Pop Music and Theology? What is this… ?

My name is Troy Allan; I am an LDS Clinical Chaplain residing in Texas.  It is an honor to write a guest article for Linescratchers. Over the past few years, I have been involved with the study of popular music and theology. Currently, I am evaluating a project for my Doctorate of Ministry degree that has to do with popular music, theological themes, spiritual struggle and risk, and psychological health. I am also a doctoral student at Argosy University studying pastoral community counseling and again using more research than project evaluations on the same subjects. For me, popular/rock music is an essential part of spiritual life. I have a passion for music, theology and psychological health and believe there are plenty of virtues, lovely and praiseworthy things in popular music.

One prominent argument that I defended in my project is the importance and place of popular music in clinical pastoral care. Many argue that popular music and culture does not have position in any part of theology. For example, Avraham Gileadi and his essay entitled, Twelve Diatribes of Modern Israel, believes that, “even milder kinds of [popular] music are but stepping stones to hard rock. Attempts to use [popular] music—a telestial medium—to convey the celestial message of the gospel constitute, at best, an abomination. Syncretism has ever sought to prostitute what is holy and sanction what is profane.”1 The remark from Gileadi represents the views of many on popular music and culture and turns creativity and popular music into a form of cheap entertainment not suitable for God’s kingdom. Another hardnosed argument pressed against using popular music in pastoral care or theology is that popularity conforms to mediocrity. “The popular creates an environment inhospitable to quality,” writes Calvin M. Johansson. “Mediocrity is the standard of popularity.”2 Johansson continues his ranting about the popular by stating “the popular capitalizes on sensationalism…The popular is not only vulgar, but it encourages fantasies and grandeur, appeals to the sensuous, exaggerates, and is associated with extravagance and infantilism.”3 Just when the argument could not be any more lopsided, Johansson drives his entire argument with:

    “Pop music is [only] concerned with quantity, material profit, novelty, immediate gratification, ease of consumption, entertainment, the lowest common denominator, success first of all, romanticism, mediocrity, sensationalism, and transience…It is readily apparent that the gospel characteristics are diametrically opposed to those of pop music, leading one to the conclusion that…there is no possibility whatsoever of successfully matching the two.”4

I argue that God, in his creative power, and through the creative minds of popular musicians, has given to a hurting people the means of healing through the earphones that are draped around their necks. The sounds and complaints of today’s modern music are the sounds and comfort that brings healing to the wounded soul and the ability to see God in life’s journey.

Through the invention and distribution of digital music and the popularity of current musical trends, young adults are feeling a connection to God in their journey. In preparing for my arguments, I ran into a question from James Mangold’s 2005 Walk the Line, a movie about Johnny Cash and June Carter that has been a guiding question of my project. The question is theological in framework and poses the idea that God is not only present in Cash’s gospel tunes [devotional music] but is present throughout all his music. Cash’s life was a complex story, including deep suffering, drug addiction, and divorce; but also great love, repentance, and an experience of healing. Was God only present in Cash’s ‘gospel songs’ or was God somehow present when Cash sang “Folsom Prison Blues” to a room full of prisoners? The lyrics are brash and hard and yet somehow a message of theological importance is found. It seemed to touch the lives of the men in prison and raise them “out of the depths.” The music that is listened to by thousands of young people today is often edgy and raw, but it is real and transparent. It is not full of fake praises to a God that only brings peace. The music is full of life, a life that brings people to their knees searching for a God in the darkness of their days. I argue as many others argue, that people want to listen to music that speaks of true feelings and would rather not listen to how great things are going.

Sam Phillips, a record producer, confronted the young Johnny Cash after Cash finished an audition with a gospel melody that told the world about the love he had for God. Sam Phillips said to Cash: “You know exactly what I’m telling you. We’ve already heard that song a hundred times. Just like that. Just… like… how… you… sing it.” The irritated Cash replied: “Well you didn’t let us bring it home.”

“Bring… bring it home? All right, let’s bring it home. If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song. Huh? One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it? Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt. Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. It ain’t got nothin to do with believin’ in God, Mr. Cash.”

As straightforward as it may sound, people want to hear and respond to reality and the feelings that are stirred inside by the music they enjoy. In terms of spirituality, this stirring inside may be the only connection to God modern day people can understand.

As a clinical chaplain, I deal with extraordinary events that bring people to their knees in search of truth and God. I often ask them what song might they listen to and more often than not, it is a popular song that speaks to their soul. There is healing and spirituality in popular music as well as in popular culture. A trained eye and a well-informed leader can help shine the light on theological themes present bringing healing to the broken soul and health to the ill.

Pop Music and Theology? What is this… ?

4 thoughts on “Pop Music and Theology? What is this… ?

  1. Dallin says:

    Great piece. I’m pretty sure this is the first time that we’ve had an article with footnotes. Our Wikipedia page should be back online in no time.


  2. Dallin says:

    I just got done reading a NY Times review of the Book of Mormon Musical that will debut on Broadway next month. While Parker & Stone are tight-lipped on plot specifics, one of the narrative arcs centers on the naivete of two 19 year-olds from Utah who are confronted with the harsh realities of AIDS, poverty, and starvation is sub-saharan Africa.

    From what I can gather, it seems they are using popular music–Broadway show tunes–to undermine some of the religious constructs that we mistake for (or at least intertwine with) Mormon theology. While I don’t agree with their vehicle for doing so, I concede that their ideas have merit. Forcing us to face the harsh realities of mortality often exposes the inadequacies of our own spiritual toolkits.

    In the context of their musical, Parker & Stone seem to be using popular music not as a direct source of communion with Divinity, as Johnny Cash did. Rather the combination of satire + music serves as a bludgeoning tool that chips away at the artifices that stand in the way of more direct communion with God.


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