Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rock 'n' Roll and Searching for the Infinite

I like music, including Bach's (Johann Sebastian and P. D. Q.), Artie Shaw's, and Aerosmith's. I'm fond of traditional American hymns, and enjoy my parish's annual polka Mass.

I like Kenyan folk songs, Gregorian chants, and techno.

I even like rap: although many of the lyrics are regrettable.

"Church Music"

Then there's a particular sort of harmonically and rhythmically simple music, often played on a piano or organ: what my native culture calls "church music." I like that sort of music, too.

The Catholic Church says music is an important part of worship. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1156-1158) We're not locked into music arranged for soprano, alto, tenor, and base, though:
"The harmony of signs (song, music, words, and actions) is all the more expressive and fruitful when expressed in the cultural richness of the People of God who celebrate...."
(Catechism, 1158)
There's more about music and the liturgy, and that's another topic. Topics.

Rock and Religion

I remember the 'good old days,' when rock and roll was denounced as Satanic on a fairly regular basis, along with other aspects of American culture that some painfully pious folks didn't like.

That was about a half-century back. Some folks still don't like rock, I still do, which may be why this headline jumped out at me:
"Music journalist explores religious qualities of rock 'n' roll"
David Kerr, CNA/EWTN News (August 22, 2012)

"Rock 'n' roll is innately religious and expresses a desire for the infinite, according to one of Ireland's leading music journalists.

" 'This music is generated in the heart of man and is therefore fundamentally of the religious need, which is the fundamental original need of man; to know who made him, who he is, where he is bound,' said John Waters in an Aug. 21 interview with CNA.

"Waters is the creator of a new exhibition entitled 'Three chords and a longing for the truth; rock 'n' roll as a seeking for the infinite.'..."
I put a longer excerpt at the end of this post.

Loud Music, Words, and Image

I think Mr. Waters has a point, although I'd probably have said "spiritual," or maybe "philosophical," instead of "religious."

I also think he's right about the media's version of rock: that rock is just "...some kind of extravaganza of sensation and noise and stardom and narcissism and ego mania...." There's an element of truth in that image, and I'll get back to that.

Rock, the Pope, and Sound Bite News

"...Beyond the 800,000 visitors to this year's Rimini Meeting, Waters wanted to offer his hi-tech, interactive exhibition to one person in particular – Pope Benedict XVI.

" 'When he was elected in 2005, all the hostile journalists dug back through all of his articles and speeches and tried to find things that would discredit him,' Waters said, recalling how the media finally unearthed a 1996 article in which Cardinal Ratzinger had opined, in the words of Waters, that 'rock 'n' roll only appeals to the lower emotions of man and was therefore dangerous.'

"Waters believes that Pope Benedict 'is right in a certain sense,' that our modern culture only wants rock 'n' roll to be about 'exaggerated sexuality, self-indulgence and narcissism.'

"But he also wanted to show the pontiff a deeper reality....
(David Kerr, CNA/EWTN News)
Some rock seems to have about as much depth as an oil slick, and lives down to the media stereotype:

"...Shake it up, shake it down
Move it in, move it around, disco lady...
"Disco Lady" Johnny Taylor (1976)
Johnny Taylor, via

I agree with Waters, though, and think that there's more to rock than "Disco Lady."

A Catholic: Saying the Pope is Wrong?!

I think it's possible that Benedict XVI, before he became Pope, might have made a mistake. Coming from a practicing Catholic, that's not as shocking as a person might think.

Maybe you've heard that Catholics think the Pope can't make mistakes. That's almost true. In a way. Sort of.

Papal infallibility is part of Catholic belief. But it applies to doctrinal statements, not opinions about music.2

I'm getting off-topic, which isn't all that unusual.

My guess is that back in 1996, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote an article in which he made a statement about rock music, simple emotions, and danger. It's possible, although not at all certain, that he made it sound like he thought all rock songs were dangerous.

Christians, Rock, and U2

Waters gives U2 as an example of a rock band who were "hammered by critics" because they admitted to being Christian. U2 decided to stay in the business, changed superficial details, and carried on.1 I'm inclined to believe him.

An important point there is the distinction between content and style.

The Basics of "Base"

Backing up a bit, Cardinal Ratzinger seems to have said that rock appeals to "base" emotions. I think it's a good idea to know what words mean, and I'm a recovering English teacher, so - you've been warned - here's a short list of what "base" can mean:
  1. Noun
    1. Lowest support of a structure
    2. A place that the runner must touch before scoring
    3. The fundamental assumptions from which something is
      • Begun
      • Developed
      • Calculated
      • Explained
  2. Verb
    1. Use as a basis for
    2. Situate as a center of operations
  3. Adjective
    1. Of low birth or station
      • 'Base' is archaic in this sense
    2. Not adhering to ethical or moral principles
    3. Having or showing an ignoble lack of honor or morality
    (Princeton's WordNet)
Is it any wonder that software developers have a hard time getting robots to understand English? And that's yet another topic or two.

Cardinal Ratzinger's 'base emotions' comment seems to fit definitions 3 C and D.

As far as songs like "Disco Lady" are concerned, I think he's right. But there's more to rock than that.

Another Side of Rock

The rock songs I remember, some of them, had more depth than "Disco Lady." These examples aren't specifically Christian, but I don' t think they're "base," either.

"...Don't you see no matter what you do
You'll never run away from you
And if you keep on runnin'
You'll have to pay the price....
"Kicks" (1966)
Paul Revere and the Raiders, via

"...Creature comfort goals
They only numb my soul
And make it hard for me to see....
"Pleasant Valley Sunday" (1967)
The Monkees, via

"...There's a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking....
"Stairway to Heaven" (1971)
Led Zeppelin, via

"...All my dreams, pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind...

"...Don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, all your money won't another minute buy...
"Dust in the Wind" (1977)
Kansas, via

I don't 'believe in music,' like another song said. I certainly don't think someone has to have my taste in music to be a 'real' Catholic. That would be silly.

But, until I learn differently, I'm going to assume that it's okay to be aware of the culture I'm in: and appreciate the occasional reflections of truth I find there.

Somewhat-related posts:

1 CNA/EWTN News excerpt:
"Music journalist explores religious qualities of rock 'n' roll"
David Kerr, CNA/EWTN News (August 22, 2012)

"...'The media always present rock 'n' roll simply as some kind of extravaganza of sensation and noise and stardom and narcissism and ego mania. But we are saying that within this shell of superficiality there is a hard core of fundamental content which is really the cry of man expressed in a modern idiom.'...
"...'I wanted in a way to take the Pope by the elbow and lead him into this music and say, "come, there's more, look at these artists, look at Bob Dylan, listen to what he is saying, listen to Leonard Cohen, listen to U2, see the sincerity of these people with the great questions that face man. And don't be taken in by the exterior, by the noise, by the sensation, by the headlines." '

"At 57 years-old, Waters has been writing about rock 'n' roll for over 30 years, having started out in journalism in Dublin with the Irish political-music magazine Hot Press in 1981. At the same time and in the same city, the band U2 was beginning its ascent to rock stardom. Waters believes that the Irish group, fronted by lead singer Bono, is a classic example of, what he calls, a cultural 'Trojan horse.'

" 'When U2 began they were a very overtly Christian band but they got hammered by the critics, particularly in the U.K., and after several albums they began to realize that they couldn't survive in this medium if they didn't change.'

"What changed, however, was only their exterior. 'They became more ironic, they dressed differently, they moved differently, but their music remained the same.'

"Thus U2 managed to win over the same critics, he said, which then 'allowed them to bring their music even further into the center of the public square.'

"Waters contests that there is an 'Atlantic divide' when it comes to the 'credent pillars of modern pop and rock 'n' roll,' with a 'British model' that is more ideological and destructive, standing in contrast to its American counterpart.

"The British model, as exemplified by the 1970s punk movement, 'always seemed to believe that rock 'n' roll should be a political form of rebellion which implicitly became socially left-wing,' Waters said. But the American model has 'always had a far more existential dimension, a far broader dimension,' a characteristic that he traces to its 'relationship with the primal music of the Blues and Gospel.'

"So while the British model has tended to inform the analysis of music critics, it is 'not necessarily the impulse that is to be found in the music,' he said, holding up legendary American artists such as Sam Cooke, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen as examples.

" 'They play the game of the modern culture, speaking to the communications media in a certain language, and yet in their songs they speak an entirely different language.'..."
2 Papal infallibility:
"INFALLIBILITY: The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church whereby the pastors of the Church, the pope and bishops in union with him, can definitively proclaim a doctrine of faith or morals for the belief of the faithful (891). This gift is related to the inability of the whole body of the faithful to err in matters of faith and morals (92)."
("Catechism of the Catholic Church," Glossary)
(Also see "Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2035)

" 'The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith - he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,' above all in an Ecumenical Council.418 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine 'for belief as being divinely revealed,'419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions 'must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.'420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.421"
("Catechism of the Catholic Church," 891)

1 comment:

Lazlo H said...

Interesting analysis. I grew up a Catholic, and still feel close ties with the Church, although today I am more inclined to refer to myself as an independent non-denominational Christian. In any case, my faith is an important component of my life.

To me, my interest in rock music is not mutually exclusive to my Christian faith. In fact, I have to confess that many of the more "mainstream" activities which are often touted as being more good or "godly" were activities I often felt a outsider from. Rock music gave me something which allowed me to fit in as a young, oddball nonconformist. As your post mentions, there are in fact many rock artists like U2, who profess Christian faith. And if there was ever a true nonconformist, Christ was it. So the two go together quite well.

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