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“Not even prayer, at its heights, can cause me to lay all my cares aside like a great rock song.”

A remarkable statement from Rod Dreher in a disturbingly fascinating attempt by him at some notes toward a theology of rock. Here’s the quote in context:

When I find my worries overwhelming, I cook, and I listen to loud rock music. I put on the Black Crowes’ “Remedy,” and fired up the burners. The music, even more than the cooking, turns off my thinking like nothing else. Bach is sublime, but when I need the release of forgetting, only rock will do. Not even prayer, at its heights, can cause me to lay all my cares aside like a great rock song — precisely because it doesn’t try to be cerebral. Rock is about instinct. At its best, it offers transcendence in being liberated from the cerebral, and giving oneself over to the instinctive.

He then asks the necessary question:

Isn’t this a counterfeit liberation, though? Counterfeit in the sense that it isn’t wholly real; it achieves the fulfillment of one part of our nature — the body — through the temporary denial of another part, the mind (or, if you like, the soul). For the Christian, this can only be a counterfeit transcendence, which is not to say that it is wrong, necessarily, but only that we shouldn’t mistake it for the real thing. To truly transcend is to have the body and the mind united, and united to God. To be caught up in the rapture of rock chords is blissful; nobody can deny that. God knows I wouldn’t. But it’s not Atlantis, and that’s the thing always to keep before us.

Counterfeit liberation, indeed. There are many things that people use to create artificially stimulated feelings that are meant to be a replacement for true spiritual affection, which takes much more work to develop. Alcohol is one of them. People every day try to drown away their miseries, and for a short time, they’re pretty happy. But when the artificial stimulant goes away, so does the feeling. Drugs are the same kind of thing. Pop music does the same thing. A driving rhythm or a sentimental tune can make you feel pretty good for a while, but not too long after the music stops, the feeling goes away. This is what Nietzsche called Dionysian music.

The problem with these kinds of artificial stimulants is not just that they are artificial, but that because they inherently lack depth or substance and are addictive, they leave a person needing more extreme forms to get the same feeling. So one glass or one sniff or some soft rock may create a buzz for a while, but pretty soon more doses are needed to create the same feeling.

People are drawn to Dionysian art because it creates enjoyable physical feelings that are immediate. No work or effort is required to enjoy the feeling. No mental or spiritual engagement is necessary. It is immediate because it is shallow; it has no depth. However, because of the inherent shallowness of the medium, greater doses are needed to create the same effects as a person becomes more desensitized. Therefore, Dionysian art is intrinsically addictive.

With the creation of mass media as a result of the Industrial Revolution, savvy businessmen soon saw the potential of taking advantage of the power of Dionysian music in order to make money. Certain music, for instance, because it created immediate results and was intrinsically addictive, provided the perfect medium for making a considerable amount of money. They found that it was not difficult to hook the masses on Dionysian forms of music. Then, when the masses inevitably desensitized themselves to the immediate affects of such music, the entrepreneurs were always ready with more novelty and more stimulating forms. Such was the birth of pop music.

It is a shame to see a thoughtful Christian even need to struggle through this, but it is not surprising considering that evangelicalism succumbed to the siren call of pop culture long ago.

Dreher concludes this way:

None of this satisfactorily answers the question about how a Christian listens to and affirms rock music that conveys a lyrical message that is immoral. At what point does the Christian draw a line saying, “I don’t care how great this music is, I cannot open myself to this”? I want to find bright, clear lines, but I can’t — and I hate the habit many of us Christians have of baptizing the secular things we like by inventing strained theological justifications for them. I end this digression almost as conflicted and as confused, and as “dialectic and bizarre,” as I started. . .  Your thoughts are welcome. I would be grateful if you could help me, and others, think through these things more clearly.

He asked, so let’s comply. Head on over to his original post and give it a read, and then come back here, and let’s offer him a solution to his conflicted thinking.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.

13 Responses to “Not even prayer, at its heights, can cause me to lay all my cares aside like a great rock song.”

  1. Greg Moore says:

    I think the conflict comes from trying to take something that is meant to entertain and turn it into an act of worship. I have no problem with listening to Christian Rock and I agree, it is definitely not an intellectual endeavor. But i do believe that “for everything there is a season.’ The conflict comes when we try to replace an act of worship which is to sing praises to our Lord, with an activity which is not worship, but entertainment . I come from a tradition in faith of acapella worship. While most of those in my culture of faith no longer feel the use of instruments is an issue of salvation, that paradigm is not far removed from what Scott Aniol is trying to say about Christian Rock. Is it fun?- yes! Is it entertaining? – yes! Is it worship?? Ultimately that will be up to God. In all cases we should remember that worship is not a place we go to be entertained about a story line about our God, where the people up front are the actors, and the congregation is the audience. In fact, the congregation are the actors or active participants who should be presenting their best possible worship to our God. The people up front SHOULD be the facilitators and help to enhance the active participation of the congregation. The audience in a worship service SHOULD ALWAYS be God. So before we condemn and say that “evangelicalism succumbed to the siren call of pop culture long ago.” Christian Rock would better be thought of as when John went to Jesus and asked what to do with those casting out daemons in His name who were not with Him, Christ said “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” Therefore, I think it is great that we have a form of Dionysian art that is centered around God and Christ. I think we avoid conflict by making sure we are ever vigilant not to confuse or try to replace an act of worship (Singing) with a form of entertaining art..

  2. Casey McCarthy says:

    “At what point does the Christian draw a line saying, ‘I don’t care how great this music is, I cannot open myself to this’?”

    He seems to have an underlying assumption that the music is amoral, that there is nothing wrong with the music itself. In the comments section of the article he notes that he has never heard CCM music and I wonder if he would be wrestling with this question if he did hear it?

  3. Martin says:

    “but when I need the release of forgetting, only rock will do”
    The obvious comment here is, what did people do just 100 years ago when there was no rock music? I guess they could never find ‘release’ or ‘forgetting’, or otherwise they did not need to. Strange society we’re living in…

  4. According to Howard Gardener in Intelligence Reframed, religion produces the same effect that Dreher suggests rock music has. Religion, too, is liberating from the cerebral, hence his specific reason for excluding it from his list of intelligences. Perhaps we need to ask does the music contribute to such a perception, or does the perception lead to the acceptance of this idiom. Either way, it is tragic that the leading educational psychologist of our time, even though he is self professed to be non-religious, can view religion as something not cerebral. Maybe the question is larger than music, maybe we are making religion in every facet non-cerebral and that is leading to our acceptance of the rock idiom. I also recognize that Gardner is including Christianity with other world religions, but if he, an outsider, sees no difference in our worship and theirs, I believe we have reason for grave concern.

  5. Wen-Chuan Lin says:

    Just as Schopenhauer sought rapture from suffering in aesthetic experience, some people may find liberation in certain forms of arts, even rock music. This type of experience may be considered counterfeit transcendence, but I want to argue that it is not because the recipients just enjoyed the feeling without putting efforts to comprehend what they have experienced. Christians or not, people may experience transcendence in the presence of God with or without knowing. Sometimes, this type of experience does not require any effort from human’s side at all. We can see this phenomenon in the Charismatic movement very often. The dangerous is: without proper teaching and guidance, instead of surrendering their lives to Christ through the Holy Spirit, people may be just simply pursuing the instant gateway to some so-called Charismatic experiences, genuine or counterfeit.

  6. Wen-Chuan Lin says:

    Another point needs to be made here: the forms of music are not the essence of rock’n’roll, but the messages that singers want to communicate or express. It took me a while to believe that there are many people in the States only listen to “music” without paying attention to the lyrics. As a foreigner, I’d somehow grown a huge interest in western rock music when I was a teenager, and spent tons of time looking up my dictionary and grabbing whatever information I could get to learn about the world of rock’n’roll. To me, the heart of a piece of rock song is always the text, and the music is to carry and convey the message truthfully and effectively. Although the obsession in rock music has eventually turned my life view into dark and void, and almost caused my life if Jesus had not saved me, I can still see how intelligent and outstanding some of those works are. I just can’t agree to label rock music as Dionysian music, maybe some, but not all of them. On the other hand, I hate to see people shallowly throw Biblical terms or Religious idioms together to produce one after one so-called Christian songs. Comparing to those lyrics that I used to study, I felt these songs have insulted my intelligent. In fact, it won’t be a surprise to me if some Christians treat praise choruses or CCM as Mr. Dreher treats rock music.

  7. Lori Danielson says:

    I believe there is no doubt that the rock style of music generally overpowers the text. I am also amazed that so many people listen to and enjoy music that if they paid attention to the words they would be appalled and perhaps disillusioned. If a piece of music contains a text, the music should become a vehicle for the text. We have it backwards.

  8. Lori Danielson says:

    In response to Robert’s comment about a leading psychologist believing that religion is not cerebral, I agree that there is a problem that he thinks that way. What disturbs me is that in his experience, he has only seen the emotional expression of religion without the intellectual side engaged. It makes me think about the popular evangelical way of worshiping is not about offering our entire being to God—just the feel good part. It makes the worship more about us and not so much about God.

  9. Pagan worship is self-focused, and Gardner sees Christian worship the same way. In reality it seems many churches insist on worshiping the pagan god of self on a weekly basis which makes us no different than those that profess other gods, for worship in these churches does not occur.

  10. First of all, I would more appreciate if Mr. Rod Dreher theoretically directed how to have the body and the mind united, and united to God in order to truly transcend. I do not believe that any style of music itself including blissful music, rock, or pop music can unite human to God without Jesus Christ.

    “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” -John 14:6 (KJV)

    As Wen-Chuan’s point “The dangerous is: without proper teaching and guidance, instead of surrendering their lives to Christ through the Holy Spirit,….” It is significant for Church music leaders to have spiritual judgment based on the Bible and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Have you seen a worship service of “Spontaneous Worship”? The music leaders of Spontaneous Worship believe that it is to help create a freer expression of worship to God in them. They claim that things happening naturally and freely without planning. What do you think of this?

    “But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.”
    -1 Corinthians 2:15 (KJV)

    Second question would be “What kind of music would fit Church Music and appropriate to Christian worship without losing our focus on God in the 21 C?“ What elements in music could reflect God’s truth?

    According to St. Augustine, God must be worshipped spiritually by minds and hearts of worshippers, who should focus inward on Scriptural texts in the hymns and the will to be good, not in outward action such as well-trained and preformed voices.

    There shall NOT be anything (any form or style) used as a replacement for true spiritual affection. The style and form of music in Church has been changed on the basis of culture, denominational beliefs, social idioms, and philosophy in each different time period of history since the birth of the earth. However, the truth of God (the Bible) has not been changed.

    Nobody would deny that rock and pop music slowly invaded to Church and Christian music from the middle of 1950’s. However, Christians need to investigate first “Whether it is necessary to use a particular style of music (e.g., classical, rock, folk, jazz, electronic, computer music, etc) in worship, and second “Why?” and “Whether it is written for music business, entertainment, nourishing blissful moods, or for God.” -Da Jeong Choi

  11. Casey McCarthy says:

    There are a lot of similarities between rock music and pentecostal worship music. They both have an end goal of having the listener disengage cerebrally and be all about the feeling. What is interesting about this is that many conservative-minded churches that are not pentecostal or even charismatic borrow the music that lyrically and philosophically espouse a pentecostal theology. Even if the lyrics don’t explicitly tout pentecostal theology, they still were written from a pentecostal theological frame. Why do churches that disagree with pentecostal theology use worship music born out of that philosophy and theology?

  12. Nammi Kim says:

    The most hazardous part of rock music appears to be its strong power of captivating the audience. As a matter of fact, neither every lyric of rock music is immoral nor are the sound of every rock music harmful to people. The reason why rock music, nevertheless, is often regarded as reluctant to hear among Christians is because the music has a tendency to addict people to listening. Even I, who do not have any preference to rock music, feel fascinated by its strong and unique sound once I listen to it. Being attracted to the sound of music means that a person listening the music could lose his/her discernment of right or wrong.

    Rock music itself is not bad. There have been some great rock music throughout history. However, if the music captivates a person’s senses and does not allow the person to be free, it signifies that the music cannot be designated as good music.

  13. Nammi Kim says:

    In some sense, I agree with Casey’s argument that the similarities between rock music and Pentecostal worship music. They both have a certain type of magical power to pull people’s attention.

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