He gets it.
Stephen Catanzarite has written arguably the most important book about rock music of the young 21st century. U2’s Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall is a small volume — more like a thick pamphlet than a book — but each line is a mini-dissertation on the truth about pop music, or at least much of pop music.
Stephen Catanzarite, Continuum, 107 pages, $10.95
He gets it.
Stephen Catanzarite has written arguably the most important book about rock music of the young 21st century. U2’s Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall is a small volume — more like a thick pamphlet than a book — but each line is a mini-dissertation on the truth about pop music, or at least much of pop music. For years, individual Christians (including your scribe) have argued that much of rock music is an eloquent celebration of the unity and joy that man once experienced in paradise, as well as an elemental protest against the fallen world. Rock music always cries for the love that transcends pain and physical barriers — the love that brings us back to God. It rejects the hypocrisy of the world. It is, in a word, theological. Just listen to U2.
Making this point has not been easy. A while back I wrote a piece for "On Faith," the Washington Post‘s religion Web site, about the Catholicism of the Beatles. The vicious comments that followed my essay (none of which actually addressed my point) were charged with the kinds of hysteria one finds among the jihadists. The Beatles, Christian? Fool! Idiot! It was left to one commentator to note the irony of this army of open-minded hipsters declaring that rock and roll could be absolutely anything — except for what I think it is. So much for the imagination, not to mention the freedom of interpretation.
Catanzarite — a Catholic, and the managing director of the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center outside of Pittsburgh — has, in 100 pages, made my argument with an intelligence and poetic dash that lifts the soul as it engages the mind. The book is a part of Continuum publishing’s "33 1/3" series, small volumes that allow a writer to critique a single seminal pop music album. Others in the series have taken on Radiohead, the Kinks, and Neil Young, among others, but subject and writer have not been matched as brilliantly as they are in Achtung Baby, Catanzarite’s take on the U2 album of the same name.
We know we’re not in Rolling Stone land — that is, that Paleozoic rock-critic preserve where every rock song is about antinomianism, sex, and (yawn) drugs — when we open the first page and are met with a quote from John Henry Cardinal Newman. Then he hits us with this: In Achtung Baby, he observes,
It is all there: our infinite potential for dreaming, discovering, and building, and the trouble we cause by confusing our liberty with license; our wanderings through streets both named and unnamed in search of peace or escape, enlightenment or forgetfulness, love or domination; the longing in our hearts for unity between and among God and man, man and woman, brother and sister, parent and child, and the restlessness, pride, larceny and fear in our heads that disturbs even the happiest of homes; our reveling in the fact that we truly are "fearfully and wonderfully made," and the sad acceptance of our brokenness; the excellence of fidelity; and the appeal of seduction; the glamour of evil, and the disaster of sin; the paradox of being rooted in time but destined for eternity; the God shaped hole at the center of our being, and our vain attempts to fill it with something, everything, anything other than God.
After that paragraph, it should be hard to listen to rock music — or read rock criticism — the same again. Catanzarite isn’t shoehorning Christ into rock music in order to legitimize his fandom; to the contrary, after reading his book, it becomes obvious that it is the secular rock community that makes what is a spiritual popular art form into a never-ending vehicle for revolution and rebellion.
But even the simplest reading of the music won’t back this up. Catanzarite juxtaposes the melancholy elegy of the song One with St. Paul’s writings about the nature of love — and it doesn’t just seem to fit, it seems obvious. Until the End of the World shows Jesus going to hell to confront Judas, and yet showing mercy at the end. T. S. Eliot, Chesterton, Yeats, and Fulton Sheen are cited in the exploration of other songs, and the connection is seamless. Catanzarite’s prose is assured, clear, and at times pithy: "Free love is neither," he declares at the opening of a chapter on the disasters of the sexual revolution.
I recently contacted Catanzarite about his book; he knew some of my work, which, like his, has dealt with the Christian themes found in rock music. "Things are looking up," he quipped. "Now there’s two of us." Christian organizations in the West have an opportunity to recognize that, for the last 40 years, young people — and now not-so-young people — have been getting their spiritual direction from rock bands, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. We are in desperate need of a clearinghouse for the music — a magazine, organization, or simple Web site where faithful scholars can interpret the tunes, praising the good and condemning the bad. It would not be the silly "devil’s music" spittle of preachers in the past, nor the supine anything-goes lassitude of the "religious but cool" parent. It would be a place that appreciates the ardent passion of rock and roll, as well as how that passion can turn demonic, often from one track to the next.
We can either acknowledge the powerful post-Fall longing for Christ in these sounds, or let them keep taking cues from Rolling Stone and MTV. In that case, we will let the kids keep thinking they’re rebelling against God, when they are actually crying for Him.