Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll
Experiences in Evangelicalism series
Joel Heng Hartse
Cascade Books, 2010
Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll is a cleverly titled book. Its subtitle, “My Life on Record,” provides a clue that the book tackles the subjects autobiographically.
Joel Heng Hartse reflects on his 30-ish years of life as a music fanatic, and how music in his life has intersected with faith and doubt, sex and love, evangelical and secular culture. He describes with clarity how his evangelical upbringing, Catholic high school, and liberal arts Christian university all played a part, as did a myriad bands of whom you may or may not have heard.
The autobiographical writing and regular references to specific bands aren’t encouraging at first – it makes you wonder what meaningful impact his somewhat unremarkable life story will have on readers, especially those who don’t fit into his particular Christian/music subculture. Hartse isn’t afraid to alienate certain audiences. For example, he appears to look down on the frosted-haired snowboarders at his college who didn’t like Pedro the Lion. (If you don’t know who that is, you’re probably among those who would feel alienated.) He might argue that the snowboarders aren’t his intended audience anyway, and I’d grant him that, if only because it would allow him to continue being flippantly and entertainingly opinionated.
In that is a saving grace: Hartse doesn’t take himself too seriously. This book made me laugh out loud – and that takes a lot.
Even if you don’t care which indie band was instrumental in drawing him to a Christian university, Hartse’s self-deprecating wit and pithy footnotes are more than enough to keep your interest as he tells you his journey through his infatuation with the Contemporary Christian Music industry as a teenager, his college campaign against it, and much more.
I was a captivated reader because, though our musical tastes differ, his relationship to popular music and Christian culture is remarkably similar to mine and he is able to encapsulate it much better than I ever have. Like Hartse, I was a teen in the ’90s who loved/hated the Christian music industry at points, and emerged from the ’90s playing in Christian bands desperate to not be called Christian bands. Hartse not only took me on an enjoyable nostalgia trip, but provided a much deeper look at some of the choices we both made along the way.
For those who weren’t teens in the ’90s, the book offers something else: insight into the worldview of a large number of Christians who grew up in the 90s. There may be some things there that they don’t like. As someone in music ministry, I was reminded of the things I didn’t like about church music, before I got involved in church music.
Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll challenged me to return to some of my idealism. I could see it challenging others to accept the sincere Christ followers whose story Hartse tells. By the end, there are some fabulous gems of wisdom and music.