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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.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.