Monday, April 9, 2012

Who contextualized whom?

People have a natural love for pageantry, gallant gestures, parades, singing, and, if you will let an oxymoron stand, generally making fools of themselves in dignified ways. In our overly Protestant culture all of these natural urges are strictly forbidden in the realm of religion and end up in sports (Fr. Beane's analysis about football a while back was spot on). Throughout Christian history is has not been thus. Instead, the Church has tried to harness this natural love in ways conducive to the Faith. Sometimes things get out of control and have to be pared back. The misuse of the Sacrament in the processions of the late middle ages, for example, were rightly repressed in the Lutheran Reformation. And one should not turn the Divine Service into a passion play. But there ought to be passion plays. Church should not be a fun parade, but some fun parades ought to be churchly. Church should not be transformed into a concert of popular music, but there ought to be popular music about Church.

In this vein, Father Petersen recently mentioned that country music is more poetic and imaginative than rock or pop music. Country music also has much more religion in it. That is because country music - especially the forms of it that have not been pushed closer and closer to corporatist pop music - is a variation or outgrowth of the folk music of the Scots-Irish culture of the American South. As a real folk music, it has the religion of the people embedded in it. Remember how shocked pop stations were at the success of [that hideous song] "I can only imagine"? As much as I don't like that particular song, it is precisely the radio on which it should be played, not the chancel. People want a real culture - and every real culture the world has ever known has a good does of religion in it. People want religion on the radio. But in our culture, everything is pieced out: religion here, but not there; religion on this station, but not that. When a secular pop station in Dallas accidentally played that song, they tapped into a market which they had forgotten even existed.

This is one of the hidden problems of bringing the culture into the church - or "contextualization" of the Church as some say: it ironically impedes the bringing of the Church into the culture. Church music should be Church music - but, filled with the dignified, heartfelt, reverent music of the Church, the people's heart will overflow, the thoughts and pieties learned in the idiom of the Church will influence the popular music of a Christian people. But if the popular music influenced by the Church is ghettoized in the Church on Sunday morning (by driving out the Church's own music), what need is there to have it anywhere else? Country music is a shard of the Protestant South's folk music and, as the the music of a Volk, it runs the gamut of that folk's experience: songs of adultery, unrequited love, coal mine disasters, and imaginings of what spending eternity with Jesus will be like. The farther you get from country - Elvis-->Buddy Holly-->Beatles-->Rolling Stones - the less religion you get.



  1. Wow! What a great post. Thanks.

  2. Great thoughts, but I think you missed something. You wrote, "and every real culture the world has ever known has a good does of religion in it". I think you have it backwards. First you have the cult and its cultus, then it forms what we call the culture. Culture always comes from the cult, flows out of it. They are linguistically and ontologically linked.

  3. Thanks for your helpful post, Heath. I appreciate your insights and comments on culture and "contextualization." I also basically agree with your remarks about country music as an heir of traditional folk music. That quality is one of the key things that led me to an appreciation and enjoyment of country music in the early 1990s, and it is still among the things I like best about that genre.

    Obviously, you are largely correct in your observations about much of what passes for pop and rock music. However, on that point I have to say that your analysis is too simplistic. Rock music covers a rather wide gamut anymore, and a small but significant minority of that broad spectrum includes songwriting of substance and significance. In the pop genre, there are likewise some rather profound singer-songwriters, who write as much in a true folk vein as any of the country artists. "Alternative" has become an almost meaningless adjective, because of the diversity that reigns in the music world, and because the genre going by that nomenclature has become rather prominent in its own right. But, in any case, there's also a broad sweep of "Alternative" artists writing songs of poetic and philosophical character. In each of these categories, there is the music of the "folk" being produced, including expressions of religious faith and conviction. Painting with such broad strokes, as you do, fails to acknowledge or take into account that factor.

    I suspect it is because, for a generation or two, now, the "folk" have grown up with rock music -- broadly speaking -- as a given. So it is an idiom and medium for the same kinds of real life pondering and story-telling that country music has dealt with for some time.

  4. There's also the blues, which probably has as much claim to a "folk" pedigree as country.

    1. Yes, the blues do have as much a pedigree as country in this regard.

      But rock'n'roll. . . we'll see. I'm intrigued by your notion that it is becoming a folk music. And there is no doubt that there are shining examples in rock music (broadly defined) of excellent lyrics, storytelling, and contacts with the deepest human emotions.

      But is it a folk music? I'm not sold. Neither is big band music a folk music. Rap is closer to a folk music than rock, I think, as it is closer to the marrow of a culture.

      But it's debatable. Rock started, like big band music, or even the "Standards," as the music of a cohort within a culture, not a culture itself. Has rock grown to encompass the whole culture? Every time it tries (Springstien's Nebraska and Born in the USA, or Billy Joel's Goodnight Saigon) what do we say but "It's a folk-influenced album."

      But I think you are right that a culture can adopt new idioms; maybe rock will evolve into a folk music. But I don't think it's there right now.


    2. I don't think that I would say it's already arrived, Heath, but I do think a transition is well under way. My main point was to say that one can't draw the lines so simply, neat-and-tidy as your post suggests. "Pop" and "Rock" both cover such a wide spectrum of things anymore, as does "country," for that matter. And with the dawn of the digital music era, everything has been thoroughly shaken up over the past decade -- in ways that are largely good for artists and listeners. The artists don't have to play by the cookie-cutter rules of the music industry giants, and it's relatively easy for artists to put their music out there for others to hear and ponder. That encourages and facilitates story-telling and thoughtful pondering of real life struggles, etc. And for a lot of young people, rock and roll is the basic idiom of musical expression, the ABCs so to speak.

      I'm noticing more and more groups that are more in the vein of U2 than CCM, for example. Christian artists, whose faith and religious convictions are part and parcel of their world view, but who aren't in your face with fundy proselytizing.

      There is also a blurring of country and rock and "folk" in what's being called Americana, and I think those developments demonstrate a real shifting of musical lines and genres.

      Many or most of the singer-songwriters have their feet as firmly planted in pop and rock as they do in 1960s folk. Five for Fighting is a great example of genuine folk-culture storytelling, but it's definitely not country; nor is it terribly unusual in its character.

    3. Another example, perhaps even more to my point, is Black Stone Cherry's album, "Folklore and Superstition." It's one of my all-time favorites, both musically and lyrically. Firmly rooted in classic rock, which the guys in the band clearly grew up on and have thoroughly made their own, but also a sterling example of song-craft and storytelling. It's a brilliant, all-but-flawless album, in my opinion, and every bit as poetic and imaginative as anything in country music.

    4. Rick,

      Perhaps another angle to this discussion is: a folk music must have a Volk. I can name the Volk who "owns" bluegrass-country: the Scots-Irish, Apalachia Volk. The blues are the folk music of the blacks of the South, both in that locale and moving up to the urban North.

      But who are the Volk for rock or pop of any sort or big band music? This is what I mean about a music for a cohort as opposed to music of a people. Rock and pop are for cohorts within a people, but not for the people.

      I think you know what I mean even if I am not really saying it well.


    5. That is a good question, Heath, and I will have think about it awhile.

      And, as I've said, fwiw, I appreciate and agree with your initial comments about the church, the culture, and contextualization.

    6. Many of my generation (I was born in '83), at least those who are self-described "serious" about music, support regional live music. They listen to their neighborhood bands, their friends' bands, their city's bands. And within rock, rap, pop (and country and folk) there are so many regional subsets, reflecting the different peoples, politics, cultures, and sometimes religion. My friends and I, from Great Lakes area, over the last 20 years, have been heavily influenced by Wilco, The Smashing Pumpkins, Sufjan Stevens, The White Stripes. That's all really good Midwest pop, with plenty of religion references mixed into the lyrics. Think of how Californian/West Coast (and proud of it) The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Dandy Warhols, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sound (both in music and their lyrics). More regional rock that I would argue at least started as "folk" (for the people): The Strokes and other bands of the late '90's out of NYC (think "NYC Cops"), The Kinks (very famous for promoting Englishness) Then there are all the arguments and preferences among rap listeners (my husband likes Australian rap, which is very distinct from the West and East Coast styles), the preferences among country music listeners, almost always based on regional variations. And aren't there regional differences, even competition and rivalries in jazz (including big band) and blues?

      The drive for celebrity and national or international exposure are factors that admittedly weaken my argument that pop and rock are folk. Bands and musicians want to broaden their fan base and make money, so they broaden their topics and you start to lose "for the people", because they think (a la U2) they can sing for the whole world (U2 was better--and had more religion in its songs' lyrics--when it was an Irish band, IMO). And of course, everyone is listening to music from everywhere via modern technology, so it's not like 100 years ago when a banjo player just heard the music played around him, in maybe a 50 mile radius, if that.

      But there are so many successful bands that never make it out of their city or state, but their own people still remember and talk about them (or know them) 30 years later. There's a reason Lake Shore Drive was a top-40 hit in Illinois/Indiana, but nowhere else. Going back to those Midwest bands, The White Stripes record a kid singing a Sunday School song Little White Box (a creepy, bordering on blasphemous song I learned in my Assemblies of God church growing up, that my wise parents banned me from singing). I'm not sure what band outside of flyover country would do that.

      I would switch the Beatles and Stones order at the end of your post. I do believe TRS are closer to blues and folk than TB. "Sympathy for the Devil" is more religious--"Just as every cop is a criminal/ and all your sinners saints"--than "Imagine", which actually terrifies me ("Imagine nothing to die for" ?!?!). Not to say both don't have serious theological problems, but at least the Stones are singing about Satan and sin, which are real, while Lennon is singing about...nothing? Nihilism?

      /rant. Pr. Stuckwisch, my family hopes to visit Emmaus in June as we travel from a Bremen wedding to a lake cabin in Michigan. Thanks for this blog--I enjoy lurking, and will go back to doing so!

    7. Thanks for your fascinating comments, Katy. I enjoyed your observations very much. We'll be pleased to welcome you at Emmaus, if you're able to make it.

      A blessed Eastertide to you and yours.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.


Comments are moderated. Neither spam, vulgarity, comments that are insulting, slanderous or otherwise unbefitting of Christian dignity nor anonymous posts will be published.