Heaven knows there’s plenty about Christian pop that’s ripe for spoofing. (Witness those pseudo-evangelical musical numbers in satirical movies like Saved! and Palindromes.) So you may assume that somebody had savagery in mind when you hear that first-time filmmakers Vickie Hunter and Heather Whinna, a self-declared agnostic and atheist, went to the Cornerstone Festival — basically, the born-again Bonnaroo — to shoot a documentary about Christian rock. They really went there to shoot Ichthus in a barrel, right?
Surprise. Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?, just out on DVD, is the first truly balanced and outstanding document of any kind — movie, book, etc. — that’s been produced about Christian rock since the genre started to emerge in the late ’60s.
Whinna and Hunter don’t pretend to cover the whole scene or get into its history. But they do take the road less patronizing by concentrating on some of the more convincing alt, emo, and thrash-metal bands they came across at Cornerstone, including some, like Pedro the Lion, that could — and do — pull their own weight at secular punk clubs. And though Satan and/or sensationalistic instincts must have tempted these documentarians to focus on pious knuckleheads (and there are some of those), their better angels prevailed, and they mostly favor the smarter, more self-aware musicians and fans they found, including a lot of tattooed guys with a healthy sense of irony about how their faith-wrasslin’ riffs must sound to the non-devout. While they do afford glimpses of a Stryper reunion, which could provide plenty of camp value, they devote considerably more time to the avant-garde Danielson Famile, who enjoy critical acclaim even among rock critics who haven’t darkened a church door in decades.
The film is likely to appeal to evangelical viewers who, like the rockers on screen, earnestly fret over the thorny issues of how to mix theology and pop culture…and also secularists who may just see the whole scene as a fascinating freak show. Non-fans of the genre are interviewed, like a secular ‘zine editor who recalls enjoying a show by the Christian ska band the OC Supertones…until the mid-set prayer. (”I knew I didn’t want to have to make up my mind about God at a rock show,” he explains.)
Famed indie producer Steve Albini, who happens to be Hunter’s boyfriend and has produced a couple of the cooler Christian bands himself, has an appropriately cynical take: ”The stuff that bugs you is kind of like a perky version of those little newsprint cartoons, the Chick tracts… If we make it dumb enough, if we put it in comic books, then people will get it. There’s Christian rock that’s like that. Like, if we just say these same things that people have been saying for a few thousand years, but if we say it with a spiky hairdo and some bouncy music, then we’ll get the kids to listen. That aspect of it, that it’s being used as a tool by the church as a larger force, that bugs people.”
But some of the Christian rockers themselves make the same criticisms and talk about how they try to overcome the contradictions of marrying an essentially uplifting message to sometimes bone-crushingly aggressive music. Josh Caterer, who used to lead the secular band the Smoking Popes, is upfront about the artistic hurdles he’s faced since his conversion. ”A lot of the stuff I was writing with the Smoking Popes was about failed relationships. I employed a lot of melancholy images… I find it’s a lot more of a challenge, because the message of the gospel is really a positive thing — it’s good news. So the question is, how do you sing consistently about good news without it coming across being cheesy and just sort of trite?” Perhaps the Lord, as they say, will make a way.