Part 1 of the Series “What Christians Have to Learn”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
September 15, 2013
Daniel 3:1-7; John 15:18-19
Daniel 3:1–7 • King Nebuchadnezzar made a gold statue. It was ninety feet high and nine feet wide. He set it up in the Dura Valley in the province of Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar then ordered the chief administrators, ministers, governors, counselors, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the provincial officials to assemble and come for the dedication of the statue that he had set up. So the chief administrators, ministers, governors, counselors, treasurers, judges, magistrates, and all the provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. They stood in front of the statue the king had set up. The herald proclaimed loudly: “Peoples, nations, and languages! This is what you must do: When you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument, you must bow down and worship the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Anyone who will not bow down and worship will be immediately thrown into a furnace of flaming fire.” So because of this order as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument, all the peoples, nations, and languages bowed down and worshipped the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
John 15:18–19 • “If the world hates you, know that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, I have chosen you out of the world, and you don’t belong to the world. This is why the world hates you.”
There’s an old episode of The Simpsons wherein Bart Simpson and his friend Milhouse play a prank in church. They swap out the music for one of the hymns with the sheet music for Iron Butterfly’s In a Gadda Da Vida, which has been presented as a hymn by an “I. Ron. Butterfly” with its actual name: “In the Garden of Eden.” At one point as the congregation has been singing this marathon of a hymn and the poor old church organist is nearly exhausted, the pastor Reverend Lovejoy remarks, “Wait a minute! This sounds suspiciously like rock and/or roll.” The boys are caught and punished for their prank that has defiled the sanctuary.
The gag works in large measure because of the long understood antagonism between Christian faith and rock ’n’ roll. The idea that the little hellion Bart Simpson tricks the people of the Springfield Community Church into singing a rock song is the basis for Bart’s subsequent journey (which includes the literal loss of his soul).
But for humor and satire to work, it has to be grounded in some truth, otherwise the joke won’t land. The fact of the matter is, for a very long time, Christians were suspicious of rock ’n’ roll as something decidedly un-Christian. In fact, there were those who went so far as to say it wasn’t just un-Christian, it was downright demonic. According to one story, missionaries went to Africa and heard the same rhythmic beats in a drumming ceremony used to summon demons. Therefore, rock ’n’ roll was built on a demonic foundation.
Now, lest you think that this is the raging of a bygone era right out of Footloose (the original with Kevin Bacon, not the remake), this attitude is still very much alive. There are entire websites out there trying to alert you to the fact that Satan is using this music to subvert your children, that Justin Bieber is “destroying young girls” and that Bono and U2 are “Satanists, Blasphemers, and Luciferians.” Okay, we’ll concede the point about Justin Bieber, but Bono and U2? Contrary to what we might expect in the early years of the Twenty-first Century, there is still a fair amount of suspicion, if not outright hostility, to rock ’n’ roll.
The Christian feeling that there is something demonic or idolatrous about it finds a parallel in the Biblical text from Daniel that we read earlier. In this story, the Babylonian King has ordered the construction of a golden statue ninety feet high. And when the statue was completed, the following command was issued:
“Peoples, nations, and languages! This is what you must do: When you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument, you must bow down and worship the gold statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.”
Here, the music of Babylon is a herald of the idolatrous worship of this golden statue, something the Jews in Babylon (Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) would not do.
Now, reading that text does not necessarily evoke images of rock ’n’ roll, but consider this: I found that verse when doing a Google search on “Bible verses on rock ’n’ roll”. That’s a verse that came up—a verse about music being used to herald the idolatrous worship of Babylon.
So, no, the Biblical text is not about rock music, but it certainly is about what a substantial number of Christians have thought about rock music.
Now, do they have cause to be suspicious?
Rock ’n’ roll as an artform emerged on the world stage in 1954, first broadcast on WJW in Cleveland by legendary disc jockey Alan Freed. Rock was a blending of rhythm and blues and country music, with jazz and gospel themes as well. While rhythm and blues had been around for a while (and made safe for the masses by white artists who often covered and re-recorded black music), this new artform was something new. And people knew it. In fact it was so new, that Freed had to come up with the term to describe it: rock and roll music. What most people didn’t realize at the time (and still don’t) is that the term was Black slang for sex in the back seat of a car.
But, of course, they didn’t need to know that to know that rock was trouble. There quickly arose all kinds of charges of loose morals and corrupting influences of the genre on America’s youth. It was viewed as outside the norm, and therefore subversive and threatening. And the reactions were quick to appear:
- 15,000 letters, mostly written by young adults, are sent to Chicago rock stations accusing them of playing “dirty” records. Newspaper editorials promise that the stations will censor themselves of all controversial music, especially rhythm and blues, which, of course, was known for being “black” music.
- On June 3, 1956, authorities in Santa Cruz, California announced a total ban on rock and roll at public gatherings, calling the music “Detrimental to both the health and morals of our youth and community.”
- In 1957, Elvis Presley performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and was filmed only from the waist up because his dancing is deemed “indecent.”
- In 1958, the Mutual Broadcasting System dropped all rock and roll records from its network music programs, calling it “distorted, monotonous, noisy music.”
- In 1966, John Lennon jokingly noted that Beatles were probably more popular than Jesus. The comment resulted in church organized record burnings and boycotts. I have often thought that the churches were so offended not because Lennon was wrong, but because he was right: I’d be willing to bet that more teenagers in 1966 were talking about the Beatles every day than they were about Jesus.
Rock and roll was always viewed with suspicion, and nowhere moreso than in the church. There’s a reason Reverend Lovejoy’s reaction to rock music is funny: because it’s true. Christianity has long viewed rock and roll as subversive, full of corrupting sexuality, and tied with dangerous behavior like illicit drug use. You know the refrain: sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Rock and roll seemed to be the most worldly of all the musical genres, and therefore, the most un-Christian. Christians were, as John’s gospel states, not supposed to be of the world. And rock music was definitely of the world.
IV. CHRISTIAN ROCK
That doesn’t mean, of course, that Christians haven’t attempted to use rock ’n’ roll to their purposes. In an attempt to increase Christianity’s appeal to young people, some in the church have tried to appropriate some of the elements of rock ’n’ roll. Whether it was the “guitar mass” of the Catholic church, or the development in the 1980’s of “praise music,” or the development of “Christian Rock,” there were those in the church who saw that they might be able to use rock and roll for their purposes.
This itself has not been without controversy and the criticisms have come from both Christian and secular sources. Church leaders criticized it for not being Christian and musicians criticized it for not being rock ’n’ roll enough. That is, many saw “Christian rock” as neither.
Christian rock, as a genre, began in 1969 and continued throughout the 1970’s and 80’s with bands like Petra and Stryper. In the 1990’s Christian Alternative Rock really exploded with bands like Jars of Clay, Audio Adrenaline, dc Talk, among many others. Some bands like Creed rejected the label although all the members are Christian and Christian themes infuse their music. Other bands, like U2, often incorporate Christian themes into their music in ways far more artful than most “Christian Rock” bands.
The definition of “Christian rock” is generally that a band states their beliefs and use religious imagery in their lyrics, and therefore is considered a part of the contemporary Christian music industry. Other definitions appeal to the quality of the lyrics, score, and character of the music itself and some Christian organizations have even issued tests to determine whether a song is sufficiently “Christian” or not.
And what that usually means is that the rock is toned down: it’s not offensive, it’s safe, it’s melodic, not jarring. In other words: it doesn’t rock. And to be sure, there is a lot of Christian rock that has a certain sameness to it: it makes use of all the same chords, the same expressiveness, the same tone in vocals and lyrics. In the end, it is debatable as to whether this musical genre is any more expressive than the traditional hymnody of the church.
So, if the rock and roll that we’re talking about is not the Christian rock of the church, then we’re talking about the rebellious, irreverent, offensive, subversive rock and roll of the secular world. What does a subversive, irreverent, oft-times shocking, art form have to teach us as Christians?
V. WHAT WE HAVE TO LEARN
Perhaps it has to teach us something about reclaiming an essential element of Christianity.
Somewhere along the way, Christianity became associated with good order, with calm and peaceful living, and with doing what you’re told. Christianity is identified with the clean-cut, button-down, version of society. As one New Testament scholar put it, “For many, the central message of Christianity was ‘support your local sherrif.’”
But that wasn’t always the case. No, in fact, Christianity was initially considered to be subversive and seditious. When your religion is founded by someone who was executed by the state for proclaiming a kingdom that stands against the Empire that is running the known world, your fellow believers are going to be viewed with suspicion as troublemakers and rebels.
When the dominant culture of the Empire was hierarchy and patriarchy, the early Church was grounded in a flat social order in which women were as respected as men in leadership and that proclaimed the equality of all people: Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. When the dominant Imperial culture revolved around worshiping the Emperor as savior and lord, the Church confessed only Christ as savior and lord. When the dominant culture promoted ideas of status based on achievement and station in life, the Church promoted a radical equality before God based on God’s saving grace, not our merit.
In short, Christianity at its origins was counter-cultural and subversive. That made it suspect, but it also made it powerful. In fact, I would argue that Christianity as at its best when it remembers that it is not defined by the dominant culture, but stands over and against the dominant culture.
Sometimes we get complacent because in many ways the dominant culture was shaped by Christians and so we assume that it already embodies the values and the priorities that Jesus taught us to proclaim. But human societies invariably trend toward other priorities: power, wealth, status, and rewarding those who have, and preserving the status quo. Even the most committed revolutionary, once in power, becomes a reactionary, seeking to preserve the newly established order.
Emergent church theologian and author Peter Rollins argues that one of the great failings of the church today is that it is an unwitting (or uncaring) participant in the very systems of oppression that it claims to oppose. He says that the nature of the church is to be insurrectionist. Rebellious. Countercultural. Subversive. All the things that rock ’n’ roll—good rock ’n’ roll—is about. And all the things that Christianity, at its core, is also supposed to be. We often confuse being good with being safe—and as C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan the lion may be good, but that doesn’t mean he’s safe. As an allegory for Christ and the faith he left us with, that’s about right: sometimes being good requires us to step out of the stable, safe, and secure, and challenge the structures of power and the status quo that perpetuates the injustices and oppression that we claim to care so much about.
There is much in the history of rock ’n’ roll that need not be emulated: shameless self-indulgence and self-promotion, recklessness with sexuality and drugs, the cynical use of sex to stir up interest and make money, the waste of wealth and the laspes into decadence and licentious living. But there is much in rock ’n’ roll to admire: a rebellious spirit always seeking to challenge the status quo, an irreverence for the sacred cows of society—the ones that religion often sets up and places beyond critique, a subversiveness that seeks to challenge power, and a countercultural streak that offers a vision of something other than what the dominant culture has accepted to be true. All of those things are what make rock music great. And all of those things are what made Christianity a force to be reckoned with.
What Christianity has to learn from rock ’n’ roll is not power chords, but to reclaim its own power. Not emotional ballads, but to sing a song of freedom from injustice and oppression. And not showmanship with light shows and impressive sound systems, but a faith that testifies to the light and challenges the systems of the world that do not speak to love and peace. When we reclaim this kind of faith, we will find that it is established on a rock that will endure forever.
 rockhall.com, above
 Luke Timothy Johnson, in a lecture at Wesley Theological Seminary, 2000.