Wednesday, December 06, 2006


My family was part of an audience watching this cantata last Sunday night, you see. But I think that I'm getting ahead of myself here.

What I mean to say is that I find Christian Rock to be a very strange animal. This was, in a sense, what we encountered in an indifferently crowded theater on an ordinary Sunday night, three weeks before Christmas.

Normally, cantata are something of a formal affair. If I'm reading my sources right, they're a set of organized musical performances that usually take place during the Christmas season: You get a bunch of trained singers and instrumentalists together to perform some really good Christmas songs, and you have a cantata. That's that, I think.

Except that I hesitate to call last Sunday's performance a cantata. It was, for lack of a better word, more of a Praise concert.

In general, Christians don't have very good reputations when it comes to musical criticism. Historically, Christians are usually the first people to denounce any development that causes a profound shift in human perception... up to and including new styles of music. As far as I know, we've denounced certain areas of classical music, some operas, the entire jazz movement, American Blues, Goth, Punk, Heavy Metal of all kinds, and Rap of any color.

Rock'n'Roll, however, seems to hold the most ambiguous position among Christian sensibilities. The genre has been derisively termed "the Devil's Music" at certain points, and there are more than a few conservative communities that don't hold truck with this most 'infernal' of noises. Despite this, however, a number of religious communities have actually embraced the genre; For that matter, some of them have even taken it on to the level of developing a "Christian Rock" platform.

That was, in all probability, what we experienced last Sunday night. And as if the realm of leather clothing, screaming lyrics and mad guitar riffs didn't feel strange enough on its own, this single cantata added its own brand of weirdness to the mix.

Sunday night did seem as though it was able to capture the essence of a Rock concert, mind you. There was a lead vocalist cavorting with a few backup singers on stage, an entire keyboard and drums section in the back, and a substantial crowd that was on its feet for the majority of the performance. The only difference was that said lead vocalist was exhorting said crowd to stand up and Worship Him With Song, and that most of said crowd ended up Milling Around Trying To Sing Songs That They Did Not Know.

Again, however, I digress. Once again, I must dip into observational background here.

I get the feeling that Christians are somewhat inexperienced when it comes to Rock. There's just something, I think, about denouncing a musical genre for the longest time, and then doing a complete about-face and deciding that you can use it for your own religious purposes. I don't think that most Christian composers have been able to enlighten themselves beyond the surface aspects of Rock, which chiefly involves high volumes and a lot of cultural misunderstanding.

In other words: To most anti-Rock advocates, Rock is simply a loud and nonsensical brand of music. I figure, therefore, that most anti-Rock advocates who attempt to appropriate it for their own use tend to focus on the "loud" aspect over everything else.

The catch is that Christians don't have much to be "loud" about. Christianity, mind you, is a religion that likes to sit down and discuss things. Never mind the occasional hellfire-and-brimstone homilies you hear in church, or the old conversion-by-the-sword techniques of ancient times: For the most part, Christians like congregating together and discussing the finer aspects of their faith. That's why we have such things as prayer groups and religious retreats.

From every indication, a Christian Rock Band holds about as much sense as the complacent vest-wearing, pipe-smoking parent who one day decides to dye his hair red-violet, wear leather pants and scream into a microphone just because he ends up liking his son's brand of music. Such a parent would probably get the respect of a lot of people ("It's nice to see that you take such an interest in your children"), but you really wouldn't want to know how the son feels.

And then you have Praise.

Yes, that's right: Praise.

Last Sunday's cantata wasn't a cantata as much as it was a Praise concert. While Christian Rock is not exclusively Praise and vice-versa, Sunday Night was probably a testament as to how the two sub-genres are intertwined.

Christians are no stranger to celebration, of course. Every culture has its own religious holidays and observances; I'll venture that Christians and Moslems and Buddhists and Hinduists each have their own respective days to sing, dance and generally have a good time. In the bible, King David is noted as having enthusiastically danced to the Ark of the Covenant's return to Israel -- so modern Christians do have a bit of precedence in this case.

It just strikes me that, if you're a Christian who's trying to promote the surface aspects of Rock (i.e. loud volume), then you'll inevitably turn to Praise. Praise is one of the few things that Christians will unabashedly shout to the heavens -- if you're this enthusiastic about your faith, after all, then you're bound to express it in celebration.

Thus you have Praise. Or, to be precise: You have an entire Sunday evening's worth of Praise.

While I have no argument against Praise music -- it is fair subject matter for songs, after all -- I do have a problem with too much Praise music. I mean, you could be the biggest Rock fan in history, but when the various bands decide to take over your house, rip up the furniture and empty the refrigerator, you'll have to admit that you'll get tired of the stuff very, very quickly.

Last Sunday night, I welcomed the first Praise song with all the standard expectations of a man watching a Christmas cantata. I turned an unsuspecting glance at the second Praise song, then raised the proverbial eyebrow when a third one came on over the sound system. By the time the singers seamlessly lapsed into a fourth tune, my expression had been reduced to a single confused stare. The tunes in question were not even Christmas songs in the slightest sense, and I began asking myself what kind of cantata I had gotten myself into.

Fortunately, that was when the performers lapsed into a solemn rendition of "O Holy Night", one of my favorite carols. Unfortunately, that was when I found that they had inexplicably substituted most of the lyrics for words of their own writing. So once again the crowd was subjected to a never-ending wall of Praise music, one that continued on for a good hour or so. By the time the performance ended, I was all too eager to high-tail it all the way home.

I still have no argument against Praise music, for the reasons I've stated above. People have the right to prefer or make their own compositions or means of celebration, I suppose.

What puzzles me, however, is how Christians can tolerate this sort of thing. While I'm all for exhorting God's majesty and grace, it seems to me that eight straight songs doing the same thing in one evening is far too much. Yes, God definitely deserves the accolades... but I have to assert that there is a fine line between Praise and Sycophancy. I see God as a benevolent father-type being; I don't want to go around hallelujahing his every move and figuratively licking His divine boots.

Of course, I'm probably wrong here. I'm just one man with a distinctly un-Christian opinion, who could barely be called 'devout' in the first place. You could call me blasphemous if you like, I suppose, and therefore ignore me completely. I get the feeling that I've crossed that line quite a few times already.

Yes, I'm probably wrong about the whole thing. Maybe I'm just not used to the practice, and maybe one day I'll do a complete turnaround and be able to enjoy mounds of Praise music just like the Christian multitudes do.

...Just like the relationship between Christians and Rock, I think.


It's amazing what time can do to certain opinions that we have of each other.


Sean said...

As a note: This was a remarkably difficult article to write, mostly because it was tough to find a balance between fair reporting and personal opinions. I only posted it here because I finally felt that I could handle any and all strong reactions to the piece. Feel free to sound off, then.

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

At the risk of sounding like a heretic (of which I've been accused many times), I can't stand praise music. There are tinges of fanaticism about it that just creep me out. Plus, I've never been big on organized religion, let alone crazed worship in any form, musical or otherwise.

However, one of my favorite bands does market itself as a "Christian alternative rock" group: Jars of Clay. I love their songs, never mind the "devotion" undertones. It's just good music. :)

Sean said...

Ailee: Welcome to the club, then. :)

I'm okay with religion, to be honest. We live in a temporal universe, and it's easy to understand the notion that a being exists to which the laws of entropy don't apply. From there, it should just be a matter of which side of the fence people sit on.

However, I usually draw the line at any form of worship that seems to lead people around by the nose. Or, for that matter, any aspect of religion that promotes hateful and terrible acts. Simply put, both run contrary to the vision of living in harmony with other human beings.

Because it doesn't belong in any of the two categories above, I'm normally okay with Praise music. It's just that Sunday night brought an excessive amount of the stuff to my ears. While listening to a few of the songs is probably okay, having a whole boatload of it blasting in your ears sounds a lot less like Praise, and a lot more like Sucking Up.

I'll check out Jars of Clay, though. They might make for a more refreshing experience when it comes to music of this nature. :)

Sean said...

Please ignore this comment. I'm just testing the system based on Kat's report here.