I’m slowly gearing up for my first extended writing foray into non-film subject matter with a book on the prophetic implications of the work of singer/songwriter Todd Snider. I’ve got a stack of music and theology/religion books to get through. The first (and shortest) is Don H. Compier’s Listening to Popular Music, part of Fortress Press’ Compass Series, a Christian exploration of daily living. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking (or daring) here, but Compier does lay a strong historical foundation from which to begin an examination of the theological, spiritual, and/or religious implications of listening to popular “secular” music.
Compier breaks his study down into three parts, 1) Encountering Grace in Popular Music, 2) Fear of Music in the Christian Tradition, and 3) Commerce and Prophecy in Popular Music. The first section is something of a personal, spiritual account of Compier’s interest in the topic and the ways in which popular music has influenced him spiritually and theologically. Here, Compier confesses his love for The Beatles and displays a deep, rich engagement with their extensive catalogue. Taking a broader look at popular music, however, Compier is quick to engage the demons of sexism and racism that has plagued the history of the industry (even to this day). Along the way, he also highlights those female and black artists who exposed the demons and helped make right those wrongs.
In the second part of his book, Compier lays a broad historical foundation that explains some of the fear behind Christians’ engagement with popular music (and popular culture in general). Here, Compier engages a range of Christian theologians throughout history including Augustine, Calvin, John and Charles Wesley, Luther, Stewart Headlam, and James Cone all of whom espouse a range of approaches to popular music, all fueled by their individual (and communal) articulations of the Christian faith. Few of these theologians take a strict avoidance line, so to speak, but, to varying degrees, they all have explicit concerns over how believers should engage popular music, or what type of popular music they can engage.
This section of Compier’s book benefits from his engagement with the likes of Headlam, a lesser-known theologian, and James Cone. However, it could have been strengthened with conversations with more contemporary (and female) theologians who are currently engaging pop culture/music.
In the final section of his book, Compier draws attention to the crass commercialization of popular music, but also holds out hope that artists like Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, or Bruce Springsteen, for example, can be effective counter-commercial voices within the system. Compier only provides passing criticism of the lavish lifestyle that many rock superstars live, but if readers need that, then they should beef up their study of scripture.
There’s much to praise in Compier’s approach to popular music. I agree with and am thankful for Compier’s decision to place popular, “secular” musicians in the prophetic tradition. This is what has sustained my appreciation for the likes of Todd Snider and other thoughtful, counter-cultural singer/songwriters. Compier exhibits the kind of thoughtful, humble approach to pop culture that more and more Christians should follow. With pop culture reaching further and further into our spiritual lives, it will no longer do to simply be a prudish word counter. Listening to Popular Music is a good starting point for people looking to get more out of the pop culture they already enjoy.