The year 1990 was quite eventful. George H. W. Bush was the president. The Cosby Show, Roseanne, and Cheers were the highest-rated scripted shows in America. And, Petra’s Beyond Belief spent 14 weeks atop the Billboard Top Contemporary Christian Albums chart. But, don't let that contemporary label fool you. Petra was an unashamed rock band, and this was the height of their arena rock success. Now, Beyond Belief turns 30 years old. So, let's look back at one of Petra's landmark releases.
“What’s In A Name”
Petra is Latin for "rock." It made a perfect name to use for a Christian rock band.
The ’80s were synonymous with rock anthems sung by artists with enough hair to keep shampoo companies in business for many years. It was no surprise when many in the Christian market adapted hair rock to Christian lyrics. Christian rock veterans Whiteheart, Idle Cure, and Degarmo & Key found notable success in this playground. But, as far as to name recognition, prolific releases, and commercial success, none can compete with the iconic Petra.
In 1990, it had only been five years since Pentra underwent a high-profile change in lead singers from Greg X. Volz to the former frontman of mainstream band Head East, John Schlitt. While both artists brought an undeniable talent to their era fronting the band, there was a definite stylistic shift once Schlitt took the reins. The band made a decided swing for the big power anthems that were all the rage in the ’80s.
Big guitar hooks and synthesizers to match the big hair filled Petra’s albums after Schlitt joined the group. As a new decade dawned, Petra had just released their most commercially successful album in a rock worship project, Petra Praise: The Rock Cries Out. Arguably at the peak of their commercial success, expectations were sky-high.
June 1990 brought the release of the band’s 12th studio album, Beyond Belief. (Think of how few bands even make it to 12 albums in today’s day and age, let alone peaking at such a high number). The album would become the second--and as of now, final--album from the band to be certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. Beyond Belief is arguably the most iconic and identifiable release of the band’s deep catalogue.
“On the Rock”
When I think of the sonic styles of the '80s, I think of guitars. Petra loved their guitars. With soaring guitar solos almost an obligatory inclusion on any track, Petra gave their vocal cords a workout at each concert. Beyond Belief, in particular, featured some of the band’s standout cuts. “Armed and Dangerous” and “I am on the Rock” kicked off the album in spectacular fashion. “Seen and Not Heard” features one of the album's heaviest riffs that begs listeners to headbang. “Underground” boasts a rock chorus that would make any of the greats of '80s rock weep. With the '80s rock sound at the climax of its popularity as a new decade dawned, this album would prove a turning point for these types of anthems as new sounds for a new decade began to influence subsequent albums.
Of course, every good rock band needs good ballads. Despite their reputation as Christian rock powerhouses, Petra was no stranger to contemporary ballads that would light up the radio charts on the softer side of Christian music. This album in particular boasted two of their most iconic ballads. “Love” offered a soft and reassuring calm in the midst of an arena rock storm. While “Prayer” closed out the album in a heartfelt and powerful fashion.
While many rock bands today have a more broadly appealing message with faith elements used in various degrees of subtlety, Petra was anything but subtle. With blatant Biblical references and explicit Christian themes, this album put the band’s beliefs front and center.
The band’s song “Creed” takes a similar format to a different song from Rich Mullins in essentially putting the Apostle’s Creed into a song format. One journalist has named “Love” the answer to Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is,” declaring the Biblical definition of true love in a fallen world.
The band also tackles darker themes, such as spiritual warfare in “Armed and Dangerous” and “Underground.” “Last Daze” speaks of the end times while “I Am on the Rock” declares a certainty in withstanding any storm when anchored to Christ.
Perhaps most importantly, songs like the title track and “Prayer” sing to our call as Christians to spread the good news far and wide, even in the midst of trials. Even 30 years ago, people faced difficult challenges and trials set against a world that seemed to be falling apart. From the shores of 2020, where there seems to be a new threat to the existence of believers every week, it seems hard to feel that a thirty year old album with a dated sound can possibly be relevant to our current struggles. But I think the anniversary of this album’s release is a good invitation to dive into the (albeit sometimes cheesy or on-the-nose) lyrics and see how these themes of overcoming struggle and reaching “the next plateau” are truly timeless to the human experience. Perhaps the answers to a lot of what currently troubles us indeed lie in going to a higher place, beyond belief.