There’s an interesting review over at First Things of Christopher Partridge’s new book, The Lyre of Orpheus. Partridge’s theory, according to First Things’ Stephen Webb is as follows:
Rock is essentially transgressive. Christianity upholds a sacred order that excludes the profane. Therefore, contemporary Christian music cannot be true rock and roll, because it is “unable to establish a credible presence in [rock’s] profane affective space.”
Webb contests this theory, but he does so very weakly, writing: “Satan might or might not be beyond redemption, but everything else, including the devil’s music, isn’t.” That may be true, but it’s not really informative (how does one go about redeeming a genre or music?) nor does it actually address the core point. If rock is intrinsically transgressive, then when you redeem it you don’t really have rock anymore. The question that Partridge begs, and that Webb never spots, is this: transgressive of what?
I know it’s only a short review, but all the musicians noted were born in the 1950s – 1970s. It’s certainly easy to surmise that in the time they were making music (the 1970s and 1980s) traditional family values were still relatively dominant in America. In that context it makes sense to assume that “transgressive” meant contradicting these traditional values of modesty, self-restraint, and fidelity. But that assumption doesn’t make sense any more. No big surprise, by the way, Partridge himself was born in 1961. His cultural reference points were already stale in the last millennium.
By coincidence, I also picked up this story from the Daily Beast today: Watch What You Say, The New Liberal Power Elite Won’t Tolerate Dissent. The article’s first paragraph shows what Partridge and especially Web could have been talking about all along:
In ways not seen since at least the McCarthy era, Americans are finding themselves increasingly constrained by a rising class—what I call the progressive Clerisy—that accepts no dissent from its basic tenets. Like the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, the Clerisy increasingly exercises its power to constrain dissenting views, whether on politics, social attitudes or science.
When the powers that are in charge change, so does the meaning of the term “transgressive.” Music that is truly subversive now is effectively opposite of what was subversive back then. This makes sense: terms like “subversive” and “transgressive” are value-neutral without context. They are good or bad and useful or damaging entirely dependent on what it is they are attacking and promoting in its stead. It’s entirely possible for Christian rock to be subversive of the dominant culture while authentically embracing Christian tenets. In fact, because it faithfully embraces Christian tenets. You probably won’t get this if by “Christian rock” you are thinking of the kind of praise or worship music that you’ll find on Christian radio stations, because that music is geared towards being played in houses of worship. It doesn’t oppose or subvert anything. It probably can’t be real rock and roll. But it’s only one particular variant of Christian rock. How about my favorite band of all time: Thrice?
Yeah, I’m biased, but pay attention to which way the causality runs. I’m not endorsing Thrice as an example of a counter-cultural Christianity because I like the band. I liked the band in the first place precisely because of its subversive (in relationship to the Clerisy) nature. Nowhere is this more obvious than the official video of their song “Image of the Invisible” (off of their 2005 album Vheissu). The music alone screams beleaguered defiance and the lyrics match it perfectly: So raise the banner, bend back your bows / Remove the cancer, take back your souls and Though all the world may hate us, we are named / The shadow overtake us, we are known. But, in case the subversion theme wasn’t overt enough, the video drills the point home with a distinctly dystopian theme in which Christians are part of a modern underground resistance movement, fighting to get out a message that the world hates, has always hated, and will always hate.
Has Webb forgotten the relationship between the Church and the world depicted so directly in the New Testament, culminating in the crucifixion of God’s Son by the greatest political empire of the time? How about Paul’s words to the Ephesians:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Give me a break, Christ’s alleged crimes were basically variants of “subversion.” Subversion of the orthodox religious view and subversion of the Roman political order. We worship someone who was tried and executed for subversion 2,000 years ago, and Partridge thinks some aging rock stars have a damn thing to teach Christians about what it means to be subversive?
I think not.