When it comes to finding new ways to connect with its audience, only porn can match evangelical Christianity. From the silver screen to the boob tube, from home video to the Internet, evangelicals have never shied from the spirit that drove our country’s many Great Awakenings: Reach people where they are.
That platform-agnostic attitude has brought a lot of people to the church; it’s also engendered some pretty shitty music. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, burned-out and disillusioned hippies were welcomed by evangelical parishes that realized old guys in matching belts and shoes weren’t going to be filling collection plates for too many more years, and soon the sounds of the outside world—distorted guitars, drums, wailing vocals—were enlivening worship from San Francisco to New York City.
This being America, other people soon figured out how to make money off the phenomenon. Bill Hearn, whose father, Billy Ray, founded the early Christian labels Myrrh and Word in the early ’70s, once told me that his dad’s great achievement was realizing there was an audience looking for music that was good but “also had lyrics that affirmed their faith, that was consistent with their lifestyle. Note that last word: Christian rock was destined to become more tool than art once money got involved. And it was a weak tool at that, better for comforting the converted than converting the comfortable.
Still, there have always been rebels, artists who’ve hoped to push audiences, Christian or not. Among them was the New York Tent City Symphony of Souls in Christ, a handful of beautiful, battered souls who in 1970 stumbled on an uninhabited building in Manhattan, where they squatted for a year, hammering on their harmoniums and loving on their Lord. The songs that emerged from this “communion in sound tended to be gamelan-style recastings of Bible passages. The musical style made sense: Hippies are congenitally unable to resist a kitchen-sink approach to music, and the Trees Community (as they eventually renamed themselves) peppered their songs with sitar, Venezuelan folk harp, and Tibetan gongs, among what the liner notes say are more than 80 instruments used on the recordings that eventually became this four-CD box set.
The first disc is a reissue of the group’s 1975 album, The Christ Tree, a self-released LP full of acid folk that’s become something of a holy quest for fans of that sort of thing. (The box set’s first pressing, which includes three other CDs of rarities, is nearly sold out; future pressings will include just The Christ Tree.) It was recorded following what the now-felled Trees Community—on its MySpace page, natch—calls a “pilgrimage without a destination that took it all over North America, banging out wild versions of psalms for monks and churches that probably had no idea what they were in for. (Some did—New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine named the group a community-in-residence when it finally made it back home.)
“Pilgrimage without a destination sums up a lot of these tracks, too, which trade moments of intense beauty, like the pentatonic vocals on “Psalm 45, with riots of banging and clanging that would be welcome at only the most desperate of drum circles. The Trees Community took the idea of evangelism literally, using their music to share the Good News, reinventing psalms as community theater, replete with pitchy vocals, angry vocal choruses, and enough harp to test the will of the most resolute Joanna Newsom fan. There’s stank in the holy water, to be sure, but too often the Trees avant-garde experimentations in pitch and layered voices end up sounding like secondhand Philip Glass.
As befits the community’s hometown, there are also Broadway flourishes as well, like the sing-songy “The Trees Chant, in which one Tree shouts, “the pomegranate, the pomegranate like a guy desperate to keep his role in Man of La Mancha.
Far better are the songs that sound less like Gospel than gnosis. A Portrait of Jesus Christ in Music, a cassette release, largely drops talk of the people in Tyre coming laden with gifts and leads with “Jesus He Knows, a gently, goofily gorgeous worship song that asserts that the Son of Man is aware of “the heartbreak of Mexico/The sun-parched suffering of Spain. The same tape also features a completely bizarre “Chant for Pentecost that’s sort of a speed-read of the Nicene Creed, and a choral “Hosannah that would be familiar to anyone who’s darkened a church door in the past couple weeks if it didn’t sound like it were recorded by people higher than anyone who owns Pootie Tang on DVD.
The impulse to stop putting the Bible to a beat and sing instead about one’s own experience with God eventually resulted in much of contemporary Christian music, to much less charming results. Still, while the Trees were banging away on pots and pans in Gotham, Christians on the West Coast were incorporating more overt pop influences and sowing the seeds of the Christian music industry. They weren’t all bland, either: early artists such as Larry Norman, 2nd Chapter of Acts, and Children of the Day blasted weirdness into the Word with gusto. Oddly, the Trees Community comes off as a little too reverent in comparison—to Bible texts, to cuteness, to more-is-more hippie orthodoxy—to successfully navigate the strange seas where pop culture meets God.
Two of the discs on The Christ Tree present concerts the group gave at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The live tracks aren’t especially revelatory. They’re wild, sure, but the music usually feels like it was a lot more mind-blowing to make than to experience. For a group dedicated to presenting the Gospel in new ways, the Trees Community ended up as a footnote, not because their music lacked passion, or the rock idiom, or focus. (OK, maybe a group that shows up at monasteries with a busload of ethnic instruments lacks a little focus.) It’s because that, for all its length, this box set feels more like lots of you-had-to-be-there moments than a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been had Christians engaged rock weirdness more successfully.
To be an evangelical Christian in America is, for better or for worse, to embrace a free-market worldview—the better the preacher, the more souls he brings to Christ. Indeed, as evidenced by Costa Mesa, Calif.’s crusty Calvary Chapel, which has practically become its own denomination, some ex-hippies made that hard-right turn successfully. But the Trees Community’s membership dwindled to nothing as the ’70s wore on. And when the last finger bell had stopped ringing, and the Trees Community had loaded up their kotos and belanjis and quit town, no one followed musically, either. You don’t have to believe in God to suspect there was a reason for that.