“Keep on Rockin’ in the Christian World?”
A review of
Sects, Love and Rock & Roll
by Joel Heng Hartse.
Reviewed by Adam Newton.
Sects, Love and Rock & Roll
Joel Heng Hartse.
Paperback: Wipf and Stock, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
I worked in a Christian bookstore for six years, and for most of it, I did so quite happily. Like the vast majority of people who’ve chosen to work in such an environment, I did it because it brought me close to the things I loved – a combination of God, the Bible, books, and music (it helped that I received a decent discount that encouraged me to re-invest into the store). Those six years were spent providing customers with any and all available information on the newest Study Bible, the newest best-selling books (whether fiction or assorted “Christian Living” topics), and the hot new records (courtesy of whatever hit songs were being played on Houston, TX’s award-winning Christian radio station). I liked it, since I loved talking to people about the aforementioned God, Bible, and books, but my real claim to fame was the reputation I earned amongst the mallrat punk rock Christian kids as being “the guy” that could help them find the Christian alternative to the secular music their evangelical parents didn’t approve of.
So, I found myself laughing, groaning, and shaking my head knowingly with every turn of the page throughout Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll by Joel Heng Hartse, a regular contributor to publications like Paste, Geez, Christianity Today and Image (amongst others). It would be easy to describe the book as Body Piercing Saved My Life written by a Christian, but this book is a definitely more personal and intimate in nature. It comes across as an open, honest memoir that chronicles one guy’s journey through the waters of both Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and “secular” music, and how he’s still trying to make sense of that (often false) dichotomy.
The tale is initially appealing is that he’s telling my story, or better yet, he’s telling the story of many late-twenty and thirty-somethings who grew up musically during the heyday of Christian rock music – the 1990’s. What makes the story all the better is that he speaks affectionately about those years and those bands, and he makes no apologies about his love for his favorite bands. I feared that this book could come off as caustic, sarcastic, and snarky, as the author lampooned bands, scenes, artists, and records right and left in an attempt to set himself above the music of his childhood and adolescence. Instead, we’re graced with a poignant tale that combines the transforming power of faith and a journey through minefields of disparate cultures, complete with a fantastic soundtrack.
Key chapters include “Rock & Roll to Please Your Soul” (the author discovers rock music to his parents’ dismay and then proclaims his love for Five Iron Frenzy), “I’m Gonna Love You Anyhow” (the quintessential account of one’s first explorations into “secular” music and young love gone awry), and “Faith and Doubt in the Shalom Zone” (the next step where doubt is contended with and how Seven Day Jesus and Pedro The Lion helped that journey). Hartse is rather upfront in declaring that he doesn’t have the answers, even after all these years of searching, but that’s not going to stop him from continuing to seek after those curious places were faith and art intersect. He’s firm in his belief that Christians should never relegate themselves or their music to any sort of “ghetto,” much less worry about the classic “sacred vs. secular” discussion, but he does understand why that scenario persists.
I do have a couple of quibbles with how the book was constructed. The first resides with the ordering of a few chapters, namely “Everything All The Time” (a treatise on Napster/illegal downloading culture and how that’s affected the music industry), “I Could Sing of Your Love for Ten or Fifteen Minutes” (cogent, heartfelt ruminations on the status of worship music in churches), and “All The Way to China” (a chapter about when the author and his wife spends time in China). With the former two, the content itself is fine, but they would have been better placed towards the end of the book as the author reflects on the larger state of the music industry and CCM, while the latter chapter just seems sort of awkward as it talks about what it’s like to be a white music nerd disconnected from all that he knows while living in a foreign country. My lone real issue with the overall thrust of the book is that it somewhat ignores the state of CCM in the twenty-first century. If, as he rightly asserts, the apex of Christian rock music was the ‘90s, I would have liked to have read his thoughts on what’s happened because of (or due to) bands like Underoath and Norma Jean finding significant traction in hip, non-Christian music circles.
Nevertheless, Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll is an excellent read with a flow resembling a well-constructed series of blog posts by a music nerd, even if it somewhat preaches to the choir a bit. Those of us who’ve made the progression from dc Talk and Newsboys to Starflyer 59 and Sixpence None The Richer all the way to Death Cab For Cutie and Pedro The Lion (and beyond) will treat the book as a pleasant jaunt down memory lane. Hartse is a gifted storyteller because he gives the reader great space to place themselves alongside him as he recounts his journey, and he encourages this sensation by placing a list of five different albums at the end of each chapter that coincide with the themes and ideas just presented. Anyone who’s tried to make sense of their love for music (even though it might be considered verboten in their youth group) and wondered why there have to be such painfully distinct lines between CCM and “mainstream” music will find a friendly, humorous, and earnest discussion partner in the musings of Joel Heng Hartse.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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