Tag Archive | Contemporary Society

Allan Bloom On Contemporary Music

Plato’s teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agrees with Plato’s analysis, says in The Birth of Tragedy (not to be forgotten is the rest of the title, Out of the Spirit of Music) that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul’s primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articulate speech or reason. It is not only not reasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articulate speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses. – Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p.71 (.pdf)


I was in search of something about the contemporary music concert – rock or hip-hop – as a liturgical experience, when it occurred to me I wanted to reference something from Allan Bloom’s classic The Closing of the American Mind.  I was happily surprised to find the entire thing available online as a .pdf document.  There are many deeply disturbing aspects to Bloom’s book, but his chapter on music is particularly disturbing not least because of the sheer ignorance he demonstrates on the subject of rock music.  To quote both Plato and Nietzsche favorably on the alogon character of music – that it is without reason, and therefore an aspect of human barbarism – demonstrates an enormous ignorance not just of music in general, but the intelligence, thoughtfulness, and even profundity of so much contemporary music, whether it be rock, heavy metal, hip-hop, post-rock, and even country music.

His analysis is not only ignorant, it is elitist, insisting that his students – to whom he expresses joy when he introduces them to Mozart – suddenly find themselves in a completely different world, ignoring the fact that Mozart, no less than the Rolling Stones, is alogon, perhaps just a tad more refined barbarism.  Considering Mozart’s lifestyle, that isn’t too far off the mark, either.  As a description of the philosophical position regarding music through Nietzsche, the following is a generally true thumbnail, although not without veering off-base by missing so much of the Christian and Muslim discussions of music during the High Middle Ages:

Classical philosophy did not censor the singers. It persuaded them. And it gave them a goal, one that was understood by them, until only yesterday. But those who do not notice the role of music in Aristotle and despise it in Plato went to school with Hobbes, Locke and Smith, where such considerations have become unnecessary. The triumphant Enlightenment rationalism thought that it had discovered other ways to deal with the irrational part of the soul, and that reason needed less support from it. Only in those great critics of Enlightenment and rationalism, Rousseau and Nietzsche, does music return, and they were the most musical of philosophers. Both thought that the passions— and along with them their ministerial arts—had become thin under the rule of reason and that, therefore, man himself and what he sees in the world have become correspondingly thin. They wanted to cultivate the enthusiastic states of the soul and to re-experience the Corybantic possession deemed a pathology by Plato. Nietzsche, particularly, sought to tap again the irrational sources of vitality, to replenish our dried-up stream from barbaric sources, and thus encouraged the Dionysian and the music derivative from it. (p.73)

From there, however, he turns off the path in to Lala Land in the paragraph immediately following:

This is the significance of rock music. I do not suggest that it has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere in which there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions. Modern-day rationalists, such as economists, are indifferent to it and what it represents. The irrationalists are all for it. There is no need to fear that “the blond beasts” are going to come forth from the bland souls of our adolescents. But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire—not love, not ems, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. It acknowledges the first emanations of children’s emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously, eliciting them and legitimating them, not as little sprouts that must be carefully tended in order to grow into gorgeous flowers, but as the real thing. Rock gives children, on a silver platter, with all the public authority of the entertainment industry, everything their parents always used to tell them they had to wait for until they grew up and would understand later. (op. cit.)

It’s like Bloom heard Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place To Go” and decided that was all he needed to know.  For a philosopher, a paragraph such as the above is deeply disturbing, presenting ignorance as wisdom, facile description with penetrating insight, and ancient philosophy as somehow relevant to our contemporary, post-Industrial capitalist age.

The following paragraph, from page 74, is both disturbing and ironic, considering it was written by a deeply closeted gay man who never married, raised a family, and seems to have been attracted to, ahem, younger men.

Ministering to and according with the arousing and cathartic music, the lyrics celebrate puppy love as well as polymorphous attractions, and fortify them against traditional ridicule and shame. The words implicitly and explicitly describe bodily acts that satisfy sexual desire and treat them as its only natural and routine culmination for children who do not yet have the slightest imagination of love, marriage or family. This has a much more powerful effect than does pornography on youngsters, who have no need to watch others do grossly what they can so easily do themselves. Voyeurism is for old perverts; active sexual relations are for the young. All they need is encouragement.

While I do not dispute that sex is a large part of rock, hip-hop, and country music, ’twas ever thus with folk music.  Rock and its variants is little more than our folk music, with occasional pretensions to be something more.  Whether it was the risque blues, the bawdy songs of the Scotch-Irish in Appalachia that eventually morphed in to country and western, or something more explicit like the following:

What is made explicit in Nine Inch Nails was always present in “Handyman Blues” or any of a hundred bawdy Mountain Songs.  This is hardly a mark against it.  It is, rather, a way of seeing what role the music and its variants play in our current society.  Oh, and I’m quite sure Mozart would have appreciated “Closer”, if for no other reason than he came very close in some of his operas to writing those very same lyrics.

My concern here is not with the moral effects of this music— whether it leads to sex, violence or drugs. The issue here is its effect on education, and I believe it ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education. The first sensuous experiences are decisive in determining the taste for the whole of life, and they are the link between the animal and spiritual in us. The period of nascent sensuality has always been used for sublimation, in the sense of making sublime, for attaching youthful inclinations and longings to music, pictures and stories that provide the transition to the fulfillment of the human duties and the enjoyment of the human pleasures. Lessing, speaking of Greek sculpture, said “beautiful men made beautiful statues, and the city had beautiful statues in part to thank for beautiful citizens.” This formula encapsulates the fundamental principle of the esthetic education of man. Young men and women were attracted by the beauty of heroes whose very bodies expressed their nobility. The deeper understanding of the meaning of nobility comes later, but is prepared for by the sensuous experience and is actually contained in it. What the senses long for as well as what reason later sees as good are thereby not at tension with one another. Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be. But this is a lost art. Now we have come to exactly the opposite point. Rock music encourages passions and provides models that have no relation to any life the young people who go to universities can possibly lead, or to the kinds of admiration encouraged by liberal studies. Without the cooperation of the sentiments, anything other than technical education is a dead letter.  (pp.79-80)

One can still find critiques of contemporary music that mirror Bloom’s, although they are given far less credence than was once the case.  Except, alas, within our churches, where the examination of the music is both ignorant and superficial; examples are often of the most extreme genres – death metal and urban/gangsta rap  are two favorites in this regard – without regard to context; and rather than actually engaging what our young – and older – people are actually hearing and listening to, we receive repeated condemnations, not just of popular musics, but attempts to “baptize” them and bring them in to our worship spaces and provide congregations with a musical style that is familiar and up-to-date, as opposed to organs that, for all their beauty and the fullness of their sound, are ancient instruments that are as much of a turn-off as contemporary instrumentation is for some older folks in churches.

It is important to go through Bloom’s nonsense, if we are going to make any headway in understanding where we in the churches are in our discussions regarding music, liturgy, and theology.  Bloom’s pernicious influence is still there, poisoning far too many minds with its non-contextual rejection of a music about which he knows nothing, the spiritual and intellectual content of which continues to impress (with the occasional exception of bands like Insane Clown Posse, with their now-infamous line, “Fucking gravity, how does it work?”).  That Bloom’s idea of “liberal education” is even more dated than his view of music should strike few as surprising.  A professor of the classics, Bloom was far more comfortable in the male-dominated cultures of ancient Greece, in particular, where maleness and homosexuality were not just celebrated but encouraged (just read Plato’s Symposium in which Socrates admits sleeping with the most beautiful young man in Greece, although not having sexual relations with him as a sign not of his moral but intellectual superiority).  Bloom was far more comfortable with the comfortable illusion that certain kinds of orchestral music were superior to the popular musics of the west, even as such a view would certainly have surprised the composers of such music.  We in the church suffer from similar illusions, similarly misinformed, similarly expressed.  Only by moving through the obvious errors in Bloom can we start to move the conversation forward.



These Kids Today

Nothing Works Better With Young People Than Letting Them Know How Out Of Touch You Are

Nothing Works Better With Young People Than Letting Them Know How Out Of Touch You Are

Now that I’ve taken a look at one aspect of our contemporary culture, the question remains: What do we in the churches do with this information?  What else do we need to know about how the world of those younger than us is fundamentally different than our own?

Well, we do know that religion is just not as important for younger people as it is for those of us middle aged and older.  That, I believe, is our failings catching up with us.  By and large, Baby Boomers and those close behind attended church as children in large numbers; this enormous bulge in attendance not only made mainline churches complacent, but inattentive to the realities of the faith.  Discipleship, self-denial, risk, deviance – these are the hallmarks of the Christian life.  Ours has been a  society of mass conformity since before our birth.  Ethnic tensions between English and Irish, English and Germans, Protestants and Catholics, and of course whites and blacks, are as old as America.  That our churches reflected these tensions and occasional bouts of violence rather than acting against them (with rare exceptions, obviously) is, again, a failing with which we continue to struggle.  That many churches are now experiencing internal conflicts over just these matters – are we reflective of our local and larger society, or do we exist outside it in some way?  is America truly a Christian nation, especially beloved by God or are we little different than any other country except that we consume far more of the world’s resources than other countries? – shows that the relatively sudden shift from one of accommodation to discipleship is being met, on the one hand, with resistance (“I’ve never heard this before”) and on the other with incredulous disbelief.  The result, alas, is shrinking numbers, growing conflict, and less giving to support the ministries of the churches.

Then there’s the slow adaptation of technical apparatus and acceptance of the realities of contemporary communication.  Ours is a society that has gone from large, clunky, and slow personal computers when I was in college to hand-held devices with more computing power than some space probes.  Most churches politely ask people to turn their cell phones off during worship.  There are a few, however, that are adapting to the changes in communication, encouraging people to use Twitter, in particular, to let others know what is happening in worship: What songs are being sung, who might be in need of prayer, what the message for the day is.  Personally, I find this a wonderful step forward.  It encourages attention to detail; it is a form of communicating the Gospel; it shows others that some churches are not only alive and well, but wanting others to hear their Word, to know they are present for the world.

Which is why I find the arguments over musical styles in worship so puzzling.  Not only are these rehashes of debates that have been going on for forty years; they reflect a refusal on the part of churches to pay attention.  Despite Jonathan Aigner’s insistence that there is not an evangelistic aspect to worship music, I can assure you there is.  A family with young with young children walks in to a church, and the pipe organ (or its electronic equivalent) is blaring “Nearer My God To Thee” or “Old 100th” and the kids, at least, are going to stop listening.  Not because they are bad or uneducated or anything else.  Rather, they are going to interpret that as a message that this is a church for old folks.

Which isn’t an argument for turning off organs.  It is, rather, an argument for understanding what is at stake in the worship music debate.  It is a smaller part of a much larger discussion about Christian identity in a society that is changing rapidly.  We Christians who understand our message is the most important thing there is – that God loves us, and invites us to be a part of making the world the place God wanted it to be in the first place – would like to be able to get that message across to people in ways they understand.  This isn’t accommodation or placing relevance above the Gospel.  It is, rather, finding the best tools to get the Good News to people who need to hear it.  We don’t use flannel boards in Sunday School, do we?  Why do we use 18th and 19th century musical technology and music to sing our praise?  Why do we insist this is somehow more holy, more in keeping with true divine worship?

That young people are either staying away or running away from our churches; that the Christian faith is less and less relevant; that our churches are perceived to be places of enforced conformity, prejudice, and museums of antiquated technology, words, phrases, and methods of communication drive away people who already perceive “church” as antiquated, out-of-touch, judgmental, and deaf and blind to the world around them.  That these perceptions have deep roots in reality should be obvious to those of us in church.  That we continue to argue about these things as if the issue was “relevance” rather than “being good stewards of the Gospel for the world” demonstrates just how off-base so much of our discussion is.

We in the churches need to stop.  We need to stop arguing among ourselves over whether organs or praise bands are better.  We need to stop judging popular culture as decadent, sinful, unworthy of our attention, to be ignored rather than wrestled with.  We need to stop discussing and debating who gets to be a part of the life of the church.  At some point, we need to just stop all this nonsense, discussions and arguments that have been going on for much of my 49 years, and get down to figuring out how to use all this stuff around us to get the Word out.  These kids today are right when they judge church irrelevant, because we are arguing and debating and finger-pointing ourselves past the point of relevance, becoming a joke, a parody, a punchline.  No one can hear the Good News for all the shouting we do, either at people outside the church to stop doing things we think are bad, or at one another for doing things we think are bad.  Either way, all folks hear is shouting.  No one hears that still small voice.