Buying Intangibles

Perhaps it seems that I’m writing quite a bit about music these days. Being a theoretical and practical failure in the practice of music, it may seem presumptuous. If I’m honest, I’d admit that visiting the site of Woodstock was kind of a religious experience for me. That experience and the fact that popular musicians from my younger days have been in the news of late compel me to analyze a bit. My wife shared a blog post on John Pavlovitz’s website entitled “Bono Called Out Christian Musicians For a Lack of Honesty. He Didn’t Go Far Enough.” The screed is both about the Christian music industry and about current trends in evangelistic super-churches that share in the glitz and glam and leave you wondering what Jesus would do. The message of early Christianity and the sixties was similar: social justice, peace, non-judgmental attitudes, care for others, love all. Don’t worry about the bottom line.

Many churches, it has become clear in this age of nones, are struggling to compete in the spiritual marketplace. Since every institution must have “product”—not books, music, reverence, or worship, but “product”—money must change hands. If you have any doubts look at what the mega-church pastors are driving. Christian bands seem not to have a social conscience so much as a desire to feel good. It’s a thriving industry, for sure. Music that makes you feel safe is delivering false promises, though. The deity thundering on that mountain might ask you to sacrifice your own son, and there could be a good, solid backbeat to that. What is the role of religion in an entrepreneurial society? It used to be that you couldn’t buy what they were giving away. Everything now has a sale tag on it.

Back in college we used to argue about whether U2 was a “Christian band” or not. Clearly they recorded on a secular label. Amy Grant, the darling of 1980s believers, matured and seemed to fall from grace. Larry Norman, never part of the establishment, died too young. Music and religion both stand, in fact, out of the reach of sticky capitalist fingers. Anything that you have to pay for is more a cheap imitation. YouTube has made all of recorded history available for all. Even mainstream churches are experimenting with tablet hymnals and virtual communion. Grace mediated through a touch screen. Debit cards accepted. The only thing that seems to be missing is that human touch. That down in the mud reality of it all. Music that had a message and that message wasn’t about supporting convention. “Upon this rock,” you can almost here the man say, “I will build my church.”

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