The Jesusification of Popular Culture

Stephen Van Eck

In the late 1960s, revolution was in the air. More than a mere political objective, it was a generation’s expression of thorough alienation from the values of the mainstream culture, including religion. Alternative values were being developed and manifested. A new culture was being born—some called it the “Age of Aquarius.” Yet in a few years, things had pretty much returned to the previous norm, almost as if the counterculture had never existed at all. What happened?

The end of the draft and the winding down of the unpopular war in Vietnam took away the major impetus for discontent and rebellion. The economic boom of the sixties gave way to the “stagflation” of the seventies, and people no longer had as much economic leeway to experiment with unremunerative lifestyles. With jobs harder to come by, there was more pressure to conform to conservative norms to win the approval of employers.

The preceding would be sufficient to explain a grudging, hypocritical concession to conservative values. But the return to these values was more than superficial. It comprised a wholesale abandonment of alternative modes of thought. This requires a more—shall we say—”fundamental” explanation.

As society started to change during the 1960s, the most conservative elements of society panicked. The forces of political reaction were unleashed. Prominent among these forces was religious fundamentalism. The change-phobic members of society were offended and disturbed by increasing sexual openness, black militancy, and women rejecting their traditional roles, and they seized upon religion as the best way to halt or even reverse the tide of changes that alarmed them.

As a result, religious proselytism in­creased throughout society as a whole, and special effort was made to evangelize the counterculture. There, would-be evangelists found sheep ripe for shearing. The sixties counterculture was primarily nonintellectual and at times even anti-intellectual. Lacking the sophistication to understand the fallacious case for Christianity being presented to them, much less to resist the psychological tactics being utilized, naïve members of the counterculture too easily fell prey to it—similar to coming down with a virus. Too many had a naïve idealism that left them not only susceptible to, but defenseless against, evangelism.

It was easy to sell Jesus to them as some kind of proto-hippie: he was depicted as having long hair, a beard, sandals, no job and being against the authorities. But the “hippie for Christ” would all too often become a conservative redneck. A disingenuous countercultural appeal was the vehicle for steering people to a conservative culture even worse than the one the counterculture had rejected. It was a fateful, even stunning accomplishment.

Religious affiliations had bottomed out in the mid-sixties. But by the mid-seventies, cultural observers were noting the explosion not merely of religion but of archconservative fundamentalist Christianity. Though mostly a matter of liberal Christians becoming conservative ones, a significant percentage of the growth in fundamentalism involved former members of the counterculture.

It was the fieldwork by missionaries that made their influence on popular culture possible. The way religion affected popular culture can be traced through the music of the period. Quite early on, Andrew Lloyd Webber discerned the growing interest in Jesus among the counterculture and exploited it with his hugely successful rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. Though superficially hippie in appeal, it gave a boost to Christianity throughout society as a whole. Stephen Sondheim chimed in with Godspell, an updated Christian narrative featuring a street-mime Jesus whose followers were contemporary young ragamuffins. Both shows contributed songs to the pop charts; the title song of Superstar, done by tinny-sounding marching bands, was for years the bane of football fans’ existence at halftime until the arrival of the theme from Star Wars.

Other religiously themed pop songs that got airplay*:

• Put Your Hand in the Hand (Anne Murray). Can I put my foot in the rump instead?

• Spirit in the Sky (Norman Greenbaum). I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a problem with someone named Greenbaum doing a song that says, “I’ve got a friend in Jesus.”

• Amazing Grace hit simultaneously for both Judy Collins and the Royal Scots Dragoon Band, who did a more authentic bagpipe version. Judy Collins can be blamed for elevating Amazing Grace to a level of popularity that has regrettably never receded. Sorry, I’m not a “wretch.”

• Presence of the Lord (Blind Faith). Because Eric Clapton was never part of American fundamentalism, and because this didn’t actually chart, I can forgive him.

• Are You Ready? (Pacific Gas & Electric). No, I’m not, and I never will be.

• Operator (Manhattan Transfer). “Give me Jesus on the line”? Why would he need one?

• Speak to the Sky (Rick Springfield). If it speaks back, you need meds.

• The Lord’s Prayer (Sister Janet Mead). A nun singing the “Our Father” actually was a hit in 1974. Really.

• Jesus Is Just Alright (The Doobie Broth­ers). Just alright? Not any better than that? This song was originally recorded by the Byrds. The Doobie Brothers used it to open concerts at locales deemed to be on the conservative side.

• I’ll Take You There (The Staple Singers). No, you won’t.

• By the Rivers of Babylon (Boney M). Psalm 137, minus the horrific last line, set to reggae music that sounds like “How Dry I Am.”

The religious Right scored a major coup when Roger McGuinn persuaded folk messiah Bob Dylan, a nominal Jew, to take an intensive Bible study course taught by fundamentalist Christians. Dylan came out brainwashed, and everything he’d been told he repeated in his hit 1979 album, Slow Train Coming. This was so gratifying to the conservatives and Gospel musicians in the Academy that they gave him Grammys for it, including—strangely enough—Best Male Rock Vocal.

The brainwashing wore off before long, and Dylan could only pretend the entire episode had never occurred. So has classic rock radio. But by that time, the religious Right had taken over the Republican Party and elected a president with the participation of former hippies. The counterculture had become a distant memory most people never thought about at all. Except for a slew of peculiar songs, it was like it had never existed.

 

*“Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds (1965) does not qualify. The lyrics are from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, a skeptical book that tends to contrast with Judaism and only made it into the canon out of the mistaken belief that Solomon was its author. Pete Seeger wrote it without any intent to propagate Christianity. It was not a product of the Jesusification of the culture but merely preceded it.

Another song left off the list is “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison, which subversively turns “Hallelujah” into “Hare Krishna.” Although, its popularity probably does owe a lot to the increased religious obsession of the times. Harrison insisted its melody was based on the chords for the Gospel song “Oh Happy Day,” as was “He’s So Fine,” the crappy pop song Harrison was found guilty of “unknowingly” plagiarizing.

 

Stephen Van Eck

Stephen Van Eck was rasied a Catholic but has been a freethought writer and activist for thirty-eight years. He lives in rural Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.


Too many had a naïve idealism that left them not only susceptible to, but defenseless against, evangelism.

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