“Rock & Roll and the Jesus Movement” Reflections given by The Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on Sunday January 28th, 2018. Readings for the 4th Sun. of Epiphany: Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, I Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28)
Some of the earliest religious practices that we know of emphasized communion with the Divine through playing drums. This was what led Karl Pohrt to call his bookshop “Shaman Drum” because he saw books and reading as another vital way of communing with the Divine. In both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures prophets often sang their message. The Koran is not the same book unless it is sung. This means that as people who are called to listen to the Spirit, listen to God, speaking to us through all things, we not only want to listen to words, but also to the medium and what is being communicated through it.
Two of the great founders of Rock & Roll, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, died this past year. Rock & Roll, along with Spirituals, the Blues, Jazz, Gospel Music, Country Music, and Soul Music, have been among our country’s great contributions to world culture, so today, I want to take a little time to reflect on the birth of Rock& Roll, the youth movements it helped to inspire, and how they are similar too and different from the Jesus movement.
So first, what does a movement that begins with songs about dancing and romance have anything to do with the Jesus’ movement. More than you would think.
Rock & Roll was born in midst of the 1950’s. Today many often understand the 1950’s through the lens of Rock & Roll, but that’s not the world Rock & Roll was born into. Following the life shattering horror of World War II many people craved a return to normalcy. For many, lives centered around home, family and jobs sounded like paradise. People were easily manipulated by the fears that the war left them with. This combined with the specter and betrayal of the Soviet Union opened the door to the widespread persecution of dissidents that we know of as McCarthyism, in which so many of the people and forces that had promoted progress in our county in the 30’s and 40’s were persecuted. Rigid codes around areas like gender, race, class, and sexual orientation were enforced. In other words, beneath the surface of this era of great material prosperity it was a culture of fear.
People lived on a diet of fear—not just of nuclear war, but the fear of being judged or even being perceived as different. Writing about this era in his book On The Road, Jack Kerouac would describe it as world in which people were so disconnected from their feelings that it drove those looking for meaning in life crazy. Writing about this era, in her book The White Album, Joan Didion describes it as a remarkably interior world where you did not expect to really connect with others and therefore looked within yourself for whatever meaning life might offer. I think Alan Ginsberg summarized the heart’s response to this culture of fear and conformity in the title of his poem “Howl.”
Rock & Roll was not only about music it was a youth movement. It was a spiritual response to, even a flat-out rejection, of this fear-filled worldview. You can feel it in the incredible joy we heard in Sam Clark’s version of “Johnny B. Goode” that we heard today and you can hear it in so much of Chuck Berry’s other music, this taking joy in life, taking joy in music, taking joy in body life, taking joy in personal agency, taking joy in movement, taking joy in sexuality, taking joy in being different, taking joy in being non-conforming, taking joy in breaking down rigid gender roles, taking joy in blurring the lines between white and black culture. On the surface, some like Elvis Presley presented themselves as super patriotic and respectful of the authorities, beneath the surface, even from them, I think people heard and responded to this very different message.
Here we begin to find connections to the Jesus movement, the movement Jesus initiated among poor people in Galilee 2,000 years ago. In a time of scarcity and fear it too emphasized joy and celebrations like the wedding feast we hear about at the beginning of the Gospel of John. Those celebrations would go on for days, and I suspect involved lots of dancing, and John says Jesus’ first miracle was to make sure that the wine never ran out at one such celebration.
The Jesus movement was built around feasts and celebrations—sometimes involving thousands of people. Even more than the Rock & Roll subculture, the Jesus movement honored and celebrated difference. It rejected traditional roles for men and women. Whereas the purity code of the 1950’s in this country was built around sex and race, in Jesus’ time it was built around eating practices and social hierarchy. Through their eating practices the Jesus movement helped to break down that purity code and that social hierarchy. In the midst of a world that demeaned and devalued the bodies of the poor, Jesus was all about affirming and honoring the goodness of the body.
We hear in our gospel today wonderment about how Jesus could speak with such authority. Real authority is rooted in real knowledge about something. Spiritual authority is rooted in understanding Spirit and reality. To speak the way he spoke, Jesus had to overthrow the various kinds of worldviews that people in his time were subject to that cut them off from their own experience. Claiming his experience enabled Jesus to talk about the truths that arose from it and call on others to recognize the truths of their experience.
Cultural silence is a condition where people have lost their ability to speak to their own condition and be, as human are meant to be, co-creators of our world. Cultural silence happens when people are subject to forms of cultural domination which cut them off from their experience and their ability to speak to it. As a former colony and now an empire, our country has suffered from a long history of cultural domination. We may have won our political independence in the American Revolution, but it would take much much longer before the European peoples in this country to stop mentally living in Europe and began to be able to see and articulate what life really was like in this county.
On one level, the period after World War II through the 1950s’s can be understood as the attempt by various forces in this country to re-impose a culture of silence on the peoples of this country and Rock & Roll can be understood as an attempt to find an antidote to colonized minds, colonized bodies, and colonized feelings. Singing in tongue frees you to sing whatever words you want, or whatever melody or harmony you want to sing, so too, in Rock & Roll dancing became about a kind of simple expression of freedom of movement. It was the very opposite of the rigid bodies and composure of white culture. The celebration of happiness for happiness sake made the audacious claim, in Bruce Springsteen’s words, “That it ain’t no sin to be glad your alive.” The message that life is not meant to be all about self-sacrifice remains such a powerful important message.
Cultural silence becomes almost impenetrable when it takes the form of an objective cynicism that claims that the way things are is the way they have always been and always will be. It is one of the reasons why being young can be such a great gift as young people have often been less well educated into this idea and often seem to innately resist it enabling them to claim that things can be different.
I love the way the Who’s song “My Generation” articulates the process by which young people overcame the cultures of silence of the 1950’s through claiming and articulating their own experience of the world
People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we g-g-get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Yeah, I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation).
Why don’t you all f-fade away (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Don’t try to dig what we all s-s-s-say (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m not trying to ’cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g-generation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
My generation This is my generation, baby
For me the incredible power of this song is that stutter. It’s like “Yes …we may be a less articulate—but we’re who we are and here we are.” It’s the same proclamation we hear in Walden when Thoreau says “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”
It’s a testimony to the spiritual revolution that enables us to honor and claim our experience and I think there’s a direct connection between this spiritual revolution, that Rock & Roll helped to promote, and the dismantling of various structures of domination beginning with the Civil rights movement in the late 50’s, and through the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements, the movements for self-determination, and the Womens’ movement of the 1960s, and leading on into the environmental movement and the movements for LGBTQ equality and the variety of other movements that have followed.
When you can begin to claim the authority of your own experience (not that it is the only source of authority, but without it it’s hard to navigate which authorities have any real credibility) it is like the horn of the Jubilee being blown. Then the healing can begin. Then the liberation can begin. Overcoming your alienation from yourself and overcoming your alienation from others go hand in hand. The kind of prophecy we hear about in the book of Deuteronomy comes to us when we are no longer in denial about reality and brings with it a vision for how to respond to it, how we can transform it.
I don’t want you to think that I’m conflating the movement that gave rise to Rock & Roll with the Jesus movement. Though there are important parallels between them, there are also really important differences.
From early on Rock & roll got tied into materialism and the cult of the celebrity which is all about hierarchy and whose more important than whom. The foundation of the Jesus movement was the claiming of a common humanity and the rejection of any form of identity that makes you think your superior to others.
Though it challenged some gender norms, Rock & Roll also got tied into a macho culture that particularly demeaned women and gay men.
Though Rock & Roll grew out of a fusion of the music of African American and European American traditions, particularly the Blues, Gospel, Country and Rockabilly and though it helped create some of the first large public inter-racial spaces in the South as it inspired young people of all races, often it went hand in hand with a cultural appropriation that did not acknowledge and credit those among whom it originated, particularly African Americans.
The cynical looking down on others that you often find among “cool people” is often found in Rock & Roll music and reflects the kind of elitism that thinks it is wise but, as we hear Paul say in his letter to the Corinthians today, is simply a matter of tearing others down.
Perhaps most importantly, inspired by Rock N Roll the youth culture that grew up in conjunction with it bought into the delusion that freedom could be had through escape and detachment into cars, music, mind alternating substances, relationships, oneself, or sub-cultures. The Who’s move “Quadrophenia” is a wonderful portrayal of how the quest for freedom that inspired Rock & Roll was thwarted and derailed by these delusions. That’s what their song “We Wont’ be Fooled Again” is all about.
Now I want to close by reflecting on where we are now because, despite how it may appear on the service, I see our culture and our youth today facing a very similar kind of culture of fear that we were confronted with it the 1950’s. I see many young people appearing to suffer from the same kind of malaise, fears, anxiety, world weariness, lack of joy in life, lack of belief in the possibility of real happiness, lack of awareness of their own agency, that I believe happens when we are cut off from ourselves and each other and the Spirit of life. I see the kind of succumbing to the culture of silence that happens when we don’t trust and collectively try to interrogate and articulate the truths of our own experience.
In Stevie Wonder’s words, we’ve “Been spending too much of our time living in a past-time paradise”. For Donald Trump it seems to be the glory days of Jim Crow America. For many social justice activists it seems to be the culture of the 1960s. For church folks—it’s often back there in church history and the early Jesus movement. But the kind of future we are wanting can only be built here in the present and it begins with listening to the Spirit within us helping us to acknowledge, understand, articulate, and respond to our own experience and that of others.
Both the Jesus movement and early Rock & Roll are testimonies to what can happen if we stop running, if stop trying to find a niche or indenti-kit to fit into, and instead, facing our lives and world, open ourselves to the Spirit of Hope, the Spirit of healing, the Spirit of Freedom, the Spirit of Joy, the Spirit of liberation, that is even now reaching out to us, wanting us to re-connect so that we might know the real happiness that is possible even amidst this broken world and so that we might discover our power to help with the mending of our world.
The early Rock & Roll movement and the Jesus movement tell us that visions and ideas are not enough. We need to learn how to practice them, practice Spirit, practice joy, practice freedom, or we will forget who we are and what we want to be about. I know I found that dance parties were one of the best ways of protecting social change movements from becoming too puritanical, too rigid, too ideological.
Billy Joe has been one this community’s prophets trying to call us to the importance of dancing. For me dancing is about practicing unitive being, being our whole selves, as it engages our minds, hearts, souls, feelings, and bodies. We need such practices to help us cast out the demon of dualism, the demon that is constantly trying to demean us for being physical creatures, for having bodies, for having desires, for having feelings.
To be human is to love and unless we let ourselves love freely and boldly—we will have nothing with which to build the reign of love here on earth. But if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God had already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen