The Theology of Rock

When I was in high school, the youth leaders always warned us about the demonic messages found in secular music (mainly, Korn and Marilyn Manson). They would always try to point us toward music that pointed to Jesus.

Lately, however, I’ve run across a handful of secular artists in the last few months who are writing great songs about God and Jesus, even if they haven’t discovered the truth yet.

Recently, I was struggling to focus on God’s glory during my church’s corporate worship time, trying yet again (possibly in vain) to sing the words of another “Jesus is my boyfriend” worship song like I really meant it. Later that day, I went for a long run. I was surprised to find how listening to The Gaslight Anthem kept bringing my mind back to specific passages of Scripture.

As MercyMe’s Bart Millard recently commented, when asked about his love of Tom Petty, “God’s truth is God’s truth, no matter where it’s found.” 

The following is a breakdown of a few artists’ take on God, Jesus and the spiritual world. Some come closer than others to finding the truth, but each displays the natural human need we have to find our way back to our Creator.  

Green Day

Sounds like: One of the only ’90s bands that’s still relevant

Sample lyric: “Then I scratched the surface/in the mouth of hell.”

Theological perspective: “Your kids are going to listen to Christian music to get back at you,” comedian Stephen Colbert quipped during the band’s appearance on his faux-news show. Later in the interview, singer Billy Joe Armstrong replied quietly, “I do love Jesus.”

Strange words from a man whose band released a live album entitled Bullet in a Bible. While there’s no doubt about the band’s collective anger at organized religion in general, and Christianity in particular,  parts of the new album can’t even be understood apart from a spiritual perspective.

What makes their newest release, 21st Century Breakdown, an album that tells a story of two lovers on the run in a post-Bush (and possibly post-apocalyptic) New York City, such a spiritual project is the search for hope in a world characterized by darkness. The album closer, “See the Light,” follow the characters on the run from the gates of hell, seeking a saving light.  

It may not be the message of the Gospel, but 21st Century Breakdown is certainly reflective of the undefined spirituality of our culture. In a time where most people who are raised in church leave between 18 and 22, it’s an album that speaks of good, evil and an afterlife without offering up any specific answers, or much hope. Which is more or less the perspective of many people who check “Christian” on the religion survey, but don’t actually know, or know much about, Jesus.

The Hold Steady

Sounds like: The playlist on classic rock stations 25 years from now

Sample lyric: “I read your Gospel it moved me to tears/But I couldn’t find the hate and I couldn’t find the fear/I met your savior I knelt at his feet/but he took my ten bucks, and he went down the street.”

Theological perspective: Singer/lyricist Craig Finn clearly has some serious issues with his Catholic upbringing and education. In many ways, he seems like the typical agnostic who almost uses music as a substitute religion, raising a toast to “St. Joe Strummer.” But what makes the bands tales of whiskey, friendship, touring and breakups so intriguing is that he just can’t get away from exploring faith in all these situations.  

Where as many artists sing about a vague idea of someone looking down, the songs of THS are laced with direct biblical imagery. “Lost in love and fog and faithless fear/I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere,” Finn sings on “Citrus.” The bands latest album, Stay Positive, has a song called “Two Crosses,” which molds together a literal retelling of the crucifixion, with a modern-day murder of an innocent man in New York. 

In addition to putting out great albums, Finn and company are serious about creating community within their fan base, an area where the Church still lags behind. The band’s name comes from Finn’s vow for his “hands to hold steady” in reaching out to the community of fans. A tiring job, to be sure. Maybe that’s why Finn sounds so genuine when he cries out, “Lord, I’m discouraged” halfway through the album.  

Having been to a Hold Steady show, I can’t help but wish more churches clearly communicated the bands “come as you are, and leave encouraged” mission. In Finn’s words, “we gotta stay positive.”

The Gaslight Anthem

Sounds like: Bruce Springsteen for the Fall Out Boy generation

Sample lyric: “When we float out into the ether/Into the everlasting arms/I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life.”

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Theological perspective: The New Jersey punks’ classic vibe may lend itself to the dance floor at times, but the lyrics are heavy.  Their debut is essentially an essay on divorce, and the followup, 2008’s The 59 Sound, deals with the long-term effects of divorce, and death at a young age. While the band never sings about Jesus or the Bible, directly, the lyrics often quote classic literature, which in turn deals with Christianity. “All hope abandon/ye who enter here,” vocalist Brian Fallon rasps on “The Navesink Banks,” a nod to the Dante’s classic poem describing hell.

If there’s a spiritual thesis to the band’s catalog, it’s that there is an afterlife. The title track to the The 59 Sound takes the audience into the funeral of someone who died far too young. “I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life,” Fallon sings, a nod to the Charles Dickens character who is physically chained to his sin of greed for all eternity.

While the songs never reach a specific conclusion, it’s easy to see the band as “spiritual seekers,” to borrow a term from Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels. 

Or, as Fallon puts it, “I always dream/in classic cars and movie screens/and trying to find/some way to be redeemed.”

Ida Maria

Sounds like: The only female Norwegian punk singer essential for your summer playlist

Sample lyric: “The Lord blinked at me and asked/What is real love to you?”

Theological perspective: Ida probably wouldn’t fit in well with a Baptist Sunday School class. She sings about God handing the reigns of the world over to an aging prostitute. (The song actually sounds much worse in description than it does coming through your stereo.)

When the album concludes, Ida is singing about a hope of seeing God face-to-face at the end of her life. Which makes her musings about God being tired from all the world’s problems and wanting a break seem more like a genuine empathy rather than an attempt at mocking the Creator. Throughout the rest of the tracks, which deal mainly with love, breakups, whiskey and deeper life questions, she sneaks in phrases that point to a spiritual angle on the whole album.

Out of all the artists on the list, Ida is the most vague in her thoughts on God. But I’ll take her honest questions over the do-whop of “not going to rehab” or the tired love songs of her contemporaries any day.  

Seth “tower” Hurd can be heard weeknights on 89.7 Shine.FM in Chicago and Northwest Indiana, and on 101.7 FUSE FM in mid-Michigan. His “guilty pleasure” album for summer is the new Kate Voegele.

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