Popular music and Mormonism, or, a mistake religion teachers make

I see on the intertubes that BYU’s religion department is revising its curriculum. For once, this is a subject I know something about. I used to teach religion classes at BYU. I was what they call an adjunct professor, which is to say, a professor of something else, who taught the occasional religion class as part of his load.

Let me quickly add that I loved it. I loved everything about it. I assigned a paper, on the theory that college classes should always require a paper, and I even loved reading (and grading) all those papers. I taught the Book of Mormon a couple of times, but mostly I taught the Doctrine and Covenants. What I loved most of all was teaching kids from all over campus. I loved my theatre students, but it was a nice change of pace to occasionally teach, you know, people majoring in something else; biology, history, statistics, whatever.  When I was in grad school, I also taught early morning seminary, and loved that too. I also graduated from BYU many moons ago.  So I come from an informed perspective.  I’ve taught religion classes, and I’ve taken them. So free of charge, I offer this advice for BYU and anyone else teaching seminary or institute or anything like that.

Do not diss the music kids like. In fact, leave pop culture alone.

There’s always that temptation. You want to get into it. Rock and roll will destroy your soul. Disco=Inferno.  Hip hop’s from the devil. Dubstep will lead you astray. Solemn books are published, with titles like Pop Music and Morality or Arm the Children, warning us of the dangers of letting our children listen to the soul-destroying music their friends all like. There are even well-intentioned talks by General Authorities about ‘worldly art’ or ‘worldly values’ or just general worldliness, which means ‘music that’s bad for you.’

Baloney. There’s no such thing as music that’s bad for you.

The simple fact is that old people never like the music young people like, and that’s been true since Ogg and the Logpounders discovered what could be done with bone flutes. Or since Brahms first heard the music of Franz Liszt. Or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring outraged (and delighted) Paris audiences. Or Elvis debuted on Ed Sullivan. And in every case, that infernal new music wasn’t just unpleasing to the ear, it was constructed as dangerous, morally questionable, leading young people astray.

When I was in high school, I remember our seminary teacher giving a lesson on The Dangers of Popular Music, and he specified Jethro Tull’s album Aqualung as particularly dangerous, especially soul-destroying. I loved that album. I had listened to it many times. Listening to Teacher go on and on about it, my reaction was not ‘gosh, maybe I’d better rethink how much I like this music.’ No, my reaction was ‘this guy’s an idiot. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’  Later this same teacher, to set an example, brought his record collection to class, and told us he was going to get rid of all these ‘questionable’ albums. I remember asking him if, instead of throwing it all away, he’d just give it to us, so we could make up our own minds.  He said that seemed fair (a major Seminary Teacher concession, and tactically questionable). I scored some great albums from his pile, including, I remember, Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes.  Great album.

One of the biggies was Jesus Christ Superstar. This was the very definition of Music We Shouldn’t Listen To, which meant it was an album I had to own and which I listened to many many many times. I didn’t think it was sacrilegious or blasphemous at all. I thought it was redemptive. I thought it helped me feel The Spirit. I thought that because it did help me feel the Spirit.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that I didn’t make exactly the same error when I became a Seminary teacher. The exact same spirit of anti-art fanaticism swept over me too, and I found myself condemning the music of Aerosmith. I made just as big an idiot of myself, and I know I alienated one of the kids in the class, who loved Aerosmith and decided, on the spot, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was wrong. He was right. Aerosmith rocks.

Isn’t it true that some music does invite the Spirit and other kinds of music repel the Spirit? Maybe, to some degree, that’s true. Maybe Bach is more inherently spiritual than Berlioz (though to me it’s easier to feel close to God listening to the Symphonie Fantastique than the Well-tempered Clavier, for example). But . . . here’s one of the most ‘spiritual’ pieces of music I know. Mark Abernathy singing Come Come Ye Saints, playing guitar. i love this rendition. It feels, I don’t know, authentic, like William Clayton singing it around a buffalo chip campfire somewhere in Nebraska. I compare it to the Tabernacle Choir version. I love choral music, and it’s great too. Given a choice, though, if I need a spiritual boost, I’ll go straight to the guy with the guitar.

Or here. The Stones, singing Gimme Shelter. Or this song, Dylan singing Shelter From the Storm. (Isn’t that what we crave from religion? Shelter?) Or maybe this? (What’s prayer, but a jam session with God? Think rap can’t be spiritual? Try this.

Art is subjective. Art that speaks to my soul may not speak to yours. The Spirit is also subjective. I respond to spiritual stimuli that you may not perceive. There’s no such thing as ‘spiritual music,’ except to me, except to you.

Recently, directing a play, we needed a dance number. I’m no choreographer, so I hired one, and a cast member recommended that we use a Katy Perry dubstep remix. I don’t like dubstep music. I’m old. I think it’s just a lot of noise. But watching our cast learn the dubstep dance music, I was transformed. It was terrific, so sassy, so much attitude, so joyful. Young people celebrating how great it is to be here, on Earth, to have bodies, to move. I realized how wrong I’d been. It’s now my favorite thing in the show. And theologically expressive.

Art speaks to the soul. Art bears testimony. God works with all of us, as we are, where we are. And if one of my brothers or sisters is inspired by art that I don’t get, and I make a big deal of it, that’s my bad.



5 thoughts on “Popular music and Mormonism, or, a mistake religion teachers make

  1. Robert Slaven

    Well-spoken, as always! I must comment on one bit you said:

    “to me it’s easier to feel close to God listening to the Symphonie Fantastique than the Well-tempered Clavier, for example”

    You may already know the story I’m about to tell, but I’m going to tell it anyways. One of the reasons many people in the last century or so have put down “that new-fangled music the kids listen to” has been that the musicians in question were “bad examples”. Many musicians in the last century have indeed used a LOT of drugs, or had far more and more intimate relationships than the law of chastity would allow, etc. etc. And many of those people will point to “classical music” and say “There, isn’t that nice? No drugs, no promiscuity, just nice music that brings the Spirit.”

    Then I recall the story of Hector Berlioz and Symphonie Fantastique. The “plot” of the symphony is that this lonely artist is heartbroken that he couldn’t “get his girl”, and tries to commit suicide with an overdose of opium. (Le gasp! DRUGS!!) Instead of dying, he goes on this wild “trip”, each movement representing another “hallucination” in which he sees his love. In the fourth movement, he dreams that he’s being taken to a guillotine for execution; in the fifth and last movement, he dreams that he is in the middle of his funeral, which has been “invaded” by a Witches’ Sabbath. (Le gasp! SATAN!!). And the best part is, some think that this was a bit of an autobiographical piece; in other words, that Berlioz was the poor broken-hearted artist suffering from unrequited love, who took the opium, and had the “trip”. How many Mormons would remove THAT CD from their library if they knew that story?

    And that’s all without even getting into what kind of a sicko Mozart was. 🙂

    I’m with you: I don’t grok a lot of the music “today’s kids” play, but as long as it isn’t explicitly encouraging, through its lyrics, drug use or sex or criminal acts, I say live and let live. Heck, a few weeks ago, I and my 17-year-old daughter had a Pandora battle; one of us had 1980s classics on, and the other had dubstep. But it was ME who had the dubstep on my computer, while SHE was the one with the 1980s pop on her computer!

    1. admin Post author

      I do indeed know that story. The woman he was in love with was the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who made a splash performing Shakespeare in France. A brilliant actress, she’d never made any kind of impression in England, because she was terminally handicapped by (shudder) red hair and an Irish accent. But in France, she was a sensation, and, her mother having raised no fools, she decided to stick around. Berlioz basically stalked her, and when she turned theater security on him, decided to kill himself. And wrote the Symphonie Fantastique instead. Which became a sensation. And led to his being introduced to Smithson as this hot young composer. Which led in turn to them getting married. Where she made his life a living hell.
      There’s a great painting of her I saw somewhere, acting with Charles Kemble. For the life of me, it looks like Kemble’s copping a feel. . . .

  2. Anonymous

    Interesting. Just feel like sharing some random thoughts: I think of myself as quite open-minded about music; I like some of everything (though I seem to dislike some music of every sort, too). All the music you mention – the only one that really surprised me is “Jesus Christ, Superstar”. My high school choir sang part of it as part of a medley, and I was always intensely uncomfortable with it. In retrospect, maybe it’s about how it’s sung- there were a lot of people singing who could only mean the lyrics sarcastically, degradingly, and I knew that. It bugged me to the point that I didn’t even sing that part myself – just kind of dropped out. So because of that, I don’t know if I could ever find that set of songs uplifting. And I like some Dylan, but not the piece you posted here. (I attribute that one to musical taste, however – not as in good taste and bad taste, more like vanilla vs chocolate). After all that though, I enjoyed the rap. Thanks!

  3. Anonymous

    I too grew up on Superstar: it was my first musical to perform in, as a 16-year-old junior and Aaronic Priesthood holder at a progressive Seattle-area high school in 1974. I taught about the show’s significance in Musical Theatre History class two days ago. Since 1974, I have come to perceive it as theatrically and musically wonderfully exciting, but theologically flawed, as the lyrics in “Gethsemane” portray Christ as completely ignorant of his atoning mission:

    “Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
    Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain.
    Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die.
    You’re far too keen on where and how and not so hot on why.”

    Of course, Tim Rice didn’t know what Eric Samuelsen and I both know about the Savior’s mission. If he had, he might have still written lyrics to a 1968 musical about Him — but it wouldn’t have been Jesus Christ Superstar.


Leave a Reply