When I interviewed official Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno several months ago, one of the questions I asked was: who’s the better band, Iggy and the Stooges or the MC5? It was an obvious question. The good brother grew up in Detroit, after all, where both bands were from. After a few seconds of deliberation, Brother Consolmagno chose the Ig.
I thought of this exchange when I heard that Pope Benedict was stepping down as pope. I believe that it is crucial for the Catholic Church, of which I am a member, to elect a new pope who understands popular culture, particularly rock and roll. He doesn’t have to necessarily like the stuff. But to not have some general knowledge of it is like missionaries going into a foreign place and having no knowledge of the locals gods and customs. I knew from Brother Consolmagno’s age and place of birth exactly what bands he listened to growing up, and it instantly became a point of commonality between us. As Western pop music has conquered the world for over a half century, it would do the Church well to know the players.
In the past fifty years, the Catholic Church has been an indispensable Spartan phalanx against the Western deterioration of reason and much of the culture. It’s one of the last institutions that won’t simply do something due to pressure from elites. Yet there also comes a time when the Church needs to recognize genuine art, even if it popular art, and “baptize” it the way St. Thomas Aquinas baptized the thought of Aristotle. In the late 1960s the very devout and brilliant theologian Dietrich Von Hildebrand wrote frequently in defense of the Church’s opposition to contraception. Yet Von Hildebrand also celebrated the joy of the sexual act itself–that is, the conjugal union between man and wife. This is a glorious thing, Von Hildebrand wrote, even on occasions where conception does not occur: “For many men, this is the most dynamic experience of their life.” It is the job of the Church to explain the meaning of these dynamic experiences.
And for the last fifty years–or more– one of the most dynamic experiences in the culture has been the musical revolution that came with the Beatles and continues today. I always found it interesting that Beatlemania coincided with the Second Vatican Council (1962-64), the conclave that encouraged the Church to engage more fully with the modern world. It seemed like both the Beatles and the College of Cardinals were saying something similar: the world was changing, and it was possible to celebrate that newness without jettisoning timeless truths–in fact, much of that newness was a simple return to what Christianity had been in the first centuries of its existence. Similarly, while people often freely think of the Beatles as revolutionaries, to me they were just geniuses who found a way to musically express very old human emotions in newly compelling way. How many Beatles’ songs are love songs, not exactly a new subject?
Of course, the Fab Four also cast out into uncharted waters with their later, more experimental work. And this opened the door for every pop musician since to write about absolutely anything he or she wants. This has resulted in songs about dogs, drugs, love (of course), cars, psychiatry, God, geopolitical conflict, the economy–even a song about a waiting room (Fugazi). Popular music, in short, became the popular poetry of the culture. It’s now largely the conscience and subconscious of the culture. And just as St. Patrick adopted pagan symbolism to Christianity when he went to Ireland–the sun god became the Son God–it is vital for the Catholic Church to understand this collective poetry of a people. It’s also worth noting that much of the music is informed, even if the artist doesn’t know it, by the Christian imagery and theology that is part of the inheritance of the west (see: U2). It’s easier to bring people to the truth if you speak their language. A confused and depressed teenager will respond more strongly if you have a favorite Metallica album and can see the spiritual themes in the record, than if you just approach him hollering about Jesus.
One of the first acts of the new pope should be to open an Office of Popular Culture. The official Vatican astronomer shouldn’t be the only one in St. Peter’s who knows who Iggy Pop is.