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Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Stryper

Chris Willman

Twenty-four-year-old Robert Sweet loves Jimmy Swaggart.

“Jimmy Swaggart is the world’s biggest evangelist now,” he says. “Whether you agree with him or not, he reaches an audience that’s tremendous, that’s huge.” Sweet hopes that someday, God willing, he and his friends will reach just as large an audience with their ministry.

Of course, if Jimmy Swaggart, who happens to believe that rock ‘n’ roll— any rock and roll—is inherently of the devil, was ever to witness that ministry, he might double over in cardiac arrest.

Swaggart’s fervent admirer happens to be the drummer for Styper, a relentless heavy-metal band that puts the message of salvation up against 150-or-so decibels’ worth of thundering drums, screaming twin lead guitars, and holy wailing. All four members of the group appear on stage in skin-tight, yellow-and-black striped outfits generously decorated with leather and studs. That doesn’t exactly help them get a cameo appearance on Swaggart’s telecast, either.

Black and White Attack

Were Swaggart ever to actually come out and denounce Stryper from the pulpit, he wouldn’t be the first evangelical pastor or religious leader to do so.

Stryper has found acceptance in the more youthful pockets of the born-again revival, and a favorable article on the band in the evangelical mainline Christianity Today seems a sign of conciliation among more traditional factions as well. However, the group is still the target of scattered picketing, boycott threats, and righteous denunciations. More than a few pastors, it seems, remain wary of having their church youth groups turn into simulated beehives.

Sweet’s answer to the critics: “We put forth a new way of evangelism. God never continues to work in the same way. He does it for the same reason, He does it for the same purpose, but He raises up different people in different ways.

“God is a God of personality. Since we’re not all the same, not all our ministries are going to be the same. I think there’s a large attack among the Christian world on Stryper to conform to what the Christian world considers to be ‘Christian.’”

A little eccentricity is one thing, but doesn’t Stryper stretch the boundaries of permissiveness to the outer limits? When a good portion of the church has only recently been reconciled to the idea that contemporary Christian music doesn’t belong on the syncopation bonfire, isn’t the decidedly less peaceful sound of heavy metal a tad too aggressive to be paired with the benevolent Word of God?

Sweet has an answer for that one as well. “Jesus was real aggressive when He took the whip and smashed out the moneychangers in the temple. The Bible is full of times when God was aggressive, but for holy reasons. God doesn’t lay down on the couch.”

“Devil Horns”

The pinkies are missing.

That’s the first of any number of assorted oddities a veteran heavy-metal concertgoer is likely to notice at a Stryper concert. Of the hundreds or thousands of kids pumping their fists in the air in time-honored metal fashion, very few are offering the upraised forefinger-and-pinkie salute that resembles “devil horns” and has evolved into a neo-satanic sign. Instead, the faithful point a single finger (not the middle one, save a few hecklers) heavenward, their studs- and leather- encased arms rhythmically raised toward the Rock of Ages in furious 4/4 time.

If hard-core heavy metal and evangelical Christianity seem unlikely candidates for partnership at first, die-hards on both sides of the fence begin to think differently after hearing a few songs. Neither side, after all, is known for its subtlety. So, in theory at least, Styper just might be the ideal meeting of message and medium.

And there’s no mistaking on this or any other night just what Styper’s message is. Lead singer Michael Sweet (Robert’s brother) tosses New Testaments by the dozens into the sweaty, grabbing hands of the crowd. He also occasionally flings out a cassette of the band’s self-titled debut mini-album on Enigma Records. The album’s metal isn’t watered down, as you might find on a Christian label. In fact, it’s so genuine that when the music stops for a vocal fill, you half-expect Ronnie James Dio to sing something like, “Have an evil day!” What comes out instead is “Jesus is the way!”

“There are a lot of bands out there who stand for evil, who stand for Satan, who—even if they use it as a gimmick—are influencing a lot of people to veer that way.” Says Robert Sweet, the band’s spokesperson, at the home in Cypress, California, that doubles as their office.

“There are a lot of those. But there’s only one Stryper. That’s it. No other metal band is doing what we’re doing. But there’ll be more, because Jesus said in the last days there’ll be a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit. So it will multiply.

“We stand for a whole new movement. What we’re doing could change the whole face of rock ‘n’ roll…from evil to good.”

For most Christian observers of the general pop scene, that sort of prediction goes beyond the realm of idealism into pure fantasy. But Sweet’s dreams shouldn’t be discounted too easily. Too many have already come true.

Styper’s Skyrocket

Before Stryper came into being, the Sweet brothers formed the nucleus of another heavy-metal band, Roxx Regime, which was purely worldly in nature. The Sweets were familiar with the doctrine of Christianity but not the practice of it.

“Me and my brother had accepted Jesus in 1975. We were young at the time we did it.

“A guy we knew walked into our rehearsal studio in 1983, and said, “If you change your group around and glorify Jesus, you’ll go straight to the top. You’ll be like a Concorde that’s sitting on the runway. Locally, when your name starts spreading around town, the tires will start moving and engines will turn on. But if you just take a bold stand, Jesus will make you fly across the nation at the speed of sound. If you backslide, your Concorde will be parked in the hangar and your band will totally fall apart.”

Sensing the Spirit at work, the Sweets quickly mended their backslidden ways and rewrote their lyrics to reflect exclusively Christian concerns. They replaced the group’s two more dubious members with believers, Tim Gaines and Ozzie Fox, and changed the name to Stryper, because it rhymed with “hyper.”

Not long after, an acronym occurred to Sweet: Salvation Through Redemption Yielding Peace, Encouragement and Righteousness. The Styper logo was designed with the “T” in the shape of a cross, and the verse Isaiah 53:5, which reads “By His stripes we are healed,” was tagged on underneath. To this day, the bands logo never appears anywhere—on record jackets, on stage, or in ads—without that verse.

After a few club dates on the Los Angeles scene, Styper signed a three-record deal with Enigma Records, the biggest independent label in southern California. Last year’s six-song mini-LP debut, Stryper , has sold at least 85,000 copies so far, according to the label—or more, according to the band.

It seems the press has decided en masse that a Christian heavy-metal band is the most bizarre novelty since multi-colored toothpaste. Feature stories recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times , Rolling Stone , BAM , Billboard , and Rock , among others.

Interest from overseas seems to be even heavier at times. The metal-specialty magazines Kerrange in England and Bang in Japan each devoted two full-color spreads on the band. Los Angeles TV stations came out to film and interview the band, as did Entertainment Tonight .

The capper came when a full-color photo of the band accompanied a story on Christian pop in Time magazine last March, focusing heavily on the band and quoting an entire verse of the group’s “From Wrong to Right.” Record companies with much more clout than Enigma couldn’t come close to buying that kind of publicity, and most Christian musicians, however pious, have thus far been unable to pray it into being. A new album, Soldiers under Command , was completed early this year. In March, Stryper headlined the 10,000-seat Anaheim Convention Center near Disneyland, with Rez Band opening the show. It was only last September that the group was still playing Hollywood’s 500-person-capacity Troubador.

Dangers of Success

Any normal 24-year-old who had gained such fame in such a brief period of time would surely have embarked by now on a massive ego trip. Robert Sweet, however, still seems to be on a massive God trip. At the end of each list of the band’s growing accomplishments, he is careful to humble himself and offer the glory to God.

Sweet is a very serious, earnest young man, never cracking jokes or offering the casual asides that one expects from most musicians. His constant references to Jesus might seem overbearing to some, even by evangelical standards. However, in concert he lets his drums do the talking, and the music brings the kids like a siren song.

“The biggest fruit that you can see is people accepting Christ,” he says. “Jesus said, ‘If you don’t believe Me for what I say, believe Me for the miracles that have been done.’ And that’s what I say to people. If you don’t believe us because you have a problem with the way I look, if you don’t believe us because we play rock ‘n’ roll, why don’t I sit you down and read just a few of the fan letters?”

Patty Gannon is a 22-year-old one-time Black Sabbath fan who became a Christian because of the group. She now answers mail and does other tasks for the increasingly busy band. She steadfastly believes that Styper would never sell out, no matter what.

“People say, ‘Wait till you get big and you forget where you got it from.’ I don’t think that’ll ever happen, because God is constantly there. You can’t ignore His presence. Every time we’re out of God’s will, things don’t go like they should, and we know why,” Gannon says.

Going to the People

The road to success hasn’t been entirely draped with palm branches of welcome. In a musical genre where smiling—let alone praying—is considered heretical, Stryper isn’t always greeted with adoration. Yet the group gets even more brickbats from the other side of the fence.

At a concert in Corpus Christi, Texas, in early March, for example, the band was greeted by protesters armed with bullhorns and tracts. “It was just like if Ozzy Osbourne was there. They gave us the same treatment,” laughs Daryn Hinton.

Hinton, a vivacious 30-year-old who helps manage the band on an unofficial basis (“God is the manager,” she tells anyone who inquires), ought to know about pressure form the church. She was sent to her first Styper concert as an assistant to a southern California pastor who often conducts anti-rock crusades.

Instead of going back and telling him how blasphemous Stryper was, however, she tried to explain how mightily God moved among the patrons at the concert. The pastor remained unconvinced, and he continues to berate Christian rock from the pulpit. Hinton quit her post and now devotes most of her time and money to the cause of Stryper’s ministry.

Sweet will agree that Styper’s music offers more milk than meat, but he argues that evangelism is a far worthier goal for Christian musicians than merely playing for and edifying the church.

“A 15-year-old who’s into Iron Maiden doesn’t turn on the TV and relate to the evangelist who’s talking to the Christian who’s been six years in maturity to Christ,” he says. “The youth of America—who are the adults of tomorrow, which is a very important thing we must think about—need someone they can relate to.

“I really think there are a lot of closet Christians—younger people who are afraid of peer pressure, who aren’t strong in Christ and are afraid to stand up for the Lord Jesus Christ. And I think that as groups like Stryper—and Stryper’s just one of them—come up under the calling of God and take a stand and become popular to give that glory back to God, we’re going to see bigger Christian audiences grow at concert scenes. Not to be of the world, but to be there as the light shining in the darkness in the rock ‘n’ roll arenas.

“So many Christian people say, ‘Stay out of those places. Don’t go there.’ But if you don’t associate with the world, they’re not going to know what the love of Jesus Christ is. If you cut yourself off from them, how is anybody ever going to accept Christ? That’s what evangelism’s all about—going to the people who need it.”

Spiritual Fan Mail

Shane Hayden is a senior at Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights, California. The 17-year-old fan was calling Stryper’s office to find out when the second album would be coming out (the answer: probably June), but he’s eager to offer a testimonial as well.

“I was a mediocre Christian who would go to Wednesday night Bible study and Sunday services and play the innocent. And then weekends I would party. It wasn’t right,” Hayden says. He would usually do that partying to the accompaniment of Ratt, Dio, and Iron Maiden. He even went to see a band called Roxx Regime, which he recalls, “wasn’t that good. You could see the anger in their eyes.”

A friend took Hayden to see Stryper last year at La Mirada Civic Center near Los Angeles. Though he came dreading “choir bells” or the like, he left with a “spiritual high” and says he’s been “straight ever since.” Part of it was the music. “I’ve seen Motley Crue, I saw Styx, Kiss, Triumph. To me Styper blows them all away.”

But part of it was personal. Hayden called up the office after the concert and talked to Robert Sweet. “It was not like these other bands… ‘Hi. Bye. Thanks a lot.’ He talked to me and explained things to me. They really care about their fans.”

The Stryper office is filled with letters from teenagers (and an odd parent and grandparent here and there) that offer similar stories. Daryn Hinton estimates that at least 500 letters a week flow into the well-publicized post office box (Box 1045, Cypress, CA 90630). And the phones are rarely on the hook. Sweet points to that kind of reaction to prove that Styper has an enormous evangelical impact, even though the band—as its Christian critics are apt to point out—doesn’t offer an on-stage altar call.

“I think Jesus had very few altar calls,” Sweet says. “I think John the Baptist had very few altar calls. It’s not how you go about it, it’s how the Spirit goes about it. Today in Christianity, I feel that we’ve had a standard way of leading someone to God. There’s nothing wrong with altar calls, but it’s how you present your situation. And I feel that a lot of people are blown away that Stryper takes a stand very boldly, and then doesn’t try and shove it down anyone’s throat. I think a lot of people automatically go, ‘That’s what I need and that’s what I want’—and accept Him.”

Hinton relates that in Dallas, Sweet was signing autographs backstage when he suddenly announced, “It’s not our autographs you want! You want the Lord!” She says that about 75 people said the sinner’s prayer right then and there.

Steve Van Zant is an assistant pastor at Lakewood Assembly of God church in California and hosts a cable video show called Off the Wall . He was suspicious of Stryper at first, but now says he’s “overwhelmed by the ministry side” of their music.

“Yes, the hair’s long and the earrings dangle, but my Bible says man looks upon man and God looks upon the heart. I say look at the results. I went to the Santa Monica Civic show, and I saw people with Iron Maiden T-shirts screaming [obscenities]. Yet at the end I saw these same guys with their heads down, and people were gathering around them, soothing and talking to them. That, to me, is lives changed.”

The Way of the Heart

Judging by fruit is one angle from which to view Stryper. Detractors see things another way. The band may get results, but the means don’t necessarily justify the ends—the means in this case being the band’s dressing and performing in seeming emulation of heavy-metal bands. And Stryper does employ some of the most inane trappings of the metal genre—like the way the lead singer coaxes more applause by feigning deafness and repeating, “I can’t hear you!” or punctuates every other between-song break with a rousing, “Ohhhhh, yeaaaahhhhh!”

“How about if the Christian mows his lawn just like the sinner next door does?” Sweet proffers. “Is he conforming to the world? It becomes ridiculous. The Jewish Pharisees said the same thing to Christ: ‘How can He be the Messiah—a carpenter’s son from Galilee?’ See they were expecting the Messiah to be something different. Especially today, Christian people have gotten off track. Looks are deceiving. There is no ‘look’ to Christianity.

“And the Christian who makes those comments is spiritually immature and is being irresponsible and is opening up the door to lead a lot of people straight to hell. Because he’s saying ‘you can’t go to heaven except if you go by the standards of the way I say that you look.’ And that attitude has turned more people off from the kingdom of heaven.

“ I think if everyone is filled with the Holy Spirit, they’re going to have the love of Christ so much that they’re just going to be concerned that people come to the Lord, instead of getting off on the trivialities of what a real Christian is supposed to look like.

“I try to imagine God coming back to the battle of Armageddon wearing a suit and a tie. Give me a break! There’s nothing wrong with suits. I love suits. Someday I hope to have many—custom black-and-yellow striped.

“But let’s not put Christianity and the way into a box,” Sweet insists.

The Last Call

At the recent concert in the Anaheim Convention Center, Stryper apparently has a change of heart about altar calls. After the last encore, Robert Sweet comes to the front of the stage. He announces that, although they hadn’t planned to do it, they’ve been led by God to invite fans to repeat the sinner’s prayer. He says the band is going to make it a practice to do so from now on.

Michael Sweet attempts to explain that running with the Devil isn’t as fulfilling as other metal bands have made it out to be. “You either go to hell and you rot, or you go to heaven and you party down,” he says.

Robert Sweet then speaks to the crowd. “If you don’t have Christ, repeat this after me. Alright, let’s go for it! Come on now, mean it in your heart.”

The drummer leads the prayer, which a good percentage of the crowd repeats aloud: “Heavenly Father, I come before you now. I want You to be the Lord of my life. Forgive me for my sins. Make me what You want me to be…and that includes rock ‘n’ roll, too.

“In the name of Jesus Christ… yeaaaaahhhhhhh!

 
 
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