Jesus Jams 

With Stryper hitting town, we run down some rockin' righteous tunes.

Stryper: Making heavenly metal a commercially viable enterprise.
  • Stryper: Making heavenly metal a commercially viable enterprise.
Stryper fans have two passions: hair metal and Jesus. And thanks to the Orange County rockers, the two ceased to be mutually exclusive when their signature song, 1985's "Soldiers Under Command," broke onto airwaves with a rallying falsetto declaration: "We are the soldiers under God's command." And God commanded that there be shredding solos. The group notched one platinum and two gold records by ripping through faith-filled tunes like "To Hell With the Devil" and "In God We Trust" before disbanding in the early '90s. Now the re-formed battalion has continued fighting the Lord's battle plan with a new tour and the recently released Reborn, a studio album that rewarded pre-orders with an autographed Bible.

Bibles are, in every way, central to Stryper's act. The group is famous for tossing the Good Book into the audience, sometimes literally hitting fans over the head with the word of God. Since the band's 1983 inception, the once-ridiculed notion of blessed metal has become a commercially viable enterprise. Hard-edged Christian music has put up rock-star numbers with bands like the goth-pop Evanescence and the grunge-lite Creed, and even broken onto MTV's heavy-metal showcase, Headbanger's Ball, through brutal, beat-the-sin-out-of-you metalcore bands like the Chariot and Norma Jean.

Clearly then, Jesus rock isn't a novelty. Even before Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips took time out from a recording session to argue whether the devil could have a hand in the Lord's designs, Jesus has been a presence in rock, which grew from the blues, which had roots in the southern gospel tradition. Stryper's white metal is just one example of a six-string-slingin' band name-checking the carpenter from Jerusalem, who raged against injustice so hard that he was put to death. From blind faith to blasphemy, rock references to Jesus cover the spectrum. Like a good sermon, the best Jesus tunes make even nonbelievers contemplate a spiritual message. Here are our favorites:

Norman Greenbaum, "Spirit in the Sky" (1970)
The psychedelic-era sing-along was Greenbaum's only hit, so heaven may well have appreciated the shout-out. Years before the movie Dogma depicted a smiling, winking Buddy Christ, Greenbaum put a different spin on the term "charismatic," casting Jesus as a friend.

R.E.M., "New Test Leper" (1996)
Hailing from Georgia, the members of R.E.M. are southern gentlemen, and frontman Michael Stipe's outspoken sociological views have always been strictly humanist. In "New Test Leper" -- which seems short for "New Testament" -- Stipe finds common ground with the faithful and raises questions about overzealous Christians without questioning Christianity: "I can't say that I love Jesus/That would be a hollow claim/He did make some observations/And I'm quoting them today/'Judge not lest ye be judged'/ What a beautiful refrain."

Slayer, "Jesus Saves" (1986)
If Slayer were Anthrax, the band might have added "(Not)" to the end of this song's title. The mid-'80s saw a gaggle of first-stone-casting televangelists succumb to temptation, caught up in scandals involving sex, money, drugs, and excessive makeup. With their pentagram logo flying, the thrash titans skewered those cash-hungry hypocrites, pointing out in no uncertain terms that there's more to the righteous path than accepting Christ as your personal savior.

Hansoul and Tribe of Judah, "Hot for Jesus" (2002)
Don't mistake the backing band of born-again rhymer Hansoul for the project of the same name featuring former Van Halen frontman Gary Cherone. The two are unrelated, even though the rappers have a song called "Hot for Jesus," which suggests a rewriting of the VH party anthem "Hot for Teacher," but isn't one. Van Halen would do well to seize the missed opportunity and recast its tune along more spiritual lines; Eddie has much to atone for after a stint with former Extreme singer Cherone, a flaccid reunion with Sammy Hagar, and a stubborn refusal to reunite with David Lee Roth.

Showbread, "Matthias Replaces Judas" (2004)
A borderline hymn, this song ends an album of spastic post-hardcore, like the closing number at a wild revival. While the new strains of Christian music are controversial because they're louder and harder, Showbread demonstrates that songs of worship and more extreme forms of music aren't at odds.

Boogie Down Productions, "KRS-ONE Intro" (1991)
In the introduction to the one truly essential live hip-hop album, self-educated rapper KRS-ONE echoes the popular argument that Jesus hails from the Middle East -- and thus, contrary to his depiction in countless Western paintings, was likely as far from Aryan as it gets.

Ministry, "Jesus Built My Hotrod" (1992)
Historical record casts Jesus as a carpenter, but that was long before cars. So it's not much of a stretch for these rivetheads to update his area of expertise, keeping it in the vocational-technical arena. The lyric "I wanna love you," can be read as a statement of yearning by guest vocalist Gibby Haynes, who had a notoriously tough time resisting pleasures of the flesh.

Run-DMC, "Down With the King" (1993)
Needing to show that they could hang with hard-living gangsta rappers, the members of Run-DMC made an ill-conceived attempt to reinvent themselves as tough guys on 1990's Back From Hell. After their spirits and sales went to Hades, the old-school rhymers realized the error of their ways, found religion, and issued this testament to their new faith, amending their previous claims that none is higher than the King of Rock.

More by D.X. Ferris


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