A Rock & Roll Curriculum that Seminaries and Christian Colleges Should Pay Attention To

Zac HicksCulture, History of Worship and Church Music, Worship Resources, Worship Style, Worship Theology & ThoughtLeave a Comment

David Brooks, in a 2007 piece in the New York Times, discusses the movement from integration to fragmentation in American rock music.  The 1970s saw bands like the Rolling Stones and Springsteen drawing from country, soul, and blues to converge in fresh, integrative rock styles.  Groups such as these mark the era of “super-bands” that could sell out stadiums, some of which still do today.  But since that era, we’ve seen a splintering of music into thousands of ghettos.  The result is that music-making in the modern era, at least among rock musicians, is very disconnected with the past, lacking any sense of creative continuity and integration with the musical building-blocks that have come before.

Jagger, Clapton, and Page all know who Muddy Waters is.  They would have owned his records, along with those of countless other blues artists.  The rockers of the 70s had a keen sense of how their music related to the past.  Where is this historical connectivity now?

Steven Van Zandt, guitarist for Springsteen’s E Street Band, is asking this question, believing its answer to be very important to the future of the United States.  He says:

There’s a crisis in American schools today. Drop-out rates are higher than ever. Student engagement is at an all-time low. In this moment, the devastating paradox I see is that music and arts programs are being cut. The very things that changed my life –that gave me a reason to believe– are the first to be removed from the schools when times get tough. And then, no surprise, times get tougher still. There are too many young people who would stay in school if they could just find a reason to stay. Students today are looking for a point of connection. I want to give them one.

Van Zandt is concerned for American education, but I wonder if a similar concern could be voiced for the American church as it pertains to her modern music-making.  Most worship leaders I know, who spend the bulk of their time creating music in the rock genre, seem to have very little sense of the stream in which they wade, oblivious to the tributaries and head-waters upstream which feed them.  Brooks and Van Zandt believe that this lack of knowledge impoverishes their art-making:

Most young musicians don’t know the roots and traditions of their music. They don’t have broad musical vocabularies to draw on when they are writing songs.  As a result, much of their music…stinks.1

This is not snobbery.  This is a recognition, a lament, of impoverishment. 

As I have said in other posts, it is quite fascinating that the study of church music has historically valued a thorough understanding of past musical tradition.  The MSM (Master of Sacred Music) and MCM (Master in Church Music) degrees, all but abandoned by evangelicals in the 21st century, taught traditional church musicians to value Guillame de Machaut as much as Moses Hogan, Beethoven as much as John Rutter.  So why hasn’t this set of values translated to the contemporary music scene?  Why don’t those who sing Townend value Townshend?  Why don’t those who enjoy Brewster value Hendrix?  Why don’t those who recognize Crowder value Berry?  Answering these questions involves analysis that transcend blog-bites.

But what can be said here is that there’s a way out of this.  If you’re a rock musician, then study rock.  The resources aren’t plentiful, but they are out there.  In fact, Steven Van Zandt is attempting to come up with some pretty important material: a forty-chapter History of Rock and Roll curriculum (high school level) that may, for the first time, give higher-level schools an idea of how a course or a series of courses could be broken down.  Van Zandt’s board of directors is impressive (Bono and Martin Scorsese, to name two) and he has employed Dr. Warren Zanes, who has had a strong history in the study and education of rock and roll history.  I think Christian colleges and seminaries with “worship tracks” and “worship emphases” should pay attention to what’s going on here in order to see if they might use these tools as a starting place for coursework that would educate future worship leaders on this subject.

Imagine the possibilities if this were the case.  Music-making in the rock genre would take a huge step forward in churches, no doubt.  There might even be a day where the best rock in our culture is being produced by churches (imagine that)!  If there truly is a correlation between appropriation of rock history into the making of rock music and the quality of music produced, then we would expect that such dreams were not out of the question.  

1David Brooks, “The Segmented Society,” New York Times, November 20, 2007.

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