“Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll” — A Critic’s Memoir of Music and the Church
One of my colleagues from the college newspaper, who introduced me to several bands I still listen to, has a hilarious new memoir exploring his musical and spiritual coming of age in the ’90s and early aughts. Joel Heng Hartse, who’s reviewed music in Paste, Beliefnet and Christianity Today among others, gave a reading Thursday night for Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll at the Christian hipster coffeehouse near our alma mater in Seattle. For anyone who grew up in conservative Christianity and the Christian-rock subculture that surrounds it, or wants to understand the evangelical’s perceived dilemma between their faith and love of pop, Joel’s book is a great read.
Or I assume it is – I only bought it tonight, and what follows are my recollections of Joel’s talk. But the selections he read made me cackle uproariously and grow nostalgic for our shared experience in college.
Something like a taller, blonde version of Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, Joel is a lovable nerd in the mold of The Big Bang Theory geniuses. He was temporarily (and amusingly) silenced by some spicy medical drink his wife gave him in the pre-reading mingling, forcing him to return to me for a proper hello and how’ve-you-been a few minutes later. A music lover at heart, Joel had three alumni who fronted bands in our college days perform between the selections he read: Lacey Brown, Erick Newbill (whose former band, Wes Dando, gave such a great performance on a preview weekend that it convinced Joel to attend the school), and Noah Star Weaver, frontman for both glam-rock band United State of Electronica, one of my favorites, and dream-pop Wonderful.
Joel’s encyclopedic knowledge covers the Christian and secular rock oeuvre starting with grunge, through ska and emo in the late ’90s, and to today’s eclectic indie scene, epitomized by folk-turned-electronic songwriter Sufjan Stevens (whose music I first heard through Joel). In the book, Joel “riffs on bands ranging from Weezer to Creed, from Sufjan Stevens to dc Talk, from Jeff Buckley to mewithoutYou, mixing laugh-out-loud humor with thoughtful reflection to explain how his obsession with rock & roll has shaped his faith, and how living in the shadow of God and guitars can transform all of us,” according to the writeup for the reading. You can see a brief excerpt from Joel’s recent reading in New York, describing his first encounter with music on the Internet, below.
With the air of a self-deprecating scientist analyzing a failed experiment, Joel told us – mostly a wide array of college friends, now with droopy eyes, blubber and other perturbing signs of age – about the shame (and secret, naughty pleasure) associated with pop music in evangelical circles in the ’90s. Bands like dc Talk and Audio Adrenaline had near-perfected a secular sound with a Christian message, convincing parents and pastors their kids weren’t missing anything “the world” offered. Joel said he was particularly offended at an Audio Adrenaline show when one of the band members went beyond the standard altar call and told the audience, flat out, the music was meaningless, nothing more than a trick to convert them. It was a major turning point in his view of music’s role in faith. (And a pretty good trick – try not bopping your head to AA’s catchy party pop. I served as a roadie for their show when they passed through town in high school.)
An evangelical newly enrolled in a Catholic high school, Joel explained his confusion at encountering people who added a bunch of harmful things to his pure Christian doctrine (this is the “Sects” part of the book). He also bragged about his success in “running organizations into the ground,” first with a social-justice group on campus (he protested the WTO in 1999) and later when he took over the radio station, where his inability to get along with the station’s new adviser (a phys ed professor, of all people) prevented the station from opening on time that year. “We’re f—ed,” he told another station leader. (You’ll notice hip evangelicals rarely observe their youthful prudishness on salty language as adults.)
One of the more entertaining selections has Joel, starved for musical fellowship, attempting to join a Chinese death-metal band when he and his wife moved to China after college (he’s a Ph.D. student in linguistics). Armed with passable Chinese but not the experienced bass player the band was looking for, and dismissive of metal in general, Joel described his comedic meeting with the band and its waifish frontwoman, whose guttural scream contrasted with Joel’s preference for melody. It didn’t help that he showed up for his audition in preppy attire.
The evening ended, fittingly, with the coffeehouse blaring several hit songs from dc Talk, including “Jesus Is Just Alright.” Joel’s wife Sarah (who, incidentally, was illustrator for a political campaign I managed in college) served a cake made to look like the book cover. Like the book, it was delicious.