Before hitting the “buy” prompt, my index finger hovered over my iTouch.
Did I really want to buy a Christian rock album?
You’d think there wouldn’t be a problem. I’m a Christian, and I love rock and roll. But my very love of rock and roll, and of Jesus, had led me to a conclusion: Christian pop music isn’t very Christian.
The problem with Christian popular music, from Michael W. Smith to Tenth Avenue North and Francesca Botticelli — whose album “Hundred More Years” I downloaded off iTunes — is that it is triumphalist. No matter what happens in life, from the alarm not going off to being gunned down in a gangland drug war, is God’s will. He is in charge. So, although I may get flustered by life sometimes, everything’s gonna be all right. “You know exactly what you’re doing,” Botticelli sings to God.
I have a serious theological, and aesthetic, problem with this. It makes for childish theology and bad rock and roll. G.K. Chesterton once noted, “Christianity is the only religion that allows God to be an atheist.” He was referring to Christ’s moment of total despair on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is out of this feeling of abandonment that came the blues, the taproot for rock and roll. To be sure, African-American spirituals were in their own way triumphalist; they knew that in the end, despite all their early suffering, they would return to the loving gaze of the Lord. But they also knew that, as the late Richard John Neuhaus once put it, the way to Easter is through the cross. The power of their music, and the rock and roll that followed, is that it expresses the suffering of human beings while at the same time, through the sound itself, triumphs over that suffering by creating something beautiful. The best summation of this I have ever read was written by Whittaker Chambers. The communist defector, Quaker and brilliant journalist understood more about great popular music than the current editor or Rolling Stone. On December 30, 1946, Time magazine ran a piece by Chambers on the gospel singer Marian Anderson. In it, Chambers makes this observation:
The theme of the greatest music is always the birth of the soul. Words can describe, painting can suggest, but music alone enables the listener to participate, beyond conscious thought, in this act. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is a work secular beyond question. But when, in the first movement, the simple theme subtly changes, the mind is lifted and rent — not because the strings have zipped to another key, but by a tone of divinity conveyed through the composer’s growing deafness by an inspiration inexplicable to the mind. The spirituals are perhaps the greatest single burst of such inspiration, communicated, not through deafness, but through the darkness of minds which knew nothing of formal music and very little of the language they were singing.
Professional musicians and musicologists are still locked in hot debate about the musical origins of the spirituals and the manner of their creation. One simple fact is clear — they were created in direct answer to the Psalmist’s question: How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? For the land in which the slaves found themselves was strange beyond the fact that it was foreign. It was a nocturnal land of vast, shadowy pine woods, vast fields of cotton whose endless rows converged sometimes on a solitary cabin, vast swamps reptilian and furtive — a land alive with all the elements of lonely beauty, except compassion. In this deep night of land and man, the singers saw visions; grief, like a tuning fork, gave the tone, and the Sorrow Songs were uttered.
This passage, which is more than 60 years old, is why I find it damn near impossible to read rock and roll criticism. Our media has become so liberal and secular that to rock critics, writing about music has become an exercise in creative writing and taxonomy. In Rolling Stone, on Pitchfork.com and on PopMatters.com, you’ll find new and creative ways to describe how a band sounds and informed information about the genres within genres within genres. Indeed, it has become its own code. In the middle of writing this piece, I clicked over to Pitchfork.com, the respected pop music site. The first review I hit was for a band called “Light Asylum”:
Coviello’s synth work and industrial beat programming is the perfect foundation for Funchess’ outsized character. The drums sound formidably cold and heavy, surprising in the regard that he seems perfectly comfortable writing recognizable, catchy synth lines. “Dark Allies” features a twinkling arpeggio, laser sounds, and an unctuous low-end, but he never fails to reinforce the séance-like quality of the song. And he wields his musical references responsibly: “Knights and Week Ends” is a nifty update of Joy Division’s “Digital,“ and “Skull Fuct” opens with the same iconic drum beat as New Order’s “Blue Monday.”
So what is this music about again?
Rock writers frequently use words like “transcendent,” “ethereal,” “majestic,” and even “epic” to describe music. But why is certain music transcendent, majestic, and epic? Does it point to God?
To me, the answer is yes. But it transcends not only because it provides joy — the great music writer Chris Roberts once described himself as “a cyclone” when his favorite song came on the radio — but because it deals, head-on, with the pain of human alienation and abandonment. It freely expresses doubt about God, about life, about purpose. It has its moment of abandonment on the cross. Who can forget “One,” U2’s masterpiece, and these lyrics:You say
Love is a temple
Love a higher law
Love is a temple
Love the higher law
You ask me to enter
And then you make me crawl
And I can’t keep holding on
To what you’ve got
When all you’ve got is hurt
You got to do what you should
There is more humanism and Christianity in “One” than in the top ten Christian rock albums combined. It is rebellious but not resentful music that questions God, not in the name of nihilism but in the name of morality. It wants a just world and questions the value of suffering. But it also accepts suffering as the midwife to wisdom and, as Chambers pointed out, to the birth of the soul. U2’s songs radiate with dislocation and computerized existentialism, yet in expressing this sorrow, the songs themselves become beautiful and timeless works of art — they touch the face of the God that they often deny.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.