The National Catholic Review

Years ago, as a teenager, I used to listen to the music of Larry Norman, perhaps the first of the Jesus rockers. Norman, now deceased, has been the source of much controversy in the Christian rock world, including an unflattering portrait in a recent documentary film. One thing that could not be said of him, though, is that he played for "the suits." In the late 60's and 70's Christian rock found little acceptance either from Christians or the broader rock and roll world. Most of it was fairly insipid, saccharine, and - how does one put this gently? - bad. A combination of bad theology and bad rock and/or roll (in the words of Reverend Lovejoy) is not a recipe for success. Norman felt that it was possible to write serious modern rock and pop songs without watering down either the music or the message. It did not necessarily gain him friends.

Christian rock is now, of course, a part of the mainstream, both due to the fact that the record industry discovered it could make a lot of money on it and the baby boomers who fueled the surge of rock music in the 60's later welcomed it into evangelical Churches. It would be churlish of me not to say, too, that many people connect to the music spiritually. What I wonder about, though, is how successful the music is as a means of worshiping God, of connecting theologically to the Scriptures, and of creating a mood of prayerfulness. Those who worship in a context where rock - the traditional drums, bass, guitar, and keyboard - has become the common mode of music in liturgical settings are divided as to its value.

The simple, and at times simplistic, melodies and repetitive praise choruses are seen both as a means to welcome in those who are unchurched and to connect to young people. While this is not as common in Catholic churches, it is becoming more common, and a part of youth masses on a fairly regular basis. The dedication to Jesus Christ and the passion of the music come through loudly and clearly. And though I have listened to Christian rock since almost its inception, and have the well-worn grooves on my LPs to prove it, and have friends who were at the forefront of playing this music when it often lead to their rejection, I continue to have questions about its presence in formal Church worship.

One question has to do with the quality of the lyrics, which is where the theology is, or is not, present. Some of the lyrics are poor - sappy and banal - while others are theologically suspect - I have noted a worst case example of this in a previous blog. The second question has to do with the emotionality of the music. Those who have attended rock concerts know the sense of quasi-communion that can be achieved when 10,000 fans in love with a band and their music join together in joy. There is no point denying the power of the music that moved you as a teenager, whether it was the sense of being in on a secret when you listened to a band that "no one else" had discovered or you shared the arena with thousands of others to hear the Top 40 hit that had been in strong rotation all summer long. But what did you come to do? The focus was generally on how it made you "feel." The music, that is, is "self-centered," having to do with feelings, emotions, strivings for transcendence perhaps, but ultimately a worship of the self. I am not certain that music that is meant to move you personally can so easily be transferred to a setting where the focus is intended to be on God, even when the lyrics make it clear that they intend to direct you to God. The final question, then, hearkens back to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, where he rued the ubiquitous presence of rock music in the lives of young people. I do not follow Bloom in every respect in this regard, especially as I have recently fallen in love with the music of hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu (check out "One Day" for a powerfully spiritual song), but the reality is that music played fast, loud and crude cannot hope to allow the growth, flowering and blooming of sentiments that cultivate "noble, sublime, profound, and delicate" thoughts. But should that not be the purpose of the worship of God? Should not the Scriptures, read in the context of the Mass, or other Christian worship, lead to a slowing of the mindless chatter experienced in so much of daily life and allow us to focus on the divine Truth?

I love the great hymns of the Church, whether ancient or modern. The subtlety of thought and sentiment, the musical genius often, if not always, on display, place us more fully in the presence of God. Youth will always listen to the popular music of the day and what they need is not more of it in Church, where it is often a watered-down version of what they love anyways, like "Christian metal," or "Christian rap," but a musical option. The musical option is simple: it tells us that whatever teenage angst we are going through, know this, there is something bigger than all of us, and it is God. Slow down, listen carefully, and meditate on the truth.