Can We Rock the Gospel?
The thesis of this book is made abundantly clear on the cover. A young man, jamming on an (unplugged) electric guitar, towers over a Bible which lies face-down, trampled and forgotten underfoot. Can We Rock the Gospel? According to the John Blanchard and Dan Lucarini, no, we cannot. “The authors make no secret of the fact that we count ourselves among those who are offended by rock music in God’s service and are truly perplexed that so many other Christians go to such great lengths to defend their use of it in both worship and evangelism. We are also concerned at the way in which some leaders, from their positions of power within the church, have forced it upon the rest of us.” So the authors adopt the position that rock music is always and objectively wrong. Period. While the emphasis of the book is clearly that rock music is wrong for worship and evangelism, they make it clear that it is wrong at any time and in any situation. This is hardly a unique position but one that, in my view, would depend on clearly an unequivocally defining exactly what constitutes rock music. Unfortunately, the authors do not do this. They make a brief attempt in the third chapter, presenting the following three principles as being true of rock music:
- Constant repetition. This repetition is dangerous because of the potential hypnotic effect of repetitive music. “Any medium of presentation that induces any loss of self-control or awareness and makes the listener unusually susceptible to whatever suggestions are made by the lyrics is clearly dangerous, and will almost certainly encourage a response that will be largely psychological instead of that which God requires, which is that we should worship him ‘in spirit and truth.’”
- A driving beat. “The backbeat dominates in most rock music songs, hard, soft or otherwise.” These beats can become hypnotic and lead people to become almost drunk on music. “The element of relentless beat and repetition in rock music increases the danger of a shallow, emotional, unthinking response, made at the wrong level and for the wrong reasons.”
- Volume. “We need not waste time proving that volume is an important element in rock music.” The emphasis on volume makes rock music unsuitable for worship or evangelism where the emphasis must be on the words of the songs. “Any method or medium … which makes the Word of God more difficult ot hear, and therefore to be understood, is not serving the cause of God but actually hindering it.”
Strangely, this is as much of a definition as the authors provide. They do point to a wide variety of forms of music they would associate with the moniker “rock music,” and these range from folk and pop all the way to death metal and gangster rap. They quote lyrics and describe artists who barely brush the keys of pianos alongside those who tear relentlessly at distorted and amplified electric guitars. They discuss the Hymns category of Christian music “where you can find Jars of Clay rocking out on ‘It is Well With My Soul.’” So clearly even this song, which I believe has only acoustic guitar, bass and subtle drums, is categorized as rock music (you can hear a short sample of the song here). Essentially, it seems that, in the authors’ minds, all popular music must be categorized as rock. If rock can be acoustic guitar, drums and bass, even played quietly and well “under” the lyrics, it seems that almost everything is rock.
So here are the premises of this book: all popular music is rock and all rock is bad. If Jars of Clay’s rendition of “It is Well With My Soul” is rock, and thus wrong, so must be most of the songs we sing on Sunday mornings. The music of Sovereign Grace must be wrong. The modern renditions of hymns produced by Indelible Grace must be wrong. And so on.
The authors build this case by pointing time and again to secular rock artists, and usually the absolute worst of this music, and then apply the negative conclusions to all rock music, a term they define, as we have seen, far too loosely to be helpful. While some of their arguments are sound, others are almost embarrassing. Rock music (like “It is Well With My Soul”), it seems, makes people move, and this movement mimics sexual movements, thus encouraging people to act out the movements with illicit sex. As with many similar books, this one commonly leans upon strange European death metal bands no one has ever heard of and bands from the seventies that no one listens to anymore. While this may not change the facts, it does make the case seem somehow less than well-researched (especially when compared to a presentation such as Hells Bells 2 which focuses more on bands that are popular today). It is easy to quote George Harrison from the sixties saying that rock music appeals only to the youth, but this was 40 years ago. The youth of the sixties are no longer young, and many generations now embrace popular music. It is no longer foreign music to the majority of believers. And so on. Time would fail me to address all of the arguments presented.
Now the book is not all bad. The authors make some important points. They point out, rightly, I believe, that there is really no such thing as Christian rock. There are Christian words, but no Christian music. There is good music and bad music, music that reflects the glory of God and music that does not. But there is no music that is truly Christian. They emphasize as well that the emphasis of preaching, teaching and evangelism must be on the clear presentation of the gospel. Pastors and evangelists must ensure that music does not interfere with this. They show as well that the rock and roll lifestyle is one largely opposed to God and one that can be difficult to reconcile with a commitment to Christ. They follow on the heels of Steve Camp in pointing out some of the hypocrisies in the Christian music industry, not the least of which is tours emphasizing worship sponsored by secular companies. All of these are good and worthwhile emphases. Yet it seems to me that they simply cannot defend their case.
One statement I found particular telling came in the authors’ discussion of rock’s “red flags.” They discuss worship and write “worship is characterized by reverence, modesty and humility, and has nothing that even remotely aims at our pleasure and entertainment.” I would disagree emphatically with an aspect of this statement! I believe that worship should be pleasurable to both ourselves and to God. It may not be entertaining, but surely it should be pleasurable! They even go so far as to suggest that some music is simply too good for church, as music that is truly brilliant will distract people by its quality. As much as they claim to love music, it almost seems that the authors are intimidated by it and are unnaturally suspicious of it. They want to find clear guidance in Scripture as to the styles of music and disregard any kind of personal or cultural preference. I don’t think Scripture offers us that level of guidance in this situation.
Near the beginning of the book the authors state “rock music is dividing the church.” They present a handful of letters from concerned readers to back this claim. It is true that the church has recently battled through “the worship wars,” but it seems to me this is now a decade or two behind us. Of course there will always be disagreement about styles of worship. There will always be some who prefer one style of music over another and there is nothing wrong with this. But I think this book comes too late. Even many conservative churches have already made the move to worship led by guitar. It seems that, according to the authors, this must qualify as rock music. These churches will not revert to organ or a capella anytime soon. I appreciate the concerns of these authors, but most pastors and leaders have already worked through these issues and are comfortable with the choices they have made. I can’t help but feel the more important issue today focuses more on the lyrics of the songs we sing and the hearts of those who sing them. We can focus on the assembly of instruments at the front of the room, but I think it must be more important to worry about what we sing and how we sing it.
The authors of Can We Rock the Gospel? assemble a case depending on cliches and build it upon a loose definition of rock music. After they have torn down this house of cards, they make no alternate suggestions. How are we then to worship? What musical options are left? They are long on diagnosing the condition, but short on proposing any kind of alternative. As much as I had hoped I would enjoy this book, I simply found it a mess. I was disappointed.