Music is universal. It’s older than we know (at least precisely), and evolves continually; it comes in a variety of genres, each with staunch adherents. It speaks to us. It speaks to me. And it speaks to David Nantis, director of campus ministry at the fine Jesuit institution (and my alma mater) of The University of Detroit Mercy, who recently authored Rock-A My Soul: An Invitation to Rock Your Religion.
For the record, I’m not a big rock fan. I’m not Catholic either, and that did nothing to detract from my enjoyment of Rock-A My Soul. I am a spiritually seeking Unitarian Universalist who prefers folk to rock and mantra to heavy metal. I don’t think I’d have come across Rock-A My Soul if not for Facebook. Dave and I were Microbiology lab partners some 20 years ago, and although I’ve only seen him once in all the years between then and now, Facebook reconnected us in the way it does with so many past friends and acquaintances. As a wanna-be author myself, I was initially interested in his book because it was written by someone I knew, and if a mere mortal I’d shared petri dishes with decades ago could publish, perhaps there is hope for me. But the book captivated me and spoke to me, despite my difference in musical tastes and faith.
Nantis begins with a history of rock music, including the introduction of Christian rock in recent decades. Christian rock is often seen as the compromise genre for those attracted to the soul-shaking rhythms of traditional rock-and-roll but offended by the lyrics, and Nantis seeks to “explain how these two cultures [rock music and Christianity] can not only coexist but can also help each other without one co-opting the other.” (Nantis 28) Nantis offers little discourse on the lyrics that can be so offensive (and not just to Christians), but instead maintains focus on music connecting flesh and spirit through its intoxicating rhythms and energy. Now, that’s not likely to satisfy the religiously conservative parents of teens, but his point is worth consideration. Rock is about strong emotion, and the words are part of that picture. I’ve struggled with the lyrics of songs that advocate violence, causal sex, or are derogatory toward women, and despite not being terribly conservative about anything, I’m not thrilled to expose my sons to those lyrics in the hopes that they’ll just catch the rhythms. Fortunately, there are other choices than just offensive lyrics or Christian rock.
Uniting flesh and spirit is a priority for Nantis. These two are easily separated in many conservative and orthodox faiths, with the flesh cast aside as evil aside from very particular circumstances. I may be drawn to folk music for the lyrics, but I listen to chant and attend Kirtan (call-and-response Sanskrit, Hindu chant) because it pulls my body and soul together. Under the influence of chant, these two entities merge, and the energy and peace can carry me far beyond the actual chanting event. It’s not the lyrics. It’s the rhythm and tonal qualities that keep me coming back for more.
And it is in the sound, the rhythms, are where Nantis’s heart rests. As a drummer, he’s attuned to the rhythms of life and an ear for how they fit together and beat with the world around us. Additionally, he emphasizes the mindfulness that rock evokes. When one is immersed in music, especially music with a strong rhythmic component, it’s impossible to be anywhere else except in that moment. In an era that nearly demands us to continually split attention from our email, to phone calls, to our social networking media of choice, and finally to the life in front of us that doesn’t require electricity to run, cultivating mindfulness is a chore. Nantis doesn’t advocate listening to rock instead of spending time in silent prayer or meditation, but he presents it as an opportunity to immerse oneself in a single experience: listening to a piece of music.
Beyond the mindfulness that can occur with rock, Nantis draws on his familiarity with St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, with a focus on repetition and imagination. Repetition’s importance in spiritual growth, Nantis notes, reaches beyond rote memory and into noting how the repetition affects us, how we respond to it. This strongly parallels part of the purpose of mantra and kirtan: in addition to being a focal point for the attention, a phrase of either can resonate with us differently at different moments. The words and music are the same, but our response varies. Watching that response, observing the mind’s actions, gives us insight into ourselves and increases our ability to be self-observant.
The day I finished Rock-A My Soul, I chanced an invite to a small Metro-Detroit club to hear some local bands. While I enjoy live chant, folk, and classical music, generally, I’d decline an invite to hear rock live (I’m rather sound-sensitive). But since I’d just read Rock-A My Soul, full of enthusiasm for the genre, I was compelled to give a live experience a trial. I could hear and feel plenty through the foam cylinders in my ears, and while I can’t say I’m a convert to live rock, I have a better understanding of Nantis’s enthusiasm for it. As much as I listened (and felt) the rhythms that only live music can generate (no matter how loud folks turn up the bass on their car stereos), I watched the musicians. The drummers in particular seemed at one with their craft, seeming to be completely absorbed within the rhythms they created. While the guitar and bass players watched each other and the audience with regularity, the drummers of the three bands I heard that night appeared entirely engrossed in the beats they created; them embodied mindefulness, at least mindful drumming. They were mesmerizing in their level of concentration.
While I’m not turning my radio to the rock stations and trading my Mike Cohen and Peter Mayer for electric guitars, reading Rock-A My Soul brought me to a deeper understanding of the attraction rock music holds for so many (not-so-noise-sensitive) people now and in decades past. I can see where my experience of other genres of music has fostered my spiritual growth, and I can put that in more precise language than previously. Thanks, Dave Nantis, for this delightful, informative marriage of rock and spiritual thinking. You’ve opened my elements of both that I’d had yet to consider. Write and rock on.