IN 1979, BOB DYLAN regaled a Tempe, Arizona, audience with a show consisting entirely of songs from his two most recent records—the ill-received Christian albums Slow Train Coming and Saved. A born-again with an ex-Jew's wrath complex, Dylan peppered the set list with snarling sermons that drew the heckles you'd expect. When some lost soul shouted "rock 'n' roll!" he got a memorable response: "If you want rock 'n' roll, you go down and rock 'n' roll. You can go and see KISS and you can rock 'n' roll all the way down to the pit!"
This, frankly, should happen more often. Dylan's case of Christianity cleared so quickly his fans tend to regard it as they would a spate of acne—ugly, brief, meaningless—but in 2005, when Sufjan Stevens' Illinois made the modestly Christian singer/songwriter a cause célèbre, I found myself longing for Dylan's sermonizing rage. Atheists/boosters for Stevens hurriedly forgave his faith: Sufjan was Christian, but that was okay, he wasn't one of those Christians. One of what? You know. The ones who try to save you.
Here's the thing about being saved. If you think I'm going to Hell, I'd like to be warned. Stevens, whose reticence doesn't extend much beyond his faith, and whose hyperactive ambition eventually won me over, nevertheless writes such nonjudgmental religious songs (see also: Bono. Irish, but raised Anglican, which I suppose explains it) that listening to him refuse to condemn me feels like being sung to by someone who wouldn't push me out of the way of a bus. Yes, it's my choice to be standing out here, but obviously I'm a moron. Christian Dylan wrote a song called "When You Gonna Wake Up?" That's what I'm talking about.
Christianity and rock 'n' roll are famously irritable bedfellows, but as much as rockers may protest Christians' uncool "intolerance," it's really mildness that lets us down. Even the exultant praise blaring from a million interchangeable punky four pieces seems too satisfied, too insular. We like to be yelled at. Do you like Black Flag's first record? Do you also like beer? Henry Rollins is about as contemptuous of it as Dylan is of Satan. Do you like Johnny Cash? (You should. Partly because, if you don't, he'll rise from the grave, appear before you, and stare you to death.) Johnny Cash wrote a song called "The Man Comes Around" in which he drawled a quote from Revelations before proclaiming that there was "a man goin' 'round takin' names" and that "everybody won't be treated all the same."
There's more to music than confrontation, just as there's more to Christianity than fire and brimstone, but Cash's second line lies somewhere close to the heart of rock 'n' roll, which is ultimately as exclusive as it is communal—anything that's been since inception the Official Music of Youthful Rebellion, anything this idealistic and dumbly ambitious, is on some level dedicated to separating the righteous from the unrighteous, the filthy from the clean, even if it prefers the filthy. There's more juice and savage artistry in Dylan's warnings of a wrathful God than in a thousand U2 songs about grace. So let's rock 'n' roll all the way somewhere—the pit, wherever. As long as it's somewhere.