Can Christians Rock?

By Nathaniel Givens

Christopher Partridge's recent book The Lyre of Orpheus: Popular Music, the Sacred, and the Profane has prompted several reviewers to respond to his central question: can Christians rock? The central problem, the reason Christians allegedly can neither rock nor roll, has to do with the definition of rock as "transgressive."

In her review of Partridge's book, Carey Fleiner explains the concept this way:

Popular musicians, whether medieval minstrels or modern death-metal thrashers, maintain their popularity by antagonizing the keepers of the sacred -- if not church authorities, then conservative society in general -- creating a community for the disenfranchised to rally around.

The problem, of course, is that for much of its history Christianity has occupied the role of "the keepers of the sacred." So this would preclude any possibility of Christian rock, right? It's actually not that clear, and it hinges on the simple question: transgression of what? Whose conception of the sacred is being profaned? Who is in charge of the establishment that rock is seeking to undermine?

During the time of Christ the local power structure was dominated by the Pharisees and the global power structure was the Roman Empire. Against this backdrop, transgression played an important part of Christ's message. His disciples picked food to eat on the Sabbath, He ate with sinners, and His teachings were blasphemous (at least to some). For this reason, Christ was seen as a subversive. Not only was He an enemy to the local elite, but He was then successfully portrayed as a rebel against the Roman state in order to justify his death sentence. For centuries after that, Christians existed as outcasts on the margins of society. Whatever was sacred to the Christians was not necessarily sacred to the broader society in which they lived.

This all changed with Constantine, of course, and over the centuries Christianity came to inform and shape much of Western culture. Throughout most of the 20th century it made sense to conflate Western tradition and Christian tradition. In that context, it's hard to see how an authentically transgressive Christian rock and roll could emerge.

But the illusion of an alliance between dominant secular power structures and Christianity is fading. Two examples serve to illustrate the trend. First, the right to elective abortion is held in a kind of political reverence that seems functionally equivalent to the religious conception of sacredness. Second, most of the Western world has repudiated the Christian conception of marriage almost overnight. As even the Daily Beast reports: "Watch What You Say, The New Liberal Power Elite Won't Tolerate Dissent." Modern liberal secularism is, from a functional standpoint, the newest world religion.

Christianity was an outlaw religion once and there are certainly broad swathes of modern culture where it is easy to feel that those days are on the way back. No one feeds Christians to lions yet, of course, but your beliefs might cost you your job.

This may seem like a new relationship between the world and Christianity where Christianity itself is viewed as profane and transgressive relative to the secular idols and ideologies of the day, but we are simply witnessing what has always been the case. "If the world hates you," said Christ, "keep in mind that it hated me first." (John 15:18, NIV)

Theoretically, at least, this lays the ground work for music that is both authentically Christian and authentically transgressive. In practice, where can such music be found? I have a few ideas, which I admit are biased to my own personal tastes, about where to look.

For starters, I suggest not looking within the category of self-described Christian music. There a couple of reasons for this: The first is that praise music is, by definition, focused on the relationship between congregation and God. Within that paradigm, transgressive music is usually ruled out. Speaking more broadly, however, all genres with a loyal fan base have a quality problem precisely because of that loyalty. If there is a population that will read any book with spaceships in it, then you should expect lower quality in science fiction overall. There may still be gems, of course, but they will be harder to find in a sea of mediocrity. (I picked on science fiction, by the way, precisely because I'm such a huge fan of the genre.)

Instead, the fastest way to find great quality Christian rock is to look for those Christian musicians who have survived within the mainstream. Their dedication to an increasingly socially unacceptable religion is a handicap that means only the best are likely to survive. And, because they are not primarily writing praise music, they are free to engage in the struggle "against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world" with all the genuine rebellion, transgression, and subversion that Christianity has to throw at the world. (Ephesians 6:12, NIV) Which, by the way, is quite a lot. Jesus came to bring a sword instead of peace, after all. (Matthew 10:34)

My very favorite example of this kind of artist is Dustin Kensrue who was singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist for the post-hardcore band Thrice from 1998 until the band went on hiatus in 2012 (partially so that Kensrue could serve as worship leader to a Mars Hill Church congregation.) Kensrue wrote, sang, and screamed Christian defiance for over a decade, but if I had to pick just one song to showcase the antagonistic relationship between the music he wrote and the world around him, I would go with the official video from the song "Image of the Invisible" from their 2005 Vheissu album.

It's no coincidence that the video appropriates dystopian themes of anti-authoritarianism in service of a Christian message. Kensrue, who steeps his lyrics in Old and New Testament references despite his mainstream audience, has never forgotten the default relationship between kingdoms of the world and the Kingdom of God.

Another powerful example comes from the band Underoath with "Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape" off their 2004 album They're Only Chasing Safety... This is a rare example of a transgressive praise song.

I don't know that hoarsely screaming, "Jesus, I'm ready to come home," would go over well in many worship services (it's definitely not going to fly in my Mormon congregation), but there's no doubt that it is both authentically transgressive and authentically Christian. It's the same animating spirit as "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," (which I also love) but much more raw. It's "Come, Thou Fount" written to drown out secular cynicism by turning the volume to 11.

There are lots more examples I could pick (Paramore, The Killers, Taking Back Sunday, etc.), but the point is simple: This world has nothing to teach Christians about subverting power that Christians didn't learn from Christ 2,000 years ago.

Nathaniel Givens operates a blog, Difficult Run.

Sponsored Links
Nathaniel Givens
Author Archive