Pop Music as a Bridge to God?: Engaging Christopher West

 On the one hand, there is pop music … aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. “Rock,” on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.
— Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (148).

Christopher West’s new book, Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing, attempts to use pop and rock music to witness to the universal longing within us for God. Indeed West says that he enjoys “looking for God as much in a Hollywood movie or a pop song as … in a theological tome.” He says that God can be found anywhere and pop music serves as witness to this truth (which he claims is supported by Br. Lawrence, a Carmelite mystic). West turns to John Paul II’s Letter to Artists to back up his approach, quoting the line: “Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience.” He continues: “This book, with its many references to the songs and movies of our culture, seeks to cross that bridge.” Although I largely agree with West’s argument in the book, I question whether pop music really serves as the kind of bridge to religious experience that John Paul describes.

Looking more deeply at John Paul’s Letter to Artists, I do not get that sense that pop music would fit this description. The key to the use of art in leading to God is its ability to capture us with its beauty, and to point beyond itself to God through that beauty. John Paul describes the importance of beauty, appealing to artists directly: “May the beauty which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder!…. Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence…. Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.” My biggest problem with West’s claim is that although I have heard many people say that they enjoy the music of the Beatles or Bruce Springsteen (or insert your favorite pop artist here), I have never heard anyone say that they were awed and filled with wonder at their beauty.

West’s focus in the book is desire, “that universal ‘ache’ and longing we feel as human beings for something.” From this perspective it is right to turn to music as witness to this longing. Shakespeare himself tells us in his play, Twelfth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on!”

 

Music is very much bound up with our desires, but Shakespeare points out that music is not simply an expression of this desire, but is something that is meant to shape it, to be a source of higher desire, namely love. John Senior reflects on the importance of Shakespeare’s words in his The Restoration of Christian Culture, where he says: “Love only grows; it cannot be manufactured or forced and it grows on the sweet sounds of music.” Music shapes who we are in a fundamental way, guiding our sensibilities and desires. Therefore, tilling the “soil of Christian Culture … is the work of music in the wide sense,” but “the Devil has seized these instruments to play a danse macabre, a dance of death.” The essence of this distortion is a “misdirection of love,” because “we are creatures of motion, defined by our desires.”

Senior seems to agree with West on the fundamental importance of desire, but provides a cautionary note. Music can be the food of love, but it can also act as a dance of death, misconstruing our desire so that it becomes something deadly, not ordered toward love, but turned in on itself in disordered desire. A key question in order to sort out whether music moves us in the right direction or not is the relation of beauty and eros. In fact, West’s central focus seems to be on the power of eros within us to point to the infinite: “Sometimes we hear a certain song or piece of music and it awakens something inexplicable at our core,” but he continues by saying that the “sad thing is, most of us don’t know where to direct that fire inside, so we end up getting burned and burning others.” This hits on the problem. If pop music expresses eros, is it an eros that awakens something within us to look toward the infinite, or is it an opportunity to get burned? Another way of saying this would be, is the music beautiful or a moving expression of passion?

West is not wrong about eros; the problem is that the examples that he gives from Springsteen, Mick Jagger, U2, and Johnny Cash point toward a yearning that does not find fulfillment. Mick Jagger’s famous line “I can’t get no satisfaction. But I try, but I try, but I try” may say it all. West’s interpretation of Bono’s line “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” is also very telling. West says: “If eros is meant to lead us to the infinite, then in this life we will be ever seeking and never satisfied. That, I think, is what Bono is singing about. From that perspective his song of longing is not a statement of doubt and despondency, but a very realistic statement of faith and hope: for one would not continue the search if he had lost faith or given up hope.” Is this song of U2 a testament of eros’s ability to be a bridge to God by seeking and not finding? Isn’t the point of eros’s yearning in music and art that in beauty it has found at least a glimmer of what it is looking for?

There is nothing wrong with pointing toward pop music’s expression of eros in a diagnostic way, but we should not expect it to be prescriptive. Should we really look for God here as much as in a theological tome (although pop music may do better than some theology!). Genuinely beautiful music can do more. It can serve as a bridge to God, not by providing us with grace, but by pointing transcendentally toward a beauty which is found most fully in God. My problem with pop music is not that it is worthless and never worth listening to. In fact, it can provide us with enjoyment, entertainment, and emotional relief, but that is not the same as saying it can lead us beyond the problems of our life and culture. Rather, pop music reflects our broken culture (and thus our own experience), which in many ways is confused, that is, it can’t get any satisfaction and can’t find what it is looking for. We know that music played a crucial role in the sexual revolution in the 1960s; in fact music embodied the movement and advanced it. Unfortunately, most, but not all, pop music seems saturated with the opposite of the transcendentals, and is intended to arouse the baser passions rather than inspiring the higher parts of the soul. It is not worthless, but is it transformative?

Is it possible to find inspiration or seeds of the Word in contemporary secular music? I suppose so (see West’s experience on page 5), but to look for them there, we must be very desperate for inspiration. We are overwhelmingly going to find inspiration for shallow and lesser loves there, both because of the explicit messages and the interior movement of the music itself. Pop music indeed serves as a testimony of our restlessness, our fallen desire, of the misdirected eros that consumes. It is a witness, but not a corrective. West criticizes a presentation of Christianity that is presented without “the beauty of truth” and with an “ugly tune.” I agree, and I would insist on that same standard for what we look toward to move us in our culture, and agree that we need to stop turning toward the “wrong music.” West may say it best when he summarizes Pope Benedict: “Without this healing and restoration, eros ‘is not an “ascent” in ecstasy,’ but a fall, a degradation of man.” This directly relates to music: its beauty directs eros and points toward the divine; when it simply represents our fallen eros, it rather manifests our degradation. When music is truly beautiful it can contain the sublimation or sublimity that West talks about, making music one of “so many foreshadowings of heavenly bliss.”

Music should be the food of love! It is meant to nurture and form us. Should we then follow West in affirming the ability of pop music to serve as a bridge to God? Although there may be some truth to this approach, I think we have to question seriously what benefit it brings to do so. People are already saturated with pop culture. That is a big part of the problem! Affirming people where they are at in this way does not encourage them to change, but keeps them stuck where they are at. The reason we find more inspiration in contemporary pop culture is that we have lost the heights of love. Rather than finding life in the music of love, a music that is beautiful and therefore grounded in the true and in the good, we would much rather join in the devil’s dance of death, with its immediate gratification and disordered passions. We need to ask ourselves what is truly beautiful. When we answer that question we will know what can serve as a bridge toward God.

R. Jared Staudt

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R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

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