“Make a joyful noise to the LORD,” Psalm 100 tells us.
Christians have listened. And in the last 50 years, boy have we listened. From the days of the post-Woodstock Jesus Movement to post-9/11 worship music, many a Christian music maker has tried to ensure that the devil not get all the good music.
But in The Jesus Music, a thoughtful, fun and at times provocative documentary from Jon and Andrew Erwin, we see that the noise wasn’t, and isn’t, always so joyful. Over the decades, many have wondered whether it was even to the Lord.
According to The Jesus Music, what would become contemporary Christian music (CCM) started in a way that would make hipsters everywhere smile: “It was all word of mouth,” CCM superstar Amy Grant recalls in the documentary. “All so underground.”
She was introduced to the music at a little Tennessee coffee shop when she was just 14. “I don’t remember the coffee being that great, by the way,” she admits. But the music—very acoustic, deeply faithful—had her hooked.
She and others were listening to one-time hippies disillusioned with the failed promises of the “flower power” movement. Free sex and drug use wasn’t the cure-all they promised. But Jesus? That was something different.
Artists such as Keith Green, Larry Norman and the Resurrection Band were creating the soundtrack for a new movement—one built on Jesus, and one that has continually evolved throughout the decades.
Grant, Michael W. Smith, TobyMac and Kirk Franklin—all figures from what some might consider the 1980s and 1990s heyday of CCM—are our prime tour guides through this musical odyssey, but we hear from loads of others. The Erwin Brothers wrangled a who’s who in the world of CCM for this doc. The film is so packed with folks that some big players seem like they’re here and gone in less than a second. (It was nice to see Dan Haseltine from my favorite band, Jars of Clay, show up; it would’ve been even better for me, as a fan, to hear him speak.)
And we hear plenty of music from these artists, as well—giving us a taste not just of the progression of CCM, but its stylistic breadth and diversity.
That said, The Jesus Music points out another form of diversity that has been lacking.
What we think of as CCM is, for the most part, dominated by white artists. Black artists such as Franklin have struggled to be accepted in the CCM mainstream. “If the Church really believes we are one body,” Rap artist Lecrae says in the doc, “the Church will tear down those divides.”
It’s not the only pain point explored in The Jesus Music.
The Erwins note that CCM’s biggest critics have often come from inside the Church. “My parents would’ve rather me gone to jail for murder than to be a Christian rock singer,” says Skillet frontman John Cooper, only half in jest. CCM Magazine founder John Stylls quips that some lyrics from Christian superstar Larry Norman would never be played on Christian radio today. “[They] might not even make it into the documentary,” he quips. (The rough lyrics do, by the way.)
One of the movie’s most poignant moments comes when it shows famous televangelist Jimmy Swaggart telling his congregation that Christian rock was “of the devil” and “a diabolical scheme of Satan.” Michael Sweet of the Christian metal band Stryper—who says his whole family was saved when watching Swaggart preach on television—was crushed. “To me, he was like family.”
Even as CCM became more accepted in mainstream church circles, both the industry and fans struggled with how to respond to artists who fell short of God’s perfect plan. When Amy Grant divorced, she says she became “damaged goods.” We see a clip of Franklin (who’s admitted to infidelity and a pornography addiction) talking with a Christian protestor on a sidewalk with the protestor refusing to shake his hand.
The doc spends some time with Russ Taff, an important figure in Christian music in the 1970s and ’80s. When CCM Magazine wanted to do a cover story on Taff, the singer told them he was an alcoholic: If the magazine wanted to back out, Taff said, he’d understand.
“If I were to take everybody out of the magazine who had some sin problem in their life,” said Styll, “we’d publish blank paper.”
And under it all, the film hints at a vexing undercurrent inherent in not just Christian music, but sometimes in Christian ministry itself. The success of the CCM movement was staggering; people could, and do, suggest that all that success was God’s doing—and of course, ultimately, they’d be right. And yet that very success comes with temptations and pitfalls. Ultimately, motives can become mixed. When Smith reads a passage from Amos from The Message, it packs the power of a sledgehammer:
I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to Me?
But the movie’s refusal to slip into hagiography gives this project its power. The Jesus Music, as a historical look at its subject, is fascinating on its face. Its willingness to dig underneath the skin adds poignant, sometimes convicting depth. And that what makes The Jesus Music worth watching.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.