Friday, February 12, 2010

Apologia pro Christian Rock: Why I'm not against Christian rock music (Part 1)

I have frequently warned my readers that I think on my own on many things, and that I hold some positions that are radically opposed to those commonly associated with traditional Catholicism. This is undoubtedly going to be one of those things and I will probably arouse the ire of many of my readers; but that's okay - it's part of the fun of having a blog.

This is the beginning in a series of reflections concerning the relationship between music and morality from a Catholic perspective. More specifically, I hope to address the works of certain Catholic speakers who have asserted that there is a connection between rock music and immorality, and that this connection lies in some intrinsic disorder or unnatural quality found in the music itself. In the following posts I will analyze these arguments critically and attempt to demonstrate that the conclusions of these persons, though based on sincere intentions, are fallacious. I know these arguments are popular among traditionalists, but I must reject them as scientifically unsound and logically flawed. Whatever else one might want to say about modern music, I do not think we can make the argument that music itself (specifically drum beats of a certain rhythm) are inherently bad.

But first a little personal background. My father was a rock musician. He played bass guitar in numerous garage bands while I was growing up, so consequently rock n’ roll was simply part of life. Every Thursday night for many years my dad had several other musicians over to “jam” in the basement of our house. When I was younger I found the music way too loud for my taste, but in my teen years I used to go down and watch them occasionally. I can vividly recall the floor and walls vibrating from the bass, the crunchy sound of the Telecaster guitars through the Ampeg amplifiers, the pounding of the drums and the hazy, cigarette-smoke-filled basement.

With an upbringing like this it I suppose it was inevitable that I would take up music as well. At age 14 I picked up the acoustic guitar, then the bass guitar shortly thereafter; my younger brother took up drums and guitar. I later got into singing and piano in addition to the guitar, while my brother got into recording and mixing. It wasn’t long before we each had own own garage bands, and our household was thumping with music not one but three or more days out of the week. As I went into adulthood I formally joined a couple of bands, did some low-budget (and low-profit) tours around southeast and mid-Michigan, recorded a couple of demo albums and eventually retired from the band scene to work, go to school full-time and raise my children with my wife.

Years later I took a job as a Youth Director at a local Catholic parish. I thoroughly enjoy the work and not infrequently bring in my old acoustic guitar as a prop whenever necessary. Word got around the parish that I was something of a musician; I was recruited to sing and do guitar at some Vacation Bible School events and gave lessons for a brief time. I even played a couple of open-mic nights and did a coffee house gig at the behest of some kids in my Youth Group, who encouraged me not to let my talent go to waste but to bring my Christian-inspired music to the public.

It was around this time, when I was becoming known among the kids as a musician, that I first became aware that there was a small but vocal segment in the Catholic Church that disapproved of Christian rock. At first I was confused; my music had nothing in common with the hedonistic, secular music of the culture – I had even gone into open-mic nights at bars and played songs encouraging people to repent and come to Christ! What opposition could a Christian have to that? Yet this seemed to be of no importance to those who opposed this sort of thing. I probed a little deeper into this concern and was surprised by what I discovered.

The fact that the music was Christian did not make a difference to those who were upset about this it. Apparently, the concern was not with the lyrical or stylistic elements of the music but with the rhythm. As I listened to different parents, reviewed recorded talks I was given and did research on the subject, I came to see that the objection to rock music (even Christian rock) was based on the notion that rock music is structured in such a way that it is dominated by syncopated rhythms (more on syncopation later) that loosen inhibitions in the body and cause its hearers to become sexualized. The origin of this syncopation is attributed to the influence of Caribbean-African rhythms on rock, and through these back to African voodoo ritual. Thus, the argument is that these rhythms are against the natural law and actually satanic in origin. There were many other arguments as well, some based on science, Greek philosophy and urban legend, but the issue of the syncopation was definitely the crux of the matter.

I was torn. As a Catholic, I certainly am averse to promoting anything that would leads to a sexualization of young people or that is satanic. But as a musician, a rock musician of fifteen years, something in me could not accept the notion that a certain rhythm, taken as such, could be satanic. How could the sequence in which we struck to objects together (the essence of rhythm) determine whether that beat is satanic or not? I did some more research but was still unsure where I came down on the matter; there seemed to be compelling evidence on both sides.

This might have remained a matter for private, scholarly study. Then came the Fall of 2009, when I arranged a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York. I was in charge or organizing and transporting 32 kids from Michigan to upstate New York in three vans. I had mentioned to the parents of my Youth Group that I might bring some Christian CDs to listen to in the vans during the ten hour drive. I was unprepared for the impassioned response I got to this suggestion.

Many parents strongly suggested I allow no music whatsoever; some wanted their kids out of my van or insisted that I promise there would be no Christian rock of any kind. I heard a score of arguments why this music was immoral (the syncopated rhythms were brought up). I found myself having to defend Christian rock and explain to parents why I didn’t necessarily think their fears of Christian rock were justified, though I must admit that at the time my own thoughts were somewhat muddled. I had some vehement, but charitable discussions with a few parents on the issue; the discussions kind of spilled over into the Youth Group and a few kids became aware that I was having some sort of disagreement with their parents over the issue of music.

Seeing a potential rift developing, I said to myself, “I am a servant of the parents and their kids. If the parents don’t want this type of music, I simply won’t have it.” I backed down and agreed to the suggestions of the parents and the trip went over without any problems (at least as far as music is concerned).

But this proved to be a turning point for me and I resolved to investigate this issue thoroughly, partially so I would have an answer to any who would inquire as to why I supported (and continue to support) Christian rock, but also so that I would know in my own heart where I stood on this issue. The following posts are the fruit of that research. As you read ahead, please be aware that I think this is one of those things Catholics can take a wide variety of opinions on - I do not think those who oppose syncopated rhythms are bad Catholics or anything of the sort. In fact, both I and those who oppose syncopated rhythms and Christian rock would certainly say that this sort of music should not be in the Church or the liturgy. Neither is anybody supporting the culture of secular rock music or attending rock concerts. I am here discussing the issue of Christian rock music and whether or not syncopated rhythms are immoral and disordered. I think this is something Catholics can charitably disagree on, which is why I have chosen this venue to bring forth my reasons why I am in favor of Christian rock and entirely dismiss the idea that certain rhythms are inherently disordered.

I will present my ideas here by addressing the work of two men primarily and offering rebuttals to their arguments, which I believe are based on pseudo-science and logical fallacies. The first is Andrew Pudewa, homeschooling father of seven, nationally known speaker and founder of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, whose CD "The Profound Effect of Music on Life" makes the case that the rhythms of rock music are damaging to the body. The second is Fr. Basil Nortz of the Opus Sanctorum Angelorum, whose talk "Music and Morality" attempts to make the same argument in the context of virtue and asserts that syncopated rhythms "sexualize" the body and lead to immortality. Knowing my luck, these two will probably find my blog and leave huge comments in the combox...oh well!

Really I just wanted to introduce the problem here - in my next post I will bring out some of the reasons why the opposition to syncopated beats makes use of pseudo-science.


Eric Brooks said...

I agree on the whole. I think part of the problem is that "rock" now extends to countless sub-genres of music, so that one form of rock might differ from another as greatly as rock as a whole differs from jazz. There are certain sub-genres-- for example those that are utterly dark and angry not only in lyric but in style-- that I feel can be called inherently disordered even if they were given Christian lyrics (which to me would make an almost comical contrast), but it seems somewhat superficial to suppose that all music with electric guitars and drums can be written off so easily.

To me the big problem with Christian rock (not so big a problem that I would say it shouldn't be listened to) is that it seems to exist in a ghetto almost completely set apart from secular rock music. This is likely caused by the corruptions of our culture more than by Christians, but I think it is problematic in a number of ways. First, because it is often set apart for Christians, it gives the impression to many (mainly I've seen this in my proestant friends) of being the music of the Christian people, in which case it is accidentally, or at times explicitly, placed as an alternatice to the sacred music of the Church, whereas it is not. The other problem with this separation is that it places religious concerns completely apart from the rest of a person's life. I think that in a more organic culture, such as we see in the folk music traditions even of many pagan peoples, there is a popular secular style of music dealing with universal human concerns, and involves at times religious concerns (though it is protestant, bluegrass is a good example of this. Just about every bluegrass musician plays some religious music, but it is alongside the secular, placing religion within the larger picture of human coming and going). This religious music within the secular world is also then distinct from actual sacred music. I think this is most likely impossible given the climate of secular rock music, but I do see these as real problems. They are, however, more social problems surrounding Christian rock than problems with rock music in itself. Another social problem with rock music is the lack of traditional songs handed down from generation to generation, which encourages (even within Christian rock) a foul obsession with individualist creativity. But this again is a social problem rather than a problem with the style of music as such.

Boniface said...


Those are excellent points, and ones I have thought of before but never been able to articulate. My posts on the subject will have a more narrow focus (that syncopated drum-beats are not intrinsically evil), while your points seem to be more geared towards answering the question of how contemporary music can best fit in with Christian life. Great points.

bgeorge77 said...

My problem with Christian rock is that it's (mostly) Protestant/heretical or just plain insipid... and worse, it doesn't rock!

Ben G said...


From the time I bought a second-hand cassette at a rummage sale of Beethoven's fifth symphony I've been in love with classical music. I really do, to be frank, hate (most) rock music. This is merely personal taste. Most rock musicians lead lives filled with drugs and illicit sex, and it reflects in their music. I also hate the style. Of course, if the same style is taken and turned inside out, it can be rendered good in the service of God. I think of Orlando de Lassus' seating of the Mass based on the tune of the French song "entre vous filles" (among the young girls)!

The whole text reads:
"You girls, fifteen years old,
Don't come to get water at the fountain,
Because you have darling eyes,
Pert breasts, laughing mouths, warm little cunny
Hearts gayer than a dream
You girls, fifteen years old,
Don't come to get water at the fountain!"

I agree entirely that an argument from the syncopation of the music is clearly false. I don't believe there is any natural law regarding placing the emphasis on the 1 and 3beats. Beethoven's "Eroica" has some great syncopation and it's beautiful; jazz music is filled with it. I don't think it necessarily stirs up bad passions at all.

Actually, to a degree a Catholic could say that any non-chant, non-polyphonic music does excite certain passions rather than peace of soul, and that's quite true. The lack of beat or powerful rhythm or repetition in this music makes it quieter and gentler. Yet Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" or Mahler's 2nd Symphony or Bruckner's "Te Deum" stir me, and to devotion at that, and I imagine Christian rock does something similar for you. Just as long as its not stirring us to immorality instead of God!

God bless you.

Boniface said...


Those are all good points , some of which I will bring up later. For me, its not so much that Christian rock "stirs" me (not nearly as much as Sacred Music) as much as the facts that (1) It has been helpful to me personally at various times in my life, and (2) I simply find, as a musician, the argument from syncopation to be false and offensive. It's not that I think Christian rock is this awesome, life-changing positive good that all Catholics should adopt.

But your thing about rock musicians leading immoral lives reflects partially what I think the problem with the argument is - many start off attacking Christian rock and then argue against it using references to secular rock. Nobody really argues that Christian rock musicians (e.g. Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith) lead immoral lives. But if we were to stand too strongly on that "immoral" lives thing, we'd have to be careful when investigating the lives of some of our most beloved Renaissance painters (Raphael, Caravaggio, who was a murderer).

Ben G said...

"rock musicians leading immoral lives reflects that many start off attacking Christian rock and then argue against it using references to secular rock."

I agree with you. I don't mean to smear all with the same brush.

"But if we were to stand too strongly on that "immoral" lives thing, we'd have to be careful when investigating the lives of some of our most beloved Renaissance painters (Raphael, Caravaggio, who was a murderer)."

Too true. As I was writing those words I was thinking of Carlo Gesualdo, whose wife Donna Maria was secretly having an affair with the Duke of Andria. Gesualdo found them in the middle of the act and murdered them both with a sword (with multiple and gruesome wounds). However, with (secular) rock musicians their actions are often celebrated and recommended in their works, which is not the case with Gesualdo, Raphael or Caravaggio.

Boniface said...


However, with (secular) rock musicians their actions are often celebrated and recommended in their works, which is not the case with Gesualdo, Raphael or Caravaggio.

Agreed. However, by this point we are no longer talking about music anymore, but about the consumer-culture built up around secular music, which is separate.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed and appreciated this entire series of yours, and agree with most of it.

I've heard the syncopation argument at a conference for Seventh-Day Adventist youth a couple years back and it bothered me for awhile. I knew there were holes in the arguments of the preacher but I'm glad you were able to precisely and (relatively) concisely point them out.