I hope every worship leader is a lover of rock n roll. I hope they love its history, development, pivotal artists, and diversification. I hope these things because, as I’ve said elsewhere, thoughtful, intentional worship leaders should recognize that the musical ideas, idioms, expressions, and foundations are part of a now rich sonic tradition. Church musicians who lead various forms of contemporary/modern worship would find their skills blessed and strengthened for having taken the time to delve into their tradition’s musical heritage.
Simultaneously, I hope every worship leader is passionate about the deep human questions we all have about guilt, grace, abandonment, belonging, and identity, because those questions lie at the heart of our journeys in faith and ministry.
All these hopes collide for me in one amazing book that I’ve been reading and soaking in. It’s culturally savvy, intelligent, informed, deep, honest, and provocative. It’s A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock N’ Roll, by David Zahl, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. David heads up a motley crew of folks who weave together insights like nobody’s business over at Mockingbird—my favorite site for discovering how the dynamics of grace and law work, well, everywhere.
It WILL Mess With You
A Mess of Help reads like a compilation album, journeying from band to band, artist to artist, excavating the wisdom their music provokes. It would be much too simplistic, and probably close to an insult, to describe this book as a “Gospel according to [name that band]” volume. Zahl is actually more deep and honest than that. It’s probably more accurate to describe A Mess of Help as teasing out of all the glory and grime of rock n roll history, all of which beg for answers that can only be found in the grace of God in Christ. And the best part is that A Mess of Help doesn’t use the artists as a platform for something else. It operates out of a deep knowledge and love of all the musicians and music at hand, and it journeys through the very questions that those musicians ask in their lives and work.
Each chapter highlights a different artist/band—Nirvana, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, ABBA, Belle and Sebastian, The Who, Guns n Roses, The Replacements, The Rolling Stones, Big Star, Lindsey Buckingham / Fleetwood Mac, Elvis, Scott Walker, Morrissey, and Michael Jackson. I think it would be safe to say that one could jump in (after reading the killer Introduction) to any of these chapters with ease. It doesn’t have to be read sequentially. It’s also probably safe to say that the more deeply you know and love these musicians and their music, the more you will appreciate and absorb Zahl’s insights. On the flip side, though, reading chapters about artists I hadn’t paid much attention to has pressed me a bit more into their music.
I want to zoom in on a few chapters to give you a taste of this wonderful, soul-opening read. I choose these chapters for no other reason than I love them and they left a good wound in my flesh and ache in my soul—wonderful preliminaries to gospel salve.
Pete Townshend and Online Self-Curation
In “Searching Low and High for the Who Behind The Who,” Zahl announces that “their very name announces a preoccupation with the subject” of identity. Zahl’s journey into The Who bring us to the point of some very incriminating insights about the online “curation of self” we work so hard to do.
A nagging discrepancy exists between our status updates and our browser histories. “Anxiety” is a word we use to describe what that discrepancy feels like…To fend off potential judgment [that anxiety brings], we manage appearances. We spin reality. Social media has simply given us non-stop opportunity to do so. The venue never closes. The modern word for this phenomenon is “curation.” It used to be that only art galleries were curated. Today, people are curated; lives are curated…Our unvarnished self, whatever it may be, is not acceptable, either to others or ourselves. You can find plenty of pictures of people vacationing on Instagram, fewer of them fighting with their spouse or microwaving pizza. (pp. 80-81)
As if that weren’t indicting and painful enough:
Rosa Smith observed in The American Reader that we are “uncomfortably conscious of the fact that your created, curated self is not really you—you’ve played up a few things, kept a few others hidden, put on a mask for your digital friends. And what would they think of you if they found out about—well, you?” In other words, because we know what is receiving love is a reduction, i.e., it’s not actually us, we may even feel lonelier than before. The various “lifesuits” we don don’t bring life. (pp. 81-82)
This line of exposing thought is woven into the fabric of the complicated and brilliant music and antics of Pete Townshend. And it had me going deep.
Axl Rose and My Slavery of Success
Some rich reflection accompanied especially the discussion of how Guns n Roses strained against the un-replicatable success of their first album, Appetite for Destruction. Zahl traces Axl’s haunted past, having grown up in a home that felt to him like the worst kind of Christian oppression. Appetite was Axl’s liberation from that bondage, but its overwhelming success brought new chains:
If Appetite was born out of freedom (from Lafayette [Axl’s hometown], the church, authorities of all kinds, etc.), then its success reintroduced the albatross of judgment…a band’s struggle with the Law of Success. (p. 100)
It was easy for this chapter to make me squirm because of its penetrating cuts swiped straight through the heart of my own idolatry as someone who weekly stands in front of others to lead them in euphoric “events” that are supposed be awe-inspiring and life changing. The Law of Success is ever before worship leaders, ever before me. Lord, have mercy.
The Chapter Worth the Price of the Book
But the chapter that I think every lover of (every kind of) music should read is, “Confessions of a Former Music Critic.” It cuts to the heart of musical snobbery, elitism, and the “Law of Uncool” that constantly haunts so many of us listeners and musicians alike. I couldn’t stop laughing at Zahl’s moment of self-sickening discovery: “Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion!” Zahl explains how he journeyed through being a Coldplay fan before Coldplay was cool and all the subsequent mind-games that get played by indie music lovers and too-hip music reviewers when a once secret band blows up.
It moves on to discuss how musical subcultures get formed and the guilty psychology behind it, ending by pointing to “the grace that allows a person to come clean about their guilty pleasures” (p. 218). I don’t want to disclose too much of the chapter’s journey because it must be read! It is powerful and humbling.
One final blessing: A reference (p. 197) to a forgotten Michael Jackson song that brings together two loves evidently shared by Mr. Zahl and myself—MJ’s music and The Simpsons. I’m taking about Jackson’s “Do the Bartman” (1990). It brings together the synthy, Jacksonian funky beats with early hip-hop rap style. Word.
I would encourage everyone to grab a hold of this terrific book. Its clever and witty style leaves you laughing, and its penetrating and incisive reflections leave you crying. That’s the kind of book that I want to read!