Can Christian music be real rock ’n roll?
“Your mama don’t dance, And your daddy don’t rock and roll,” a line from the 1972 hit by Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina, offers insight into generational tensions at a critical time in American culture. The rock ’n roll revolution challenged — transgressed — the “old folks” social etiquette as well as their morality.
Well, the old folks say
That ya gotta end your date by ten
If you’re out on a date
And you bring it home late it’s a sin …
You pull into a drive-in
And find a place to park
You hop into the backseat
Where you know it’s nice and dark
You’re just about to move in,
Thinkin’ it’s a breeze
There’s a light in your eyes
And then a guy says
“Out of the car, Longhair”
“Louise, you’re comin’ with me
And no more movies”
But is rock necessarily transgressive? Has rock music changed since the heyday of the rock ’n roll revolution? Is popular music a “neutral, sonic vehicle” that can be used for either sacred or profane purposes? Can Christians “adopt, transform, and redeem popular music?”
These are some of the questions addressed by Christopher Partridge in The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, the Sacred, and the Profane. His thesis is that “popular music is fundamentally transgressive.”
[Popular music] may articulate faith, hope, and love in largely innocuous and mundane ways, but it often, though not always, tends to do this from within the contested spaces of the modern world.
Within these secular spaces, the binding and guiding power of the sacred elements are “weakened, interrogated and challenged.” Since the rules of engagement are established and controlled by biases of the profane, the transaction is essentially a transgression of the sacred.
Just how this happens should be of interest to all Christians who would understand how the church should relate to the world of popular music, making The Lyre of Orpheus important reading in spite of the fact that it’s a rather academic study.
Two recent reviews of The Lyre of Orpheus offer helpful insights into Dr. Partridge’s analysis. Neither review is wholly positive, but both reviewers think the book deserves serious attention.
Lindsey Miller is a former worship leader and professional jazz guitarist living in Nashville, Tennessee. She points out that a great strength of The Lyre of Orpheus is that it takes the form of music seriously.
Partridge begins his study on the assumption that music, apart from lyrics, is meaningful. This is dealt with in the first two chapters where popular music is analyzed according to the various definitions of culture and society. Here, Partridge first introduces the concept of “affective space.” The sound of music, particularly popular music, is fundamentally connected to the individual’s lifeworld (38.) It shapes core beliefs about who we are, how we understand the world, and how we fit into this world. Music has the ability to move and manipulate, and can, therefore, create environments that stretch what is typical to the body and mind.
Miller highlights two insights that she considers helpful in understanding the interplay of culture, popular music, and Christian worship.
First, Partridge successfully refutes the view that popular music is a trite genre, and, therefore, unworthy of serious inquiry. Early in the book he disproves this view, pointing to accomplished artists who work within the genre. More importantly, Partridge effectively articulates the liminal and transgressive appeal of popular music and the power of the genre that goes far beyond anything that could be described as trite or banal. Any Christian worship leader would need to seriously consider the transgressive nature of this music and what affective space it is creating within his or her worship service.
Second, through this study, worship leaders may have a greater understanding as to why church members hold so strongly to their preferred genres of music. Not only does music hold a great deal of liminal appeal for the listener, but, Partridge believes, it is also one of the primary grids by which people create meaning out of the world around them. All laity approach Christian worship with a certain amount of cultural “baggage.” Those who have listened to popular music their entire lives will have a difficult time making sense out of the elements of worship without the presence of this music grid. Those who have listened to classical or traditional hymnody will require a classical grid for worship. To abruptly remove or change these is to disrupt the whole meaning making process. This opens up an entirely new avenue of discussion which may not have been the original intention of the author.
The second review of The Lyre of Orpheus, “Can Christian Music Be Real Rock and Roll?” is by Stephen H. Webb.
Dr. Webb disagrees with the thesis that “rock music is essentially transgressive” even as he agrees that The Lyre of Orpheus “showcases rock’s darker side.” Without much of an argument, he asserts that Christians can “adopt, transform, and redeem popular music.”
Dr. Webb does agree with many of the observations in The Lyre of Orpheus. And he adds some provocative commentary of his own.
Sound is not a neutral medium. Partridge argues, for example, that “bass is subversive.” Echo and reverb can evoke ethereal flights, but extremely low sounds require lots of power to be amplified. Go low enough (below 20 hertz), where the body feels what it cannot hear, and foundations personal and social are shaken indeed.
The dissonance of rock, for Partridge, “represents an inversion of the mythic rationale informing creation narratives and, as such, Christian theological teleology.” It is the “threat of a return to chaos,” which makes rock the acoustical expression of the “waste and void” of Genesis 1:2. Rock is excess with a vengeance.
One implication of this line of thought goes unnoticed by Partridge: If rock is the soundtrack to the coming of the Antichrist, then the decline of Christianity should also produce the decline of rock. There is evidence that this is already happening, since rebels, after all, really do need a cause. Partridge seems hardly aware of how pathetic it is that heavy metal has devolving into specialized sub-genres like death, thrash, sludge, and drone, each with their own code of conduct and their own lines of fashion accessories.
Without Christianity, rock’s agitations become spume and splutter, which suggests that rock cannot be essentially transgressive. Transgression is always derivative, secondary, reactive, and thus essentially conservative, secretly in service to the hegemonic order it seeks to overthrow. Dissonance is dependent on the natural appeal of harmony, just as Satan’s activities are possible only due to God’s providential permission. That is why rock, when it tries to be overtly blasphemous, ends up being overly impressed with its own puerile histrionics.
Rock is a threat to Christianity not because it is essentially transgressive, but because it too often acquiesces to modernity’s distancing of art from truth. The result is a mindless numbing of the emotions, which is why drugs really are an important part of rock’s “affective space.” Going to a hard rock concert without getting high is like going to church without taking communion. What’s the point?
In the end, Partridge has made the case for rock’s need for an intervention, if not outright redemption. The honesty of rock is in its vocal yearning, not its electric thrashing. The alternative to transgression is transcendence, not docile submission to social order. Rock was born out of blues, folk and Gospel, not sexual aggression and gender bending. There is nothing inevitable about rock’s demise, although it might take a miracle for rock to rediscover its voice.
Dr. Christopher Partridge is Professor of Religious Studies at Lancaster University (UK) and founding Co-director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Popular Culture. He serves as co-editor of two journals, Studies in Popular Music and Studies in Religion and Popular Music. Dr. Partridge has authored numerous books in addition to The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, the Sacred, and the Profane.
Stephen H. Webb is currently a columnist for First Things, where “Can Christian Music Be Real Rock and Roll?” was published. He was professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College from 1988 to 2012
Lindsey Miller is a former worship leader and jazz guitarist. She is a professional musician and a teacher, currently living in Nashville, Tennessee.