The Jesus Music: A Visual Story of Redemption As Told by Those Who Lived It

Reviewed by:

G. Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.


The Jesus Music: A Visual Story of Redemption As Told by Those Who Lived It


Marshall Terrill


K-LOVE Books

Publication Date:

October 5, 2021




208 Pages


Christian music has come a long way from its early days when LPs were sold in church sanctuaries. But how did Christian rock become such a big phenomenon? What made it so controversial? Marshall Terril’s companion book to the documentary Jesus Music unveils the surprising history of how Jesus hippies in 1960s California created a new music genre, their struggles and successes as the music developed into something that would fill stadiums.

The Jesus Movement has reentered the spotlight in a big way, but with differing views on it. On the one side, books like Jesus Revolution (and the movie adaptation) give controversy-free highlights of the period. They emphasize how surprising it was that twenty-something hippies in California would start a Christian revival, but don’t dwell much on the culture clash with older Christians (or explain why the clash happened). They also tend to end their narratives after the Jesus Movement peaked in 1972, highlighting how it got a generation into church and set the foundations for Christian rock, nondenominational church plants, and numerous other institutions that defined evangelical culture.

On the other side are books like Jon Ward’s Testimony and the 2005 documentary Frisbee, which consider the Jesus Movement’s chaotic moments, whether the institutions it spawned were always positive. Lonnie Frisbee played a key role in bringing Jesus hippies to Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel, but many church leaders he helped abandoned him later. The revolutionary spirit of the Jesus Movement—a willingness to break church norms, even criticize the government in an attempt to live out Jesus’ countercultural values—gave way to the conformity of the Reagan era, and then the anger of the evangelical culture wars. Along the way, some who had been central to the Jesus Movement (musicians like Larry Norman) got left behind.

This book makes it clear that, like the associated documentary Jesus Music, it will fit solidly into the first camp. There are comments about how Christian rock’s early days were wild and crazy days, but the closest the book gets to a wild and crazy story is a Christian rock DJ breaking speed limits getting to work every morning. Firsthand perspectives on the period are mostly limited to comments by Greg Laurie, who keeps things light with stories about discovering Larry Norman records in a Christian coffeeshop. The mavericks are mostly limited to one paragraph about Rich Mullins, with no mention of how often Mullins critiqued the materialism he saw in Christian music. All this is definitely telling one side of the story, but for a coffee table book, it tells the story well.

The only thing that feels clearly odd or manipulative is the book’s final chapter. Terrill transitions from talking about Christian rock’s 1990s successes to telling a story about record executives realizing Napster’s piracy had destroyed their business model. From this troubling story about how Shawn Fanning and his friends changed (destroyed?) the music market in the 1990s, Terrill tells a story about how Christian music took a new direction. He retells Michael W. Smith’s anecdote about feeling called by God to make his first worship album, which premiered the day that 9/11 occurred. From there forward, at least as Terrill tells the story, worship music bands like Hillsong dominated the Christian music market.

The way Terrill changes the subject twice makes it sound like he’s skipping over the question, “what happened to Christian rock?” Telling Smith’s story makes it sound like worship music’s dominance was God-ordained—but Terrill doesn’t make this claim explicit, or consider what happened to Christian rock after 9/11. Others (such as Joel Heng Hartse in Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll) have been more upfront, stating that Christian rock reached its peak in the 1990s, and has faltered since. Still others have admitted that Napster wrecked everyone, worship musicians included—Andrew Peterson details in Adorning the Dark how he and other Christian musicians struggled in a post-9/11 market, and how they built a support network that laid the foundation for the Rabbit Room community. Of course, many have noted that perhaps none of these factors matter when digital music production and internet distribution mean Christian musicians don’t need to fit the Christian music mold anymore. Who needs to brand themselves as “the next Amy Grant/Michael W. Smith/Steven Curtis Chapman” to make Christian FM radio’s approved list, when they can be their own unique sound and amass a huge following on Spotify?

Terrill’s technique feels like a strange switcheroo that avoids giving clear answers to what has happened to Christian music in the last 20 years, while ending on a vaguely inspiring note. Part of the problem may be that K-LOVE Books released this book. A book publisher owned by a Christian radio network isn’t going to release a book admitting apps like Spotify have broken Christian radio’s monopoly on what counts as Christian music.

Biased and oddly manipulative at the end, The Jesus Music still does it set out to do. It’s a frothy, mostly challenge-free, coffee table look at the Contemporary Christian Music industry, but that’s precisely what its audience desires.


Rating (1 to 5 stars)

3 stars

Suggested Audiences

Readers seeking a short, fun overview of Contemporary Christian Music from the 1970s onward.

Christian Impact:

Terrill gives a few anecdotes about how musicians have struggled to fit Christian music fans’ expectations for Christian behavior, which may prompt a discussion about where grace and rebuke fit in a Christian entertainment industry.

NOTE: ECLA Readers who enjoy this book may also enjoy the following:

The Jesus Music: A Visual Story of Redemption as Told by Those Who Lived It

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