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Gary Younge

Faith in their art: Evanescence
More Goth than gospel

Stephen Christian, the singer in the American rock group, Anberlin, was wandering around the Gospel Music Association's annual convention in Nashville in April pondering both his music and his mission. "I thought, 'I wonder if Jesus would be in any of these bands? Why would he be here?' God said, 'Why send a doctor to those who are well; I'm going to send a doctor to the sick.' I guarantee you he would have been opening up for the Sex Pistols back in those days."

Quite what Sid and Nancy would have had to say about that is a moot point. But the fact that Anberlin believes the Messiah would have been knocking at their door is indeed a sign. First of all that Christian rock is not quite the happy-clappy guitar-strumming folk scene many non-practising Christians in Britain may think it is. And second, that Christian rock musicians do not quite embrace the agenda that some of their more devout fellow-believers in America might like them to.

It is precisely between these low expectations of a less religious British audience and the high demands of the faithful in America that the Christian rock band, Evanescence, have charted a path to number one with their latest single, Bring Me to Life. The journey has been anything but straightforward. In Britain their religious affiliation has been treated with a mix of bemusement and suspicion. In America their attempt to distance themselves from what people understand by that affiliation has been greeted with boycotts and suspicion.

The trouble started in April when the band's singer Amy Lee and guitarist Ben Moody gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly. Afraid of being ghettoised on the Christian-band circuit, Lee attempted to explain the difference between being a Christian in a rock band and being a Christian rock band. "There are people hell bent on the idea that we're a Christian band in disguise, and that we have some secret message," she said. "We have no spiritual affiliation with this music. It's simply about life experience." Moody agreed. "I'm not ashamed of my spiritual beliefs but I in no way incorporate them into this band," he said.

Left there, it might have started a debate in more enlightened sections of the Christian music community about the responsibilities of religious people in the music world and the role of faith in art. But after a little bit of irreverence verging on sacrilege (Moody described himself as "the guy who was crucified next to Jesus. All I want you to do is remember me.") and a peppering of profanity ("We're actually high on the Christian charts and I'm like, what the fuck are we even doing there?" said Moody) they were well on their way to being evicted from the Christian rock community.

Just to make sure it was a one-way ticket, Lee added: "I guarantee that if the Christian bookstore owners listened to some of those songs they wouldn't sell the CD."

Lee got her wish. Christian bookstores pulled their records off the shelves. "We had a lot of complaints about the lyrics and the sex and drugs," Nathan Zimmerman, the owner of the Lifeway Christian bookstore in Little Rock, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette shortly afterwards. "They offended some people, so we stopped selling them about a week ago. It was like another 'cross-over' band, P.O.D. which we also used to carry."

Christian music magazine withdrew Evanescence's advertising from future editions and asked readers to disregard a review of their latest CD. "We apologise for any confusion this may provide and don't want to provide an endorsement for the band or its message," said Matthew Turner, editor of CMM.

Anxious to preserve its ties with the Christian music world, their record label Wind Up recalled its CDs from Christian bookstores and radio stations and issued a public message of contrition. "We will scrutinise our Christian artists' belief with more diligence," wrote Wind Up's head, Alan Meltzer. "I will personally inform all of our future artists who represent themselves as Christian artists and wish to be represented in the Christian community that in doing so they must understand the lasting commitment and ongoing commitment that that involves."

This was not a full-scale meltdown on the level of the Dixie Chicks, the all-American girl band who fell foul of rightwing radio stations after they criticised George Bush's war plans at a concert in Britain. There was no public destruction of CDs or nationally-organised boycott attempts. But while the response was less shrill it was nonetheless a very public rebuke to a band whose efforts to endear themselves to their broader fan base had landed them in trouble with elements of their most loyal constituency.

"We don't want to put somebody in a Christian magazine that doesn't want to belong there," Turner told the Los Angeles Daily News. "We're about people that are passionate about their faith. If that's not their mission, man, that's fine. They seem to have their stuff together. I believe they are followers of Jesus. I just don't think that when they go out and do music that their main goal is to be there to minister. They're there to entertain. They're there to play rock'n'roll."

None of this makes sense without some awareness of the influence that religion has on American culture, which is all too often either underrated or too readily derided elsewhere in the west. This is a country where 86% consider themselves practising Christians, seven out of 10 people say that the events described in the Bible are literally true and 63% say that religion can answer "most or all of today's problems".

Not all of these are fundamentalist, rightwing, stuffy creationists. It is perfectly commonplace to hear a foul-mouthed comedian tell jokes about blow-jobs and "retards" and then end the set with thanks to the Almighty, for which they will invariably receive the greatest cheer.

After the Entertainment Weekly interview, Moody was keen to set the record straight. "We never said we weren't Christians, we just said we weren't a Christian band," he told Billboard magazine. "Then all of a sudden, we were quite, quite evil."

This is stretching it a bit. As many rock stars get older they try to distance themselves from their hedonistic past; Moody sounds as though he is going the other way. Evanescence certainly look and sound as though they owe more to Goth than Gospel, but the band rose through the Christian rock circuit which provides a ready-made network of venues and audiences for bands starting out. Their lyrics can also have a very religious theme. Take Tourniquet: "My God my tourniquet/ return to me salvation/ My wounds cry for the grave/ My soul cries for deliverance/ Will I be denied Christ."

The truth is there is a substantial market and network for Christian bands that can get hopefuls recognised. "All these bands are able to tour because youth groups and churches have the ability to put on shows," Atlantic Records talent scout John Rubeli told the New York Times. "Like the old punk rock, you have an infrastructure that allows all these bands to play. Because much of it is in the suburbs, a lot of these kids going to the shows aren't even Christian kids but their parents won't allow them to go to rock shows."

The trouble is not so much how to make your name in that scene but how, once you have done so, you can go beyond it to a wider, less devout audience - a particular problem for bands such as Evanescence who want to go global in a western world which is far less religious. It is in a sense precisely the same problem the Christian right have faced in politics - how do you maintain an influence in the mainstream without losing touch with the margins. But while, under this administration at least, they have managed it, the music world seems far less forgiving.

Says Chad Neptune, the bass player for Further Seems Forever: "The problem comes into play when people at some of these places are very judgmental and they have certain expectations of every member of the band and certain premeditated ideas of what you should be about."

And then there is the bottom line: Christianity may be popular among young people in America but it is not yet cool and in its more puritanical guise promotes the kind of lifestyle that sits uneasily with other aspects of youth culture. "I think bands that have a primarily Christian draw can have a hard time being booked at other clubs," says John Tunnel, co-owner of Dreamworld music complex in Arlington Texas. "Not because they're Christian but because their audience isn't going to drink - at least not that much."

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