I’ve done enough traveling around the globe to be quite accustomed to being in cultural contexts that have no meaning for me. I’m happy just to enjoy being with people for whom the customs are part of their sense of belonging. I remember sitting for a long time in a shrine in Bangkok — the one that was bombed last year — watching the dancers express prayers through their graceful movements. I have no idea what the prayers were but I didn’t need to know.
It is a bit unnerving, I’ll admit, to be in alien cultural situations right here in America. I’m baffled, for instance, by rap and its appeal. and right now I’m a bit bewildered by all the fuss over the death of Prince. I’ve never heard one of his songs. I understand that he used lots of dirty imagery but I don’t know what it was. Various newscasts have used brief clips of his singing. I couldn’t make out any words at all and his voice sounded to me like a bad joke. I haven’t a clue why he was popular or why his death is mourned by so many.
I had the same reaction — feeling baffled — by the popularity of Michael Jackson. Or Elvis Presley. Or Mick Jagger. I truly cannot imagine what all the fuss is about. These people are as alien to me, my tastes, my lifestyle, as are any Hindu dancers in Bangkok.
I guess I’m just supposed to pass it off as a matter of taste and I know that to some degree that is true. but I can’t help thinking many of these people are doing something more than merely making a kind of music that doesn’t appeal to me. I think they are expressing something very dark in the human spirit. When I hear polka music, I simply note that it’s not to my taste. I hear jazz and it doesn’t touch anything inside me. But these pop stars are pushing boundaries, not in the name of justice or compassion or any worthy cause I can see. They just seem unclean.
When I listen to Bach or Handel or Mozart, to Beethoven or Brahms or Rachmaninoff, I often find myself marveling at the sheer excellence of their achievements. Time and again I’ve listened to Beethoven, for instance, and thought he must be listening to God. How else could he imagine such beauty and power and majesty into his music? Mozart must surely have had an ear for the music made by happy angels in heaven. A mere mortal couldn’t create such perfect elegance.
When I was in junior high, pop music made me cry tears of self-pity over a lost girlfriend. And then I heard Rachmaninoff, who taught me to shed tears cleanly, not twisted by self-pity.And in the process he also taught me hope and gave me some sort of assurance that there will be another sunrise. In short, he brought out the best in me.
Several years later, when I gave my life to the Lord and discovered the love of God, I was aware that God had used Rachmaninoff and Beethoven and the others to hold me together and prepare me for my new life in Jesus Christ. there was a sense of continuity from the music — which still matters a great deal to me — to the Lord, who is more than life to me.
Prince? Jackson? Presley? Jagger? I cannot imagine any sense of continuity between their music and the music of heaven. Just can’t imagine it.