Rock and roll has a rebellious sound. I write that hesitantly, because there is really no such thing as rock and roll, in terms of having a permanent nature or ongoing essence. Speed, loudness, and distorted acoustical effects do not a musical genre make. Rock is a mishmash of various musical traditionsGospel, blues, jazz, folk, country, swingrather than a tradition of its own. Like a vampire, rock needs fresh blood to survive, and it leaves its victims forever altered by draining their lifeblood. When bands began using string instruments in the late sixties, for example, they changed the way most people hear classical music, and classical music, to the extent that it is still culturally relevant, has had to adapt accordingly. Even calling rock rebellious is a dated description. But what will happen when all music becomes, to one degree or another, rockified? Can rock be, musically speaking, everything and still be rock and roll?
Monopolies have no competitors, but there is a competing brand to rebellious rock, and that is contemporary Christian music. Once derided not just by traditionalist Christians but also by rock devotees, Christian rock has come of age. Precisely because it tries to sound different from the rock mainstream, much of it is as good as or better than secular rockalthough it is still tightly segregated, like Christian fiction, from the mainstream markets.
If I were a trend-spotter, I would wager that secular rock will increasingly look to its Christian rival for new infusions of creativity and power. Take, for example, Patty Griffin’s “Wild Old Dog,” an intensely meditative song that gains in theological power with each new hearing. It begins:
God is a wild old dog
Someone left out on the highway
I seen him running by me
He don’t belong to no one now.
The song tells the story of a family that pulls over on the side of a highway in order to abandon their mangy and nearly blind old dog. When they set out for the ride, one of the family members tries to kick him into the car, but “He just climbed on in just like he knew.” He is a willing victim. Indeed, his destiny is to have his broken bones crushed and whittled down to nothing.
The pathos in this song is heavy, but it is redeemed from its own melodrama by the soaring quality of Griffin’s voice. She can be uplifting even when the words are driving you down, while the gracefulness of her singing sounds utterly forlorn. I know nothing about Griffin’s religious beliefs, but she has written a great religious song that begs to be interpreted theologically.
When the dog is let go, to the surprise of the singer and against all expectation, he tears “off runnin’ like we set him free.” The dog is not running away from the family, nor is he blindly running around, with no direction. In fact, with bad hips and knees, it is a miracle that he is running at all. It is uncertain what this does to the singer’s faith. The dog disappears right in front of her and leaves her thinking about how
Sometimes a heart can turn to dust
Get whittled down to nothing
Broken down and crushed.
The dog’s fate deeply wounds the singer, and this song is her attempt at healing.
But what about the dog, who is, after all, identified with God? The dog never loses his dignity. In fact, his sudden running seems to be telling the family that it is all right that they have kicked him out. The dog is old, but by embracing the wildness they have forced on him, he takes away the consequences of their cruelty. The dog is not just any kind of God, but the God who died to set us free.
We live in a world where sound has become a salvific commodity. Plugging in is how many people escape the drudgery of the ordinary and everyday. Favorite songs provide three minutes of transcendence. Nevertheless, rock is so ubiquitous that it is in danger of becoming musical wallpaper, with one style looking like another and none looking all that interesting, which leaves you wanting to tear them all down just to see the wall again.
Music lets us hear ideas that can be hard to grasp on an abstract or conceptual level. Griffin’s voice in this song, for example, makes the sadness of her words come alive in a way that expands our theological senses. We can hear in her voice the sound of the loss she is describing. More specifically, we can hear in her song the hard truth that Jesus Christ was never more like us than when we abandoned him.
Griffin is not Christian rock. But secular rock will increasingly look like Griffin, or it should. The future of rock is either to suffer a slow cultural death or be saved by more satisfying sounds by rebelling against its original rebellion and becoming more explicitly spiritual. Even if I am wrong about that prediction, the possibility that the best popular music can carry rich theological themes is something to celebrate.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author of Jesus Christ, Eternal God and, forthcoming, Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed.
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