Excerpt from Stephen H. Webb’s thought-provoking article, “The Sound of Salvation: A Proposed Theology of Rock and Roll” in First Things, October 2014.
Like King David, who used music to explore his own personal ambitions and failures, rock singers lament and accuse, protest and praise, with candid self-revelation and unembarrassed passion. Although not all of the Psalms were written by David, each expresses in musical form a highly individual voice. The Psalms even think of God in vocal terms. God is always thundering from the heavens, and in Psalm 29 alone, God’s voice breaks cedars, flashes forth flames of fire, shakes the wilderness, and causes the oaks to whirl. God was doing to nature what Jerry Lee Lewis would later do to pianos, and the appropriate response in both cases is the same: Glory!
Even the differences between the Psalms and rock songs are instructive. The Psalms are to the love of God what rock is to romantic love. Scholars think that many of David’s songs were written while he was in exile from King Saul or during his son Absalom’s revolt, which forced him to agonize over God’s faithfulness to him. Rock was born when popular music shifted from sentimental tributes to puppy love and stolen kisses to brooding reflections on the unsteadiness of sexual desire as a guide through the twisting passages of youth.
The best rock songs associate sex either with the cause of adolescent confusion or with its solution, but when they strip sexual desire of any higher purpose, they inevitably end up treating it as little more than a highly addictive narcotic. That is why rock needs religion. Rock has plenty of energy, but it often lacks soul. When it is not being infused with intimations of the divine, it is hardly anything more than whatever happens to be popular at the moment.
Rock can get religion only if it is already in some sense religious—which it is, due to its commitment to the irreducible mystery of the human voice. The role of the spoken (or sung) word in Christianity hardly needs emphasizing. God speaks, and Christians are supposed to proclaim what he says. Every religion, arguably, imposes its own theological shape on acoustic experience, and Christianity has a decidedly vocal sound. It does not have just one sound, of course, given the variety of its acoustic expressions over the centuries and across the globe, just as our vocal folds can generate more than words. Still, the Gospels and the spoken or sung word go hand in hand.