In 1956 the Jesuit editors of America lambasted Elvis Presley for the sexually provocative performance style he exhibited on television. Now, almost 60 years later, I am writing for the same magazine on the spiritual significance of rock and roll music. Clearly, the way society looks at rock music has changed dramatically. Rock music has also changed significantly, evolving through multiple permutations, expanding globally and splitting into more subgenres. Rock as a musical form also has become sacred to many people, not just to those of the younger generations.
In its relatively short life, rock has been unfairly criticized. Some forms of rock may sound obnoxiously loud and brash, and the lyrical content of some songs promotes less-than-virtuous behavior. But to criticize all of rock for the sins of a few is unfair. Christian Rock, which emerged in the 1970s, was an attempt to “baptize” rock music and make it palatable to people of religious faith. This subgenre has grown enormously popular and has millions of fans. But does “secular” or mainstream rock music have spiritual value aside from the lyrical content?
Keeping Theological Time
Rock fans know that when a favorite song blares from the car speakers it does not take long before they are tapping on their steering wheels or singing along. Because rock music engages the body so deeply, we listeners feel the beat in our bones and muscles and “lock-in” with a song, allowing it to take us on a journey. Listening to rock requires a modicum of surrender to its unfolding in time.
You have probably heard the phrase “live in the now.” It has been co-opted and marketed by some self-help gurus, but the phrase reflects a theological tenet of many faiths—the importance of being aware of the present. Anthony De Mello, S.J., an Indian Jesuit, once put it this way: “Spirituality means waking up.” This implies paying attention to the world, emerging from under an avalanche of anxieties to savor being alive. Music can help listeners reclaim the moment. Rock music is especially good at this. Because it is so visceral, listeners become more attuned to their bodies in space and time.
The world is becoming faster-paced every day. We may be tempted to think we can conquer time by speeding up our lives, but this is impossible with music. Music works by leading listeners through a number of experiences; tempo, tensions, releases and subtle volume changes in songs all unfold in the time that God created. As the theologian Jeremy Begbie points out in his book Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, “The character of a piece of music is not given in an instant, or even a near-instant, but can be discovered only in and through time, and in some pieces only when it reaches a climactic gathering together, the end toward which it travels.”
Since music must unfold in time, it can help us appreciate that we are creatures of God held within God’s time. We cannot skip over the uncomfortable tensions in a piece of music and experience only the powerful “release,” because it is impossible to have one without the other. The same can be said about the spiritual life. We will undoubtedly go through what St. Ignatius Loyola termed “desolation” or perhaps even what St. John of the Cross termed the “dark night.” Those times can help us grow spiritually. When we find our way back to equanimity and a sense of God’s closeness, we better appreciate the darkness.
Take the interplay between tension and release in the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who. Three-quarters of the way through the song, the guitar, bass and drums cease and are replaced by the droning sound of a synthesizer. The electronic sounds lull the listeners, providing a brief respite from the wild musical anarchy that precedes it. Suddenly, Keith Moon’s drumming comes charging out like a bull at Pamplona. It sounds as if he is hitting his tom drums with six arms, in a machine-gun frenzy of notes. As the drums build, so does the tension in the listeners. Just as the tension has built to a pinnacle, listeners are rewarded with one of the most gratifying releases in rock music—a boisterous explosion of sound punctuated by Roger Daltrey’s barbaric howl that seems to come from another world. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is lengthy for a rock song, but when a listener surrenders to the song and allows its time, tensions and expressive elements to unfold, the reward is extraordinary.
Music can also help accentuate the beauty of the physical world by highlighting the wonder and importance of time. Listening to rock music can be a theological exercise because it reveals something of God to us. The joys and disappointments, consolations and desolations of life unfold in time.
As a creation of God, time is blessed. If we allow God’s communication to us to unfold in real time, over a lifetime, it will affect how we embrace life. We will not live in constant anticipation of something better (although some anticipation is a necessary, blessed part of living in time) but will instead grow in appreciation of our role as creatures in time and of the wonder of time itself.
Rock and Roll Prayer
Rock music also can evoke a wide range of emotional responses. If you watch footage of Elvis or the Beatles performing live, you will hear thousands of teenagers screaming in ecstasy. Rock fans know that there are songs that have accompanied them through a variety of experiences. Certain songs evoke important memories, stir up emotions and invite deeper reflection on our spiritual life.
About 15 years ago, during a retreat, I discovered the power of rock music to aid my prayer. I embarked on the retreat feeling emotionally drained and exhausted. I explained to my spiritual director, Mark, my lack of desire to pray. He asked me if anything in my life was enjoyable, if there was something for which I was particularly grateful. I told him about the great rock music I had recently discovered during a six-month stint leading retreats for high school students. The students introduced me to several new bands, which tapped into a joy and playfulness within me that I found invigorating but all too infrequent.
Mark recognized that the excitement with which I spoke about rock music appeared absent in the rest of my life. He suggested that I spend time praying within that excitement and trying to meet God there. His simple recommendation forever altered the way I approach my spiritual life.
I had never before thought of my love of rock music as a way of growing closer to God. Prayer, I thought, was meant to occur in silence. But Mark suggested that I find God within the passion I feel listening to rock. For the rest of the retreat I prayed this way and, eventually, after working through my preconceived notions of what prayer was supposed to be, found great peace. Now I realize that the euphoria I experience when listening to rock is a gift from God for which I should express gratitude. That retreat also helped me discover a new sense of how “big” God is: God truly can be found, to borrow St. Ignatius’ maxim, in all things.
What else do we bring to God in prayer but the stuff of our lives? Insofar as rock music elicits emotional responses and memories, it enters our hearts at those moments in life we most need to hold up to God. Increasing our awareness of the present moment and savoring it is of great import to the spiritual life. Rock music can enhance our appreciation of God’s work in our lives, not just in retrospect but as we experience it, whether on the radio or from a wall of amplifiers at a live show.
St. Irenaeus said it best: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” When I listen to rock and roll music, I taste life’s fullness. Rock provides a landscape in which I can meet God authentically.