Monday, December 14, 2009

Discovering the Gospel in Rock Music

I’ve been thinking about popular music a lot lately, as our church has just finished a series of services looking at the topic. I’m going to use my next series of blog posts to reflect on that.  For more on the series, visit

A generation or two ago most Christians were keeping their distance from the disturbing new music known as “Rock ‘n’ Roll”.  There were enough concerns about Elvis (“the Pelvis”) Presley and others of his ilk to convince most decent church folk to keep their distance.   It just didn’t seem normal and it certainly wasn’t godly.

Today things have changed greatly; for better or for worse.  In most Christian families children listen to a variety of popular music stations without hesitation, and their parents may have their own blend of classic, heavy metal, or light rock artists.  Most believers rarely question the fact that all these hours of listening time are devoted to secular music, any more than they might question all the hours they spend watching secular TV.  After all, who would seriously consider watching only Christian TV? 
Clearly our idea of normal has shifted, along with our listening habits.  Is that a good thing?

Right about this point this conversation usually veers directly into questioning the lifestyles of various rock artists, their dubious credibility as role models, etc.  While these are valid questions, Christians have generally found a way to separate the music of their artists from their lifestyles.  Spend a little time reading up on the personal lives of Mozart, for example, (much less Tchaikovsky) to be reminded of God’s ability to inspire amazing art from flawed individuals. 

This blog is not intended to pursue that conversation, as it has already gotten enough column inches during the past several decades.  Instead, I believe there is a far more important conversation that’s been generally neglected: finding hints of the Gospel in rock music.  Throughout the astonishing breath of the popular music industry one can find hints and urges that, if followed, can lead us directly to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

(Now that sounds like a gimmicky seeker-friendly way to try to lure people into your church!   Why not just preach the gospel rather than going all Hollywood about it?  If we’re not careful we could lose our bearings!)

If you read Acts 17 sometime you may be surprised to see the Apostle Paul losing his bearings in the city of Athens.  As any decent Jewish Christ-follower could tell you, Athens was dangerous.  In a first-century world where people collected false gods and goddesses as a hobby, Athens was one of the destinations of choice for someone who really wanted to get serious about it.   Athens was for idolaters what Las Vegas is for problem gamblers.

Paul found himself with time to kill in Athens.  He’d run into trouble in another city and had to leave town quickly.  His supporters brought him to Athens where he would then wait for Silas and Timothy to join him later.   Before long, Paul had found the Jewish synagogue and had begun challenging folks with the news of Jesus Christ.  One thing led to another and before long he’d gotten sucked into the whole “pantheon of gods” scene.  Before you could say “abomination” he found himself talking face to face with some of the big names in idol worship. 

The Greek idolaters seemed to get a kick out of Paul.  They kept goading him with questions and challenges.  Eventually Paul hit pay dirt.   Pointing to the Altar of the Unknown God (their catch-all for whatever deity they may have failed to invent along the way) Paul looked them in the eyes and made his pitch:  I know about this mystery god.  Let me tell you about the god you’re already worshipping.

There was a method in Paul’s madness.  Although in most Jewish eyes he probably seemed to be compromising in his efforts to recruit followers of Jesus Christ, he was actually making surgical strike in a spiritual hot-spot in their world.  Instead of lobbing the gospel at the Athenians from the outside, bellowing condemnation like Jonah in Nineveh, he found something they were already looking for and joined them in their search.   He came alongside of them, respectfully but with full integrity, and helped them with the search they were already on.

There’s a lot that we can learn from Paul’s approach.  Often we approach evangelism as if everyone “out there” were spiritually tone-deaf and needed to be rebuked into the gospel faith.  While rebellion has indeed spread throughout humanity like a spiritual H1N1 virus, the fact is that many people around us are longing for Christ’s redemption, but may not know it yet.

In Romans 8 Paul explained that there’s an ache inside each one of us:  a deep-seated sense that life could be, should be more that what it is—but isn’t.  Rom. 8:22 assures this that this is real.  All creation, we’re told, groans in expectation waiting for God’s redemption to be fully ushered in.   But sometimes we can get so used to this nagging ache that we lose our sense of it.  When we lose our ability to ache we lose our sense of redemption and our awareness of the gospel.  

One of the reasons why it can be important for Christians to follow popular music is that popular artists often have an instinctive way of tapping into this chronic ache.  Let’s face it, when an artist is able to sell millions of albums he or she is clearly offering a lot more than a catchy melody or rhythm line.   Somehow, on a deep level, that artist has been able to connect with something that a lot of potential fans are feeling.   A best-selling artist is able to, in some way, provide listeners with a shock of recognition:  “yes, I feel like that, too!”  

Thoughtful listening to popular music can go a long way in helping us rediscover the human ache for God and the redemption He offers us.   The particular artists may or may not have anything helpful to offer to help with this ache, but they can undo a lot of the numbness that the followers of Jesus can sometimes develop.  

In the next four posts on this blog I’d like to share some reflections on how this ache for God can be seen in the music of The Beatles, Michael Jackson (yes, that Michael Jackson), U2 and Metallica. 

These four artists each speak to the inner ache many of us would just as soon avoid.  By exploring the significance of their voices we can re-discover important aspects of the gospel. 

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