Christian Rock Music
Whenever I state that I think rock music is antithetical to Christianity, I meet with incredulous looks. Many speculate that I cannot possibly mean what I am saying: I must either be venting an impassioned dislike or over-stating in an attempt to be provocative. Others dismiss the statement as so naive and 'simple-minded' that it deserves no comment.
Now, I admit that I dislike rock music intensely enough to state some very strong opinions. Sometimes, in fact, I deliberately make blunt and seemingly outrageous statements to provoke thought and discussion. I will even admit that perhaps some of the things I say deserve to be ignored. Still, I am bothered by the assumption behind incredulity.
Underlying the various reactions to my strong statements is the assumption that if the speaker is a moderately intelligent person (and I'm thankful for being given the benefit of the doubt), then what he says can only be explained as an emotional reaction or a rhetorical device. It cannot be the result of careful thought. What bothers me, then, is not that some might disagree with my judgment of rock music, but that they presuppose that such judgments are meaningless or irrational. How can music be good or bad? How can certain sounds be antithetical to Christianity or, for that matter, to anything else? How, they ask, confronting me with an argument reductio ad absurdum, can a C-sharp be evil?
Before starting to answer these questions (and I can only begin to answer them), I would like to make three things clear. First, if you are taken aback by my statement because it is made about an entire genre, I understand your reluctance to give it much credibility. In most cases, broad, sweeping statements like "Symphonies are bad (or good)" are indefensible. There are, for example, good symphonies and bad ones, good folk songs and bad ones, good hymns and bad ones. I did not, therefore, come quickly to the conclusion that rock music is bad as a genre.
Second, I am not necessarily talking about all the popular styles that have been influenced by rock — folk, jazz-rock, etc. But rather than listing which types I'm referring to, I will let the things I say define what my sweeping statement includes.
Third, I am aware that the question of good and bad in music has a lot to do with function. Music composed for a liturgy is not necessarily good concert material, and it would be foolish to complain that you had a hard time dancing to fugues. Is this particular piece of music good? An adequate answer must include the question, "Good for what?" Function is not, however, the only relevant consideration.
I think there are two areas in which music can be inherently good or bad: craft, and ethos or moral character. Music, whatever else it might be, is at least something made. As something made, it can exhibit good craftsmanship or bad craftsmanship. Bad craftsmanship does not glorify God. God is not pleased with ineptitude in the composition and performance of music. If I may borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, we should be as interested in doing good work as in doing good works.
There was a time when I believed that all rock music was poorly crafted. My judgment, of course, was not based on having carefully studied, or even heard, all rock music. But I had heard plenty and had yet to hear anything which I thought showed skillful and imaginative craftsmanship. Furthermore, two things persuaded me that what I had heard was representative of all rock music and that, therefore, it was highly unlikely that good craftsmanship could be found in the rock repertory. The first was the commercial environment which spawned rock music. In this environment making music is the means to the end of making money — quality workmanship is not desirable. Flashy gimmicks to catch the attention and momentarily titillate the senses are preferable to good work. Good work lasts; gimmicks quickly wear out and need to be replaced. Therefore, they make money. The rock music I knew came out of such an environment. It was popular not on its own merit but because of its showy wrappings and the manipulative power of mass media.
The second factor that made me reasonably comfortable with my sweeping judgment was the general direction I saw in the history of rock music. I saw (and still see) rock music becoming increasingly violent, outrageous, and vulgar. More and more decibels are needed to make its impact. And when sheer decibel level ceases to have its impact, the visual sense is assaulted as violently as the aural. The performers' clothing and make-up become more outrageous; their movements, postures, and facial expressions become more violent and vulgar; and, if that is not enough, they resort to gaudy and nervously flashing lights. Surely all this is a symptom of the emptiness of the genre. There is nothing to be found under all the noise. Rock music is the most vivid illustration I know of Ernest Dowson's lines:
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expired...
I am desolate and sick of an old passion…
Although most rock lovers would probably quarrel with my interpretation of the history of rock, I have not yet talked to one who does not readily admit that most rock is artistically worthless, that it is commercial gimmerckry appealing to the lowest common denominator of taste, that it is shoddy and unimaginative in its craftsmanship and, in that way, antithetical to Christianity. But they have stoutly maintained that there is a higher quality rock music than that with which mass media bombards us. They have even been so generous as to lend me their records to prove their point. With their encouragement I made some dutiful attempts to like, or at least appreciate, what they gave me. I did find myself appreciating greater craft in some of it. The music exhibited some imagination and skill in its composition and performance, things that I had not encountered in the rock music I've heard pouring out of radios since I was in high school. Thus I had to revise my sweeping judgment of the genre as a whole, and admit that even though I thought a Christian should reject most rock music because it failed in the area of craft, some of it did exhibit good workmanship and should, at least in that respect, be affirmed by a Christian.
But I was uncomfortable. For some reason I could not bring myself to affirm even the "good" rock music. There was something about it that I found utterly repulsive. I found it impossible to accept the idea that this noisy, violent music was what Christians should be writing, performing, or enjoying. Little by little I came to the realization that I was ignoring the whole matter of ethos. I was operating under what Thomas Howard calls the modern myth, the myth which assumes that nothing means anything, that something is what it is in a scientific sense — e.g. music is sound waves — and nothing more. I was operating on the assumption that it was at best harmless nonsense to talk about ethos or moral character in music.
My discomfort with affirming "good" rock music forced me to question whether I had too flippantly dismissed the idea that music has ethos, and if it does have ethos, what kind of power does that ethos exert upon the listener? I started finding that the ideas about the moral character of music held by ancient and oriental peoples made sense. The vehemence with which the church fathers attacked the music of pagan Rome became more understandable, as did Luther's and Calvin's concern about the power of music over its hearers.
Being an avowed medievalist makes it difficult to admit that I was ever such a modernist in my thinking. I like to console myself by saying I never really believed the modern myth but was only temporarily diverted from the old myth — that everything is shot through with meaning — by the great difficulties one encounters when trying to deal with something as elusive as ethos. Just how elusive it is will undoubtedly be all too apparent as I attempt to define the ethos of rock music.
I will approach the question from three different angles. First, I will list some of the adjectives which most immediately come to my mind when I hear rock music. Second, I will call to attention those segments of our culture which have most readily embraced rock music as their own. Third, I will mention the most prominent stylistic features of rock music. I think the reader will notice some connections among the results of these three approaches.
Adjectives that come to mind when I hear rock music are frenzied, violent, angry, sensuous, vulgar, and so on. Of course, all this might merely be in the ear of the listener; another listener might hear something quite different in the music. Clearly we will not get very far with this approach alone. We need some way to check on the reliability of the ears doing the hearing.
My second approach is through association. Although this is hardly an infallible way of getting at the ethos of music, I think something can usually be learned about music by, if you will, the company it keeps. Rock music has been fostered and embraced by those segments of our society which are "into" drugs, illicit and perverted sex, and rebellion. Another kind of association includes movements, postures, and facial expressions. These are usually sensual and obscene, sometimes subtly so, more often blatantly so. I see a fittingness in both kinds of associations with rock music, a fittingness which makes it unlikely that the associations are accidental and which says something quite clear about the ethos of the music.
The most obvious stylistic features of rock music are incessant repetition and consistent use of extremely high levels of volume. I have already indicated that I think this is symptomatic of its artistic impoverishment, but I also think it reveals something fundamental about the nature of rock music. It is a music which bombards the senses to the point of insensitivity; it is an incantation; it is a drug.
I have stated my case forcefully in the hope that it will stimulate more discussion of a crucial problem. The contemporary music scene needs transformation. Are we transforming the contemporary music scene when we simply accept it and baptize it with Christian words? Can we enter into the job of transformation assuming that in music surgery is never necessary?