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Book review: Rock, religion can make beautiful music together

By Sister Jean Peerenboom, OSF

Rock-A My Soul: An Invitation to Rock Your Religion by David Nantais (Liturgical Press; $15.95)

I certainly would never have put religion and rock ’n roll together – until now. David Nantais gave me a new look at the matter in his Rock-A My Soul: An Invitation to Rock Your Religion. I may never hear Elvis Presley in the same away again!

Rock music and organized religion have had a tense and rocky relationship for the pat 60 years. Rock fans accuse religious people of being too rigid and irrelevant. People of faith say rock is the devil’s handiwork. Nantais argues that’s not the case and the two complement each other in our quest for spiritual satisfaction.

“Few styles of music engage the human body as much as rock and roll. From toe-tapping to air guitar, listening to rock music, like religious ritual, requires attention to the present moment and can help the listener (or believer) reclaim a sense of identity as a creature of God. In addition, several social causes include both rockers and religious advocates. During some of the most tumultuous times the world has experienced, both groups have given succor and hope to millions,” according to the book’s summary.

Nantais is director of campus ministry at the University of Detroit Mercy, a former Jesuit and a member of Generation X. He has played the drums in several rock bands for more than 20 years and says he’s attended more than 150 rock shows since 1986, so he has expertise and credibility on the topic.

He cites others who have studied and written about the subject, most notably, theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie, author of Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music.

In his introduction, Nantais says, “Simply put rock ’n roll music is part of God’s creation. It is a gift that, I believe, can be used in spiritual and religious contexts, and can help people praise, reverence and serve God.”

His writing style is witty and entertaining, making this an easy book to read and digest. It is fun to read, especially if you like rock music (which I do). I especially enjoyed the recap of the history of rock and religion. He opens with the infamous appearances of Elvis Presley on television and that “offensive” movement of his hips.

Yet, he says, “It seems that music and Christianity have had a tense relationship since immediately after Jesus walked out of the tomb. By the time rock ’n roll music burst onto the scene, Christianity already had a long and rigid tradition of condemning various types of music for more than 19 centuries.”

“In the second century BCE, Christians were suspicious of music because of its associations with pagan worship rites. (Were there Christians in the second century BCE?) At that time,” he says, “and since music was also thought to be dangerously appealing to the flesh and the ‘lower passions,’ thus reflecting the sanctity of the human spirit. The desire to dichotomize spirit and flesh has been a strong motivating force working to suppress music and its potential power.”

This is nothing new. Over the centuries, people have continued to condemn music for various reasons, he says, but at the root of the reasoning is fear – “fear of music’s power, fear of sexuality/flesh and fear of ‘the other,’ especially African Americans.”

Nantais explores the causes of this fear, along with how to find God in rock music, finding our spirituality through music, social justice and rock music and much more in this 162-page softcover book. He examines Christian rock and its Evangelical Protestant roots. He looks at the relationship of music and theological foundation and validity.

What separates Christian rock from secular rock? He says, “The lyrics of Christian rock songs place the primacy of the Word tradition above all else and must communicate some biblically revealed truth in order to be legitimate.”

He also says, “Religious practice and spirituality can help people find meaning in their lives. Rock music also holds this power.”

Music helps us “reclaim the present moment and, I believe, rock music is especially good for this because it is so visceral and listeners become more present to their bodies in space and time, in other words, more awake … Music reminds us that time is an integral part of God’s creation … Music, even frantic rock music, can help us to slow down and appreciate what is going on right now. ... Music helps people articulate something about the meaning of their lives,” he writes.

But, music is not the be all, end all of spirituality. It is merely a tool to get us in touch with our spiritual side. “Rock music should not replace other forms religious expression or serve as a surrogate to a faith community. It should, however, be taken seriously as a mode of theological expression,” he says.

So, let the toe-tapping begin. Maybe priests and deacons should consider setting their homilies to music.

Sister Jean Peerenboom is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross. She writes a monthly book review for the Holy Cross Family Blogspot.

To read all of Sister Jean Peerenboom's book reviews, click here.

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