As our black Nissan gracefully maneuvered the curves of California’s coastal highway, my eyes shifted gleefully as I tried my best to take in the beauty of the scene. The sun was rising over the mountains opposite the sparkling blue ocean, and all the earth seemed to be rejoicing at its new day. We were on our way to the beach where the surf instruction for the boys participating in our “Surf and Church” camp would take place, and I was looking forward to getting out there and ridding some waves. Then it happened…yet I remained calm and unshaken, for I knew that it was inevitable.
The passenger, a young man nineteen years old who was helping me as a counselor, turned and asked if he might be permitted to pop in one of his music CDs as we neared our destination beach. “Sure”, I said, with a hint of displeasure in my voice, “as long as it is really music and not just, well…noise.” “Of course it’s not just noise”, he snapped back. “Listening to this music makes me feel…glorious.” In went the CD (I believe it was entitled “Lamb of God”, or some quasi-sacrilegious name like that) and out went the beauty of the day as quickly as it had unfolded before us. There were drums, shrieks, and groans from the underworld all covered by a screaming feedback from electric guitars in overdrive. The sun seemed to rescind in horror and even the waves of the ocean appeared more violent and dark than they had been just moments before. What was happening? Why did my friend claim to feel “glorious”, while I was contemplating opening the car door and abandoning ship?
When current culture teaches that listening and giving heed to one’s own passions has supremacy over anything and everything, “black metal music” and the like are sure to find a welcome home. Through the heavy and fast beats combined with dark and almost controlling lyrics, the listener is given the chance to forget about reality and its suffering and enter into the realm of his passions, his disordered and uncontrolled passions. The ironic paradox however is that more often than not these very passions being exalted in this type of music are what give rise to confusion and bitter suffering in the human heart when they are followed. Are these passions really what we want to be following and glorifying?
Rock music has it seems, to a lesser or greater degree played a destructive role by setting us on a path that leads away from virtue and authentic human experience. I know that this appears to be a general and sweeping statement (and maybe it is), but it does seem that there is an intrinsic link between the music one listens to and the way that one lives.
If you don’t believe me, ask Plato. In his view, music and character are intimately connected. Certain types of music he says will dispose a person to certain types of vice, while other types of music will dispose people towards an orderly life. Not good enough? Let’s see what Nietzsche has to say. In his “Birth of Tragedy”, he says that “it is only through the spirit of music that we can understand the joy involved in the annihilation of the individual”. Now that sounds like something towards striving for: a complete self-alienation. Man is not meant to be an island, yet when it comes to heavy rock, is there really room to sing along in solidarity? Is head-banging the only alternative as the youth are alienated from their parents, from their teachers, and from those who sincerely seek to help them?
In late April of 2009, Pope Benedict attended a concert held in his honor by the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano. After an interpretation of Mozart’s “Haffner Symphony” was played, Benedict made mention that “Mozart composed this motet shortly before dying, and in it one can say that music truly becomes prayer, abandonment of the heart to God, with a deep sense of peace.” This “abandonment of the heart to God” and “deep sense of peace” is certainly not what I was experiencing at this moment, as this music of the lamb led me to desire slaughter.
I am not proposing that we all become suddenly enchanted with classical music. No. What I am proposing however that we take a moment to reflect on what we are letting inside of ourselves through the gateway of the music that we listen to. Is my iPod bringing me to look for the good of those around me, or is it simply an excuse to curl up into my pod and drift away into a fantasy world where anything goes unrestricted without the slightest consequence?
David Barton, LC studies for the priesthood with the Legionaries of Christ in Rome.