By Pastor David Neuen
In the early fall of my seventh grade I traveled with my friends and youth pastor to the United Methodist campgrounds in North Webster to listen to some music. We settled on the grassy slope of the outdoor amphitheater, watching as the sun dipped below the tree line and musicians came to the stage. I had never been to a concert before. I had few expectations. What I encountered was an explosion of sight and sounds. Guitars blazing, drum sticks smashing, strobe lights flashing, and voices screaming. The Christians bands Petra and Whitehouse lit up the stage with piercing vocals and a heavy evangelical message. This was Rock ‘N’ Roll, Christian Rock ‘N’ Roll.
It is inarguable that Christianity and rock music have had a long standing tumultuous relationship. A number of Christian leaders across the last six decades have approached the musical style with alarm and disdain. In a recent New Yorker article entitled, “The Unlikely Endurance of Christian Rock” author Kelefa Sanneh quotes the unbending theological understanding of the great Dr. Martin Luther King who was clear about the spiritually demeaning results of blending the gospel message with raging guitar lines. “The profound sacred and spiritual meaning of the great music of the church must never be mixed with the transitory quality of rock and roll music. The former serves to lift’s men's souls to higher levels of reality and therefore to God, while the latter so often plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depths.” In the 1980's author Tim LaHaye warned that “the sound and beat of rock could arouse fleshly lusts.” The conversation surrounding Christianity and Rock ‘N Roll swirls around a debate of what is considered sacred and profane, as if the categories are easily distinguishable.
What is also indisputable is the spiritual expansion and faith explosion that can be attributed to sacred music travelling into new genres and styles. Contemporary Christian forms of music emerging from rock or pop artists like Michael W. Smith, Rich Mullins, Jars of Clay, Third Day and others was highly formative to my religious journey. Basic statements of faith, my understanding of Christian identity, a newfound comfort in unencumbered praise were inspired through this music that traveled with me into college. The shared affinity to Christian rock was a source of the connection that brought students of faith together. .
Yet, I can remember critiques of this modern Christian music from my peers. Those outside the faith scoffed at the lack of musical quality. And others from within the church would remark that the tunes couldn’t be Christian because they did not mention being born again through a washing in the blood of Jesus. Some of the lyrics that moved me most deeply were those that were not so heavily doctrinal. My faith walk was nuanced, unsettled, sliding between fear, doubt, and conviction. I found chorus admitting the same to be refreshing.
I would argue that I can listen to some Christian rock today and question if it describes the same kingdom priorities that I know in Jesus. And equally there are incredible musical talents from acts like U2 to Switchfoot that are led by Christians articulating a message of redemption and liberation but intentionally refusing to be identified as “Christian Rock.” Sanneh comments, “At times there is no way to distinguish between a musician who spouts “prepackaged doctrine” and one who boldly stands up for what is right.”
What is sacred? What is secular? How do you define fruitful and faithful Christian music? Who decides; tradition, experience, collective community? Can certain artistic genres never be held in relationship with faith? Or can the Holy Spirit speak through artistic expression that we would never consider?
Christian rock endures. And new genres of Christian music emerge. What are you listening to and why?