If the words "Jesus Christ Rocks" emblazoned in black on the back of the drummer's chair aren't enough to convince you that Stryper is not your standard issue heavy-metal band, then catch a concert. Watching the quartet hurl Bibles into the audience, all the while exhorting "Christian glory rock" over the evils of Satanism, should do the trick.
So should scanning one of Stryper's lyrics, for instance this one from "From Wrong to Right": So many bands give the devil all the glory -- it's hard to understand./ We want to change the story.
Stryper, which appears tomorrow night at the Warner Theatre, is in the midst of a 10-week tour that has generated enormous publicity -- and considerable controversy as well. Church groups picketed Stryper's concerts twice in Canada and once in Denver.
"There's always resistance," says the group's 25-year-old drummer, Robert Sweet. "But the only reason it's there is that some people have never seen us in concert. Throwing the Bibles to the crowd -- some people think that's disrespectful. But that's not why we do it. We think it's great to get the Good Book out there . . . these Christian people or these churches that boycott our shows, and come out with picket signs and bullhorns and banners from TV, they've never seen us in concert. It just seems weird. Here we are standing up for Jesus and they are too. Yet they boycott us."
Even so, Sweet says, the audiences understand. "I can't believe how everyone goes crazy for the Bibles. Usually a line forms after the show asking for more of them. They can't get enough of them and we're always running out."
Four years ago Stryper -- then known as Roxx Regime -- was just another Southern California band looking for a break. According to Sweet, the group was confronted one day by a friend "who said, 'If you guys really give yourselves back to the Lord you'll go straight to the top' . . . We weren't really thinking of that kind of success, but we knew we were Christians that hadn't been living the part. So we just decided to take his advice."
The transition from secular to Christian rock was surprisingly smooth, according to Sweet. "We looked pretty much the same as we do today, and the music was pretty much the same. All we had to do was change a few words here, a few words there, and everything fit perfectly."
Eveything, that is, but the band's name. The group had retained the same look -- the yellow and black striped spandex costumes, the similarly striped equipment and stage design, the shaggy hair. But when the band signed a record deal, with the same label that had helped launch the decidedly nonangelic careers of metal heavyweights Ratt and Mo tley Cru e, a name change was suggested.
Given the band's costumes, Stryper (spelled with a "y" so as not to be confused with Stripper) seemed a logical choice, and Sweet says that during prayer at a rehearsal session an acronym suddenly came to him: Salvation Through Redemption, Yielding Peace, Encouragement and Righteousness. Sweet says the band later "located Isaiah 53:5 in the Old Testament, which says by His stripes we are healed." Everything fit.
Ironically, Sweet says he's not comfortable with the band being called "Christian heavy metal," even though the label, an apparent contradiction in terms, helped catch the eye of the news media. In addition to the rock press, everyone from Hustler to Newsweek has reported on the band recently.
"Heavy metal bands don't usually have ballads, don't usually have four-part harmonies, and don't usually throw Bibles into the audience," Sweet explains. "And when anyone says 'Christian band,' that immediately sounds boring, 15 years behind the times. I choose to call it 'God Rock.' "
Nor is Sweet comfortable having the band play on all-Christian bills. "There are a lot of people out there that think we only want to have Christian opening acts appear with us," he says. "That's not our thing . . . Jesus didn't discriminate. It's always puzzled me why Christian bands get on Christian record labels, have Christian opening acts and play to Christian audiences. To me, that doesn't do any good. How are you going to get the message out there to the people who really need to hear it?"
While Christian radio generally has been receptive, Sweet says that Christian television effectively has banned Stryper. He says he's heard a variety of reasons why TV evangelists have shunned the group, most of them having to do with rock hedonism in general, but he still hopes to get the band's message across on TV. He's aiming that message at one evangelist in particular.
"Jimmy Swaggart. He's my favorite evangelist," says Sweet. "I know one thing. He and I are going to sit down one day. I predict after he gets to know us he'll hold up a Stryper album on television and say, 'Hey, these guys are okay.' "
In the meantime, there's always MTV. Sweet says the band's new video is being added to the medium-rotation list for the first time this week.