What the Church of England learned from rock & roll



Last weekend I was asked to come and talk about my experience doing the Alpha Course at Holy Trinity Brompton in Knightsbridge. I was happy to agree, as I’d enjoyed Alpha, and my ego is always flattered to be asked to speak. There were five of us lined up to give ‘testimonials’, and I rapidly realised the other four had a very clear, strong message: ‘I was lost,  I went on Alpha, now Jesus has saved me and I’m happy all the time’. They went up on stage, one by one, and told Nicky Gumbel their joyous stories. Then it was my turn. I was called up on stage, in front of an expectant congregation of 500 born-again believers.

‘Er...I had depression and anxiety about a decade ago...and I think perhaps the Holy Spirit helped me...’

Go on...

‘but funny thing is, haha, it...er....led me to Greek philosophy.’

Come again?

‘...and...I became interested in how Greek philosophy inspired modern therapy...’

Get to the Jesus bit!

‘...but I’m also interested in Christianity, so I came on Alpha...’


‘...and it was fun. I met some nice people...’


‘...and...er...that’s it!’

CUT! Cue a shepherd’s crook yanking me off from the side of the stage.

Not really, but the audience cheered every other testimonial, while I felt my more nuanced message failed to hit home. I sloped off stage feeling like a rapper at a country and western festival. And then I got driven off to another church, and had to do it all over again.

Anyway, this newsletter is not about that. It’s about this. While I was waiting to go on stage at HTB, the service began. The video screens around the church flickered to life, and various uplifting images came on, of people finding transcendence in the outdoors, mothers hugging their children, the stars twinkling and so on, with big lettering superimposed saying ‘Come to find MEANING’ and ‘God is MASSIVE’. The music got louder and faster, and then suddenly the band came on stage and started playing, the lead-singer was this girl with an amazing voice, and everyone got to their feet to sing along, and I swear, I nearly cried. My heart swelled with emotion. I was tired, no doubt, somewhat frazzled. Yet a few chords of Christian rock, some lights and video, and the floodgates almost opened.

And what better proof of the Holy Spirit would there be than that? All around me, the Spirit was filling people. The second service was even more full on - it was the student service, for teenagers. Well, you can imagine. They were crying, laughing, shaking, hands aloft, on their knees, eyes closed in ecstasy. Feeling it. It reminded me of the Whirligig, the club my friends had gone to when we were 16, where we’d all taken ecstasy for the first time, except these kids were just on Jesus. Still, some of them seemed just as strung out as my friends and I back then - one kid was giggling away to himself, and I thought, in the scientific materialist paradigm of the DSM, that young fellow might be considered to have mental health issues, but here, at this church, he is loved and his eccentricity is seen as a sign of grace. (I later found out that this sort of laughter is actually quite typical of charismatic worship, so I was perhaps being a bit judgmental in thinking the boy had mental problems!)

What HTB gets is the power of music. It’s a non-cognitive form of persuasion. There I was, all ready to deliver my nuanced message of liberal ambivalence, and the music nearly swept me away. Plato best understood the power of music, how it works not by persuading our reason, but by side-stepping it, and connecting directly with our feelings. Before you know it, you’re tapping your foot, singing along, and you realise the words are ‘I Love Jesus’. Sing it enough times, and a belief or attitude is formed in your character, without you ever necessarily considering it. This is the power of music. That’s why Plato thought music should be carefully controlled in his Republic - it was too important to the formation of national character to be left to musicians, those mad prophets of ecstasy.

When I was growing up, pop music meant far more to me than anything I heard or sang in church. I had to go to church every day at school, and it left me cold. But when I listened to Otis Redding, or Public Enemy, or the Happy Mondays, or Primal Scream, then I felt something. When I played drums with my band, that meant something. The beat and the melody convinced me of the whole ideology of pop: don’t fight it, feel it, as Bobby Gillespie told me. Come together, get loaded, get higher than the sun. And when, a few weeks ago, I first saw a Christian rock band on stage at HTB, I thought: you apostates! You heretics! How dare you exploit my music to spread your religion. Stick to Onward Christian Soldiers and leave rock and roll alone!

Sweet Soul Music

What I’m belatedly realising is this is a slightly upside-down way of looking at it. Pop music - rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll, dance - came from the church. It took the melodies and the emotions of gospel, and secularised them. It created a secular faith, an experience, a feeling, which brought people together, pink and brown, believers and non-believers, and gave us an emotional outlet and a brief feeling of unity, transcendence and power.

I’m reading a great book about this. It’s called Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick, and it’s about the rise of Southern Soul in the 1960s. It starts off by looking at three pioneers of soul music - Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Solomon Burke - all of whom took music from the gospel church into the realm of the secular and the profane. Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’, released in 1954, was a cover of a gospel song called ‘It Must Be Jesus’. Charles used the same wails, shouts, calls and response as you would find in any Pentecostal church, re-packaged it, and brought it into the white, secular mainstream. That opened the floodgates for a whole litany of other shakers and shouters, from the angelic Sam Cooke, to the screaming James Brown, to the pitiful Otis Redding.

In their trembling voices is a plea - they’re begging, they’re pleading, they’re yearning. It’s like a Sufi singer, crying for their spiritual home. Except in soul music, it’s usually about a woman, ostensibly. But in that plea, we are all re-connected to a much older religious emotion, a longing for God, a longing for deliverance. The best soul songs show what Guralnick, quoting Hitchock, calls ‘knowledgeable apprehension’: they build, then fall back, then build again, then finally reach a moment of ecstasy, a wail, like the arch of a gothic cathedral - and just for a moment, you’re in the realm of the sacred. That’s how I feel, anyway, when Al Green wails 2 minutes 42 seconds into ‘Tired of Being Alone’. My favourite songs all have a moment of ecstasy, like when, 3 minutes 22 seconds into 'Heroes', David Bowie goes up an octave and cries ‘I...I will be king’.

The leap from the church to R&B was seen as scandalous in the 1950s. Singers like Sam Cooke were inspiring powerful, uncontrollable emotions in their female audience, but directing them not to God but to...sex! And when the music swept away white teenagers too through radio and TV, it provoked even more moral panic. One friend described the first time Sam Cooke played the white-only nightclub, the Copacabana: ‘man, those chicks were popping, it was almost like a sex act man, like he was beating up on them to get an orgasm’.

When Cooke was shot dead by a motel owner in 1964, apparently after trying to rape a girl, it was taken by many in the gospel community as divine judgement on his decision to leave the church and move into R&B. There was even a gospel song about the danger of being lured away from the church into pop music, for the money and power and sex, called ‘He Gained the World (But Lost His Soul)’:

He started out in church

Singing in the gospel choir

Every Sunday he sang a solo

That made the sisters shout and cry

The children danced the Holy Ghost

When he sang and played his tambourine

After church he’d tell the preacher

All about his plans and dreams...

It hurt the congregation when they found out the news

That he’d stopped singing for the Lord

And started singing that rhythm and blues...

Now he gained the world, but he lost his soul...

Some pop icons would repent, abandon rock and roll and go back to the church to become ministers: Al Green, Little Richard, Alice Cooper, even Richard Coles from the Communards. But most stayed where the party was, using music to try and get rich and get laid. Over the years, pop music perfected the mechanics of ecstasy - the art of driving a crowd wild with the beat, the break, the call and response, the dance moves, the histrionics, the lights, the props, the pageantry. For 50 years, from 1950 to 2000, pop music was the unofficial cult of western industrial societies (now it’s been replaced by the cult of technology and we’re mainly left with nostalgia).

Popular music provided a temporary community through dancefloors, moshpits, festival sing-alongs. It also provided community through being in a band. Bands are mini ethical communities, where you learn about obligations and commitments to one another - the commitment to show up to practice, to work on getting tight. This is what Roddy Doyle, was getting at in The Commitments: how bands are a form of spiritual community, albeit an incredibly fragile one, constantly on the verge of falling apart.

Well, of course there are all kinds of problems with pop music as a secular religion. It inspired and channeled religious emotions not towards God but towards the Pop Star, and this messed people up - particularly the pop stars. The drugs which fueled the religious exaltation also messed many people up - out of the four people in my first band, fatefully named Lunatic Fringe, three of us developed mental illnesses because of drugs. And, finally, something that was meant to be about community and transcendence ended up, in gangsta rap, in the glorification of money, power and violence. Hip hop has more power than any other contemporary music, but now you listen to the lyrics and think, my God, this is hateful. But at its best, soul and rock and roll gave us an outlet for emotions that were often left out of the rationalised world of modern capitalism. It let us feel broken, lost, hurt, lonely, longing for release, and let us know other people felt the same - like prisoners communicating with each other by tapping on the pipes in their cell.

Meanwhile, the church has moved from its initial condemnation of rock and roll, towards embracing its spirit and its music. In the 1960s and 70s, the Charismatic Renewal movement swept through western churches, with intense services accompanied by signs, wonders and ecstasies, and often powered by joyous rock music. In the 1970s, a musician called John Wimber left the Righteous Brothers, found Jesus and started the Vineyard Movement, which briefly converted Bob Dylan, and from which Mumford and Sons originate. The Vineyard Movement emphasised the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and rock music played a big part in its services. Wimber came over to the UK in the 1990s, and helped to inspire the ill-fated 9 O’Clock Service in Sheffield (the so-called ‘rave church’), and spread the charismatic embrace of rock to the affluent kids of HTB in Knightsbridge. HTB and Alpha is soaked in rock references: the first sermon I saw there, the preacher played a clip from Pink Floyd in the sermon! And from HTB, the rock-infused charismatic movement is gradually spreading into the entire Church of England. Who’d have thought it: the staid old Anglican Church has picked up the mechanics of ecstasy from rock and roll.

Check it out: this is a video from HillSong, a massive charismatic rock church in Australia. If you find it a bit too, er, plain vanilla, try this playlist I made of some great 60s soul tracks. Way more uplifting! And you know why? Because the soul songs go lower. They go down into the pain in a way this ultra-white preppie Christian rock never does. It's so upbeat and chirpy, it doesn't have any room for the possibility of failure. It has no blues.


In other news:

The journalist Miranda Sawyer has been exploring similar themes to this piece in a series for Radio 6 on music and emotions. In this episode, she considers the emotion of Jubilation, and interviews Sister Bliss - who hopefully I'll be interviewing next week!

Interesting Prospect review of Antony Pagden's new book on the Enlightenment, which argues it was based not so much on reason as on sympathy. But did it fatally lack sympathy for the majority of the world who believed in God?

Here's an interview I did with the Irish Times.

Nice piece by Juliet Michaelson of new economics foundation, critiquing the Justin Wolfers paper on income and well-being that I linked to last week.

This is well interesting: a cultural history of exhaustion, from the Medical Humanities Centre in Durham.

The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) in the US, which is the main funder of mental health research in the US, has shaken up the world of psychology by rejecting DSM 5, the so-called 'bible of psychiatric diagnosis', as too inaccurate - before it's even been published. Its director says NIMH is building its own new diagnostic criteria, which are alas likely to be even more biomedical than DSM.

Meanwhile, a new art show in New York is called DSM V. Can the musical be far behind?

A novelist with MS says she has a new lease of life thanks to the 'brain enhancing drug', Modafinil.

Look, we did a philosophy picnic on Hampstead Heath! It was fun.



That's all for this week. Buy the book and give it to a friend!