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Benedict XVI on Rock

Posted in: General by Andy Edwards on May 20, 2009

First, I am happy to be a contributor to the R&T blog; my thanks to Tom Beaudoin & Co. for including me in this exciting project.

Among the comments to the post announcing my participation, there is a lengthy quote from Pope Benedict XVI, which appears to condemn rock music as an “expression of elemental passions…in opposition to Christian worship.” Having followed the same commenter’s posts on a Catholic bulletin board for liturgical music, I am fully aware that the commenter intends this as a critique of the R&T project in general. Allow me to riposte.

The Spirit of the LiturgyIn the quote from this section of The Spirit of the Liturgy (which originally appeared as “Musica e liturgia” in the Italian edition of Communio), Benedict is discussing music in its particular relation to the liturgy. R&T, however, is NOT an exercise in liturgical design. Rather, this project (in the words of Liturgical Press’ press release) “explores the relationship between rock music and academic theology.” These are different projects. Examining rock music from a theological perspective does NOT imply incorporating rock music into the liturgy.

To deal with the matter of Benedict’s criticism itself, I would like to make a couple of points. First, when Benedict writes about rock & pop music, I find it unfortunate that he essentializes a genre that resists such generalizations. Some background in popular music studies: In 1978, theorists Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie published an article in which they dichotomized so-called “cock rock” and “teenybop” as expressing, respectively, masculine and feminine forms of sexuality. This article was highly influential, not because its paradigm was adopted–but because everyone in the field found it far too reductionist and reacted in the opposite direction.* Likewise, to reduce rock music to “the expression of elemental passions” and pop to “a cult of the banal” is to disregard the vast breadth of expressions within these fields of musical endeavor. This is not to say that Benedict is wrong–a lot of rock is indeed elementally passionate and a lot of pop is banal. But is it not better to deal with these on a case by case basis, rather than disregarding them wholesale? Such particular attention is, I believe, one aim of R&T.

Secondly, the larger context of the passage from The Spirit of the Liturgy is one of a history of the church’s regulation of its musical practices, the primary issue being how to avoid the threat of inculturation (i.e. those cultural elements contrary to the gospel impinging upon and confusing the church’s witness). Benedict writes that, in the ancient and early medieval world, the Christian church had to be cautious of the influx of mysticism through the incorporation of Graeco-Roman musical practices. As developments in polyphony, measured music, and a more widespread use of instruments emerged in the late medieval world, the church again found itself wary of incorporating such practices too soon, as it saw in them the potential to distract listeners from the primary message of the gospel. Later in the Baroque era, a “virtuoso mentality” began to appear, so Pope Pius X instituted measures to hold back the incorporation of Baroque techniques until they could be performed without such a mentality. Benedict emphasizes that such developments in music were never wrong in themselves, but the church needed to refrain from incorporating them until it could adequately prune those cultural by-products that were antithetical to the gospel witness. (Today, of course, Baroque music is the default style performed at the Vatican.)

It is in this context that Benedict attends to rock and pop. His condemnation is not categorical, but he finds certain cultural elements within these styles (mass-marketing of the banal, an emotional penchant for nihilism, etc.) that must be avoided in liturgical music. Nowhere does Benedict claim that the aesthetic decisions of the church have a timeless, universal validity. Rather, the church must constantly renew its dogmatic reflections based on potential inclinations toward inculturation. In his account of the early struggle against mysticism, for instance, Benedict calls attention to a fourth-century debate regarding the psalter, in which non-scriptural hymns were forbidden by the Council of Laodicea. “We may regret the cultural impoverishment this entailed, but it was necessary for the sake of a greater good. A return to apparent cultural poverty saved the identity of biblical faith, and the very rejection of false inculturation opened up the cultural breadth of Christianity for the future” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 144-5). Note that Benedict admits how such regulation is indeed a cultural impoverishment. It is necessary only to the extent that those anti-Christian elements may be purged.

To sum up: R&T is not about liturgical music, but is rather attending theologically to the particularities of a vast range of musical practices that may fall under the rubric of “rock.” By doing so, this project may actually assist the dogmatic project of the Church as it learns which branches of its musical practice may need pruning, and which may be nurtured into new life.


*On “genre essentialism” as the bête noire of popular music studies, see Keith Negus, Popular Music in Theory (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1996), 123-133; and Lawrence Grossberg, “Another Boring Day in Paradise: Rock & Roll and the Empowerment of Everyday Life,” in Popular Music: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, vol. II, ed. Simon Frith (London: Routledge, 2004), 311-342. For the Frith/McRobbie article, “Rock and Sexuality,” it has been reprinted in On Record: Rock, Pop & the Written Word, ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin (London: Routledge, 1990), 317-332.


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