Popular music in theological perspective
Christians who wish to be discerning in engaging our world will need to pay attention to popular music.
Some imagine popular music to be little more than a form of entertainment, a distraction from more important pursuits. It actually serves a far more vital role in our culture. It is true that some acts are mere spectacles, a mass phenomenon in which the music is sometimes almost an afterthought. But that is only the proverbial visible tip of the popular music iceberg. In stark contrast, many bands and musicians produce music that embodies the hopes, fears, dreams and deepest yearnings of listeners.
Sometimes when I lecture on music a young adult will bring me a CD of “their music.” It is rarely music they have written or performed. Instead, most often it is the music they have chosen from albums with which they resonate most deeply. When I accept the gift I handle it with care because I know that in handing it to me they are handing me a glimpse into their heart. That is a precious thing.
A book that can help us reflect on popular music from a Christian perspective is Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God by Christian Scharen, who teaches at Luther Seminary (St Paul, MN). Scharen is less than convinced—rightly, I believe—by many of the efforts of evangelicals to tackle this topic, and he explains why in Broken. It is not a polemic work, however, and Scharen’s primary goal is to explore, develop, and apply an insight that C. S. Lewis proposed in An Experiment in Criticism (1961). “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender,” Lewis argued. “Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”
Scharen argues this does not mean setting aside our ability to discern, but rather is the desire to be open to our neighbors and the music that expresses their beliefs, expectations, values, and experiences. Scharen points out that Lewis references Mark 8:35—“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Scharen continues:
It is a paradox at the heart of Christian life. Once transformed toward the neighbor rather than literally being stuck on ourselves, we “delight” to enter others’ beliefs, passions, and imagination, even when we feel they are untrue, depraved, or lacking all realism. Lewis makes clear that this is not for the sake of gratifying some voyeuristic curiosity about the other—their psychology or history or moral convictions. Nor is it to perform some critical “autopsy” on them in order to come to a shortcut to judgment about their worth. It is not that kind of knowing (what Lewis calls savoir) at all. It is knowing (connaitre) “in order to see what they see, to occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theatre.” One senses here that his larger aim is both dislocation of the self and at the same time healing, seeking exactly through the dislocation a wholeness that comes from being made one with God in Christ, and thereby awakening to a world “crowded” with the presence of God. [p. 143]
Demonstrating what he means by reflecting on the music of Sigur Ros, Arcade Fire, and others, Scharen tries to help Christians be discerning rather than dismissive judges or thoughtless imbibers. He argues that “a theology of grace views all as broken, and God’s work through the cross as reaching into every space of abandonment and brokenness, responding to every cry, with a mercy and love that reaches deeper than the despair, pain, and sorrow” [p. 136].
I recommend Broken Hallelujahs as worthy of careful reading, discussion and reflection. Engaging it thoughtfully will sharpen our skill in cultural discernment, even at the points where we may disagree or see things a bit differently.