Friday, November 14, 2014

Musicians' Gambit: Stryper

From the October 2011 E-Block.
The band Stryper, in my high school days, was controversial just on the basis that it seemed impossible that there should be anything as oxymoronic as a "Christian heavy metal" band. Today, as it happens, they are enjoying a revival, so our survey becomes just as relevant now as then, as we ask: How much "meat" is there, theologically, in what they present? This will be a rather objective study for me -- since even in the 80s, as now, I was badly tone deaf and hardly understood most of the words in songs like these!

We'll start with selections from the 1980s, and this one, which is apparently programmatic of Stryper's mission:

The hair is long and the screams are loud and clear.
The clothes are tight, earrings dangling from the ears.
No matter how we look, we'll always praise His name.
And, if you believe, you've got to do the same.
Loud, clear, let the people hear.
Scream, shout, show what it's all about.
Loud, clear, let the people hear.
Scream, shout, show what it's all about.
Some of us were always pushed around in schools.
That's why I wrote this song to sing to pushin' fools.
At least we can say we love doin' what we do.
And we're here to say that you can have salvation too.

There's not much meat here, to be sure; but there wouldn't need to be for such a thematic presentation. Arguably Stryper was using their very appearance and identity to good effect, using the very shock value to reach others: "Wait a minute. A Christian heavy metal band? Really?" It's much the same effect I strive for in my efforts on YouTube. ("Wait a minute. Cartoons on Christian apologetics? Really?")

The two sides of the debate which emerged, and still might:
  1. "Such appearances denigrate the Gospel! They shouldn't look like the world." That was apparently the take of Jimmy Swaggart when he condemned the band – all the more ironic given Swaggart’s eventual fall from grace. I can well imagine he’d say the same of my work.
  2. "We must be all things to all men -- and this can reach people who otherwise would never hear the Gospel."
The debate won't be settled any time soon because it can't be -- there are examples in which each can be true. The question is whether a given expression so leans towards 1 that it compromises on 2. The question here: Where does Stryper fall? Based on this song, their goal as expressed was to reach for 2:

I've changed my ways from wrong to right.
The devil never pays, no, he robs just like a thief in the night
So many bands give the devil all the glory
It's hard to understand, we want to change the story
We want to rock one way, on and on.
You'll see the light some day
All say Jesus is the way.
Satan is a fool and it's so insane.
Some people think he's cool, you play with fire,
You'll feel the pain.
Why lose when you could win? Give God a try.
The devil's not your friend, the truth is not a lie.
I've changed my ways from wrong to right
Evil never pays, no, the truth is not a lie.

Even as a preterist I can't help but commend a group that is so bold as to call Satan a "fool" -- and so directly strike the heart of a countercultural conception of Satan as a figure to be admired. Moreover, such a message could hardly have endeared them to other heavy metal bands or many typical heavy metal fans. If their goal was to be like the world for the sake of it, this was not the way to do it -- or with lyrics like this:

They say that rock and roll is strong
But God's the rock that makes us roll
Don't need no drugs to help us push on
We've got his power in our souls

On the other hand, even at this early date we could see a bit of the unfortunate overfamiliarity with God creeping in, as here...maybe?

You know I really love you
Your love is beautiful, lasting and true.
I've searched for a true love for such a long, long time
Now, my search has ended, yes, cause you are mine.
I'll always love you and I'll always tell you so
As long as I'm with you, my love I'll always show
Whenever I'm sad and feeling real blue
I begin to feel happy as I sit and think of you.
I think of your face and your personality.
You are so beautiful, you mean everything to me.

I say "maybe" because I am not clear on whether the subject of this song is God -- or some person. The concrete terms (like "face") point to the latter -- unless these fellows were covert Mormons! I found a few other songs of this type as well, but have no memory of them on Christian radio (and nor does Mrs H -- and she DID understand them!).

On the other hand, this one was clearly speaking of God:
Some people think they're happy, livin' for themselves.
But when they're sad they long for something else.
And you can find the answer in an honest way.
To get you thru the sadness, to start a whole new day.
We've found a life that keeps us happy.
Yes, we have and we'll live eternally.
We'll always have the light to see, and so can you.
Are you feeling lonely?
Are you feeling blue?
Does your life seem empty?
You know what to do.
You say you've go some troubles, yeah, oh so many downs.
You need a light to lift you off the ground.
And if your life feels senseless, just accept the Lord.
And He'll make you see things you never have seen before.
An everlasting life abounding, oh yeah.
Yes, He will and He's always giving more.
And His light will never stop shining, it's for you, yes it is.

This is an early (yet mild) expression of God as therapeutic. It has a ways to go before it reaches the almost pathological overfamiliarity of "I Can Only Imagine". Other songs by Stryper offer similarly mild expressions, but are balanced out by bold, in-your-face challenges like this one, which establish God's transcendent superiority:

We are the soldiers under God's command
We hold His two-edged sword within our hands
We're not ashamed to stand up for what's right
We win without sin, it's not by our might
And we're fighting all the sin
And the good book -- it says we'll win!
Soldiers, Soldiers, under command
Soldiers, Soldiers, fighting the Lords battle plan
Are you a soldier under God's command
Help fight the good fight, join us while you can
The battle that's waiting is fought so easily
Through Him, without sin there is victory
And were fighting all the sin
And the good book -- it says we'll win!

It is also interesting to note that Stryper did a rendition of Battle Hymn of the Republic!

Since that time, apparently, Stryper has become somewhat disillusioned with Christian music, and I have to say I can’t blame them. Judgmental and ignorant leaders like Swaggart certainly did little to encourage them with their surface judgments. While I doubt Stryper was perfect in all they expressed, their critics appear to have been too distrustful of innovation to understand what was going on – and I cannot help but wonder if that fear of innovation had anything to do with the insipid contents of today’s Christian music.

No comments:

Post a Comment