Recently Jackie and I saw the band Imagine Dragons for a sold-out arena concert. These guys are #1 in alternative rock and Grammy winners for a definitive reason, and they put on an amazing live show. I haven’t seen a lead vocalist leave everything on the stage like that since the likes of Bono and Chris Martin. I sincerely hope that these guys are around for a long time.
I also wasn’t expecting the sheer volume of tween girls to show up for Imagine Dragons, but I guess the rawness of alternative rock really taps into the angst of suburban 12-year olds.
I can still hear their screams at night.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved music. While never classically trained—or trained in anything but banging on pots and pans—I feel like I’ve always understood music. I get it. I know the point of it. When I was two, I thought I was Bruce Springsteen. Growing up, my mom could tell what mood I was in by whatever band I was blasting from my room. I’ve been collecting classic movie scores since I was young, and I remember being transfixed by Michael Jackson’s music video for “Beat It” when I was a kid—Who are these guys? Why are they dance-fighting? This seems so inefficient.
Whatever your genre of choice, there is something about music that connects men and women of all walks of life. We can disagree on politics, but still cry it out together over Taylor Swift songs. We can argue over religious differences, but feel united in our common humanity when Coldplay hits their climax in “Fix You.”
Dan Reynolds, frontman of Imagine Dragons calls music “the greatest communicator I know.” He puts his finger on this “other” dimension of music when he affirmed his pride in the band’s first major-label album: “We feel that we have finally created something we are all truly proud of and that can hopefully inspire others and help them feel a little less alone. That’s what music is about.”
Beyond unity, music taps into the human ache for transcendence, whether we consciously know it or not. Of music, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa, “Music is the exaltation of the mind derived from things eternal, bursting forth in sound.” It points us upward and outward back to the Grand Composer of this divine symphony. In his creation account of The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien very insightfully has God and his angels sing the universe into creation: “In this Music the World was begun” (Silmarillion, p. 25).
As the band Arcade Fire sing, “If there’s no music in Heaven, what’s it all for?”
Jackie and I have both been in conversations with people who’ve commented about how “silly” some Christians look worshiping at concerts or in times of adoration.
Really? Have you ever been to a rock show? What’s everyone doing with their hands in the air, opening their rib cages, and crying out with all their lungs have to offer?
We crave mystery and we crave liturgy. And when liturgy, catechesis, or faith fails to feed we seek it elsewhere. And I believe that’s what the atmosphere of a concert offers—an eccentric assembly of 20,000 strangers, but somehow unified in a most-intimate experience. Something very much like…church. Liturgy. Worship. Even, dare I say, prayer. Rock concerts (however poorly directed) are like glimpses of that heavenly communion of saints we are all called to share in.
But there is a dark side.
Cardinal Ratzinger (before he was Pope Benedict XVI) gave a fair assessment of what happens frequently at secular concerts and festivals:
” ‘Rock’ . . . is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe.”
(Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000)
At first Ratzinger’s strong words even took me aback: a form of worship…in opposition to Christian worship. Really? Is a rock show that bad?
It can be, absolutely. I remember being at a Blink-182 show in high school with some friends, including my dear friend Andrea, who is a devout Christian and the person I credit for my “waking up” to my faith. The band, known for their poppy sound and catchy hooks, led us through a vulgarity-filled and sexually-debasing show to the entertainment of thousands of teenagers. I had very mixed feelings during the show, knowing that Andrea was not comfortable and I was responsible for bringing her into that situation. As much as I enjoyed Blink’s music, I realized that as a band—and the antics and sexual promiscuity they stood for—they were clashing with my identity as a Christian. And I had a choice to make.
It’s the lure of our complacent culture to compartmentalize your religion away from your politics, social life, and even your music choices. But Jesus doesn’t give us that leeway. Let me use some license with a well-known passage from Matthew, changing “eye” to “ear”:
“The [ear] is the lamp of the body. So, if your [ear] is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your [ear] is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6: 22-23).
In his greatest work, the Republic, Plato considers music to be “the first step in education in the good society and the first step in corruption in the bad one” (Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, p. 162), a fact we should all take very seriously. Our culture, politics, and national direction all influence—and are influenced by—music. Music can bring healing and give words to profound emotions, but it can also stir wrong or even misleading emotions that cloud rational and responsible thought. The youth I encounter are formed in their philosophical logic more from Macklemore than from Socrates. And in a culture without God, we are apt to worship anything else, including music and musicians.
Ask yourself tough questions with your favorite songs:
- Is this music leading me closer to Heaven or to Hell? (There is no in-between).
- Is this music in anyway psychological or spiritually unhealthy or promoting unhealthy behavior?
- Is this song demeaning to women in any way?
- Could I listen to this song with Pope Francis next to me? What would he say about it?
- Is this a concert that I should go to? What kind of environment will it be?
Listen. I’m not for purging your music libraries of all songs that do not explicitly drop the name of “Jesus.” We live among the weeds and the wheat, and we are all called in a real way to enter into the “muck,” find the pearls of goodness, and lead those who have eyes to see and ears to hear back to the Father. We have to be in the world, but be careful to not become of the world.
One of my teens asked me recently, “Mr. Angel, besides ‘Jesus music,’ what music do you listen to?” Because this young man knew that I take my faith life seriously, he assumed that all I listened to was “Jesus music.” I proceeded to sit him down and articulate how secular tracks like Mumford & Son’s “Awake My Soul” can lead one’s heart to worship just as easily as any song on Christian radio. I told him how I’ve sincerely been lead to prayer from secular bands and how all songs have some kind of God’s fingerprint within, however opaque or twisted. He came back to me the next day as if the scales had fallen from his eyes (or rather, his ears). We regularly converse now about where God is (and where He isn’t) in the Top 40.
Music can tap into the best and worst of our natures. Music can form and also deform. Music can lead us to divine contemplation or stir us to irrational and destructive behavior. Music can thrust us into the vertical sphere of holy yearning (with the music of bands like Gungor, Mumford & Sons, or U2) or it can imprison us in the base, animalistic, and ultimately Epicurean desires of the here and now, since we have “no guarantee of tomorrow” (I’m lookin’ at you Ke$ha).
But in the final analysis I believe that music, like beauty, can save the world. Pop music fades away. The best songs point us back to the beauty of God.
So clap your hands, stomp your feet, and raise your goblets of rock.
And be very aware of who you are worshiping.