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Book Review: Let's Back Up a Bit.

Kelvin Wright —

BRETT WILSON CASTLE PUBLISHING, NEW ZEALAND, 2020. 262PP. ISBN 978-0-473-53464-6. $26.95.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Western culture had delivered unprecedented advances in science, technology and medicine. It had also delivered a world-wide depression, an influenza pandemic, two world wars, the Holocaust and thermo-nuclear weaponry. The generations born after World War Two, into the shadow of these planet threatening dangers, reacted against the mores and ideas of their forebears in a revolution which found its focus not on any particular ideology or philosophy, but in the search for a whole new way of being. The badges of this change were seen in clothing, hairstyle and (especially) music. The new music–rock ‘n’ roll with all its various sub genres–became the rallying point for a global generation of young people living with the existential angst of nuclear war and planetary decay. And the new music became something of a dilemma for Christianity.

As the new music steadily engulfed the world the church watched on apprehensively. For the church, by and large, was identified not with the rebels, but with those being rebelled against, and regarded rock music with anxious dread. When I was converted to Christ, as part of the Jesus movement of the early ‘70s, my pastors told me to burn all my records, which I obediently did. For me, the musical void was filled by classical music, but a number of people took a different route, forging out a territory in that ambiguous space between the new music and Christian decorum. Brett Wilson’s Let’s Back Up a Bit is a record of the New Zealand manifestation of that process.

Wilson is a musician who seems to have met and performed with many of the major players in the New Zealand Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) community. The 262 pages of the book contain seven interviews with a range of Kiwi musicians who have each been influential in the development of CCM. These range from those like David and Dale Garratt whose contribution has been largely to worship music, to people like members of the groups Hoi Polloi and The Newsboys who have managed to build international reputations and reach audiences well outside a purely Christian context. The interviews are each prefaced by a brief outline of the biography and contribution of the interviewee. The book begins with an autobiographical introduction and ends with an Outro in which some of the major questions around CCM are briefly raised; but the great majority of the book is given over to verbatim records of the interviews.

The book is well paced and very easy to read. There are times when Brett Wilson’s voice is almost as present as that of his subject, so that the tone is that of a chat between knowledgeable friends rather than that of a formal interview. Some of the conversations seem to have been done by telephone and most seem to be a more or less verbatim record of a single conversation. In providing this record of the development of CCM Brett Wilson has admirably fulfilled one of his stated goals, that of preserving knowledge for future generations. The record is in places anecdotal and patchy and there was often a lot of shared understanding between Wilson and his subjects that went unexplained. A few footnotes would have been welcome in some places. The variety of people and the range of their experiences over several decades gives an informative overview of the development of CCM in New Zealand and of the breadth of their combined understanding. The range of interviews is the great strength of the book, but it is also, paradoxically, the greatest weakness.

The people interviewed give tantalising vignettes of their various lives and careers, but the size of the book doesn’t allow for much depth in working through the important issues of CCM for theology, church practice or personal understanding. What, exactly, is “Christian” music? How does Christian music relate to music in general and to the wider New Zealand culture? How do the pressures of playing in a popular rock group impact on someone’s walk with Christ? How does one deal with fame and (in a few instances) sudden wealth? In a large gathering of people listening to rhythmic music, where do the effects of group dynamics and autosuggestion end and the power of the Holy Spirit begin? How does music change as the musician’s faith matures and develops over the decades? These and other questions are hinted at in Wilson’s outro, and many of his subjects refer to them in passing but the book doesn’t work through them at any great depth.

Of all the interviews in the book I enjoyed the ones with Steve Apirana and with members of Hoi Polloi the most, for their honesty and depth. I was previously unfamiliar with Hoi Polloi but have found them on Spotify and have written much of this review with them playing in the background; so I’m grateful to Brett Wilson. He has widened my knowledge and no doubt that of others. In this he has helped further some of the enormous giftings of the Body of Christ. He has provided, an accessible and very readable record of this particular aspect of the church’s history There is another book to follow at some time in the future which unpacks the big theological and sociological questions surrounding the history of rock and the church’s fraught relationship with it. Let’s Back Up a Bit is not that book, but will provide an invaluable resource for whoever writes it.

Kelvin Wright is a retired Anglican clergy person who lives in Dunedin.