No Sex. No Drugs. But Rock 'n' Roll (Kind of)

For those who love it, those who think it sucks, and everything in between.

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No Sex. No Drugs. But Rock 'n' Roll (Kind of)

Unread postby musicmonkey » Mon Jan 31, 2005 10:50 pm

No Sex. No Drugs. But Rock 'n' Roll (Kind of)

Feburary 5, 1995 - The New York Times Magazine (page 40)
By Nicholas Dawidoff

It's a special friday evening service at the Fletcher Emmanuel Church Alive in Lumberton, a quiet East Texas suburb 20 minutes beyond the oil and gas refineries of Beaumont. The parishioners -- mostly white-bread kids in jeans, high tops, and T-shirts that say "Do it God's Way" -- have crammed the pews, lined the walls, packed the gallery, and spilled into the foyer. They are listening to Todd Foster, a traveling Louisiana evangelist wearing tonic in his hair and a crish yellow shirt: "God knows your name and he saw you last Friday night," Foster says, thrusting his head forward and gazing around the room: "Life doesn't always work out the way you want it to, but you listen to me, you praise Him anyway. Some of you young men, if you were to die tonight, you'd go to hell."

Foster is at pains to punctuate his sermon with some phrases of the moment -- "Hey, homeboy, get a clue," he advises at one point. But what he's really offering up to these middle-class kids and their chaperones is old-time religion, and the congregation responds with plenty of fervent nods, murmers and amens.

Still, it's not until a disk jockey from the Beaumont all-Christian radio station mounts the pulpit and asks, "How excited are you about Jesus Christ?" that the place explodes. At once everyone is flowing into the aisles, stomping, clapping and shrieking. The whole church is suddenly wired, keening with the sort of thrilled excitation that you find, well, at a rock concert. Which, suddenly, this Friday night service has become. Four pretty young women with microphones sweep onto the alter. A soundtrack pulsing with synthesizers, drum machines, and a horn section begins blasting loud and hard.

"Are any of you believers?" cries out one of the singers. And as a roar of affirmation rolls back to her, Point of Grace, the hottest new act in Christian rock, rips into their hit single "I'll Be Believing." So as far as Fletcher Emmanuel Church is concerned, the Pointer Sisters have nothing on Shelley Phillips, Denise Jones, Heather Floyd, and Terry Jones.

Of course, that's the idea. Point of Grace is a cleverly derivative confection adapted for Christian teen-age consumption from a series of main-stream pop-group templates: The Andrews Sisters, the Supremes, and En Vogue. The lush harmonies are the same, only the lyrics are different. Here at Fletcher, the front row throng of towheaded girls with braces on their teeth sway to verses like "When the going gets tough when the ride's too rough/When you're just not sure enough/Jesus will still be there." Instead of singing about boys, bikinis, and bourbon, Point of Grace gets 'em with faith, hope, and love.

Between songs, the concert assumes a campfire feeling. "I hope we can laugh and have a good time," Shelley says. "But it's also my prayer that we can lead you in worship tonight." Denise talks gravely about Mercy Ministries of America, an organization that provides care for un-wed mothers and their babies and that Point of Grace supports because the band believe that "Abortion is not and option." Terry describes Point of Grace's vow to remain "sexually pure" until marriage, and encourages the youth of Lumberton to abstain as well. "We did it, so can you." she says, and the church resonates -- almost writhes -- with approval as the synthesizers kick in for another song. The feeling here is almost sensual, which is odd given that the fillip for this latest ecstatic outpouring is a call to chastity. Rock-and-Roll, the music of youthful rebellion and libidinous abandon -- what Jerry Lee Lewis called "the devi's music" -- has been so blithely co-opted as a piston for churchly proselytizing.

After an hour and a half, the Point of Grace concert ends and much of the crowd streams outside the church to a pair of tables piled with merchandise: $12 Point of Grace T-shirts, 2$ black and white photos. Behind the second table sits the group itself. If this is a typical session, most fans will ask for autographs, some will seek religious counsel, and others thank the singers for singing songs that helped them through trying times. A few men and women will lean forward and confide, eyes shining, that during the concert they found the Lord. And a couple of men, caught up in the lights and the beat and the mascara, will ask if Shelley or Heather -- the two unmarried members of the group -- will have dinner with them sometime.

All four of the Point of Grace women are in their mid-20s, with glamorously wholesome looks. Indeed, from their airbrushed CD covers and record shop display posters to their carefully scripted concert patter, Point of Grace is not-so-subtly being positioned as the sort of pristine feminine ideal Christian boys are supposed to go for. Shelley Phillips is Madonna Ciccone, except that Shelley isn't just like a virgin, she is one. The attractive female performers, devout song lyrics and throbbing rhythms seem calculated to arouse even mildly sentient Christian males, and during this humid night in East Texas, the young Christian men of Lumberton would be missing the point if they didn't take notice.

And of course, they do. Todd Foster is standing in the church foyer when the two boys rush up to him. "Where's Point of Grace?" one of them asks him.

"Out back with 700 guys chasin' 'em," the evangelist replies.

"Seven hundred and two," says the boy, and in a dash he and his friend are off."

At the end of the summer, Point of Grace arrived in Arkedelphia, Ark., to play what has become and annual concert for the incoming freshmen at Ouachita Baptist University, the group's alma mater. Situated in a dry county speckled with farms and Baptist churches, Ouachita (pronounced WATCH-a-taw) is a sedate, pine-shaded campus where drinking, dancing, and dormitory room visits by a member of the opposite sex are all forbidden. "The wildest thing that happens around here is that somebody catches a bigger hybrid bass than what was caught before," Ben Elrod, Ouachita's president told me.

Perhaps that explained the large turnout at the Point of Grace freshman concert. It was the first of many times I would see the group perform its material, and while I wasn't terribly smitten -- they seemed like a pale version of Abba to me -- mine was definatly the minority opinion. Particularly enthusiastic was a clump of freshman boys from Texas.

"Awesome," says Mark Jansen, who has seen Point of Grace four times.

The music's something good to listen to," explained Kevin Morgan, who wears a large cross around his neck and a look of intense concentration behind his wire-rimmed glasses. "Something that doesn't influence us negatively. Music has a tremendous power to influence you. I've noticed I can be influenced by secular music and I don't want to put up with that." I asked what exactly he is wary of. "Girls who look good in a tight dress" he responded.

James Howard, a classmate, agreed. "To me the music is tempting," he said. "It's nice to have something else. If you listen to secular music, you have to think about what they're saying. Here the message is simple. It's put into simple terms. You can understand it and you don't have to worry about all the influences you get in secular music."

It occurred to me that provocation was the whole point of rock-and-roll -- the music has always been about confrontation, not comfort. But before I could raise this thought aloud, the students had wandered off, bound for the Family Bowling Center, which the freshman class had rented for the evening.

Three of the four members of Point of Grace few up in middle-class, republican families in Norman, Okla. Heather, Terry and Denise -- who are not related -- sang together in church groups at the Trinity Baptist Church in Norman. They all went to Ouachita. "One night, it was real weird," says Denise, the group's sinewy soprano. "God began to say you can do more with what you have than you're doing." They decided for form a pop group and invited Denise's room-mate, a loquacious blonde from Little-Rock named Shelley Phillips, to join them. Three years later, John Mays, the artists-and-repertoire director of Word Records, heard them sing at Praise in the Rockies, a week-long industry convention in Estes Part, Colo., and signed them up.

Point of Grace's current popularity is such that they could be filling midsize auditoriums. But their manager, Mike Atkins, believes the group should make one more pass through the church circuit before moving up. And so thorugh summer and into fall, Point of Grace spent most of each month traveling across what H.L. Menchken called the Coca-Cola Belt, performing virtually the same show day after day from church alters, signing autographs afterward for long lines of middle-class whites, eating hamburgers and sleeping in budget motels. "If we're not careful, we'd lose the church," said Heather, looking on the bright side, as she always does. "We don't want to do that because our audience is the church and we love the church."

There is also a certain pleasure in being the biggest thing in De Ridder, La., (population of 10,400) on a Saturday night. The four women pulled into that town to discover that the marquees at the Best Western motel, where they were staying, and at the First Baptist Church, where they would perform, sported Point of Grace welcome messages.

That evening, Point of Grace thoroughly charmed the 700 people who turned out to see them. Among the De Ridder teen-agers they reached was Colleen Nasusako. "A lot of the things they talk about...like abortion...it helps me out." she told me. "A lot of my friends drink, smoke, do drugs, have sex. Sometimes it's hard -- I want to be in their group, but I don't want to do the things they do. So I'm by myself. Point of Grace understands the struggles we go through and they help me stand up to it."

When I related Colleen's comments to Point of Grace after the show, they were thrilled. The four women are genuinely sweet-natured and seem to live only to encourage Christians in their faith. They are also the model of what a Christian record company wants from its peformers. They willingly agree to lengthen their skirt hems and are never so indiscreet as to blaspheme or to take a curious sniff of chardonay. "We're probably the squeaky clean little Minnie Mouses of the industry," says Terry. "If there's such thing as an all-American person, that would be neat." Then she reconsidered. "I don't know if I want to be called an all-American, the way America is today. Maybe all-American from the 50s or earlier."

After the concert the members of Point of Grace returned to their rooms at the De Ridder Best Western. Over a dinner of diet cherry-vanilla Cokes and footlong chili-cheese dogs, the four women talked about their interests and concerns. The conversation unfolded as we traversed East Texas roads, passing Baptist churches and watermelon stands en route to concerts in Tyler, Lumberton and Caldwell.

Christianity consumes Point of Grace. They do not know much about other religions, nor do they care to. Still, they believe that everyone -- Buddhists, Muslims, Jew -- should worship as Christians and would be happier if they did. "I would love for the whole world to be saved and know Him like I know Him," says Denise.

In devoting their lives to what Terry calls "God's plan," they live lives of quiet uniformity. Shelley and Heather say they are still virgins, although Shelley's current boyfriend is not. "How can we stand before these girls and those guys and say God's greatest grace is forgiveness if I didn't forgive him," she says. "My boyfriend has now made a commitment to remain pure until marriage." Like the boys at Ouachita, Point of Grace's religion envelops them, cushions them against society and obscures them from it. When Point of Grace sings "I have no doubt," they mean it.

"When I grew up, I was a model child," Heather told me, without a trace of irony. "I never did anything bad. My friends were all from church."

As adults, that's still a fair portrait of Point of Grace. They edify believers with their powers of restraint. They don't only resist profanity, short skirts, tobacco and alcohol. They resist nearly everything. They "don't have time" to read books or newspapers and they listen to little music other than Christian music. They have traveled much of the country, but they have investigated very little of it. For them the next town is pretty much the same as the last: a church and a McDonald's. They are among the nicest, most sincere people I have ever met. They are also quite possibly the blandest.

That is a big part of their appeal. Where soldiers, halfbacks and statesmen falter, Point of Grace and their Christian musical colleagues prevail as exemplars of clean, moral living. Groups like Point of Grace also appear to fill a Christian celebrity void created by the procession of wayward televangelical ministers.

"Preaching in America has really come to a crossroads because of the scandals -- the Bakkers, the Swaggarts," Todd Foster told me in Lumberton. "There's a real controversy about preaching because not everybody knows if the guy up there is a genuine man of God. Singers come across more personal, more friendly. That's part of why singers reach people and ministers don't."

But life as a musical paragon isn't easy. "There's a lot of great church singers," John Mays of Word Records says. "There are very few people gifted with the ability to inspire the masses. I'm looking for that." Mays also worries about "morality problems" and "spiritual maturity" in artists. "There have been a lot of people who are really girted, really talented, sell records, but I can't work with them because of this," he says. "There's tremendous pressure to be perfect when you're public as a Christian."

Keeping up pristine appearences is, in fact, so important to some Christian record companies that they require artists to sign a "morality clase" in their contracts. One Christian record company even produces album covers that include a message from the president of the label: "You have a right to expect that the singers and songwriters live real Christian lives."

Helping Point of Grace navigate the high road is their manager, Mike Atkins. A consipicuously humble and agreeable man, Atkins is known as one of the best in his buisiness, and when he isn't at their side, Point of Grace consults him constantly by telephone, seeming habitually to defer to the manager. He is always available to them. I encountered him one evening just as he was telling the group that he was going hunting and would be out of touch for a while. He'd be gone, he apologized, until noon the next day.

As Atkins sees it, beyond plotting Point of Grace's career, his responsiblility is "to make double sure they maintain their spiritual integrity."

"We want to be examples," he says. "I want people to say: 'I want a little bit of what they have. I want the beauty, the selflessness.' To be more Christ-like -- that's the bottom line. And they are really like that. That's the beauty of it."

One morning, while sitting in his spotless kitchen in suburban Nashville, I asked Atkins how he would respond if a member of Point of Grace committed an unseemly transgression. His leg began shaking under the table. He prayed it wouldn't happen, he said, adding that he hoped he would be forgiving and compassionate. Finally he talked about accountablility. "We'd hope we can help them avoid temptations," he said. He'd better. Errant Christian musicians not only lose their credibility -- they can find themselves out of a job.

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