Traditional Christian Vocabulary, Modern Music, and Mission

We were on the way to my IV treatment when I received a flash of insight. And started laughing. System of a Down was playing on the radio and the next song that came on–by Linkin Park–completely validated the comment I made to M.

“Anyone who believes that youth and folks our age don’t understand traditional Christian vocabulary like sin, redemption, forgiveness, atonement, etc. doesn’t listen to modern metal…”

I’ve got to say that most of the music I listen to: Zeppelin, The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, VNV Nation, Metallica, Apoptygma Bezerk, Audioslave, etc. is religious music. It’s not necessarily *Christian* music, but it engages the fundamental issues of faith, doubt, meaning, and existence. And it often borrows traditional Christian language to talk about these issues.

Just thinking about my musical tastes, most of the music I like has two fundamental characteristics: it’s dark, and it has at least a touch of the psychedelic. It’s dark because it’s searching for answers and meaning and has come up short; it’s doubt moving to despair. In a similar way, I see modern psychedelica as mysticism searching for its source. It knows that there’s something true and real beyond the purely material but is still in search of what exactly its true center is.

In a sense, this is what Eusebius understood as preparatio evangelica. He used the phrase in connection with the Old Testament and with certain forms of Classical philosophy and poetry—they set up the culture to be receptive to the Christian message. I see in the music I hear the same searching for which the Church has the answer.

The main missional difficulty is that more often than not both the musicians and those who listen to their music have heard a Christian message and rejected it—or at least the version they were exposed to as adolescents (which is when I’m guessing most decided the Church had nothing to offer…). And to be perfectly honest, the version I was exposed to as an adolescent was pretty shallow and didn’t answer my big questions. What I do find significant though, is the pervasive presence of the traditional Christian vocabulary to discuss and address the big questions.

An invitation to a more adult version of the faith that doesn’t pretend to be able to give all the answers, that takes seriously mystery and the mystical, and that utilizes the traditional language embedded in the traditional liturgies really does have something to offer…

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13 Responses to Traditional Christian Vocabulary, Modern Music, and Mission

  1. bls says:

    An invitation to a more adult version of the faith that doesn’t pretend to be able to give all the answers, that takes seriously mystery and the mystical, and that utilizes the traditional language embedded in the traditional liturgies really does have something to offer…

    Amen. The more I live this life, the deeper – and more adult – it becomes.

    I just wrote about singing the line from Vexilla Regis, “for God is reigning from the Tree,” and the kind of deep shudder that goes through me every time I do. There are chills, thrills, and spills in this path, really. Big answers to big questions, and the answers aren’t shallow, but actually open into deeper ideas – and more questions and answers – all the time. There’s no bottom, apparently.

    I think the physical shudder is the way in, actually…

  2. I have often wondered about this, especially in the case of System of A Down, whom it seems to me exploit the Christian vocabulary to give their themes extra power, making the narrator’s suffering more universal perhaps. I think therefore I’d agree that a lot of metal moves in this kind of zone, if not of religion of faith, a higher power, whether it be loyalty, friendship and the sword, love or whatever. Psychedelia, however, I don’t see the same way. You say `modern’ psychedelia and maybe that’s where our difference is seated, but to my thinking real pyschedelia knows exactly where the centre of mysticism is – it’s in the psyche, it’s all within our heads, if the right key can only be found to make the flower unfold.If `modern’ psychedelia is questing elsewhere, I suggest that it’s not really psychedelia, just weird pop :-) Maybe the acid just isn’t as good these days… And of course in the old days the hippies didn’t exactly save the human race or end the war. But the music sounds quite good.

  3. Jonathan,
    I’d make a distinction between the psychedelic theorists and the experience of psychedelic music. Even listening to the classic 60s/70s material like Battle of Evermore or All Along the Watchtower doesn’t leve me with a sesne that it’s about the flowering of the psyche but that it’s about the subversion of dominant paradigms of existence and perception. The elevation of the subjective psychotropic experience calls into question the dominant materialistic objectivist paradigm. This is further hieghtened when there are appeals and allusions to alternate worldviews whether that be the Beatles referencing Indian systems of thought, Zeppelin’s invocations of Tolkein, or Metallica’s use of Lovecraft.

    Modern psychedelica is more disconnected from the 60s/70s theories because of the dialogue with nihilistic forms of postmodernism.

  4. I think that if you are counting Zep or Dylan as psych, we are talking about some quite different things. I think of both the songs you mention as folk, be they never so electric, and they work that way because they hark back to older and traditional forms rather than embracing new frontiers. I mean Dylan is the king of social commentary to jangly guitar, and even when it doesn’t seem to his stuff always relates to the real world. But the side of the coin I was thinking of was The Strawberry Alarm Clock, early Pink Floyd and most of all The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, who really did take a philosophical position about a higher consciousness. (I’ve never been quite sure where the Beatles stood in this continuum, I think quite possibly because it was four individual places but they made music as one.) I’d agree that a lot of psych appeals to the interior to call the exterior conformity into question, but I think it also exalts basic human nature, as revealed in the psychotropic experience rather than as lived under the shadow of that conformity, as the source of human salvation. That is, I think this stuff has a message that’s actually inimical to religion, or at least to theism. Since we’re talking about music, and therefore sound as much as or more than meaning, I don’t think this is a real division of genres, but I think it does divide quite a lot of music either side of a line between that which fits what you’re saying, and that which doesn’t.

    I think the last sentence is spot-on though; what we are left with is modern psych which knows that the Revolution never came and has to question almost everything as a result.

  5. While Dylan penned All Along the Watchtower, I can’t ever think of it as his song; it’s Hendrix who made it come alive…

    I have to confess that I’m not familiar with Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Thirteenth Floor Elavators and most of my Floyd-listening has been the later stuff (i.e. the Waters rather than the Barrett). That may have something to do with the differences here.

    I would actually agree that much modern music is inimical to theism but I still think that it’s wrestling with the questions of meaning and redemption and its adopton or fascination with classical Christian vocabulary is an interesting point of contact. I think that the current turn to nihilism in particular opens the door for the kind of experiences that bls is talking about–an in-the-flesh experience of the numinous.

  6. Of the ones I mentioned, I think the Elevators are the ones who were truly important in making psychedelia into a philosophy rather than just a way to waste a few years. The singer has kind of been through his own hell and redemption too. I would recommend an attempt either with Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators or Easter Everywhere, both of which have just had fairly cheap remasters. You may think it’s jangly screeching mess, but I think you would admit there was real thinking behind it.

    As to the actual point—sorry about that!—I do know what you mean by that shiver-inducing access to the eternal. But to my mind, the reason I get that is because I was schooled in a Christian tradition and know what the reference is to. For me, that language derives its power from the act of appropriation from Christianity, it’s a kind of intellectual shock-rock. I don’t think it has any objective correlative value without that context, and I don’t, for example, get the same kind of reaction from reference to Buddhism in rock music, because that isn’t something I feel any connection to from my early programming.

    As to whether simple nihilistic leanings represent a sense of a lack of inner meaning, and a search for one with its own vertiginous steps out over the abyss leading itself to a spiritual take on things, well, it certainly could work that way, but it could also lead to punk and destructive anarchy, surely. Again the context, the receiving mind, is the differentiation I think.

  7. A jangly screechy mess? C’mon–I listen to Skinny Puppy…

    I agree with your second paragraph. And in my context, at least, that’s who were looking at—people our age who hav a sense of what Christianity is but think that it holds any real meaning or set of answers. I’m suggesting we invite them to revisit it for another look from a more mature perspective

    Punk and destructive anarchy are certainly an option—but not for most people who find themselves getting into the whole job-kids routine. Anarchy is cool, but when you realize the kids need health insurance it becomes less of a viable option. I think more people settle into a pragmatic philosophical malaise.

  8. mynsterpreost (=David Rowett) says:

    Still bubbling faintly in the wake of our requiem for the AS (and later) remains re-buried just across the way from here (ah, the privilege! Though as a memento mori few may rival encountering a predecessor… on sepulchral display) I was intrigued (in this age of linguistic monoculture) how positive the response was to a liturgy based on 1549. Even more surprisingly, in a congregation where (so far as I know) I was the only Anglo-Saxonist, the recitation of ‘Faeder ure…’ before a box containing the remains of an AS parishioner seems to have connected with people at a level beyond words. Thus ‘mystery’ even in this very ordinary UK market town seems to have powers and potential for mission which is signally lacking in much modern liturgy.

  9. mynsterpreost (=David Rowett) says:

    I should have explained that we have just received back the mortal remains of nearly 3000 people dating from ca.950-1850. To be given (as I was) a fragment of AS coffin for a 50th birthday present was rather special.

    But I am told that for many the climax of the liturgy was the point at which a common language between Eucharistic president and representative departed (the English Heritage curator brought a ‘pars pro toto’ set of remains down from the ossuary and said to me, ‘This is one of the AS skeletons’) caused ten centuries to dissolve into nothingness, even though – so far as I know – I was the only AS enthusiast in Church.

    Lust for ready intelligibility seems to lack something…..

  10. Ulfilas says:

    Chop Suey by system of a down

    Take a look at the lyrics closely… they speak to me like Jesus talking to the Gothic subculture.

    Covering themselves with makeup…

    Jesus wept, when angels deserve to die (Satan)

    Self Righteous Suicide… Crucifixion – Hence – Father into your hands I commend my spirit.

    Well – I’ve been thinkin this for ages. I could use the song in an alternative worship service and marry it up to images from films, maybe Passion of the christ and something else..or maybe use flashes of images?

    Any thoughts?

    FULL LYRICS:

    Wake up,
    Grab a brush and put a little (makeup),
    Grab a brush and put a little,
    Hide the scars to fade away the (shakeup)
    Hide the scars to fade away the,
    Why’d you leave the keys upon the table?
    Here you go create another fable

    You wanted to,
    Grab a brush and put a little makeup,
    You wanted to,
    Hide the scars to fade away the shakeup,
    You wanted to,
    Why’d you leave the keys upon the table,
    You wanted to,

    I don’t think you trust,
    In, my, self righteous suicide,
    I, cry, when angels deserve to die, Die,

    Wake up,
    Grab a brush and put a little (makeup),
    Grab a brush and put a little,
    Hide the scars to fade away the (shakeup)
    Hide the scars to fade away the,
    Why’d you leave the keys upon the table?
    Here you go create another fable

    You wanted to,
    Grab a brush and put a little makeup,
    You wanted to,
    Hide the scars to fade away the shakeup,
    You wanted to,
    Why’d you leave the keys upon the table,
    You wanted to,

    I don’t think you trust,
    In, my, self righteous suicide,
    I, cry, when angels deserve to die
    In my, self righteous suicide,
    I, cry, when angels deserve to die

    Father, Father, Father, Father,
    Father/ Into your hands/I/commend my spirit,
    Father, into your hands,

    Why have you forsaken me,
    In your eyes forsaken me,
    In your thoughts forsaken me,
    In your heart forsaken, me oh,

    Trust in my self righteous suicide,
    I, cry, when angels deserve to die,
    In my self righteous suicide,
    I, cry, when angels deserve to die.

  11. That’s precisely the song that was on the radio that made me make the comment to M!

    I’ve always been intrigued by it.

    (Except I thought it was “Why’d you leave the kids up on the table”…)

  12. cece says:

    i likeit a lot

  13. Pingback: Whatever Happened to Sin? | haligweorc

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