled to a religion–most often an evangelical strain of American Protestantism–that abhors not only sin but in a lot of cases that kind of music. According to most of the players interviewed in Andrew Beaujon’s new rock-critical-cum-sociological study, Body Piercing Saved My Life, even the fans understand that most of it sucks.

Beaujon–a contributor to Spin and now managing editor of the Washington City Paper in D.C.–spent a year immersed in the Christian rock scene, a secular Daniel in a cave of guitar-strumming lions. With the exception of a few musicians like Sufjan Stevens, Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan, and that Danielson dude who sings from inside a fake tree, almost the entire Christian rock catalog is a celebration of the overproduced and bombastic, but Beaujon handles the task with an open mind. He tries to understand, not mock, the industry that gave the world both Stryper and Amy Grant.

Through interviews with Bazan, Brandon Ebel (owner of Christian punk label Tooth & Nail), and other grown children of Christian rock, he discovers the music’s apparently modest purpose. Like all teenagers, religious kids want to fit in. But for a variety of reasons–faith, cultural isolation, and parental rules among them–the common ground of secular pop culture isn’t available to them. Thanks to Christian artists making pop, metal, hardcore, punk, rap, and indie rock, they can listen to the same kind of music their peers do, only vetted by a church- and family-approved apparatus.

On the other side of the mike, however, things aren’t so cozy. The Christian rock scene can and has produced acts that are actually good, but more often than not, performers good enough to have a choice shoot for secular success rather than remain in the Christian-rock ghetto. As Beaujon points out, the hard-rock band Switchfoot was nominated in eight different categories and won Artist of the Year at the 2005 Dove Awards (sort of the Christian Grammys), but, having already crossed over into MTV semifame, didn’t even show up to accept.

David Bazan provides the book’s most illuminating and compelling commentary on this tension. The son of a Pentecostal pastor, Bazan grew up immersed in fundamentalist culture; he never even heard secular music until eighth grade, when his father relented and let him listen to the Beatles. Pedro the Lion’s early albums made Bazan a hero to thousands of Christian emo kids but also earned him a reputation in the secular indie world. But as his fame grew his lyrics grew increasingly critical of evangelical culture, American capitalism, and the points–including the Christian music industry–where they intersect. Leftist liberation theology, Bazan told Beaujon, “helped me to understand my faith. Not what Christianity is but what Jesus talked about–it’s very much in line with these things I’m starting to think and feel about politics. About the unfair nature of corporate America, the political process, things like that.”

Bazan doesn’t describe himself as Christian anymore, but he still plays Christian rock festivals, where he takes time during his sets for Q and As with the audience. He wants, he explains, to evangelize, but from the other side, to encourage sheltered fans to question their insular subculture and explore the world around them.

Bazan may get through to some, but Christian pop culture may be too necessary to fail. Beaujon’s title comes from a T-shirt slogan popular at Christian rock gatherings–the body being pierced is Jesus’s. It’s one of many familiar catchphrases that kids with faith use to describe themselves as outcasts from the mainstream that, for the most part, shares their faith. Stephen Prothero, in his American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, points out that much of Christianity’s success in the U.S. comes from the American ability to mold Jesus into a customized savior for every believer’s need. This isn’t new: 30 years ago the Jesus people just refashioned JC as the grooviest hippie of them all. The kids of the culture wars–caught between an increasingly fundamentalist culture and an ever-more-pressing material one–need more than just a Christ they can get crunk for. They need a Jesus who’s pro-life and antigay, who can sell video games–and T-shirts too.