Looking back at "Hell's Bells"

Andy Rau

Remember Hell's Bells, the famous Christian expose of rock music in the 1980s? I never saw it myself during my impressionable high school years, but I did hear all about it from friends who had seen it. Well, Hell's Bells has been re-released on DVD, and Stephen M. Deusner has an interesting review of the video, viewed 20+ years after its debut.

Not too surprisingly, he concludes that it's not a very good video, relying on strained conclusions and poorly-researched facts to make a case that might have been worthwhile had it approached its topic more rationally. Deusner observes in conclusion:

From my perspective now, it's apparent that Hell's Bells is, at its core, more than just a dated piece of Christian propaganda: The documentary is a piece of musical and cultural criticism, albeit one with vastly different criteria than most mainstream music publications.... As such, the documentary actually makes a few valid points: Yes, music was needlessly oversexualized and exploitive during the 1980s, and it has only grown more so in the ensuring decade and a half; yes, Mötley Crüe's misogyny is particularly disgusting; yes, violence and hate can make some forms of music unpalatable; and yes, Diamanda Galas is pretty much unlistenable.

Regardless, its criticism repeatedly proves ineffective, mainly because it completely misses the larger point: a lot of this music is really silly.

I think Deusner has hit on a good insight about Christian engagement of pop culture. We often mean well, but we push the point far beyond credibility, needlessly sabotage our argument with shoddy research, or (in the case of this video) both of the above. Personally, I think both of these traits were well in evidence when the first Harry Potter books/movies came out--reading early Christian critiques of the Potter books a few years back, I often had a nagging sense that the critics were "missing the point," regardless of the accuracy of their theology. Christian engagement of the Potter phenomenon, like Hell's Bells' indictment of secular music, was earnest--but it was also clumsy, ill-researched, and off-putting.

What do you think? What can we learn from past efforts, good and bad, at confronting popular culture? Looking around at Christian culture today, do you think we're doing a better or worse job of challenging culture with our beliefs?

Topics: Music