It’s Only Rock n Roll

I am wholly the product of Christian education.  I started in preschool at Heritage Christian School on the northeast side of Indianapolis in 1968 when I was four years old.  I graduated from the same school 14 years later in 1982.  I then attended Cedarville College (now ‘University’ since they put on airs), a Christian College University near Springfield, Ohio, and graduated in 1986.  Thus I have 18 years of education and all were at Christian schools.  [Interesting aside – there was one girl who was my classmate for all 18 years – Marlene Siefert.  Marlene and I were in preschool together at Heritage and graduated together 18 years later from Cedarville.  I still remember back in preschool – I think it was right after naptime – when Marlene came up to me and said, “Robbie, where you go, I will go, and where you learn, I will learn.  Your school will be my school, and your mascot, my mascot.  Where you matriculate, I will matriculate, and there I will receive my diploma.  Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but graduation parts you and me.”  (Marlene was way advanced as a four-year-old.)  She was as good as her word and we stayed together from September 1968 until June 1986.  If memory serves, I think we might have been boyfriend and girlfriend in pre-k too.  Alas, it wasn’t meant to be (Marlene didn’t want to be tied down).  We did stay friends, however, and she still sends me a Christmas card every year.] 

I am very thankful for my education.  While Heritage wasn’t exactly an elite learning institution when I was there, it infused me with a biblical knowledge I wouldn’t have received otherwise.  It was at school that I heard the gospel.  It was in kindergarten that I believed.  I learned so much about the Bible in elementary that there were times in Sunday School at church that I was more familiar with the day’s Bible story than the teacher was.  [And while the public-school kids I went to church with didn’t really understand what kind of weird school I went to – Christian schools weren’t nearly as mainstream back then – they always wanted me on their side for Sword Drills.]

That said, there were some drawbacks to the Christian atmosphere I was educated in.  Legalism was much more prevalent back in the seventies and early eighties than it is today.  And for some kids, between the guidelines at school and the teaching at their church, they learned to see Christianity as a list of rules to keep them separate from the world rather than as a relationship with their Redeemer (and those were typically the kids who became hard partiers in college once they got out from under the authority at home and could finally try all the forbidden fruit).  Thankfully that was not me.  My parents weren’t legalistic at all, so I was able to strike a nice balance between the strict teaching at school and the more rational perspective at home (where I essentially had two rules: be home by midnight and don’t be an idiot).

It’s legalism that informs the story I want to relate.  During my junior year, Heritage decided to bring in a speaker for a week of chapel sessions to preach against rock music.  In case you didn’t catch that, let me write it a different way.  They brought in a speaker for a WEEK to speak to us every day about the evils of rock music.  We had at least one session a day and sometimes two for FIVE DAYS. 

The speaker was an ex-deejay who’d been pretty popular at one point in Indianapolis.  He became a believer and decided to give his life to being an anti-rock evangelist (of course he did).  I look back at that with amazement.  You’ve just been saved, you’re excited about what God’s done in your life, you want to give back, and what you decide to do is travel around telling kids about the dangers of rock music.  Even more amazing, he apparently was able to find enough people and organizations to support him that he made a ministry out of it.

Like I said, he was at school for a week of chapels, but it was more than that.  He was also available for individual sessions.  You could book a time to go and talk to him about your own personal struggles with FM radio and backward-masked albums.  So when I say that he was around for the week, I mean he was around ALL THE TIME during the week.  It was a full-on anti-rock blitz.

Part of what he talked about was kind of interesting.  He told some old war stories about being a deejay (always recounted with a sense of regret for when he served the dark side) and since he’d worked in Indianapolis the references were familiar.  The majority of what he said, however, was just an endless screed against rock n roll.  He talked about the evil of the lyrics, the character of the people who wrote and performed the songs, and the harmful effects of the music itself (which is ironic when you consider that the type of music he warned us about is routinely played in churches every Sunday now).  The Olivia Newton John song Physical (which was out at the time) came in for specific scorn if I remember correctly.  His talks were sprinkled with references that showed he wasn’t exactly as hip with the kids as he thought he was (he referred several times to ‘The Prince’ instead of just ‘Prince’ and thought it was funny to refer to Elton John as ‘Elton Commode’ which of course made a bunch of cynical teenagers who liked his music laugh a lot). 

His opening line on the first day was, “I’d rather have my daughter addicted to heroin than listening to rock music.”  I’m not making that up.  It pretty much set the tone for the whole week.  You DO have to give him credit – it was memorable.  Here we are 40 years later and I remember it clearly.  But even as a 17-year-old with absolutely no clue about parenthood, I thought that was perhaps the dumbest thing I’d ever heard an adult say (other than when my eighth grade PE teacher referred to something being “phony as a five-dollar bill”).

At the time it didn’t seem so odd, but looking back it’s amazing to me that the administration thought this was the best option for a spiritual emphasis week.  They had a blank canvas and could’ve gone any direction they wanted and decided the most pressing need we faced as teenagers was to understand how dangerous rock music was.  They could’ve brought someone in to talk about relationships or a theme from the Bible or even a specific passage like the Sermon on the Mount.  Instead, they decided to focus a whole week on an external and say next-to-nothing about the heart attitude that might attract us to that external.  What we essentially learned was that as long as we avoided the evil music we were good; what was going on inside of us was barely mentioned.

The sad thing is that lost in the craziness was some truth.  There’s no denying that a song like Tonight’s the Night, or Physical, or pretty much anything released by Prince in the eighties didn’t exactly dovetail with Philippians 4:8.  But the deejay’s preaching was an example of treating symptoms rather than disease.  We didn’t need help avoiding rock music; we needed direction on how to please God and have minds focused on Him.  We didn’t need to be told to turn off our car radios; we needed to hear God’s word preached in a way that compelled us to want more of it.  At the end of the day, you didn’t have to tell most of us who listened to rock n roll and who had some knowledge of the Bible that the two had some issues – we knew that.  What we needed was to hear from someone who could expose the word in such a way that we wanted to feed on it instead of Rod, Olivia, and Elton.

Here’s the thing, though (and I’ve kind of buried the lede a bit with how I’ve presented this).  The week was effective.  His message was effective.  What he wanted to happen, happened.  On Friday at the last session, he had an invitation (at Christian school in the seventies and early eighties, EVERYTHING had an invitation – at our Junior/Senior Banquet [what we had instead of a prom – no dancing, no music, just a meal and a speaker], we had an invitation).  He said that if you agreed with what he said all week and you wanted to take a stand against rock music, that you should walk down and stand behind him.  We were all in the bleachers in the gym (we didn’t have an auditorium) and out of roughly 225 kids in the high school, probably 95% walked down and stood behind him.  It was a mass showing of support for his views.  The ones who didn’t walk down?  We were scattered around the bleachers.  There were probably fewer than ten guys who didn’t walk (all the girls walked).  The speaker went to the hard sell when he saw us standing our ground.  Kept saying things like, “If you want to turn your life around and take a stand for what’s right, just walk down here.  I’ll wait to make sure no one else wants to come” – things like that.  Those of us who stayed didn’t move.  We just glanced around at each other and kind of nervously smiled at how weird the whole things was.

I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking when I decided not to go.  I’ll admit that as a contrarian part of the reason was just because everyone else DID.  If everyone is going down, then I’m not.  If it would have been the reverse?  I don’t think I would’ve gone but I probably would’ve been tempted.  Ultimately, however, I just didn’t buy it.  Like I said, I knew the problems with the lyrics to some of the music I listened to.  But he was so extreme and so over the top that I just couldn’t show support for his message.  It was too much, and I wasn’t going to publicly condone what he said.

Every now and then I’ll talk to someone from high school and this will come up.  I always feel smug knowing that I didn’t crack and go down (one of the few choices I made in high school that looks good in hindsight).  And if the person I’m talking to did go down, I of course ask how their commitment against rock music is going.  The bottom line for the ones who walked, however, is this (and it’s perhaps the most damning assessment of the whole thing): like most emotional decisions made without much thought and under a lot of peer pressure, the commitments didn’t last.  People didn’t turn off their radios for very long after the week was over.  And that means the school spent an entire week accomplishing very little of lasting significance in the spiritual lives of the students (which is pretty much the definition of legalism).

The lesson in all this?  It’s easy to major on the minors.  It’s easy to get waylaid by little things that get in the way of big, important things.  And focusing on the wrong things can lead to perspectives that get skewed to the point that music is deemed more dangerous than a heroin addiction.  The enemy loves to get us fixated on externals because they keep us from examining our hearts.  And frankly, it’s easier to preach against rock music and get kids to make an emotional commitment against it than it is to speak on the importance of a pure heart and get kids to commit to cultivating one.

As for me, I don’t want to leave the impression that just because I think the whole week was nuts that I don’t have convictions about rock music.  I do.  I have firm convictions about it, as a matter of fact.  I firmly believe that the best music came out before 1990.  The sixties, seventies, and eighties were the greatest decades for music (with the eighties having the most resonance for me because it was the music of my school days and early adulthood).  The Beatles are the best band ever even if John Lennon is one of the most overrated humans ever.  Elvis is the greatest performer ever and Burnin’ Love is the greatest song ever (and CC Rider is the greatest entrance music ever).  I have other music convictions too, but those are the big ones.  Beyond that?  I simply like music with a back beat you can’t lose, any old time you use it.  If you take the old records off the shelf, I’ll sit and listen to them by myself.  And while I don’t want to rock n roll all night and party every day, I do believe the heart of rock n roll is still beating.  And whether it’s hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk, it’s only rock n roll, but I like it.

2 thoughts on “It’s Only Rock n Roll

  1. Nice job, Contrarian Rob. I can just picture that gym altar call scene in my mind, with Rob glued to his bleacher seat!


    1. Definitely a weird happening, that’s for sure. And as I mentioned in the post, one of the few times I actually took a mature approach in high school.


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