On rockers who find God (and the devil’s music)

Now for a light-hearted post . . . Jeff Miller (Curt Jester) takes note of the apparent conversion of guitarist Brian “Head” Welch from the popular band, Korn (See: “Korn Guitarist Finds God”, by Michelle Malkin. Feb. 23, 2005).

Those immersed in the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” lifestyle tread familiar and all-too-predictable paths. While some are content to wallow in the mire of a prolonged adolescence (or reviving sagging libidos with reunion tours ), a few miraculously rise above and turn over a new leaf. Repeated viewings of 80’s “Hair Metal” bands on VH1’s “Behind the Music” confirms this development is provoked by either “hitting rock bottom” psychologically, emotionally and spiritually, or awakening to new social responsibilities (marriage and parenthood), culminating in the realization that — contra William Blake — wisdom cannot be found in the relentless pursuit of hedonism.

Some discover meaning in the works of mercy, a recent example being David Lee Roth’s apprenticeship as a New York City paramedic. Others “find God”, “find Jesus” — or, at least, some approximation of the ethical or religious life. Brian Welch joins Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain, former lead guitarist for Anthrax Daniel Spitz, and other prodigal sons disillusioned by a career of moral decay.

* * *

Jeff muses:

I use to listen to Korn prior to my conversion. They even appeard on a recent episode of Monk. Their lyrics are laced with profanity and I stopped making excuses to continue to listen to them. I even use to play some of their songs on my guitar. It does make me wonder how many head-banging and Gregorian Chant loving traditionalist like me are out there?

Nice to see another head banger among the ranks of St. Blog’s parish. =) I listened to a lot of Korn in the early 90’s. Enjoyed the first album, but found the rest pretty repetitive, like a lot of rock these days. Very few bands rise to the stature of Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd (well, perhaps The Verve). Like Jeff, I also favored the Seattle sound, particulary SoundGarden. My musical tastes pretty much span every genre (these days I’m a big fan of Elvis and Hank Williams. Never thought I’d admit to liking country music!).

I can also relate to the need to distance myself from earlier musical tastes — not so much the form of the music, but the lyrics. As somebody noted on Jeff’s blog:

“One of the more painful parts of the conversion process was realizing that most of my music collection, much as I loved it, was either satanic, sexually disordered or nihilistic and not good for me.”

For a convert in the latter part of the twentieth century, growing as a Christian usually entails a careful pruning of one’s CD collection (Napalm Death’s Fear, Emptiness, Despair doesn’t exactly jive with Paul’s admonition in Philipians 4:8: “For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline: think on these things”).

* * *

But one cannot possibly blog on rock music and Christianity without giving mention to the criticism expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger himself. In p. 148 of Spirit of the Liturgy, Ratzinger offers a brief summary of the state of music today:

Modern so-called “classical ” music has maneuvered itself, wish some exceptions, into an elitist ghetto, which only specialists may enter — and even they do so with what may sometimes be mixed feelings. The music of the masses has broken loose from this and treads a very different path. One the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. “Rock”, on the other hand, is the expression of the elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a sometimes 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 the crowd and by the emotional shock of rythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstacy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.

Given his emphasis on the dionysian aspects of rock music, I think the Cardinal would have appreciated Allen Bloom’s critique of rock in the excellent Closing of the American Mind (or vice versa, were Bloom alive today). Even Catholics who enjoy rock and roll would be hard pressed to dispute the truth of the Cardinal’s account of a concert. Perhaps this is may explain why, as much as I enjoy the music of some bands, I’m less and less inclined to attend live performances — that, or perhaps I’m just too old to mosh.

I do not think that rock has any place in religious liturgy, and strongly detest any attempts to ‘modernize’ or ‘acculturate’ Catholic worship in such a manner. Nevertheless, I consider myself fortunate to have a father who tolerated his sons’ interest in Metallica and Skinny Puppy (which he regarded with mild amusement) while pressing us to pay attention to the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach in home-school. It wasn’t until after we grew up that I came to appreciate those obligatory weekly sessions in “classical music appreciation.”

So, parting question for the readers: Is there something intrinsically wrong — as Ratzinger seems to suggest — in the form of rock itself, and not just the lyrical content? Is rock capable of being “morally rehabilitated” once purged of morally objectionable lyrical content, or is there something intrisically wrong with the form of rock itself (as religious critics like Cardinal Ratzinger, and secular critics like Alan Bloom, might suggest)? And does the validity of the Cardinal’s critique extend to other genres as well (hip-hop, techno, industrial, et al.)?

I know there are some rock n’ roll fans out there in St. Blog’s parish. Perhaps Fr. Bryce Sibley (Radiohead fan) will be tempted to weigh in.

  • Why Rock Music is Boring James McCoy. Los Angeles Mission Nov. 1999.
  • The moral power of music, by Fr. Basil Nortz. Homiletic & Pastoral Review April 2002.
  • The Role of Rock: Beauty and truth in the not so fine arts, by Mark Fischer. The University Concourse Feb. 27, 1996 — see the article and the extended list of links for a discussion of this topic by students at Ave Maria and Franciscan University.
  • Cardinal Ratzinger on Liturgical Music, by Michael J. Miller. Homiletic & Pastoral Review (July 2000).
  • Musicians in Catholic Worship III: Bells and Whistles, Guitars and Tambourines. Lucy Caroll asks “Catholic parishes today are homes to rock bands and back-up groups that sound no different from those at the local bar or supper club. While they may be entertaining, are they truly suitable for the celebration of the Eucharist?”
  • Background on Korn Guitarist’s conversion from On Track magazine :

    “I have a 6-year-old daughter, and I want her to be able to look me in the eye. I’m a single dad, that’s what it comes down to . . .”

    Regarding how his bandmates reacted to the news that he was leaving the group, Welch said, “I think it made the guys mad. It confused them. I left at the worst possible time. We got off Sony, and all the money was there, we were going to own all of our songs, but I had to prove to myself that money wasn’t my God,” he said. “I talked to Jonathan [Davis] and he said, ‘I don’t get it, man, you’re all happy and we’re sitting here grieving because our band is breaking up. And I wanted to tell him, ‘Well, for years, you guys were out partying while I was sitting on the tour bus wanting to die.’ “

  • Ex-Korn Guitarist Baptized in Jordan River Associated Press, March 5, 2005.
  • Further information on Brian Welch on his website HeadtoChrist.
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