Christian Rock and Rocky Soil

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.

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Go on ahead! Feelings and emotions are NOT evil. But they are only GOOD if they are in line with reason.

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

The Transfiguration and the Meaning of Christian Mystery

“Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Luke 9:33)

Peter had two options for approaching the event of the Transfiguration: he could see it as (a) a problem that needs to be solved, or (b) as a mystery.

When Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the high mountain, they woke up to a scene that seemed to defy all understanding. Jesus brings them up to the top of Mount Tabor and begins to glow unworldly bright. Then Moses and Elijah from the Old Testament show up and all three of them have a conversation.

Peter, thinking quickly on his feet, intrudes into their conversation and asks whether he should build three tents. For us, this sounds like odd, but for Peter, he must have thought he had solved the problem: this had to be the beginning of the end times. He might have picked up on how Jesus is fulfilling the Old Testament festivals. He knew of the Jewish tradition that Moses and Elijah would come again before the end of the world. Jesus, along with Moses and Elijah, was finally going to restore the kingdom of Israel and reap the much-anticipated harvest of souls. It was the Christological fulfillment of the Jewish Festival of Booths.

They needed tents.

However, Peter “did not know what he was saying.” He approached the Transfiguration as a problem to be solved, not as a mystery to be entered into. So while Peter was still speaking, a higher voice corrected him: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

The Limits of Science

When Christians use the word “mystery,” we do not mean a problem without an answer. No, for Christians, a mystery is something that is so intensely knowable that it exceeds the powers of human comprehension.

Let me give you an example.

Once, my five-year old niece told me, “Did you know that, when I’m in the car, the moon follows me? It really does!” My immediate response was to try to explain to her that since the moon is so far away, it only looks like it is following her. My impulse was to set up an experiment, putting her in one car and her sister in another car. They would go separate directions and observe how the moon follows both of them. Then I could prove to my niece that, since the moon cannot possibly be following both of them, there must be another explanation. That explanation would be in the reality of the great distance between the earth and the moon, a distance that can be observed and measured. Science would win out over childish naïveté.

But before I could thoroughly disprove her childish notion, she interrupted, “No. The moon really follows me.” With such opposition, I thus abandoned my attempt to scientifically disprove her childish perception.

For my five-year old niece, the moon was a mystery; it really did follow her. The moon was so beyond her that, rather than disconnecting her, it implicated her in its path. However mistaken her understanding of perspective, she approached it with wonder. And she rightly would not let that wonder be extinguished.

To me, the moon was a problem that needed to be solved; it could be measured and placed conceptually at a distance. I knew that its movements and phases are configured to a different pattern than my sporadic movements. Although technically more correct, the approach that reduced the moon to a problem prevented me from being gripped by the mystery of the moon and sharing in my niece’s wonder. To my niece, however, the moon was a mystery to be entered into.

Like my niece with the moon, a mystery is so beyond us, that we cannot help but be pulled into it. A mystery is so large that it necessarily involves the viewer. In this way, God Himself is a mystery, being so far beyond us that, at the same time, He embraces us and loves us in our very being.

Mysteries are not problems; they are not to be solved – they are to be entered into. A mystery is like a piece of art that pulls the viewer in; it is not a mere opportunity for scientific analysis.

The Mystery of the Transfiguration

It is in this way that the event of the Transfiguration is a mystery. Since mysteries overwhelm us, they implicate us – they require our response. Our response, then, to the mystery of the Transfiguration is not to solve the puzzle of Moses and Elijah’s appearance, but to enter deeply into the reality of what is before us. Through the mystery of the Transfiguration, we share in Jesus’ own prayer with the Father. By beholding the glory of Christ transfigured and listening to him, we become sons and daughters in the Son. By entering in to the mystery of the Transfiguration – by listening to God’s chosen Son – we become what we contemplate.

How do we enter in to the mystery of the Transfiguration? For us Christians, we go to the source and the summit of the Christian life – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Like Peter at the Transfiguration, we can look at the Mass just as a problem to be solved, a ritual to be analyzed, a puzzle to be deciphered. Or we can enter into the mystery of the Mass.

In every celebration of the Mass, we ascend the mountain with Christ, and we encounter something that overwhelms our understanding: God incarnate – the second Person of the Holy Trinity – comes to us as bread and wine. So great is the glory of Christ in the Eucharist, so utterly beyond us, that we are pulled into the mystery. The altar is our Mount Tabor, where we see His glory, not with the eyes of flesh, but with the eyes of faith. Over the altar the Father’s voice mystically resounds, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” We who enter into this mystery by receiving the Body of Christ in Holy Communion are enveloped by the cloud of the Holy Spirit. At Mass, we enter in to the mystery of God’s glory. He gazes on us, and we gaze on Him, and we become what we contemplate.

 

Main Image: The Church of the Transfiguration

There was no music on Calvary

Chances are, you’ve heard of St. Ignatius Loyola. Chances also are that you have tried his oft-recommended technique of meditation involving placing yourself in some scriptural scene, trying to imagine all the details of what is going on around you.

This is certainly a good method for reflecting on Scripture, but we 21st century Christians typically have a roadblock to achieving the real purpose of this exercise. It is a case of art revealing and concealing the truth simultaneously… We usually want to “cinematize” what we imagine.

This is easily proven. If you were asked to place yourself at the Mount of Olives during the Ascension, you would probably be tempted to insert a soundtrack at least, and maybe even some crazy angles and close-ups of wide-eyed apostles. But this is just not how we experience real events. So why would we try to experience the Gospel in this way? If I asked you to imagine eating breakfast, there wouldn’t be any orchestral accompaniment. When you start to dream about going home after a long day at work, are your kids running in slow-motion to embrace you? Maybe this type of dramatization opens up a place in ourselves that allows for a greater emotional response, which certainly can quicken true devotion up to a point, but eventually we might find ourselves responding more to the “art” than to God. Of course, this is a new phenomenon, since film is a new art form.

This scene from Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is pretty well done. But try watching it once with the sound, and once without. Notice the difference – perhaps the one is more emotional, but perhaps the other is more spiritual. (One day I would love to make a short film about some incident in the Life of Christ with no “fluff”… No music, dramatic lighting, slow motion, etc.)

The “silence and normalcy” of the events in the Life of Christ highlight His Incarnation – Jesus is really human, and, like other humans, does not have built-in theme music, a wind-machine on hand (that incident on the Sea of Galilee notwithstanding), or a traveling make-up crew.

The truth is that we are all outdone in spiritual maturity by Elijah. If we weren’t taken in by the storm, we would have been enthralled by the earthquake. If that didn’t get us, we would have bowed down at the fire. But Elijah knew it was the small whisper of wind that was the voice of the Lord.

It is significant for us Christians that Elijah encounters this voice at Horeb, where all those same kinds of things had happened before with Moses and actually were true representations of the voice of God. It seems that in general God becomes quieter and quieter throughout the course of Scripture and salvation history… Paradoxically, the quieter He becomes, the closer we can get to Him.

Sometimes a little fire or earthquake is fine, but often it is a snare. The true life of the spirit is quiet, invisible, and secret. Just as the flesh of the Son of God concealed His Divinity on the cross while simultaneously revealing it, our outer life conceals and reveals our deepest interior life; and since the interior life is what matters most, our default habit ought to be to deal with it directly insofar as it is possible. If we feed the spirit, that will shine forth in our flesh (just ask Moses). On the contrary, expending too much energy enhancing our outer lives through entertainment and pleasures leaves our interior life hanging high and dry – though sometimes people can be tricked into thinking that a fun and “rewarding” life is sure evidence of holiness and Divine affirmation of one’s choices (or even mistakenly branded by well-meaning persons as critical tools of the New Evangelization). Hormones, seratonin, and even genuine spiritual consolations are not the real substance of the spiritual life, they are only afterthoughts and can even be obstacles to growth. The really good stuff is quiet, and sometimes without a drop of sensible devotion. This is a bit like how cinematizing the Life of Our Lord can, in a way, rob it of some of its power. That isn’t to say there is no place for it, just as sometimes God really does bless us materially, but it ought not be the primary way we try to encounter the Almighty.

There was screaming, crying, and there were even a few words, but there was no music on Calvary.

 

Main image: The Deposition from the Cross, Fra Angelico

Can’t Spell “Cannabis” Without “Can I”

So guess what? Turns out some researchers in the Netherlands think more countries should legalize pot.

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Captain Obvious, of Hotels.com fame

For those who think flying to Amsterdam (or Colorado, etc.) to indulge in the herb is just fine and dandy, let’s do some thinkin’.

Principle 1: Creation is good.
Principle 2: Not all creatures are equally good.
Principle 3: We ought to avoid evil.
Principle 4: Rastafari is a false religion.

Humans are ontologically higher than rocks, plants, and animals. We can use them, even to their detriment, if they are beneficial enough to us. Jesus was not a vegetarian. And yes, Brother Carrot and Sister Lettuce are okay to kill, unless it is out of sheer disdain and spite for their existence as creatures of God.

But Uncle Bud is a little different, because when we harvest him, it’s usually for the sake of affecting our bodies in a way that suspends our intellect.

Eat-ay ad Thomam:

The sin of drunkenness, as stated in the foregoing Article, consists in the immoderate use and concupiscence of wine. Now this may happen to a man in three ways. First, so that he knows not the drink to be immoderate and intoxicating: and then drunkenness may be without sin, as stated above (Article 1). Secondly, so that he perceives the drink to be immoderate, but without knowing it to be intoxicating, and then drunkenness may involve a venial sin. Thirdly, it may happen that a man is well aware that the drink is immoderate and intoxicating, and yet he would rather be drunk than abstain from drink.

That’s from the Summa TheologicaII-II, Q. 150, art. 2. Wine stands here for any intoxicating substance… One might not know a substance to have intoxicating effects, and so there is no sin in such drunkenness (unless its use was immoderate for other reasons). But if one knows something to be potent, it is another story. But just how drunk is “drunk?”

[The third kind of man] is a drunkard properly speaking, because morals take their species not from things that occur accidentally and beside the intention, but from that which is directly intended. On this way drunkenness is a mortal sin, because then a man willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason, whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin. For Ambrose says (De Patriarch. [De Abraham i.]): “We learn that we should shun drunkenness, which prevents us from avoiding grievous sins. For the things we avoid when sober, we unknowingly commit through drunkenness.” Therefore drunkenness, properly speaking, is a mortal sin.

So there is still a mystery… How intoxicated must one be before he “deprives himself of the use of reason?” Let’s remember a few things though before we shame the Angelic Doctor for being obscure. First, he expects a student to have read all the text which precedes this Article. That would give one a better idea of what he means. Second, the Summa really is just a beginner’s crash-course. It is not meant to be exhaustive. In some articles, this is more evident than in others. Third, it’s unlikely St. Thomas had much firsthand experience with drinking to provide us with more subtlety… When Albertus Magnus is your professor and Bonaventure lives on your hall, you’re inspired to “rise above the influence,” as it were.

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“Bonaventure Shows Thomas Aquinas the Crucifix,” Francisco Zurbaran, 1629

However, we know that some of the more austere saints occasionally indulged, such as Charles Borromeo and John Vianney. And of course, the Lord did as well, as He so famously pointed out in Matthew 11:19. Since potent substances will technically have some effect no matter how little is taken of them, we can say from this alone that it is not evil in itself to use intoxicating substances.

Then there is the principle of totality to keep in mind. Later in the same Question, Thomas alludes to this by saying a physician might tell one to use drink to induce vomiting – but since lukewarm water works too, that should be used instead. However, if it didn’t (and we hadn’t discovered Ipecac) then it would be fine. This is because the greater health of the body is worth the temporary loss of reason… That’s also why it’s not a sin to plan on going to sleep each night! And while there is violence done to the body and soul when, for instance, a gangrenous limb is removed, it is for the sake of the entire person. But this too should be moderated by wisdom, since not every ailment is worth doing violence to yourself. If you get occasional leg pain, that doesn’t mean you should cut off your leg.

So anyway, how drunk is drunk? How high is high? It is so difficult to say because of the problem in trying to quantify a quality. “It’s when you feel like… you know, drunk.”

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There he is again!

We won’t solve the issue of exactly where “the line” is today – maybe another post with some ¡HARDCORE SCIENCE! – but perhaps we can lay down some guideposts based on Thomas and basic research.

Certain drugs act far more quickly than others. THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) acts more quickly than alcohol, based on the popular conventions of consumption. That is a big deal.

Reason helps us to distinguish the true from the false. Once you have trouble doing that, it’s time to call it a day… If sober people around you start laughing at everything you say, it’s probably not because you’re witty and charming, it’s because you’re diminishing your material brain’s capability to interact with your immaterial intellect (AKA you’re becoming drunk). And so on.

If you’re starting to forget stuff that you shouldn’t forget, then that’s another sign your faculties are slipping. So put it down.

When you feel like doing something really dumb that you normally wouldn’t, STOP and don’t do that much again. Once you know that tequila makes your clothes fall off, then kiss it goodbye. It’s better to enter into life without a bottle of Patrón than into Gehenna with all you could ever drink. (And Tequila burns even without being on fire…)

If you can’t walk right and are slurring words, then your brain is shutting down. Same story.

So no hard answers here today, but basically the faster and stronger the drug, the less morally safe it is to use. AND, if one uses any substance for the pleasure of changing his mental state in a way that diminishes its capacity to execute its proper function, as distinct from some some other effect, this too is a red flag… We should not delight in an unnatural state!

All this would make the average consumption of pot pretty bad.