The National Catholic Review
Kerry Weber
My slightly guilty aversion to Christian rock
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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.

Kerry Weber is an associate editor of America.

Comments

lennard garnett | 7/26/2013 - 10:02am

My aunt complained that she gets bored at home and I taught her how to make Psychic Readings, she likes it a lot and now she sits for hours in front of the computer making astrology reports. She also loves christian rock and sends me songs she thinks I would like, we discuss very often about lyrics and what message they transmit to us.

Katherine Moore | 10/7/2011 - 9:41am
Kerry's article on Christian Rock (Sept. 26) seems a little critical, when there are many musical "artists" out there that she could criticize with good reason. There is music out there that is void of any morals or good intentions.
I listen to my local Christian rock station and there are a lot of really talented musicians. It's very uplifting, and has a good message. I feel it's a part of my Catholic faith, but I also go to Mass, do ministries, etc. You don't get all your religion in one place, in one way. I like other types of "rock" too, so I switch sometimes to the classic rock or light rock stations. Some songs on the Christian rock station can be "be-boppy" sometimes, so then I can change the station. That's the beauty of music - we can choose what to listen to! I also think adults AND children of all ages can enjoy this music together!
J & M OTREMBA | 9/21/2011 - 9:35am

Kerry Weber's eschewing of Christian rock music hinges on an apples-oranges comparison. She laments that current Christian rock can't touch her soul the way Springsteen and Dylan did and do. Comparing current music of any genre to the rock icons of her past results in a predictable outcome: who can hold a candle to these superstars, who are infused with her teen experience as well as decades of celebrity?


That said, I wondered while reading whether she and I listen to the same music. The Newsboys' "Shine" never fails to leave me laughing, and I'll nominate Mandisa's "It's Only the World" over "Rosalita" to assure me everything's okay.


In the end, "de gustibus est non disputandum" (regarding taste, there is no dispute), but I still prefer Christian rock to the morass of hedonistic and mindless music on the secular dial. It's a refuge for our family and something that affirms our faith.

Jeffery Fox | 9/21/2011 - 4:21am
As a rock music fan (and opera and country and just about everything else) I too couldn't get myself around the idea of "Christian Rock". Like sugar-free soda or light beer I just didn't get the point. But then some troubled times and I opened up the "Christian Rock" CD given to me by a friend - still shrink wrapped after 6 months. Wow - thankfully it was Jars of Clay and just what I needed. That was 12 years ago and I have not looked back since. With 2 young boys my wife and I listen and hit the concerts of almost all the Christian artists. What a pleasure hearing my 2 guys sing out tunes of joy and grace. Like Gerald stated above, now the "secular" songs really do seem hollow and I find myself thinking again - in a real turn around - what's the point? As David Crowder band sings
"I need words/
As wide as sky/
I need language large as/
This longing inside/
And I need a voice/
Bigger than mine/
And I need a song to sing You/
That I’ve yet to find/
I need You".
St. Augustine with a guitar. Does not get any better than this.
Kang Dole | 9/20/2011 - 10:24pm

"One of Norman’s most famous songs, 'Why Does the Devil Get All the Good Music?,'..."


 


Bart put put it first and best: "All the best bands are affiliated with Satan."


"


 


 

ROBERT GIUGLIANO | 9/20/2011 - 11:16am
Have you listened to Paul Simon's new release: So Beautiful or So What?
Gerald McGrane | 9/19/2011 - 11:40pm

I agree that at times Chirstian music can be a little shallow, but at least it is pure.  And when you compare Christian music to greats such as U2 and Springsteen of course it will fall short.  Most secular music would too.  Once I started listening to Christian music, I had a hard time going back to secular.  While some of it is musically superior, I find it hollow.  The message matters.  Of course, that doesn't stop me from playing REM or Guns n Roses from time to time.  Great article, fun discussion.

STEPHEN ANDERSON MD | 9/19/2011 - 7:49am
In addition to Jay's list, with which I concur strongly, I would add Paul Simon, who has a plethora of spiritually based songs and albums, as well as a smattering of Don McLean, particularly "Crossroads" and "Homeless Brother."
Michael Casey | 9/17/2011 - 9:31am

If you don't mind a bit of the dark side, try "Catholic Boy" by the Jim Carroll Band. Again, it's more St. John of the Cross, less Rick Warren. But if you like rich poetry in great music, you can't beat it.

Jay Cuasay | 9/16/2011 - 5:12pm

Thanks for your article. During this past AUG, I was out of town and celebrating Sunday Mass at another church. I was enjoying the change of scenery, but was ambivalent about the Christian Rock styled choir. I understood its roots in our Folk masses in the 1970s, amped up or added to with keyboards in the 1980s, etc. But much of what you wrote is a sentiment I share, speaking as someone who with a performing arts background as well as a liturgical singer. Some gems of note are "product more than poetry" or that Christian Rock sounded like what "adults wanted teens to hear."


For myself, I note that when the college music of my generation became labeled as "Adult Alternative", I knew that something was slipping in the label/genre dept. I also note that during my time in theology school (which covered a wide ecumenical range), I found that discussing music (especially around adult catholics) was one of the hardest things to do...compared say with trading thoughts and opinions on good places to eat.


Any way, thanks for your article. I indeed find more and the experience of the God who is more in the wider spectrum of U2, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Roseanne Cash, Shawn Colvin singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christiams or Ella singing Mack the Knife than diving into the genre of Christian Rock hoping to encounter Him on the road to Emmaus.

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