Stairway to Heaven: Can you be saved by rock n roll?
If Catholics want to understand what the Second Vatican Council called the “joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of people today, they will need a more robust appreciation of popular music. Our focus here is on rock music because it not only epitomizes popular music in general but is also a rough genre of its own. Rock music is a global phenomenon that fosters inventive local rock scenes and joins musical producers and consumers from across national boundaries. Although it is more commercially controlled “from above” than ever, new technologies have made rock more fertile “from below.” Far from being the exclusive domain of teenagers, rock culture now spans many generations.
The two of us write as theologians who have been involved in rock culture for decades as both musicians and fans. We have meditated on what can help Catholics make more theological sense of rock. Too much Christian writing on the subject has been negative and antagonistic, focusing more on sensational lyrics than on its religiously meaningful effects. Two particular parts of rock culture offer church workers and theologians positive material for reflection: its history and its power to move and shape people.
A Look at History
Every aspect of rock’s makeup should prompt ministerial and theological interest. Recent historical surveys, for example, have highlighted the strong religious background of the “founders” of rock ’n’ roll. From African-American cultures came music shaped by Christianity, which greatly influenced seminal rock artists like Rosetta Tharpe, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. These artists melded blues and gospel with country music and other influences. The sounds and gestures of early rock, its appeal to the spirit and its power to move people emotionally, clearly emerged from the habits and traditions of the church.
With commercial success, however, rock began to emphasize the “carnal” dimension of the incarnation to such a degree that it has been criticized for emphasizing the body and sexuality over other parts of the human experience. What are we to make of rock’s sometimes over-the-top eroticism?
The cultural historian James Miller, author of Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, argues that the apprehension about rock’s bodily appeal, which was present from the beginning, was part of white America’s anxiety about imagined black sexuality. Today, although rock has diversified racially—and many rock bands, fans and students of the culture are explicitly anti-racist—rock’s appeal to the body and sexuality remains strong. The term rock ’n’ roll as a sexual euphemism is, for better or worse, a symbol of the permanent place of this facet of the music.
Yet the world of secular music has not outgrown racial anxiety. (Many white artists and fans still fail to question the racial homogeneity of their musical cultures.) The peculiarly American cultural cocktail of race, religion and sexuality, which has been determinative for rock, also overlaps with important elements in U.S. Catholic history. Catholicism remains beset by struggles to foster racial-ethnic diversity, to honor the complexity of sexuality and its mature expressions and to appreciate the ways that individual religious experience gives rise to unique spiritual paths. In these ways rock culture and Catholic culture have a lot to say to one another.
The history of rock, then, should make Catholics theologically curious: How do the struggles intrinsic to our own history overlap with the tension-filled elements essential to rock ’n’ roll?
A Power to Move and Shape
To gain some theological appreciation for the music, it might be tempting to look first for discrete messages in rock, particularly in the lyrics. But a better place to begin is where most of rock’s devotees first feel its unique power: in the quality and intensity of its sound.
Rock music is usually heavily amplified and built on a pulsating substructure—a regular, pounding beat, a “pocket”—provided by a rhythm section (drums, bass, rhythm guitar). Instead of providing background accompaniment to a focal melody, rock music often foregrounds its rhythm section to surround the listener with a thickly textured, highly punctuated sonic atmosphere—particularly when played loudly. With its compulsive rhythms, hard-driving bass lines, shimmering guitars and piercing vocals, rock music can flood the body, eliciting all manner of responses: dancing, stomping, head-banging or, for the deeply committed, playing the “air guitar.”
Listeners can also rediscover a rootedness in the body, while at the same time experiencing the body’s expansion as it seems to fuse with the music. Many report a deeper awareness of their own bodies, as they take pleasure in moving to an arresting sound, beat and melody. This is similar to the way many people feel during peak religious experiences—taken out of themselves and welcomed into something greater, in a way they remember long after the event itself. Enjoying rock, then, is one way many people reconnect with their bodily existence. It provides a visceral form of transcendence.
Rock culture also provides specific places where personal values and social practices are fostered and deepened, like the conspicuous pilgrimages to concerts or festivals and the public celebration of musicians. Many fans’ personal identities are also formed through participating in Web forums; collecting shirts, ticket stubs or drumsticks; as well as taking particular lyrics to heart as emotional and spiritual guides. Perhaps most influential is the way rock ’n’ roll has become for many a “soundtrack to life,” marking important moments with richness and depth and giving voice to moods, attitudes and convictions in ways that cannot be translated into other forms of expression. Rock helps to hold life together.
This unique power to form people should make Catholics ask: How is secular music being used for the negotiation of life?
A Patient Curiosity
While some presume rock’s most creative days are past, rock is remarkably vibrant today. It has fragmented into dozens of styles across thousands of distinct global rock scenes, generating live-music industries from cover bands in tiny bars to festival shows that draw hundreds of thousands. Rock has also recalled its original Christian inspiration in a vibrant Christian music subculture, including churches that import rock into worship. New generations of African-American fans and musicians are reclaiming their rock heritage in local venues and on Broadway. The music is also being renewed in Latino rockero here and abroad. And with the advent of personal technological devices, rock is being heard, seen and incorporated into everyday life more personally and more often.
Catholic pastoral and theological circles need to overcome a tendency to engage only “higher” forms of artistic expression, which are ill suited for making sense of the actual musical cultures of people today. Evaluative distinctions like “high” and “low” art seem increasingly anachronistic in a secular age and suggest a suspicion of life’s more visceral dimensions, which rock music explores.
Rock music might therefore be thought of as a teacher of theology, not merely a topic for theological investigation. Such possibilities are evident in its prophetic utterances and invitation to celebration, both of which are sometimes mischaracterized as mere self-gratification. Like much in the Christian tradition, rock music can issue strong denunciations of power through protest, while simultaneously affirming the joy of life as though it were one great open-air festival.
That rock music is capable of excesses in both kinds of impulses should not keep theology and ministry from a patient curiosity about the spiritual lives of the many who make secular music an important part of their lives.
I'd be curious to learn of your definition of theology. My understanding is that it is the study of the nature of God, yet in your entire article the words God, Jesus, or Lord don't appear one time.
The thing about popular music is that it is concerned with the human condition alone. There's nothing wrong with that. We need music to be able to express ourselves, our fears, angers, anxieties. However, let's not confuse that with having anything to do with God.
Rock music itself makes no comment on theology. Perhaps the words do, but how the music is composed and structured really has nothing to do with God. On the other hand, the Church is so adamant about the importance of chant and polyphony (and motivated for artist to create new music based on similar principles) exactly because the music in how it is constructed informs us theologically.
You seem to characterize all other music as, "providing background accompaniment to a focal melody." What music are you talking about. Not a Bach fugue. Not a Gregorian Chant. Not a Palestrina polyponic piece. In fact, I would say this actually characterizes rock music better than most other kinds... drums, bass, guitars provide a background for a lyric. I think you can find more theology in the jazz genre, where playing together is much more refined and nuanced, and you have this interesting combination of intense structure and knowledge of theory used to inform an improvisation created on the spot. Brings up ideas of something be eternal yet at the same time specifically of this moment. Or the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a particular instance, yet one needs to be formed in a certain way before that can happen.
Dig a little deeper next time...
Some of us out here are actually trying to make progress in restoring the Church's authentic liturgical music. Rock music has been shown to be effective in evangelizing... but evangelizing to WHAT?? The church has been fighting the incursion of popular music and popular culture for nearly two millenia and has maintained the same argument throughout that time, that popular music has it's foundation in the very culture that the church is mitigating against. If the argument in favor of Rock music as liturgical music is going to succeed, those putting it forward need to show why the culture in which the music is founded is one which the church should desire to promote as superior to it's own. In other words, why should the Catholic Church become the Secular Culture Church and promote secular values rather than Catholic values. Otherwise, the music remains alien to that which it hopes to express.
So do we allow Death Metal Masses, hip-hop Masses, Britney Spears or Hannah Montana style masses? Perhaps Barney Masses or Sesame Street Masses are the direction we should go in. Where do we draw the line? Who draws the line?
If we grant the premises of the authors of this article, then there can be no argument against any of these monstrous manifestations. Common sense, though, screams in our ears that a Death Metal Mass just does not make sense.
So who should draw the line? That's right: Rome. And Rome has already time and time again drawn the line. The place for popular music is outside the Church. The Mass is the place for sacred music. Is this hard to understand? Is this really hard to accept?
To all the baby boomer/generation Xers out there who keep insisting on ramming this garbage down our throats, just know that the time for all this is very limited. This experiment of tearing the liturgy into shreds has failed, and the younger generations are of two minds: some like your work and the rest don't. Those who like your work have long since left the Church and those of us who remain will one day stamp out your treachery and the memory of your banal guitar riffs will be buried with you.
I think that this was a very helpful article and well written about a major theme in the life of many Catholics who have probably discovered Led Zeppelin or Elvis before realizing that they were merely an opening to Jesus.
I think the problem we have is that most of us still see Theology as Jeff put it.It is completely anti-christian to approach the creator apart from his creation,including the less idealized forms of it as we see it .Either it remains his creation even when it does not involve a direct religious reference or it does not .But Jeff was perhaps lead to this by the introduction or proposed introduction of Rock music to Theology which does not really come about.How we relate to these realities is important as an incorrect relation will lead to the exclusion of God as always happens when we form a dualistic vision of life or else a typically clerical mistake of making it a question of calculation.Enjoy it to a point!!This dialectic cannot be spiritually good either and so we have to find a way of confronting not only Rock music but other facets of life and allowing the Catholic genius for life to flow.But a follow up article woud be great ,and a little digging deeper would get us a lot further.
I couldn't agree more with Jeffrey. It apparently took only 40 years to destroy the over 1000 year old liturgical music tradition.
Keep secular music out of the church!!! If I want to hear rock music, I'd go to a concert, but not into a sacred space. We have enough secularism around us, every day, dumbing down society, making it apathetic. This is NOT what we want to be exposed to in church. Let the Catholic Church stay true to its musical roots and thanks to our wonderful beloved Holy Father Benedict XVI he too is trying to get us back to where we should be liturgic-wise, since the errors of the misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council almost destroyed today's liturgy.
So what kind of Rock music? I like punk rock and thrash metal - would that be appropriate? Could we slam dance for the kiss of peace? Stage dive during the gloria. A revised version of the Killer's (i.e. Jerry Lee Lewis) "Great balls of fire" for Pentecost? This is just silly. Just because lots of people like it doesn't mean it is appropriate for mass, and the kind of music that we (the young) like now is a far cry from the Beatles or Peter Paul and Mary. 'Church rock' is old people's music. Rock music today is not the rock music you grew up with: it is louder, faster and more aggresive. It would make your ears hurt. This essay is just nostalgia for a past pop culture and liturgical ethos which are well over and shows little understanding of either rock music or the liturgy.
I think that the remarks that have been made thus far have missed the point. The point is not to impose rock music onto Christian liturgy or to suggest that all other music is useless in its theological import. Rather, an attempt to discover theological implications in rock music is the point of this article. So no, they are not talking about slamming one another during the sign of peace and no stage diving during the Gloria. Those are silly rhetorical points that have nothing to do with the article. If you are going to evaluate the article, do so on the basis of what it is actually talking about - how rock music (in its roots, manifestations and embodied nature) can have theological import.
Furthermore, theology is a two-pronged study. Of course it is about God, but when we do theology, we must also ask: who is the one asking about God? And in some ways, having a grounded understanding of the one who is asking can be one of the starting points for learning more about God. Theological anthropology can learn much from the music we create - of course Gregorian Chant, Bach and many other Christian influences in music , but since we are in a milieu of rock, why not look at it and try to examine whether or not it speaks to who we are and to who God is.
Again, if you don't like the article, that is fine. But at least a) try to listen, b) don't waste people's time with rhetoric that is not rooted in what you are critiquing.