The Magazine

That Old Time Religion

From the March 29, 2004 issue: Goodbye, Babylon brings back early gospel music.

Mar 29, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 28 • By MATT LABASH
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WHEN I WAS A KID, my parents found Jesus, took to Him like otters to water, and left the more traditional churches of their upbringing to enlist as full-fledged evangelicals. Depending on where my military-officer father's assignments took us, we did turns in all kinds of nearly indistinguishable denominations, from Evangelical Free to Bible churches. But we spent the bulk of our time with the Southern Baptists. SBs, as we called ourselves, were steady and without pretense and highly egalitarian--yet still earthy enough to kick dirt on our charismatic, Pentecostal brothers, what with all their emotive pew-jumping and tongues-speaking. If we'd wanted people carrying on from the pulpit in languages we didn't understand, the SBs reasoned, we'd have become Catholics.

In the one-dimensional world of easy secular stereotypes, many mistakenly think that most Baptists have a bit of the snake-handler in them. But the only time I saw a rattler near church--behind the school building--one of the deacons killed it with a shovel. Being Baptist was actually much less dramatic than getting bitten by poisonous snakes. The articles of faith were easy to keep track of. Baptists generally believed that faith in Christ and His redeeming sacrifice earned you salvation, that you would evidence this faith by climbing into baptismal waters one time in your life to get dunked by a preacher in fishing waders, that you were to religiously attend potlucks to which you'd never bring a store-bought sheet cake, and finally (this one was open to some interpretation), that you would refrain from drinking, dancing, and especially drinking while dancing. If you lapsed, you could still ask forgiveness and were in no danger of getting your name scrubbed from the Book of Life. But you were taking your chances in gossip circles--gossiping being Baptists' official sport outside of church, and often inside of it.

The no-drinking-and-dancing planks never bothered me much. Although I've since made up for lost time with the former, I still cite the no-dancing rule, not for moral reasons, but because it keeps me from getting dragged onto the floor at wedding receptions during "The Electric Slide." What did bother me, however, was when my moderate parents briefly fell under the sway of peer pressure, as my youth minister called it. A fire-breathing band of aspiring church splitters (splitting churches between quarrelling factions also being a favorite Baptist pastime) decided rock'n'roll was Satan's theme music. Unlike other zealots of that time, they didn't conduct any record-burning bonfires in the church parking lot, or listen to Zeppelin albums backwards to hear Robert Plant pledge fealty to the Prince of Darkness. What the records said forward was bad enough for them.

This wasn't good news for me. In addition to suffering through the pop offerings of the day--from rock gods like Toto and Michael "She's a Maniac" Sembello--I also regularly dipped into my dad's old soul records, enjoying an introductory course in everything from the Motown sound to Ray Charles, to funkier stuff like War and the Jimmy Castor Bunch. When my parents decided it would be best to lock this vinyl gold away, I was forced, like thousands of Christian kids before me, to cop my music fix in the artistic wasteland known as "Contemporary Christian Music." The moratorium lasted about three years, and it was a dark time for all. Since the Contemporary Christian Music world didn't offer enough selection to be truly discriminating, my friends and I tended to gravitate toward those who'd made their bones in the secular world--closer to what we actually wanted to be listening to. It was our sincere hope that though they were singing for Jesus now, our new idols had once snorted their weight in cocaine and known arenas full of groupies. It was bad for the soul, we reasoned, but good for the music.

We liked Kerry Livgren because he'd cofounded the group Kansas, Joe English because he'd been a drummer for Wings, and Leon Patillo because he'd played keyboards for Santana. Never mind that I hated both Kansas and Wings, or that the Santana résumé-sweetener was nothing to brag about. Considering the band had sixteen lineup changes from 1966 to 1984 alone, it's quite possible that I played keyboards for Santana, and just don't remember.