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February 2017
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That’s a quotation from John Cooper, who heads up the Christian rock band Skillet. He’s discussing why their song “Salvation” needs to be indirect, needs to exercise theological discretion, in order to reach the greatest number of listeners, religious and nonreligious.

Did you know about Skillet? I did not, but I learned from James C. McKinley, Jr.’s article in Wednesday’s print edition of the New York Times that Skillet is, as measured by album sales, one of the top rock bands in the United States. They seem to have remarkable crossover appeal, drawing in both Christian-rock listeners (is that still a major genre in pop music?! again, I had no idea) and more “secular” listeners who just like hard rock.

Here is Skillet’s video for their recent tune, “Sick of It”:

YouTube Preview Image

What I like about Cooper’s quotation is the implied suggestion that the use of religious language, like invoking the name of Jesus, might get in the way of a deeper religious/spiritual/theological significance of a song. This is important because a lot of people who live, love, and learn at the intersection of theology and popular/secular music think that the most important task is to identify when an “explicitly” religious/spiritual/theological notion is used lyrically. (I put “explicitly” in quotes because there is no scholarly consensus on what constitutes a religious/spiritual/theological concept/idea/notion.)

On the contrary, it is the force of the music, how it sits in the life of the listener, what it helps them do or keeps them from doing, that is the domain to which theologians should pay attention, whether or not “Jesus” or any other explicitly religious/theological/spiritual language is used. Theologians — whether in everyday life or in academic settings — need to learn about how music helps people to live or keeps them from living, with respect to “claiming powers” in individuals’ lives, whether those powers help access the “more” that can be thought of as “within” or “beyond” life.

Here is Skillet’s video for “Monster”:

YouTube Preview Image

Where I might want to nuance Cooper’s quotation is that there is almost always “slippage” between what a band wants to say lyrically and what fans take away from the music. Even if the music were “clearly about Jesus,” there would not be a complete synchronicity between band and fan. Musical/spiritual experience is more complex and interesting than that!

Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

 

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