Book Review: Joel Heng Hartse’s “Sects, Love, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: My Life on Record”by Chad Thomas Johnston on Apr 27, 2012 • 6:38 am 3 Comments
Shortly after my daughter Evie was born in October, one of my Twitter friends and followers, Zondervan author David Jacobsen, was kind enough to send me a copy of his book, Rookie Dad. I planned to review it at a time such as this, but then David derailed the whole thing by directing my attention to another shiny book.
You see, after emailing David a copy of my book, The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope, he surveyed the Table of Contents and remarked to me, “You need to check out Joel Heng Hartse’s Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll: My Life on Record. I think your books are thematic cousins.” (Actually, that last line was my interpretation of what he said, as I cannot actually remember the particulars of his comment.)
“My book has a cousin?” I wondered aloud to my infant daughter and five cats. “My book has … family?”
Being the eternally enthusiastic person I am, I sought Joel Heng Hartse out on Twitter and told him that our books were biologically related—kittens from similar literary litters. Joel was curious, but also a little standoffish. After months of online harassment, Joel finally accepted my friendship. Like a stray cat, I kept showing up at his digital door over and over, mewling and purring and marking my territory as I saw fit. As it turns out, Joel’s standoffish demeanor is one of my favorite traits of his. He reminds me of a cat in the way he is content to enjoy conversation one minute, and eager to retreat the next. People with retractable claws are fascinating.
Joel offered to send me a PDF of his book, but I bought a copy for my Kindle instead. I wanted him to know I believed his book was worth something. As I began reading it, I began sending Joel comments via Twitter. Lots of them, in fact. Enough that Joel replied, “You know, you don’t have to make comments about every page, Chad.”
But I did, Joel. I did have to comment. How could I not comment? Reading his book was like discovering proof that I had a musical brother my parents never told me about. It was as though we’d been separated at birth like He-Man and She-Ra, or Luke and Leia (although, for the sake of clarity, in this scenario I am He-Man and Luke Skywalker).
One of my other writer friends, Addie Zierman, maintains a blog called How to Talk Evangelical: An Annotated Glossary, and her site is proof that Christianese is a language that only those of a certainly cultural bent are likely to speak. In America, it is not all that difficult to find people who “speak (Christianese) fluently,” as singer-songwriter/film director (Blue Like Jazz) Steve Taylor puts it in his song “I Want to Be a Clone.” It is an altogether different thing, however, to find someone who speaks the language and loves the underground equivalent of this sub-culture’s music.
I know plenty of people who grew up listening to the “mainstream” equivalent of Christian music. Artists like DC Talk, Michael W. Smith, and Audio Adrenaline sold hundreds of thousands of records, if not millions. Joel listened to them, too, and so did I. But Joel and I dug one layer of strata deeper in the musical sub-culture and found a whole other weird world waiting beneath. It was as if we had stumbled upon an outtake from the 1959 film version of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, which featured Pat Boone playing the accordion long before he covered Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” Strange stuff was happening beneath the surface of the Christian music industry, where Carman and Sandi Patti sang for stadiums filled with people.
This Carman reference, of course, reminds me of the review I wrote of this book for Amazon. I will quote it here because this is my blog, and I am not above quoting myself. I am writing this at 5:00 a.m. anyway, running on fumes because I cannot sleep. Joel is about to become a new parent himself, and he may experience this restlessness in his own sleep as adjusts to the strange nocturnal rhythms of parenthood.
But I digress. Here is my Amazon review:
“As the son of a minister, I grew up listening to CCM as if it were the only music that existed in all the world. As a nine-year-old, earning one dollar a week in allowance, I saved up for ten weeks so I could buy Carman’s 1985 album, The Champion. I was rabid for that record.
Some years later, I discovered Nirvana’s Nevermind, and then Radiohead’s OK Computer. My little CCM world had become a bubble with a permeable membrane, and outside influences were threatening the exclusivity of my devotion to Christian music. At age 33, I recognize CCM as a musical subculture of its own, like the British punk movement of the ’70s or the shoegazer movement of the late ’80s/early ’90s. My CCM records now rest comfortably alongside my secular records, making my collection truly post-modern.
Joel Heng Hartse’s book perfectly captures what it was for me to grow up as a CCM junkie. His writing is witty, insightful, and irreverent (which prompted one reader in a forum somewhere in a dark corner of the Internet to write, “Gee, I just don’t know if the author of this book is a Christian at all. He uses swear words!” Gasp!). He writes as an unwavering music obsessive who has lived a life parallel to that of Rob Gordon in Nick Hornby’s record-store-clerk manifesto, High Fidelity. The passion is palpable. The stories are personal and memorable.
That being said, if you grew up listening to any CCM whatsoever—be it “mainstream” acts like Petra or Carman, or underground acts like The Prayer Chain (my all-time favorite band as a teenager) or Sixpence None the Richer (who went on to experience a mainstream, flash-in-the-pan success that completely blinded the world to the artistic integrity of the band’s back catalog)—this is a book for you. This is a book about faith and growing up and rock ‘n’ roll and church camp and relationships and doubts and more rock ‘n’ roll and mixtapes and awful praise and worship songs that should be classified as torture on par with waterboarding.
Buy it, and follow Joel on Twitter. It is worth mentioning that he follows only one user: His wife. Go ahead and say “A-w-w-w-w” if you’re not wishing you had an airline barf bag to ralph in (although it is admittedly adorable). Joel, if you’re reading this, thank you for writing this beautiful book. You’ve made the CCM experience a little more legitimate for the rest of us underground-dwellers.”
I stand by that review.
Joel later paid my positive review forward. He and film critic Jeff Overstreet apparently both told IMAGE Journal Editor-in-Chief Greg Wolfe about my writing. Greg contacted me shortly thereafter when a writing position opened up, and now I am writing about sects, love, and rock & roll for IMAGE’s “Good Letters” blog. Joel, meanwhile, is working on his PhD dissertation, which has little to do with sects, love, or rock & roll. I hope, however, that it enables him to do what he loves. He knows I will be there at his doorstep—mewling, purring, and marking my territory once again—when he finishes his degree. I am glad he considers me a friend.
I still owe David Jacobsen a proper review as well. Maybe I will get to read all of Rookie Dad by the time my second child arrives. I will probably still feel like a rookie dad, after all. I love my daughter dearly, but sometimes I still cannot believe she is real. She is every bit as surreal as Pat Boone singing Metallica, if not even more so.