Good Letters

When Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard first menaced the hardworking and God-fearing establishment of 1950s America, the prospect of rock ‘n’ roll retreating into stodgy conservatism must have seemed as ridiculous as the prospect of the Soviets giving democracy a shot. Thus, “Rock Hits Wall,” a recent Popmatters article about the decline of creative rebellion in popular music, made me wish I was one of those wide-eyed, plaid-clad adolescents of yore, living in an age when the sonic possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll seemed inexhaustible.

The article in question suggests a fundamental opposition between rock’s ostensible ideological leanings and its current aesthetic preferences. Citing such luminaries as Beck, Stephin Merritt, and the late, great Elliot Smith, Brandon Rice makes the argument that even those at the forefront of this generation’s crop of musicians are zealous devotees of “the comforting and familiar sounds, chords, and even lyrics of rock’s past.”

For Rice, the damning nail in the coffin is the Foo Fighter’s recent Top 40, anti-establishment anthem “The Pretender,” which rails against conformity with a lyric directly lifted from The Who’s last big hit, circa 1978: “Who are you, yeah tell me who are you?” In short, everyone wants to start the revolution, but only if it’s The White Album’s “Revolution.”

The article goes on to suggest that this preoccupation with the past may threaten to expunge from rock music an appreciation of the “aura,” what critic Walter Benjamin defines as “the uniqueness or singularity of a particular piece of art.” So much for George Harrison’s lament, “I Me Mine”: in the future, no piece of music demands individual attention.

For all the article’s invocations of Marxist thought and progressive rock icons, I had to laugh: change a few names, expunge a few dates, and “Rock Hits Wall” could just as easily have been an article for a journal of Christian evangelical thought. After all, what Rice is discussing basically boils down to the church’s eternal struggle to pour new wine into new wineskins—to overhaul aesthetics according to the times, while preserving the eternal essence of the Gospel.

While musing on this correspondence between secular and sacred concerns, I realized that the Christian musician today is faced with a unique, two-pronged responsibility: helping to repair the state of popular music, while demonstrating commitment to the timeless convictions of orthodoxy. In order to properly meet the demands of either burden, perhaps it’s time to give the term “Christian musician” its own definitional overhaul.

Revising the concept of a Christian musician, of course, is hardly new; over the last two decades, everyone from DC Talk to Sufjan Stevens has chimed in with infinite variations on the “We’re Christians in a band, but we’re not a Christian band” motif. Confronting the issues raised in “Rock Hits Wall,” however, might require a somewhat more developed philosophy of musicianship, rooted in an organic understanding of theology.

Just as the apostle Paul posits marriage as a living parable of Christ and the church, today’s artist might think of his vocation as a way of modeling classic Christian concerns: overcoming separation, prizing spiritual authenticity over empty formalism, redeeming the human spirit. By dismantling boundaries between genres, for example, the Christian musician celebrates the proclamation that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). By bucking timeworn musical tropes in favor of an authentic “aura,” the Christian musician lives out the conviction that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). And by stubbornly resisting the commodification of art, the Christian musician rebels against the dehumanizing effects of capitalism as described in the Book of Revelation, which features merchants who trade ‘cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and the bodies and souls of men” (Rev. 18:13).

In short, becoming a better artist would result in becoming a better Christian, and vice versa.

Perhaps, through the paradigm outlined above, believing musicians will lead the way to a bright musical future, a Promised Land of unfamiliar sounds and unprecedented lyrical tropes. At the very least, redefining the concept of Christian musicianship may finally put to rest such tired debates as whether late U2 is more or less Christian than early U2. Indeed, one is reminded that U2, a band that would inspire legions of slavish Christian sound-alikes, closed their 1983 album War with the lyric, “I will sing, sing a new song.”

Twenty-five years later, it’s about time we followed Bono’s exhortations and stopped trying to sound like him.

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