That joyful noise is rock 'n' roll. There's no mistaking the up-tempo back-beat rhythm. We hear it two blocks away as we walk toward the open church doors on a Sunday morning in downtown Nashville, where we're visiting.
Inside, pews are packed with people of all ages in all sorts of clothes, though mostly well-dressed. They stand, sway in unison, lift up their hands and wave them in the air in arcing motions.
The pulpit gleams and bristles with drums, bass, electric guitar, some sort of synthesizer rippling electronic chords. Before the pulpit, young people run and dance, with looping ribbons held aloft, leaving trails of color in the air. Up on the wall is a square of light, maybe twelve by ten feet, containing words of praise cast there by an overhead projector. The words light up in proper singing sequence, so that we may sing along.
Essentially it's a love song to Jesus, and the lead singer is impassioned. Fashionably dressed, he could be a young Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, though styles blend and merge as the music progresses. There is a pause and I resist an impulse to shout "Free Bird!" or "Stairway to Heaven!" at the band, surely an old joke to Christian rockers. It would, of course, be antisocial behavior, even irreverent. The mood here is one of joyous transcendence and spiritual devotion that is emotional, visceral as only old-time rock music married to old-time religion can be.
For me, it's hard to reconcile this atmosphere of spiritual praise with rock 'n' roll. Rock was about something else when I was growing up. It was about independence, freedom, rebellion, love, sex and drugs--the other side of life. This is not to say it wasn't spiritual at times, but it was mostly a pagan-flavored spirituality, a recognition of forces not angelic in origin.
Even the phrase "rock 'n' roll" is redolent of carnal knowledge, and some say--I'm putting it politely here--that the postures and motions of physical intimacy are what the term refers to.
I'm old enough to remember when some fundamentalists, especially Southern fundamentalists, called rock 'n' roll "the devil's music." I remember my older brother, Rodney, telling me when I was about age 7 that he had heard a preacher offer the following theory about the power of rock music:
Rock 'n' roll is so alluring, he said, because it quickens the pulse, mimics the heartbeat of one engaged in making love (again I'm being polite). That's why young people had such an attraction for it, the theory went.
Jerry Lee Lewis, with his suggestive lyrics and Elvis, with his thrusting pelvis, played that notion to the hilt, so to speak. Some churches used to sponsor record-burning parties, to reclaim the young people from the power of the devil's music. Remember the firestorm ignited when John Lennon said in an off-hand interview that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus? Rock was the background for many a ghoulish dark-side concert in the psychedelic seventies.
So when did "the devil's music" become a mainstay of Christian radio and Sunday morning services? Hard to say. Some denominations tolerated electric guitars and drums in the pulpit as early as 1960. I suspect the so-called "Jesus People" of the 1970s helped pioneer Gospel rock in other denominations. The church described above that I occasionally attend with friends in Nashville has roots that go back to "Jesus People" who were inclusive of other races and denominations. Make no doubt about it though, the church is fundamentalist, somewhat literalist and overtly conservative politically.
Gospel Rock, whatever its origins has gone mainstream.
The media have been slow to pick up on the Gospel Rock trend, maybe because it seemed like such a marginal movement. No more. "Newsweek" reports in the July 16 issue, featuring a cover headlined "JesusRocks!" just how pervasive fundamentalist Christianity has become in popular culture. Christian rock, like Christian books, movies and videos, is well on its way to being a billion-dollar industry.
Maybe it was inevitable. Rock music remains the music of rebellion, and in many ways those young people who take a pro-Christian, pro-life, anti-drug, anti-smut stand are rebels against the prevailing culture, just as those of us in the 1960s used rock to rebel against prevailing attitudes back then.
And while I prefer to keep rock separate from faith (I still love the old gospel songs as well as old rock tunes) I understand the drive that brought rock inside the church doors.
The Book of Psalms exhorts us to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord," and nothing is quite as joyful, after all, as rock 'n' roll.