I was going through a difficult few weeks not long ago. In an attempt to cheer me, a good friend sent me a link to a song via an online chat. I appreciated the gesture, but I was also skeptical. Once, when pressed by an icebreaker game at a retreat, I rated my friend’s taste in music as a 3 out of 5. And because it was a retreat, I was being kind.
“Am I going to like this?” I typed.
“It’s a God song,” she wrote back. “And it’s apropos.”
A good song can be an excellent source of consolation during tough times, and during those weeks I found refuge in songs from Bruce Springsteen, the Old 97’s and Hank Williams. I also sought refuge in prayer. I found an old bookmark with the “Memorare” on it and recited it fiercely, more like a threat than a meditation. “Never was it known that anyone...was left unaided,” I warned the Blessed Mother.
I had my rock music and my prayer, but little desire to combine the two in the form of the Christian rock song my friend recommended. Still, I clicked on the link and listened. The song wasn’t going to replace Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” as my all-time favorite. But thematically at least, it was, as my friend suggested, apropos, its message meant to be inspiring. The music itself, not so much: guitars, some power chords, a predictable drum beat. Meh.
I often notice the spiritual themes in the music of secular musicians like U2 or Springsteen, and I know both Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley have recorded religious albums. I admire many artists who incorporate Christian themes into mainstream music. But even after attending 16 years of Catholic school and dozens of concerts, the words “Christian rock” still make me cringe.
Perhaps this Catholic schooling is the reason, at least in part, why I also feel slightly guilty about this aversion. I’m not sure why I have such a visceral reaction, because a part of me wants to like Christian rock, which combines two things I love. But while it works as a spiritual aid for some, I have not found many songs I enjoy.
Product or Poetry?
I bristle at what much of Christian rock music today seems to imply: that I need a hook in order to be drawn into my faith or a relationship with God. Too often bands or artists labeled as Christian rock smack of a giant marketing scheme rather than a meaningful invitation to communion within a large and wonderful faith. The music sends the message that I am unable to observe and absorb the joyful nature of a relationship with Christ without generic guitar sounds and repetitive lyrics to encourage me. It is as though the musicians think that if I get a Christian rock tune stuck in my head, the tenets of the faith will get stuck there too; I’ll get hooked.
Maybe there’s truth to that. But in order to have a tune stick in my head, I have to want to listen to it.
Most Christian rock feels more like product than poetry—either the lyrics fail to capture the nuance of faith and the complicated reality of life, or the melodies don’t capture my attention. Christian rock never seems as explicit and soulful as the best old country songs, and it isn’t as subtly spiritual as the best rock and roll. Whether I’m listening at a retreat or while scanning the radio, I have rarely heard a Christian rock song that I wanted to listen to over and over, or that made me want to blast it at full volume driving down an open road.
Too many Christian rock musicians put the message ahead of the music and, while I commend the passion for the faith, their songs come off as overly earnest. Christian rock tries to make Christ cool, but Christ’s message—that he died for our sins and loves us unconditionally—is radical with or without power chords.
Often, the songs sound like what an adult thinks a teenager would like to hear. They are just too literal and try so hard to be sincere that they cross the line into saccharine, leaving little to the Catholic imagination. The worst of them try to channel the blues but lack the genuine sadness; to capture the sound of Gospel but lack the soul; to be rock and roll but cannot convey that sense of rebellion. That’s a shame, because sorrow, soul and rebellion are important parts of the Christian life. We are meant to be countercultural, following in the footsteps of Jesus, the ultimate rebel, but that does not come across in most Christian rock.
There’s Always ‘Rosalita’
I am not the first person to yearn for a better combination of religion and rock. That person was Larry Norman, a rock musician who, with his band People!, opened for the likes of The Doors and the Grateful Dead. Norman was a Christian. When he started combining his equally solid faith and music, he earned the title “Father of Christian Rock”; in the 1970s he opened his own label, Solid Rock. Even so, Norman was shunned by many conservative Christians, perhaps as much for his long, scraggly hair as for his treatment of social themes like racism and poverty. One of Norman’s most famous songs, “Why Does the Devil Get All the Good Music?,” has the endearing sound and tongue-in-cheek lyrics lacking in most Christian rock today. He sings, “There’s nothing wrong with what I play/ ’Cause Jesus is the rock and he rolled my blues away.” It’s hilariously cheesy and entirely genuine. It’s catchy and, somehow, it works.
These days, most Christian rock lacks the humor present in that song and in some of the more traditional, even fundamentalist, Christian music, like the charming Southern Baptist song “Broadminded.” The chorus, from a 1952 album by the country duo the Louvin Brothers, reads: “That word broadminded is spelled s-i-n./ I read in my Bible, they shall not enter in./ For Jesus will answer, ‘Depart, I never knew you.’/ That word broadminded is spelled s-i-n.” The song warns against gambling, drinking and dancing, among other things. At first hearing, it is a terrifying, threatening song, so perhaps I’m meant to take it more seriously, but its twang and tune make me want to find a dance hall where folks are two-stepping and downing whiskey. If that sends me to hell, at least I’ll be tapping my foot on the way there.
Today’s Christian rock songs also seem to be attempts to instruct, but often leave me feeling flat, as if I’ve just read a toaster manual, whereas the best spiritual songs from secular artists like Dylan and U2 describe a process of cobbling together an imperfect yet more personal faith journey. If a Springsteen song is a hand on my shoulder during troubled times, Christian rock is a street evangelist with a pamphlet, a stranger loudly advertising salvation without really understanding where I’m at. Christian rock talks about praying, but the late Clarence Clemmons’s wailing on a saxophone during “Rosalita” sounds like prayer.
When I was in high school, a local radio D.J. discussed this particular Springsteen song on air, saying something like, “I could be having the worst day—my car broke down, got a flat tire, my goldfish died—but I hear ‘Rosalita,’ and everything’s ok.” I know what he means, and that is a kind of comfort I haven’t yet found in Christian rock.
During my difficulties I turned to my wonderful family and friends, but, as that D.J. suggested, I also turned to “Rosalita,” blasting the song a bit too loud and singing along with The Boss as he proclaimed, “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”
It just felt apropos.
Listen to samples of Christian rock.