The publisher offers this one sentence description of Mark Anderson’s memoir Jesus Sound Explosion: “A preacher’s kid looks back on a childhood bounded by Godspell and the Moral Majority.” While that is an accurate and catchy sentence, it is difficult to unpack exactly what it means. Explosion is not really a simple chronological narrative about the author’s childhood but neither is it simply an examination of the cultural and spiritual issues he wrestled with growing up. The story combines Anderson’s memories and emotional reflections to create a sort of commentary on a unique subculture of American life.
I won’t try to outline the basic story because it isn’t very complicated. It simply follows Anderson’s life from childhood and the teenage years to college and eventually adulthood and marriage. The form is largely chronological but its structure is more snapshot and vignette then linear history. The focus is on the emotional and cultural rather than the historical.
In its basic form Explosion is about the struggle to come to terms with the values and ideas your parents hand down to you – especially when they clash with your own developing feelings and beliefs. In this way it is a universal story about becoming your own person within a family and a community. The tension comes from the interaction of two unique cultures that impacted Anderson’s life: evangelical Christianity and rock music.
From the very beginning Anderson portrays this tension as a clash between conformity and fundamentalism on one hand and exploration and open-mindedness on the other. Mark feels the pressure of the close knit church community; the pressure to conform to the spiritual and social values preached to him in church and at home. But as he grows older he also feels the pressure of his peers and of the larger world. He wants to listen to popular music, he becomes interested in girls, he wants to be like everyone else. As a teenager this means rock music, parties, alcohol, and sex. His parents are a sort of pivot point: evangelical but liberal, concerned about the impact of culture but unwilling to enforce strict rules, not interested in “jazzy music” but not paranoid about it either. They are at the center of a dichotomy Anderson highlights between those who are “of the world” and those who are not.
Mark loves his parents and wants to please them but is ultimately unable to resist the attractions of the world. In fact, he increasingly feels that being “in and of the world” is what makes him happy. He moves from talking his mom into allowing him to buy a relatively harmless Glen Campbell album for show and tell at school to having a huge collection of rock music and going to concerts. He alternates between guilt and spiritual re-dedication at summer church camp and sex with his girlfriend and getting drunk at parties.
The Evangelical backdrop to this story gives it its unique flavor. Obviously coming of age stories are nothing new but Anderson’s unique voice comes from his place in the evangelical culture and his eventual antagonism to it. His reflections are almost sociological. He tries to look back and understand what made these people tick, what was driving their actions and feelings, and how he reacted and interacted with them. Why did he end up where he did?
I will admit that I found the story interesting yet frustrating. Perhaps this is because I grew up in a similar environment and experienced many of the same tensions but came to a different conclusion spiritually (if not always behaviorally). Still, I believe that the writing is strong enough and the story universal enough to be attractive to people no matter what their background. As I noted above, the story has sociological value because its insight into the people, issues, and ideas of the period. It is a sort of literary version of history from the ground up.
The weakness, in my mind, is its lack of strong conclusions. Anderson does a good job of describing the emotions he felt and their impact on his life but offers little in the way of conclusions. He rejected the faith of his parents but seems not to have replaced it with anything. He feels comfortable pointing out the hypocrisy and rudeness of fundamentalism but fails to explain the ugly debauchery and violence often connected to rock and roll. In other words, he really doesn’t offer any criteria for judging what is right and wrong, good or bad, ugly or beautiful except his own emotions. The story descibes his changing actions and his feelings but not any real coherant decision making process.
The story mirrors this intellectual weakness. The early chapters are strong on narrative and pace but the ending sort of fades. Anderson tries to tie up some loose ends and bring the story to a close but leaves the reader with a melancholy and restless note about returning to his polyrythmic life; about John Coltrane as therapy. One definitely gets the feeling that Anderson will be filling in these details with another book.
What you are left with is a sort of emotional tour of growing up evangelical. An interesting, and at times insightful, description of the culture and personalities of a particular time and place. The book captures the tension, guilt, and doubt that abound as a person struggles to become his own person; especially when that clashes with those around him. What Jesus Sound Explosion fails to do is give these personal experiences a deeper or broader meaning. As a result it lacks the power it might have had. Even with this weakness, however, it remains a unique and moving book, and one worth reading.
For more see this interview with the author.