November 2017 Print

Music on the Rocks

by Dr. Andrew Childs

“Speaking generally, we may say no man loves isolation, solitude, loneliness, the life of a hermit; on the other hand, while many dislike the authority under which they live, no man wishes for anarchy. What malcontents aim at is a change...Even the professed anarchist regards anarchy as a temporary expedient, a preparation for his own advent to power.”—Catholic Encyclopedia, “Civil Authority”

“Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins—or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom—Lucifer.”Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals

“Jesus is the rock, and He rolled my blues away.”Larry Norman, “Why should the Devil have all the good music?”

Musical Rebellion

Rebellion, the resistance or defiance of authority, begins in heaven and ends with Hell: fallen nature makes us rebels. Though the “Devil made me do it” defense lacks nuance and dies on the doorstep of free will, it contains a great truth. Due to Original sin, we remain both spiritual sons of God, and natural brothers of the Devil, and though God creates us in His image and likeness, the non serviam defines the human condition—the struggle to choose service of God as a free act of the will, in defiance of defiance, for love of Love. What follows will briefly consider examples of cultural rebellion—Rock ’n Roll, and the sub-genre of Christian Rock—by way of illustration, and as a means of self-reflection: what and whom do we serve, and how do the cultural choices we make, more and less actively, reflect this?

The philosopher Richard Weaver writes in The Ethics of Rhetoric,

“The scientific criticism of Greek mythology, which may be likened to the scientific criticism of the Bible in our own day, produces at best ‘a boorish sort of wisdom.’ It is a limitation to suppose that the truth of the story lies in its historicity. This ‘boorish sort of wisdom’ seeks to supplant poetic allegation with fact, just as an archeologist might look for the foundations of the Garden of Eden. But while this search goes on the truth flies off, on wings of imagination, and is not recoverable until the searcher attains a higher level of pursuit.”

If reasoning exists at all any longer, it tends to be of this boorish type: science has supplanted poetry. Add to this a sentimentality that fills the void created by the absence of proper logic, and the modern condition emerges, where anyone can justify thought, word, and deed through the application of a convenient raw fact—or more often, a technical lack of error—and imprimatur of positive feelings. The argument for Christian Rock proceeds along these lines: since no absolute prohibition exists, this means that approval can exist. If it would make me feel good for this approval to exist, it does: my good feelings—de facto good fruit—bring me closer to God.

Examining the Question in the a New Era

The Devil grinds us down: a sort of fatigue sets in when we hear familiar arguments against our questionable instincts, yet in arguing against Christian Rock, we must consider first the effects of Vatican II in legitimizing the redefinition of Christian, and second, face the effects of original sin as the reason why Rock of any sort appeals to us. Christian was Catholic until Luther; Catholic was Catholic until Vatican II. The Church, subject as always to the mismanagement of fallible men, retained Her marks throughout history until Vatican II, which proposed not only a redefinition of the Church, but of man as well. Revelation and Doctrine, though at times inconvenient in our opinion, remain untouchable by our opinion. Protestant Justification by Faith depends on our opinion, and confuses the relationship between thought and feeling: unbound by Doctrine, and “bound” to Scripture only as subject to individual interpretation, salvation becomes a matter of sentimental acceptance. It feels good to be saved. Vatican II seeks to remake the Church in the Protestant mode, perhaps as an attempt to counter the prevailing despair of the age; given, however, that the despair inherent to the Modernist condition results not from the perceived oppressive force of Christian morality, but from a rejection and ultimate denial of God, a less Godly Church will provide no relief.

Impossible to define in musicological terms, “Rock ’n Roll”—a euphemism for sexual intercourse—represents more an atmosphere than a quantifiable genre; this highly energetic ethos, though not focused on immorality at all times and in every case, nevertheless assumes a liberation from restraint (often sexual) and social norm. It is anti-hierarchical. And it feels good. Defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “A style of popular music of Afro-American origin, characterized by an insistent, heavily accented syncopated rhythm and an obsessive repetition of short musical phrases, tending to build up tension in an audience and induce a state of group frenzy when played very loud,” the actual music rests on a simple and sturdy harmonic framework, similar to folk music, and any attempt to make the music of Rock the focus of prohibition will necessarily fail. Though convenient, the insistence on the “heavily accented syncopated rhythm” as the malicious force in Rock fails to tell the whole story: Beethoven does things with rhythm and dissonance that would make a Metal-head swoon, yet we know Beethoven is better, objectively good, and of qualitative merit. Why? Truth, Goodness, Beauty; Hierarchy, Proportion, Degree—existential absolutes that elude scientific analysis.

Rock as a single thing defies definition: the lines between Folk, Country, Gospel, Jazz, Blues, Rockabilly, Swing, Big-Band, Pop, New Age, etc., blur impossibly, like crossing ripples made by multiple pebbles thrown into a pond. All these forms have a common nature, described by musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock as ‘vernacular’—low art. Some of the more advanced Swing or Big Band music possesses characteristics of higher art music, but this still, as with all low art, tends more toward the functional than the aesthetic, the formulaic rather than distinctive or complex, and is written to be immediately accessible to any audience. Its ethos distinguishes Rock from other vernacular forms: a spirit of liberation—from social norms, parental and civil authority, and Christian morality; a spirit that celebrates the hyper-sophistication and sexualization of children, and perpetual adolescence for adults; a spirit that, though perhaps not always overtly sinful, is essentially vulgar.

Christian Rock is an Oxymoron

Common sense—certainly a sensus Catholicus—tells us that Christian Rock is an oxymoron. Any attempt to justify Christian Rock begins with a lack of definition, both of Christian, and of Rock, where justification ranges from—at the least—the application of moral neutrality to the musical experience, to—in the positive extreme—an attribution of a type of edifying capacity: a personal relationship with God intensifies as the result of listening to Christian Rock. But, can Rock be Christian? This is a serious question, and very different than asking if a Christian can listen to Rock. The Christian Rock industry provides an answer in that it avoids the term “Rock” altogether, preferring instead Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), but the music remains indistinguishable from all but the most extreme forms of Rock—sentimental down-tempo ballads, and driving up-tempo songs. It differs from other forms of Rock and Pop primarily in the sentiment of the texts. Many lyrics contain genuinely pious sentiments; the texts speak of God, certainly of Christ, in a sincere manner, and the ballads create an undeniable powerful emotional atmosphere, but can this relative harmlessness properly baptize a genre effectively antithetical to Christianity? John Lennon mused in 1966, “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.” Certainly an authority on Rock, he recognized an incompatibility.

Seeking Music That Will Ennoble Us

Christian Rock can make you feel good, but we know, somehow, that it isn’t great. The music of Beethoven (or Bach, or Palestrina) has the capacity to ennoble, despite our limited capacity to understand it: like all great art, it possesses a sort of Doctrinal character, certainly not purposefully unattainable, but just as certainly uncompromising. It is one thing to know that the Sacraments, Doctrine, and artistic masterworks are made for man, and not the reverse: it is quite another to propose that since a particular man feels disinclined to rise to a sufficient level of understanding, the transcendent entity must descend to meet him. This is the ecumenical spirit of compromise, a one-way decline, and will invariably lead to a “boorish” sort of justification given the difficulty of quantifying good and bad. A “scientific” consideration of a recognizable masterwork yields few if any answers about greatness, even if none can question the objective merit: you may not like the B-minor Mass, but you can’t seriously argue against it. Science exists to consider WHAT—it cannot answer WHY. The supposed objectivity of science is in fact a potentially dangerous process of qualitative leveling: subjective hierarchy—bad, good, better, best—no longer exists. There are merely different combinations of elements, all equally valid, subject to an “objective” analytical process disinterested in understanding.

What makes Rock bad? That which makes it feel good? The non-Christian would accuse the Church of many things as regards morality: ignorance, oppression, hypocrisy, secret perversion, a fear of physical pleasure, yet the Church imposes morality because She understands perfectly well the appeal of the flesh, and the joys of physical pleasure. For love of God and neighbor, however, She insists on a self-knowledge, self-control, and self-sacrifice that Rock came into being to deny. When we become men and women, we must choose to put away the things of the child. With one who fails to recognize popular music in all its forms as essentially childish, the argument “against” Christian Rock remains quantitatively unwinnable. It feels good in a way that sugar tastes good; undeniably, yet those things which we loved as children, though not offensive or immoral, become cloying to us as adults—unless we insist on maintaining childish tastes. Can we quantify this development? The scientist, ever-earthbound, will tell us the facts about taste receptors and the hypothalamus, while the truth—that we must leave behind childish attachments and sentimentality in order to strive for nobility—flies off. We must admit the good feelings and positive sentimental rewards of the Christian Rock experience, while charitably and patiently providing the means for attaining a “higher level of pursuit” of Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and ultimately union with God.