We went to see Tom Petty at Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver. I'd wanted to see a concert there for years. It's an incredible venue, carved into the foothills just west of town. If you haven't seen it, here's the description from their website:
Red Rocks is a geologically formed, open-air Amphitheatre that is not duplicated anywhere in the world. With Mother Nature as the architect, the design of the Amphitheatre consists of two, three hundred-foot monoliths (Ship Rock and Creation Rock) that provide acoustic perfection for any performance. The area of Red Rocks, originally known as the Garden of Angels, has attracted the attention of musical performers since before the turn of the century. The majestic setting of the Amphitheatre, along with the panoramic view of Denver, makes for a breathtaking scene.
Petty sold out three shows, with almost 30,000 people flocking to see the aging rocker. People were mesmerized by the show. It was mostly an older crowd, as you might expect, boomers still trying to be hip. As the concert unfolded, the audience seemed to know every word to every song, and intently sang along. At one point, Petty quit singing, turned the mike to the crowd, and let them sing a chorus alone.
As I listened, I thought about the power of music to move people. Before it registers with our minds, though, it must resonate deeper. Music is the language of the heart. Think about it. We can usually decide within the first two measures whether a song resonates. If it does, we listen to it. If not, we click to the next song on the iPod or change the station.
If it resonates powerfully, we'll listen to a song again and again. With repetition, the words slowly penetrate the mind. After hearing a song a dozen times or so, we begin to learn the lyrics and sing along. Now, the message has a chance to sink in. So, here I sat in a crowd that had invested the time to learn the lyrics to a whole set of Tom Petty songs. Since no one knew which songs he would play, this implies a much deeper knowledge of his music.
Music is indeed a language which seems unique to each generation, each culture. Countries may have several languages and dialects within each. Likewise, music grows up distinctly within each culture. What it all has in common is that it moves people, touching their hearts and souls.
From earliest times, people have realized the necessity of translating the Gospel into the language of the local people in order to introduce Christ. Around the world, musical settings in worship are as different as each culture. Yet, here in the States, the idea of introducing music that resonates with the local culture into the service can still spark a worship war.
I was unchurched until my late twenties. I'm a child of the '60s. I grew up on rock and roll. When I first started seeking spiritual answers, I searched popular music. After all, these were spokespeople for a generation. Intently listening, time and again I found that the answers I sought were not there. Although the music resonated with my soul, the lyrics were found wanting.
After marrying my Lutheran wife, and the birth of our first child, we started attending church. A couple of years later, I was baptized and joined. My greatest difficulty in joining the Lutheran church was sitting through the liturgical service. I never really appreciated classical music. All the creeds, hymns and repetition were foreign to me. For two decades, I sang or repeated parts of the liturgy without it ever sinking in deeply. It just never really resonated.
I jumped right on board fifteen years ago in helping my local church develop a contemporary service. I was energized to think of new ways of worshiping. Right away, people got quite worked up about whether contemporary worship was really Lutheran. There seemed to be some boundaries we should not cross.
Why should the Devil have all the good songs?
I've been a Neil Young fan for decades. A song on his album, Prairie Wind, helped me realize why I react so defensively when others challenge the propriety of differing worship forms. This album is his best work in years. Here are the lyrics to one song.
WHEN GOD MADE ME
Was He thinking about my country,
or the color of my skin?
Was He thinking about my religion,
and the way I worshipped him?
Did He create just me in his image,
or every living thing?
When God made me.
Was He planning only for believers,
or for those who just had faith?
Did he envision all the wars
that were fought in his name?
Did He think there was only one way
to be close to him?
When God made me.
Did He give us the gift of love
to say that we could choose?
When God made me.
Did He give me the gift of voice
so some could silence me?
Did He give me the gift of vision
not knowing what I might see?
Did He give me the gift of compassion
to help my fellow man?
When God made me.
So, here is a secular artist, one who has spent 25 years developing his voice and creating a following. Now he comes with a haunting, provocative piece that reflects deep questions about God and religion from the postmodern culture.
Here's a comment posted on a Neil Young News Blog: "A beautiful song, lyrics and melody, which embodies the heartfelt surge that is mounting in America's conscience to challenge the overbearing sentiments of the religious right that have been choking the compassion out of this country. This song fills my heart with hope that once again we will know that the power of God is love."
So, millions of people hear Young's theology, and many listen to it over and over again until they can sing it. And we Lutherans get all wrapped around an axle trying to decide if it's OK to bring contemporary Christian music into worship. When asked why he was writing hymns set to popular bar tunes of his day, Martin Luther said, "Why should the devil have all the good songs?"
I read an article in the New York Times about how U2 has managed to stay at the top of the popular music business for 25 years. The article, Media Age Business Tips from U2 (David Carr, NY Times 11/28/05), goes on to say,
“On the surface, the formula U2 used to send 20,000 fans into sing-along rapture at Madison Square Garden last Tuesday night was as old as rock 'n' roll: four blokes, three instruments, a bunch of good songs. Add fans, cue monstrous sound system, light fuse and back away.
“But that does not explain why, 25 years in, four million people will attend 130 sold-out shows this year and next that will gross over $300 million and how their most recent album, ‘How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,’ has already sold eight million copies."
It goes on to quote Paul McGuinness, the band’s manager, "We always said it would be pathetic to be good at the music and bad at the business."
My many friends who are Lutheran pastors make strong arguments about the strength of our foundational beliefs, our Biblical doctrine and theology. Isn't it also pathetic to be good at the theology and bad and the business of the church (making disciples and feeding the sheep)? If we cannot connect with the emerging generations and cultures in our country today, we will surely perish as a church. Without engaging people in our church communities with music that touches them, we will hardly win them to Christ.
U2's Bono has one of the most credible voices on matters of social justice, hunger and AIDS in Africa. He speaks and people listen. He’s met politicians and chided Presidents. High-ranking political aides accompany him to Africa. He even motivates his fans to connect to his causes.
From the Times article:
As the central icon in the Church of the Upraised Fist - a temporary concert nation of gesturing frat boys, downloading adolescents and aging rockers reliving past glories - Bono can command his audience to do anything. During the concert last Tuesday, Bono asked the audience to send, via text message, their full names to One, an organization that fights AIDS and global poverty. They happily complied and their names were flashed on screen between encores.
Take a look at one of the song’s lyrics from “How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.”
Crumbs From Your Table
You speak of signs and wonders
But I need something other
I would believe if I was able
But I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table
Where you live should not decide
Whether you live or whether you die
I now spend most of my worship time listening to Christian artists, as I meditate or walk through the woods. I realize that I have found my voice in worship. I find my strongest connection to God in these settings. Who are we to say what channel God uses to touch us with his grace? As Neil Young says, "Did He give me the gift of voice so some could silence me?" I realize I had become intolerant of traditional worship over the years. As I heard repeatedly that the form of worship that brought me into God's presence was not Lutheran, I grew less and less patient with the traditional settings that are.
I have grown to understand that each of us has our own musical voice. To impose our favored form of worship upon another is not our right. Each of us has our own way of worshiping God, based on our culture, background and experience. Now that I know it's OK for me to worship in my own voice, I am starting to appreciate traditional services that others value so much.