It used to baffle me. “How can so many of my peers who were so ‘churchy’ and ‘involved’ in high school have just drifted away in college?”
It doesn’t baffle me any more.
If you are a new DRE, youth minister, or high school chaplain in the USA, here’s a sobering reality check: the chances are that a lot of the kids volunteering on the weekend, helping lead retreats, signing up for work camp each year, etc., etc., will fall away when they leave high school. No, not all, and probably not most, but many. Some will eventually find their way back, maybe by a chance encounter with a priest, or a random itch of their conscience, or if and when they get married in the Church and decide it’s time to “get serious.” Some will find their way back, but not all.
Why does this happen, how does this illusion of commitment work, and what can be done to prevent this?
Despite the provocative title of this article, music is only part of the problem, though it is one of the best examples of the core conflict – trying to choose both God and mammon in parishes and ministry programs.
But let’s talk music first.
It is possible for rock music to be authentically Christian and still be good rock. But the Christian message must be indirect, or else there will be a lack of proportion between what is being said and how it is being said. Proportion is an essential element of beauty, and who wants music that isn’t beautiful to be used for worship?
Here is one comparison between two songs with similar themes but achieved in radically different ways.
This song is a first-person account of someone trying to overcome some life obstacles.
The lyrics are vaguely Christian, but it seems like even if they were more direct it would not help much – it would still be inappropriate for worship, because it is taking a music genre entirely from and for the world and trying to Christify it explicitly. That is why it’s so awkward, at least for me, even just to listen to.
Furthermore, the music itself in this example is just plain second-rate. The message itself also is very self-centered, which would be one thing if it wasn’t marketed as “Christian” and there wasn’t the almost artificial insertion of a mini-prayer in the lyrics, “God, I want to dream again.” I’ve never heard this at church, but I don’t frequent Protestant megachurches. I can certainly imagine it being used.
The next song is about a couple of kids whose lives are going terribly wrong, starting with one who gets shot on his way to school.
This is good rock music. It’s also profoundly moving, albeit in an unexpected way. Nobody would play this at a church, and rightly so, but I argue that this is a much better example of “Christian Rock” than the first song, not only because it is better musically but also because it knows what it is: the artists don’t try to insert the explicitly other-worldly into a worldly genre, apart from a one-off Scriptural reference (“the blind leading the blind”). Instead, they vividly illustrate real world problems and the emotions associated with them. This leads the listener to the simple consideration of the bleakness of sin and the need for something dramatically good to counter young people’s hopelessness. Finally, they suggest that the solution is at least in part our responsibility: “We are, we are, the youth of the nation.” That’s about a thousand times more Christian and artistic than the previous song. (The band, P.O.D., is loosely self-described as Christian, by the way.)
Anyway, as an alternative to Christian Rock at church, we have masterpieces like this available to us:
It’s very hard to pull off something like this well – and it really MUST be recited live – but that is part of what makes it worth so much as an act of worship. It involves serious dedication. Sacrificial worship doesn’t only mean killing goats, of course: it can also mean slaving away for a few dozen hours just to produce one beautiful arrangement for a single Mass. God likes that.
“But I like the churchy Christian Rock. So do lots of other people. In fact, a lot of the people at my church come because we play that kind of music.”
Now we come to the root.
If it were a simple matter of aesthetics, one taste does not rule over other tastes. Chocolate is not inherently better than vanilla, etc. Except we are not talking about ice cream, we are talking about the public worship of Almighty God and spiritually encountering Him in that worship (which is distinct from emotionally encountering Him). There is an objectivity to music and worship, which is why the objection that “classical” music is just the “rock” or “pop” of the 17th century (etc.) does not work. Certain kinds of music do not appropriately resonate with our soul inasmuch as it is ordered toward loving and encountering the otherworldly. As the famous saying goes, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – as one worships, so one believes. If someone heard a “Christian song” without knowing the language in which it’s being sung, and he thinks it’s probably about some guy’s girlfriend, for example, there is a big problem. If God, as the Author of Grace, is going to be treated directly, He deserves something more than what your girlfriend deserves, as nice as she may be. And the more one treats God like a girlfriend in worship, the more one is likely to think of God that way. It’s just how human beings work. When your girlfriend gets boring or too challenging, you can leave her for someone else. When God or the Mass or the one true Church is treated like a girlfriend in worship, when they get boring or too challenging, they are all too likely to be left for something else. And the more one tries to dress them up like some other “girl,” the more one will realize that it would be easier just to go after that girl instead. We can’t make God in our image, and when we figure that out, the choice is forced upon us: we either destroy our little idol and worship God on His own terms, or we go seek the thing that we were trying to make Him into.
The trumpets that will blare at Our Lord’s return will be playing music closer to Mozart than to Meatloaf, and not for no reason. If I don’t like the Parousia’s music – or even Heaven’s music – will it be because God doesn’t know what’s “relevant,” or will it be because He knows there’s something more objective about transcendence than my fleeting emotional inclinations?
Liking secular-ish Christian-ish music and feeling good about God on its account is not wrong in itself.
What is wrong is when those things are at the foundation of one’s spiritual life, instead of the imperceptible indwelling of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace expressing themselves in the exercise of moral virtue and frequent prayer (even continuous prayer, to the point where instead of talking to yourself to think through the mundane tedium of your daily life, you talk to God). If and when well-performed secular-ish Christian-ish music and/or nice feelings about God become inaccessible for some reason, a person who had seemed to grow up in the spiritual life so quickly is liable to become “withered by the sun and die,” so to speak, just like the seed sown in rocky soil (Mt. 13: 1-23). Such a person will eventually notice that the world (or even some other church) gives quicker and easier nice feelings, and that continuing to pray and go to Mass diligently is really hard when faced with that alternative. And why resist? “If spirituality is all about the feels anyway, when I get them, great, when I don’t get them, then I just won’t kill anyone or rob any banks, and I’ll go to Heaven, or something like that. But maybe the whole ‘organized religion thing’ is all just a psychological prison anyway, and a nondescript ‘spirituality’ is where it’s at.” And down the slope we go. People don’t usually think or express their desires in exactly these terms, but they often act based exactly on the ideas found in them.
If you live in the Western world, this process is almost certainly happening with people in your parish, especially to millennials. The problem, of course, is not limited to music – the approach of condescending indefinitely to worldliness can permeate the air of entire parishes. Let pastors who are looking to “Rebuild” be aware of the lesson of Aaron and the calf… Money and popularity do not make a parish a spiritual success. Your sanctuary may be tricked out with the latest live streaming gear and some nifty projector screens, and your band may make a 6 figure salary due to generous tithing, but if there’s not perpetual or nearly perpetual adoration; if there aren’t vocations; if there aren’t long lines at the confessional; if people are not praying before and after Mass in silence… these deserve more attention.
The Protestant megachurches and the world will always win the game anyway. They produce better, flashier, trendier stuff, including morals and doctrine. They produce better rock music. They condescend to our worldliness better. Therefore, the game ought not be played. Our Lord did not play the game, though He was invited to by the Devil. (Mt. 4: 1-11)
Christ condescended to our worldliness by becoming a human being. Beyond that, He used language and images we could understand. He identified with us in our need for food and drink, as with the woman at the well, or with the Eucharist itself. He pointed out the way to perfection to the Rich Young Man and to those wondering about divorce by meeting them where they were, and yet He did not insist on poverty or celibacy as Commandments. All this condescension, however, actually serves the will of the Father by calling people to look beyond the world. Christian Rock, as commonly understood, does not do this, but instead lowers God more than He lowered Himself by putting Him into a worldly genre of music which can certainly make people feel nice feelings but cannot lead one to contemplation as it is understood by the spiritual masters. (In fact, prolonged silence is one of the best things for that.) And of course, some other parochial and ministerial projects fall into the same trap. We must not be in the business of making good novices: we must be in the business of making saints.
The longer one pretends he can find God in the storm, the earthquake, and the fire, the more likely he is to miss the small whispering sound that calls a soul out of the cave. God showed His might on Sinai with signs of His fearsome power, but now, in the invisible life of grace, the signs of His love manifestly prevail – and lovers very often want to be alone together in silence, do they not?
Education in the spiritual life must become a greater priority in parishes, especially youth ministry programs, if we are to stop the bleeding of parishioners looking “to be fed” somewhere else – back in Egypt, that is, where there were melons and leeks and fleshpots. We especially ought to curb the enthusiasm in our young people for getting chills and thrills on retreats – and certainly for “speaking in tongues” and being “slain in the Spirit,” for goodness’ sake – and instead teach them that the greater effects of prayer and the sacraments are in an undying thirst to do what is right out of love for God and the pursuit of union with Him at the expense of any and all other pleasures. Growth may seem slower, but it will be steadier.
Better, more subdued, more dignified music is just one part of the solution. Christ our Rock is more spiritual than worldly, after all.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888