We All Come From Somewhere, Part 1: Throwing Bibles and Rocking People

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“We will rock the hell out of you.” –Stryper

Last weekend when I heard about a certain concert happening in my city that night, I sent out a tweet that has been bugging me ever since. I twote:

“I may or may not be taking myself from 25 years ago to see Stryper at the Wildhorse Saloon tonight. ‪#dontjudgeme ‪#weallcomefromsomewhere

What bugs me most about that tweet is how much effort I spent qualifying something I genuinely wanted to do. “I may or may not…,” “Don’t Judge Me…” Insinuating that if I go, it’s for nostalgia. Why did I feel the need to distance myself from going to see the one band who has probably received more of my money and bedroom wall space than any other in the history of the whammy bar?

For those unfamiliar with Stryper, a little history might be in order. They formed in the early 80’s, appearing on LA’s Sunset Strip music scene with other big-hair metal bands like Motley Crue, Cinderella, Poison, and Ratt. If you know these bands, you get the picture—long hair, spandex, ear rings, make-up, lots of promises to rock people—no matter where they’re from—and to rock them for seemingly unending periods of time.

Stryper, from the beginning, occupied rarified air. If you were going to make it in that industry, there had to be something about you that 1) made you stand out, and 2) made people like you. With their yellow and black attire and their commitment to singing plainly about their faith in Jesus and the free offer of the Gospel, they certainly stood out. However, I expect both of those characteristics made the “make people like you” objective a little more of a battle. Why? Because lyrically and morally, they were swimming against the current of their competing colleagues’ core values.

Thematically, the bands of that genre and era devoted 90% of their lyrical capital to weird euphemisms about women, the anticipation of drinking, and doing whatever they wanted to do, no matter what their parents thought. The remaining 10% of their lyrics went to space travel, rainbows in the dark, the travail of the early native Americans. (I’m looking at you, Europe, for two out of three here.)

Stryper never tried to philosophize about the druids or sing about fighting super-natural serial killers while in a dream state. They kept things pretty straightforward. They sang mainly for and about Jesus. But if they were going to make this their play and earn a living doing it, they needed to be a great band.

So what did Stryper do? They worked hard. They worked hard at defining a certain sound built around both vocal and instrumental harmony and precision. They worked hard to create a live show that people wanted to come see and then talked about long after. They worked hard to promote themselves—gut-wrenching work because it often carries more rejection than acceptance. And all this work paid off, establishing them as one of the most visually and musically entertaining live acts of that genre, and with some pretty magical records to build those tours around.

Then came the ’90s. I assume Stryper, like most of their peers from that era, faced a commercial decline when some kid called Slacker Angst rolled out of bed (at the crack of noon), put on his flannel shirt and handed Eddie Vedder a microphone to tell the Sunset Strip that the party was over. (Was that sentence too much? It felt good.)

When grunge took over, a lot of those 80’s metal bands just put down their B.C. Rich Warlocks and walked away. Some became tribute bands to themselves, earning their living by playing old hits. Some found gainful employment in reality TV. But several weathered the storm, kept working, and have resurfaced in recent years as a new form of “classic rock.” (Case in point: in the past year alone, Nashville has hosted concerts for Van Halen, Def Leppard, Poison, Cinderella, Lita Ford, Kiss, Motley Crue, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne, and Judas Priest, just to name a few.)

When I went to see Stryper a week ago, here’s what I saw. I saw four guys, who have been playing music together for the better part of 30 years, put on a great show. Musically speaking, they were amazingly tight. They didn’t play a single ballad. They started loud, stayed loud, and finished loud. Each member filled their respective roles with graceful control that reminded me how rare it is to see a true band—folks who have logged countless shows honing their craft in such a way that they come across as a single, seamless unit.

They came to play. They played songs I hadn’t heard in 20 years, and they made me love them all over again. They were obviously happy to be there—without a hint of entitlement or cynicism. They were generous with the audience—including some “above the call of duty” graciousness with a guy who rushed the stage to try to sing lead on his favorite song.

And they were still as committed as ever to their singular purpose—to tell of the faith they had built their lives and careers around. This was illustrated well in what was, for me, a moment of humble poignancy.

Back in the day, Stryper was known for throwing bibles out into the audience, and I wondered if this was something they still practiced. Sure enough, near the midpoint of the show, Michael Sweet, the lead vocalist and guitarist, grabbed a stack of New Testaments from the top of his amp, and the other guys did the same. What he said as he tossed them into the crowd made me not just appreciate them as a band, but really respect them as men. I’m paraphrasing, but here’s the gist of what he said:

“Back when we first started out on the Sunset Strip, the scene was all about sex, drugs, and partying. So many people just bought into this way of looking at life. We were asking ourselves, how can Stryper stand out and tell people that we believe there is a better way? How can we tell people that our relationship with God is broken, but that there is a way to be right with Him by believing in His Son Jesus? One idea was to actually put God’s word in their hands. So we started tossing out Bibles at our shows. Over the years we’ve kept doing it, because this is still ultimately what we care about as a band. We believe God loves you and we want you to know that. That’s what matters to us. So that’s why we throw these out.”

Sweet’s humility and candor about how they’ve come to be who they are over the years, with his unapologetic winsomeness in a culture he knows is cynical and jaded, was really refreshing. We all come from somewhere, and where we’re from never completely leaves us.

I discovered Stryper more than half my life ago. I come from a bedroom in central Indiana with dozens of Stryper posters on the walls. And I come from a boyhood where one of my biggest fears was how to live out my faith with conviction and at the risk of being made fun of. Stryper helped me find some courage there.

My story is joined, in a small but still real way, to those four guys from southern California—four guys who happen to rock. I would be lying if I told you I went to that show for purely nostalgic reasons, as my tweet suggested. I went as a fan.

Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


17 Comments

  1. Derek

    Very well said, Russ. Your teen years sounds eerily like mine: guitars (preferably with pointy headstocks and Floyd Rose trems), musician posters, and loud music. And my faith and the Church in there somewhere trying to keep things in a spiritual direction. Stryper were a godsend for guys like me and although my musical and guitar horizons have expanded I admire the band’s ongoing hard work and desire to share the love of Christ with their audiences.

  2. Josh Horne

    Bravo, Russ. Excellent post. I began life as a fan of classic rock and 80’s hair metal. In the 90’s when I started playing guitar I was swept up by grunge and the Seattle sound. But I never forgot GnR, Poison, Warrant, Motley Crue, Van Halen, etc.

    But I didn’t discover Stryper until about 2 years ago. And I was immediately in love. I’d heard of them and seen their name around. But when I decided to make that iTunes of Soldiers Under Command, I was immediately hooked. Soon my wife was too. It may be a tad outdated, but it’s just good music and Stryper are just good musicians. No one has a voice quite like Michael Sweet. They’re all so talented. I hate that I missed that show. But, a huge “ditto” to everything you’ve said here.

    And thanks for providing a link on whammy bars for the uninitiated. 😉

  3. Tess

    I so relate to everything you’ve said here. Though Stryper was a tiny bit before my time, I couldn’t resist buying a Stryper picturedisc I found at a thrift store a few years back. And I really enjoyed listening to it. As a teenager, one of the only places I felt accepted was at a local church fellowship hall where tons of punk and metal bands played.

    Also, I can only assume you’re aware of the Metal Bible: http://www.themetalbible.com

    Thanks for posting this. 😉

  4. Sharon

    I saw Stryper in concert back in the early days at a club called Bogart’s in Cincinnati. I felt I had been to a loud worship service. Loved it.

  5. Brent

    Wow! Too many great things here to comment on them all. I made it to the Stryper show a couple of years back at the Wildhorse and had much the same reaction (although not nearly as articulate). In the 80’s I was far “too cool” to publicly profess my love for anything remotely “heavy metal.” Privately though, when Honestly came on MTV (which I could only watch if my parents weren’t home), I would crank the TV up to eleven and proceed to get quite a cardio workout from air drumming. And by the way, Russ, the hyperlinks are GENIUS.

  6. Caleb Morris

    My first concert was Stryper. It was 1988, and I was fourteen. I still remember standing on the concrete floor of a Dallas auditorium for two hours and being completely blown away. (Jetboy was the opening act. Anyone remember them? “Feel the shake…feel the earth shake…) The level of muscianship in Stryper was and still is very impressive. I always felt sorry for them since they were so easy to hate by so many, especially in the church crowd.

    That was a tough season in my life (understatement), and many times my Stryper “tapes” were about the only source of light I could find. They just made me “feel better,” which is about all a troubled kid wants at the time.

    I had no idea they were still playing. Googled it just now and see I’m about two months too late for the Dallas show. Bummer. I would have gone.

  7. PaulH

    Super cool post, Russ! Very entertaining! I remember being at parties and hijacking the boom box and MAKING everyone listen to Oz Fox’s guitar solos. What a long time ago that was. It is great to see them looking good and sounding better than ever.

  8. Loren Warnemuende

    I’m anything but a heavy metal fan (except for a soft spot for Petra if they count 🙂 ), but I love to read articles like this that show me how Christ uses all of His creation to draw people to Himself. So awesome!

  9. Chris Whitler

    I got ahold of a Stryper bootleg when I was in the 9th grade. I loved them and really wanted the ‘real’ tape with the pictures and notes and all. I was at the mall and down the hall from the bible book store calling my mother from a pay phone. I knew she would object to the look and sound of these guys. In fact, I believe we had already had some words about it.

    So, I went with the lyric approach to gain permission to make my purchase. “Mom, I want to buy a tape and I’m going to quote you some lyrics to see if you think they’re alright.”

    “Ok, go ahead”

    “‘Jesus, King of kings, Jesus, makes me wanna sing’ does that sound like the kind of band I could listen to?”

    “I suppose so, Chris, that sounds like it’s ok”

    “Well, IT’S STRYPER!”

    I quickly got off the phone and ran over to the bookstore got my tape. Pretty soon, my wall was filled with posters. I got interested in the drums because of Robert Sweet. My Dad rented me a kit and after school, before anyone else got home, I cranked Stryper and tried my best to copy those sweet beats (pun intended). With a fan, of course, blowing my Christian school uniform hair like a rock god.

    I saw Stryper a couple of times. Once, one of those Bibles whizzed right by my hand just out of reach. I remember noticing how good they were musically. On the “In God We Trust” tour, their opening act in Louisville was drunk and terrible. Stryper came out and put on a clean, tight show.

    I can’t tell you how many times I watched “Live in Japan” on the Beta machine.

    I mark the end of my heavy metal days to be somewhere around 1989 – 90. I heard Randy Stonehill’s “Return to Paradise” (produced by Mark Heard) and read the book “Real Christians Don’t Dance” by John Fischer and I discovered a growing thirst for mining more of the depths and layers of my faith. I was growing up.

    But, yes, we all come from somewhere. And I too come from a room plastered with any scrap of Stryper I could find. Thanks for this post. I listened to Stryper on tapes in my first car and on my fake Walgreens walkman. I never had a Stryper CD. But recently, they have showed up again on my iPod and I have had some fun listening to them again. Well, maybe more fun listening to my kids groan in back of the minivan while I rock out.

  10. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Chris, what a great comment! And I was thinking about something you mentioned while I was writing the post– I completely missed the CD era of Stryper. I went from Vinyl to cassette, and then there was a gap, and now its MP3. I’ve never owned a Stryper CD, but most everything I ever had on Vinyl or tape (which was a very thorough collection), I have on iTunes. Funny. That sort of tells the story.

  11. Jen

    This is great… it’s a wonderful, refreshing thing when people love what they love without apology, whether it’s “cool” or not (and even if there’s a #dontjudgeme attached). 🙂 This has given me a whole new perspective on Stryper, so thank you!

    Hair metal in the Rabbit Room… you guys are full of awesome surprises.

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