Resounding Visions

Resounding Visions

I have just finished Jeremy Begbie’s latest book-length treatment of the music-theology relationship, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2007), a penetrating but accessible exploration of a wide range of musical and spiritual issues destined for a educated but non-specialist readership which has merited strong endorsements from the likes of contemporary heavyweights such as Rowan Williams and NT Wright. As some of you will probably already know, Jeremy Begbie, currently Thomas Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke University, is without doubt one of the foremost figures in the interdisciplinary conversation between Christian faith and the arts, a compelling writer and dynamic speaker who brings his understanding of music as a trained practitioner to bear on his theology in highly creative ways.

After an opening section outlining a basic approach to looking at music as ‘art in action’ (drawing on the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff) and dealing with music in Biblical times, Resounding Truth embarks on a concise but far from superficial history of the sometimes stormy relationship between music and theology. The journey from Pythagoras and Christian neo-Platonism through the Reformation, Bach and Schleiermacher through to Barth, Bonhoeffer, Olivier Messiaen and James MacMillan is skilfully set against a broader backdrop of the search for resolutions to ancient tensions in conceptualizing the relation between God and World, matter and spirit, the visible and the invisible, nature and culture, music and text, an objectively existing world and human subjectivity. Part Three, perhaps the most original and thought-provoking section of Resounding Truth, argues persuasively that music has a positive rôle to play in a present-day context as a component of a responsible ‘Christian Ecology’ that would avoid the false dichotomies of the past with regard to human beings’ relationship to the physical world, offering neither escape from temporal embodiment into a realm of timeless spirituality, nor the idolization of the material as such.

To affirm music’s place as belonging to a broader ‘ecology’ rooted in an ultimate and loving purpose to the world’s existence requires that music has to be acknowledged as more than simply a social construct. This, Jeremy Begbie contends, is

‘arguably the important question facing the theology-music conversation in the present climate: Is music in any way grounded in or obliged to be faithful to a world that we did not make but that is in some sense given to us? Are music making and music hearing to be understood as embedded in and responsible to an order wider than that which we generate – one that is worthy of respect and trust?’[1]

One reason that this question is so significant is that we are living at a time when, because of the ambivalent trajectory of modern Western thought over several centuries, many are no longer convinced of ‘the extent to which our world is to be considered anything more than is simply there in a bare, neutral sense.’ Although not mentioned by name, it is clear that contemporary debates between reductionist materialism and a theistic world-view are in the background here: ‘Even if not raised with theological concerns in mind, this issue inevitably presses us strongly in a theological direction – if the world is given, then by what or whom, and to what end?’[2]

Begbie-Resounding-Truth-cover-200x300A core assertion in Resounding Truth is that we need to recover a sense that the universe has meaning as a created cosmos which, as modern scientific research into natural processes is increasingly showing, is an interplay of order and freedom (theologically this can in Trinitarian terms be mapped on to God’s creative activity through the Son and Spirit respectively – a line which regular readers of this blog may well recognize):

‘A stress on both Christ’s and the Spirit’s work in creation can help us here. In the New Testament, Christ is associated especially with the ordering and coherence of the world […] [b]ut along with this, do we not also need a strong sense of the activity of the Spirit, whose particular ministry is to realize now in ever fresh and unpredictable ways what has already been achieved in the Son? To put it another way, the Spirit is the improviser.’[3]

Given such a framework of creation, the structure which we discern in music is therefore not merely a projection of our own making, but is a question of the ‘grain of the universe’. Music is certainly a human activity, and many of its ‘meanings’ are undoubtedly the products of cultural encoding, but it relies at a deeper level – as Pythagoras was the first to discover – on the inherent properties of sound, without which no music would be possible. Until the late Middle Ages the link between these properties and the proportions of a ‘harmonious’ universe was assumed as the basis for theorizing about music; Resounding Truth’s contention is that the history of music in the West from the Renaissance onwards can in some respects be viewed in terms as a mirror of the gradual collapse of the belief in an objectively ordered cosmos and its replacement by a concentration on the human subject as the generator of meaning. This trend in Western art-music reaches its ultimate point in the absolute determination of the music material in ‘integral serialism’ of the avant-garde in the 1950s (the subjection of all parameters of musical composition to mathematical control). The paradoxical outcome, however, is not the apotheosis of human freedom but – as Adorno saw half a century ago – the resistance of the material, with an artistic result which is aurally indistinguishable from its theoretical opposite, randomly generated chaos. This Begbie sees as a form of ‘control at the price of destruction’, emblematic of the modern ecological crisis, which he describes in terms reminiscent of Jacques Ellul: ‘through ever stricter control we lose control of our God-given home and become increasingly alienated from it.’[4]


Jeremy Begbie


At the heart of post-Enlightenment modernity, it has been argued not only by Begbie but also a variety of other thinkers such as John Milbank, Charles Taylor or most recently Oxford University’s Professor of Religion and Science Peter Harrison[5], is a dualistic view of the universe as divided into an inert, demystified and ultimately meaningless material realm on one hand which is dominated ruthlessly by a seemingly all-powerful technology on the other. Developing Resounding Truth’s line of interpretation, it might be said that this outlook – which has also had a major impact on religious thought, not least through a disastrous reading of Genesis 1:26-28 in terms of domination rather than stewardship – expresses itself in (at least) three different but equally problematic ways.

A first consequence, as has just been noted, has been the steadily increasing alienation of human beings from nature, resulting in the over-exploitation of the earth’s resources, the generation of Adorno’s soulless ‘administered world’ and the ecological devastation we see all around us. That this has to a large extent become the default position of Western civilization in late modernity is something which, thankfully but belatedly, increasing numbers of people are now realizing.

The second consequence of the disenchantment of the natural realm is in some respects the opposite of modernity’s hubristic elevation of humanity to God-like status, although it follows logically from it. Once non-human nature has been stripped of any metaphysical significance (no longer ‘charged with the grandeur of God’, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins’ famous formulation), then reductionist scientific materialism’s deconstruction of the supposed qualitative difference between humanity and nature effectively reduces human beings to nothing but ‘machines controlled by our genes’ (Richard Dawkins). According to this nihilistic scheme, the ‘ancient covenant’ of meaning is ‘in pieces’, to cite Jacques Monod’s memorable conclusion in Chance and Necessity; humanity is as much an instantiation of an underlying futility as volcanic ash or pond scum.

The third possibility arises out of a reaction to the first two: in an attempt to re-invest the universe with meaning while (understandably) accepting the continuum between human beings and the natural world, this view takes the ‘pantheist’ option of deifying nature, an option followed by much New Age spirituality. This at least restores some semblence of sense to the sphere of the material, but at the price of leaving no room either for a transcendent deity or for human culture as being somehow more than nature. Once an impersonal vitalism is embraced as a governing interpretive framework for viewing the world, it is human history and civilization which risks being deprived of any significance.


Olivier Messiaen, 1930

The philosophical interest of a figure such as Olivier Messiaen (whether or not one likes his music) is that he seems to believe that there is an alternative to all three of these scenarios, and that this alternative consists in some way of a return to a ‘sacramental’ universe in which things point beyond themselves not to a Kantian sublime of abstract concepts which relegates the realm of the senses to insignificance, but to a transcendent, loving source of all beauty, goodness and truth which imbues the material world with meaning. However, if there is an element of nostalgia for a pre-modern world-view here, Messiaen’s approach is not regressive (his belief that all times are simultaneous for God relativizes human categories of historical progress or regress). For all his frequent appeals to Thomas Aquinas in works such as Les Corps Glorieux, Messiaen is not embracing a reactionary, obscurantist agenda (his Aquinas is far closer to the holistic blend of theology and devotional spirituality promoted by the nouvelle théologie than to a dry scholasticism). Messiaen’s fantastic cosmos is certainly ‘re-enchanted’, but not by a denial of modern scientific discovery; like many thinkers at the frontier between science and faith from Teilhard de Chardin to Alister McGrath or Holmes Rolston III, he instead finds an element of wonder and mystery in modern science itself that he intriguingly reconciles with the pre-modern, with a profound meditation on the nature of number providing the most obvious common element shared between the two historically distant epochs. The musical universe that results is ‘half-medieval, half ultra-modern’, to use his description of one of his heroes and main influences, the composer and organist Charles Tournemire (1870-1939). Messiaen is every bit as much at home with Einsteinian relativity as with Gregorian chant, as a glance at the bewilderingly wide array of topics in his multi-volume compositional treatise reveals.

Where Messiaen’s work is fascinatingly actual is in the clue that it perhaps provides to a possible way out of some contemporary quandaries as to how our world might be ‘re-enchanted’ without relapse into superstition. Messiaen is not a fundamentalist in the sense of asserting that the modern scientific enterprise is to be dismissed en bloc as a snare and delusion. But neither does he suggest that the Biblical narrative needs a thorough-going demythologization in the light of science, of the type famously proposed by Rudolf Bultmann, whose famous essay on de-mythologizing the New Testament appeared in 1941, the same year as Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. In that work, as in Visions de l’Amen, Messiaen appeals to a robustly orthodox over-arching framework of Creation (of an evolutionary sort, it should be said, a gradual emergence from an initial nebulous potentiality as depicted in the first ‘Vision’), Redemption and ultimate Consummation. But at the same time Messiaen approaches composition not merely as a form of self-expression – although his music can at times be extremely lush and provocatively emotional – but also as a type of ‘scientific’ experimentation with new technical procedures, mathematical permutations and startlingly original combinations of apparently irreconcilable musical materials. As a composer, Messiaen is indisputably one of the great pioneers of the twentieth century. There may be some validity to the criticism of Jeremy Begbie and others that Messiaen’s thought is too uncritical of static categories of being that set an immutable Divine eternity in polar opposition to this-worldly temporality (it has to be said that the category of becoming is not a natural one for him), but on the other hand, Messiaen’s praxis as a teacher and participant in French cultural life over six decades demonstrates that he was anything but disengaged from historical processes and the life of the world around him.


As a thinker, Messiaen undoubtedly has his limits. His written commentaries on his own music are highly idiosyncratic and frequently, if not always fairly, laughed out of court for the naïveté of theirextravagant language. For all his considerable knowledge of Christian tradition, his Biblical exegesis and use of literary sources frequently border on the whimsical. And yet it would surely be unreasonable to require of Messiaen, as someone who cautiously called himself a ‘theological musician’, the type of intellectual rigour expected either of a professional philosopher or a systematic theologian. To see Messiaen as providing the conceptual resources for a refutation of atheistic post-modern thought, as has boldly been claimed by writers such as Milbank and Catherine Pickstock in their arguments with Gilles Deleuze,[6] is perhaps to stretch the point too far, despite their many intriguing insights. Argumentative coherence is not Messiaen’s primary aim – although there are definite elements both of dogmatic theology and philosophical speculation in his work which cannot be neglected for its proper appraisal, his greatness principally lies in the richness of his musical output.

Here it would seem important to bear in mind the extent to which Messiaen’s mindset was shaped by his day-to-day experience over 60 years as a church organist in the service of the Eucharist. Messiaen’s theorizing and composing are both ultimately best seen as acts of prayerful worship; viewed in this light his intellection is essentially a ‘liturgy of the mind’ as it meditates on Creation. His music may remain impossibly arcane for some, crassly sentimental for others, but perhaps Messiaen’s greatest achievement is his reconciliation of theology as rational reflection with an authentic spirituality expressed through music, the testimony of a life which is liturgical in the sense of being shot through by wonder, lived in a spirit of ‘supernatural childhood before God’ (Romano Guardini). And at its best, as in the wartime works such as the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, Visions de l’Amen and Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine as in his later masterpieces such as La Transfiguration, Messiaen’s music strikes a remarkable balance between the head, the heart and the gut, offering us an inspiring glimpse of the wholeness intended by God not only for human beings but for the entire cosmos.

[1] Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth : Christian Wisdom in the World of Music (Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Academic, 2007), 307.

[2] Ibid..

[3] Ibid., 200.

[4] Ibid., 247.

[5] In his 2011 Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh University, which can be viewed on-line at . See especially Lecture 3, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’.

[6] See Catherine Pickstock, ‘God and Meaning in Music: Messiaen, Deleuze, and the Musico-Theological Critique of Modernism and Postmodernism’ in Sacred Music Vol. 134/4 (Winter 2007), 40-62.

Spirituality in and out of focus – Jack Flash on a candle stick

In our last episode of this series I argued that the release of Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, on whose cover the malevolent spectre of Aleister Crowley made its first mass-audience appearance of the 1960s, can in some respects be seen as a watershed in the resurgence of occultism in mainstream popular Western culture, and that this is only comprehensible in the light of the psychedelic experimentation of the mid-sixties and the Fab Four’s extremely negative brush with institutional Christianity.

The interest of the Beatles themselves in occultism should not be exaggerated. All the evidence from the period 1966-1970 suggests that the quartet, and particularly John Lennon and George Harrison, had like many of their generation experienced a form of spiritual awakening through LSD for which they were seeking a coherent philosophical and religious framework which the Church could not give them. It is certain that this was grist to the mill of ideologues such as Timothy Leary with a manifesto for radical counter-cultural change, summarized by Crowley’s ‘Thelemic’ motto: ‘do what thou wilst shall be the whole of the law’. Leary later claimed in an interview on Late Night America that he was carrying on the British occultist’s work:

‘Well I’ve been an admirer of Aleister Crowley. I think I’m carrying on much of the work that he started over a hundred years ago, and I think the 60’s themselves…He was in favor of finding your own self, and ‘do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’, under love. It was a very powerful statement. I’m sorry he isn’t around now to appreciate the glories that he started.’


Timothy Leary’s arrest by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, 1972

By the mid-1960s Leary’s transition from ‘smart-aleck atheist Harvard professor and renowned research psychologist’ (as he himself put it[1]) to social activist and self-styled drug Messiah was complete, causing former fellow travellers interested in psychedelic research such as Huston Smith to part company with a man whose tendency towards megalomania was becoming increasingly apparent. In his 1968 book Politics of Ecstasy in which he proclaimed with typical modesty that ‘I may well be one of the wisest men ever born before 1945′, Leary famously referred to the Beatles’ music as the scriptures of his doctrine:

‘The rock ‘n’ roll bands are the philosopher-poets of the new religion. Their beat is the pulse of the future. The message from Liverpool is the Newest Testament, chanted by four Evangelists – saints John, Paul, George and Ringo. Pure Vedanta, divine revelation, gentle, tender irony at the insanities of war and politics, sorrowful lament for the bourgeois loneliness, delicate hymns of glory to God.'[2]

Speaking with neo-evangelical zeal, Leary proclaimed a syncretistic, monistic world-view in which selected elements of Christianity were idiosyncratically recouped and re-defined within a whole that could equally well embrace its demonic contradiction:

‘Above all, to get the message of the future, sit down with a youngster and relax and tune in to the new theme.[…] The best way for any parent to dissolve fear and develop trust in the youngsters is to get the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” album or the Rolling Stones’ “Satanic Majesties” and take it humbly to a kid and say “I’ve heard that there’s an important message in this record, but I need it explained to me. Will you talk to me about the Stones and Beatles?” And then get very comfortable and close your eyes and listen to the sermon from Liverpool (it could just as well be Donovan or Dylan or the Jefferson Airplane) and learn that it’s the oldest message of love and peace and laughter, and trust in God and don’t worry, trust in the future, and don’t fight; and trust in your kids, and don’t worry because it’s all beautiful and right.'[3]


Timothy Leary with John Leonon and Yoko Ono during the recording of ‘Give peace a chance’

That John Lennon, who by his own reckoning had taken 1000 LSD trips by 1968, was for a while an ardent supporter of Timothy Leary’s socio-political vision is attested by the fact that the song ‘Come Together’, released by the Beatles as a single in October 1969, was originally written in support of Leary’s short-lived campaign to contest Ronald Reagan for the governorship of California. The lyrics, based on Leary’s slogan ‘come together, join the party’,were essentially genial nonsense (‘he got toe jam football […] he got walrus gumboot’) which nonetheless captured something of Leary’s updated Crowleyana in lines such as ‘got to be a joker he just do what he please’. However, by the time of Lennon’s extended Rolling Stone interview of 1971 with Jann Wenner, he was clearly disillusioned with and bitter towards Leary, having experienced the negative side of the ‘ego death’ of which the author of The Psychedelic Experience had spoken and which Lennon had not only sung about in Tomorrow Never Knows but put into practice:

‘I got the message that I should destroy my ego and I did, you know. I was reading that stupid book of Leary’s; we were going through a whole game that everybody went through, and I destroyed myself. I was slowly putting myself together round about Maharishi time. Bit by bit over a two-year period, I had destroyed my ego.'[4]

To portray the Beatles as active conspirators rather than confused fringe participants in Leary’s programme is the stuff of legend. Nonetheless, it has to be said that in the apocalyptic climate of the late 1960s, stoked by LSD, apparent signs of impending revolution and the burgeoning of cults such as Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan and The Process Church of the Final Judgment (an offshoot of Scientology founded by Robert DeGrimston Moore and the former wife of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson), it is perhaps logical that at least one person should have driven a Leary-esque interpretation of the Beatles to an appalling paroxysm – mass murderer Charles Manson, who would for a short while be Leary’s neighbour in Folsom Prison in California. Although this is not the place to provide an account of the Manson Family’s grim appropriation of the Beatles’ songs, it does need to be stressed that to allege that the Beatles somehow ‘inspired’ Manson’s crimes would be to ignore the fact that his reading of Revelation #9 and Helter Skelter from the ‘White’ Album was pathological and had nothing to do with the songwriters’ intentions. Nevertheless, listening to Helter Skelter with the benefit of forty years’ hindsight and viewing the Beatles as seismographs of their time, it is not difficult to detect in the song’s rare frenzy (equalled perhaps only in the all-submerging feedback that terminates I want you (she’s so heavy) on Abbey Road (1969))  the reflection of an increasingly violent social climate which was the Manson Family’s condition of possibility.

Beatles-Abbey-RoadIn earlier instalments of this series we have already referred to the work of the Catholic philosopher and Indologist R.C. Zaehner, one of the first serious scholars to sense the negative potential of Huxley’s The Doors of Perception back in 1954. In the final years of his life, Zaehner saw Manson as the logical end-point of the drug-fuelled absorption of the Vedantic strain of Eastern philosophical thought into Western culture, going as far as to conduct a series of interviews with the leader of the Family in prison which provided material for Zaehner’s Our Savage God and the posthumous essay collection City Within the Heart. Zaehner’s claim was that Manson, following Crowley, had simply drawn the conclusions of what was possible on passing beyond Western dualistic thought-categories into a monistic realm ‘beyond good and evil’ where ultimately opposites pass over into one another. This was not simply Zaehner’s philosophical construct devised to demonstrate the superiority of an Abrahamic moral framework over a Hindu one (as a reading of his Mysticism Sacred and Profane demonstrates, Zaehner’s knowledge of Eastern thought was profound and perfectly capable of differentiating between different Indian philosophical streams). It was based on Manson’s own question: ‘if God is One, what is bad?'[5] As Zaehner comments,

‘Crowley has been condemned as the arch-Satanist, but this is perhaps to do him less than justice, for he belonged to an age-old tradition which saw the Eternal as the ultimate unity in which all the opposites were reconciled, including good and evil.[…]Manson carried Crowley’s premises to their logical conclusions: if God and the Devil, good and evil, life and death, can really be transcended in an eternal Now, then sadism and sexual profligacy are not enough: you must transcend life and death itself either by killing or being killed. Charles Manson did not shrink from this ultimate “truth.”[6]

One member of Manson’s ‘Family’ was Bobby Beausoleil, who had been introduced to Crowley by the American underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, perhaps best-known to the general public for his lurid revelations in Hollywood Babylon. Anger, who as a child actor had danced with Shirley Temple, was perhaps the most consistent follower of Crowley in the years after the latter’s death in 1947 when the ‘Beast’ had largely been consigned to the obscurity where I suspect that many of us wish he had remained indefinitely. Going as far as to attempt to restore Crowley’s notorious Abbey of Thelema in Sicily in the 1950s in the company of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, Anger dedicated his orgiastic Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome – a film accompanied, somewhat strangely, by Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass , to Crowley, casting no less that Anaïs Nin (who had known Crowley in the 1930s) in the part of the moon goddess Astarte. Linking the dawning of the Age of Aquarius to Crowley’s Aeon of Horus, Anger would become a major cultural player in the late 1960s, not least through his influence on rock music’s vanguard. Whereas Timothy Leary looked to the Beatles to propagate his social programme, Anger would do much the same with the other mythical British band of the 1960s – the Rolling Stones, whose flirtation with the occult would prove more serious than that of their Liverpudlian counterparts.

Rolling-Stones-majesties-cover-300x300The Rolling Stones’ turn to occulture can be pinpointed to 1967 with the release of Their Satanic Majesties Request, when they deserted their trademark R ‘n’ B for a none-too-successful foray into psychedelia and made their first dalliance with the black arts. This was what Mick Jagger would later refer to as the Stones’ ‘Baudelaire period’, when they were deeply involved in a London scene characterized by extreme affluence, drugs and heady avant-garde art, a more or less conscious revival of fin-de-siècle French dandyism of the second half of the nineteenth century. Former Blondie bassist turned literary authority on the counterculture Gary Valentine Lachman comments succinctly:

‘by the mid-sixties occultism had become the latest fad, providing the rich, young and decadent with a new set of thrills. Acid primed them for the otherworldly, and the fashionable philosophy of being ‘beyond good and evil’ opened bored rock stars to exploring the dark side. Nowhere was the scene more seductive than at 1 Courtfield Road, Chelsea, home of Brian Jones and his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg.’

For Jagger’s own partner Marianne Faithfull,[7] the place was ”a veritable witches’ coven of decadent illuminati, rock princelings and hip aristos’. The atmosphere was one of splendour, sorcery and decay, a dizzying blend of drugs, magic and sexual excess. It was a time when, according to Faithfull, if you asked someone if they had read Huysmans’ A Rebour [sic], and they said yes, you’d immediately hop in the sack.’[8]

Frequently regarded as a pale and frankly incompetent imitation of Sgt Pepper (the covers for the two albums were designed by the same Chelsea artist Michael Cooper, and Jagger amassed a good deal of his occult literature from the same Indica bookshop that had provided John Lennon with The Psychedelic Experience), Their Satanic Majesties Request’s title reflects the influence of Anger, whom Mick Jagger had met at the London Mayfair home of gallery owner Robert Fraser, with the filmmaker expounding to an impressionable Jagger about Crowley’s Thelemic doctrine of ‘Do what thou wilt’. Anger was largely attracted to Jagger on account of the latter’s remarkable ability to drive audiences into a frenzy, with the Stones provoking frequent crowd riots (for example in 1965 in Dublin and Berlin). For Anger, the strangely charismatic and androgynous singer seems to have functioned as the embodiment of the disobedient spirit of the rising Lucifer he celebrated in his films. Commisioning a soundtrack from him for Invocation of My Demon Brother, Anger unsuccessfully tried to persuade Jagger to play the title role in his 1972 remake of Lucifer Rising, a film whose 1967 version had starred Bobby Beausoleil’. Anger described Lucifer Rising as

‘a film about the love generation – the birthday party of the Aquarian Age. […] Lucifer is the Light God, not the Devil – the Rebel Angel behind what’s happening in the world today. His message [and here Anger quoted Crowley’s ‘Hymn to Lucifer’] is that the key of joy is disobedience’[8](quoted Partridge, 243).

It is not difficult to see how texts from the Stones songs such as ‘my name is called disturbance, I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants’ (Street Fighting Man) could be worked into Anger’s narrative, nor how it could cohere with their fascination for the Delta Blues and the myth of Robert Johnson. Moreover, there is strong evidence that at least three of the key figures in the Stones’ entourage – Jones, Pallenberg and Keith Richards, whom Anger described as the ‘occult unit’ within the group – had at least a moderately serious commitment to his agenda. As for Mick Jagger, his recourse to diabolical imagery seems to have been superficial, short-lived and largely opportunistic, enhancing the mystique of his stage persona.[9]

One-and-one-poster-Godard-215x300In some respects it is ironic that most theologically-driven accounts of the late 1960s dealing with the Rolling Stones focus on the song Sympathy for the Devil from Beggars Banquet, whose evolving compositional process is immortalized by Jean-Luc Godard’s documentary film of the same name (released in Europe as One & One). Sympathy is frequently regarded as the epitome of the Satanic in rock ‘n’ roll culture, an invocation of the demonic that would lead to the violence of Altamont in December 1969. The song itself, probably inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (published in Britain in 1967), is actually a fairly sophisticated and deliberately ambiguous literary construction which can be construed in a number of ways, even as a denunciation of the darkness of human nature as manifested in historical events such as the Russian Revolution. What is beyond doubt, however, is that there is a wholly characteristic element of provocation in the piece, whose effectiveness relies at least partially on the ambivalence of the singer’s stance, expressed in such enigmatic lines as ‘every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints’; it is precisely Jagger’s refusal to express where his allegiances lie which gives Sympathy a certain shock appeal of moral detachment. Equally critical to the power of the song is its driving, mesmeric samba rhythm, which as Godard’s film makes clear, completely transformed the song from its original medium-paced version. As Jagger would later explain,

‘it has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on, but it’s also got some other suggestions in it, an undercurrent of being primitive – because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it.'[9]

This type of studied ritualistic primitivism has of course many twentieth-century precedents – despite the difference in idiom, a non-judgmental stance towards violence and flirtation with its primal energy already characterize Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, whose ethical ambiguity Adorno recognized in his controversial essay on Stravinsky in Philosophy of New Music:

‘the music initially says, So it was – and provides no more commentary than does Flaubert in Madame Bovary. The horror is observed with a certain satisfaction, but it is not transfigured; rather, it is performed untempered.'[10]

Adorno notes that Stravinsky’s music dates from the period of ethnological field-work which was not used ‘to play out the primeval in opposition to civilization’ but rather ‘”researched” with a positivistic detachment that well matches the distance that Stravinsky’s music maintains from the horror that transpires on the stage, which it accompanies without commentary.'[10] There is an intriguing parallel here with the Rolling Stones;  in 1968 Brian Jones had made recordings of the Joujouka musicians of Morocco during ritual animal sacrifice, and on a broader level, the Stones’ appropriation of the Blues can also be seen as the fruit of ethnomusicology and ‘field’ recordings of the legendary Delta bluesmen.

There are of course at least three possible ways in which the violent element in much of the music of the 1960s counter-culture can be interpreted, all of which can arguably be applied to the Rolling Stones. Firstly it can be seen as a form of catharsis, a venting of pent-up aggression frustrated by the constraints of bourgeois cultural domination, an implicit or tacit call to revolution (e.g. Street Fighting Man). Secondly it can be seen as the holding up of a mirror to society as a form of prophetic warning – just as in the Austrian expressionism of the years immediately prior to World War I (Schoenberg, Kokoschka, Schiele, Trakl …) . Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, his feedback-drenched Star-Spangled Banner or the howling vocals and fractured guitar work of Neil Young’s Southern Man are prime examples here; in the case of the Rolling Stones, the menacing Gimme Shelter which opens Let it bleed is a paradigmatic instance of this apocalyptic current which can still strike today’s listener as a powerful and emblematic expression of the bleakness of the Vietnam era:

Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away

Rolling-Stones-Gimme-Shelter-300x289This element of social protest through the intimation of all-engulfing chaos gives songs such as Gimme Shelter a form of despairing but compelling grandeur as chronicles of an epoch. On the other hand, the Rolling Stones undoubtedly also played with a third and ethically less savoury type of musical violence which cannot be viewed as a form of bringing the world’s darkness to consciousness for any redemptive purpose, but where anarchy and transgression are themselves regarded as vital, liberating forces (Led Zeppelin, perhaps the most Crowleyan of all mainstream rock acts, also exhibit this tendency, for example in the appeal to Viking mythology in Immigrant Song – such an attitude towards violence remains foundational for Heavy Metal). The Stones’ notorious Midnight Rambler, in which Jagger assumes the persona of a murderer/rapist, and which aroused justifiable protests from feminists which would continue throughout the 1970s, is a particularly unpleasant example of this undercurrent in their output.

To which of these three categories Sympathy for the Devil belongs is a matter of interpretation. It can perhaps theoretically be assimilated to the first two as a cutting and insightful piece of social comment if the lyrics are taken in isolation, but watching video footage from 1969 suggests that it is more logical to assign it to the third (witness the celebratory tone of their extended Hyde Park performance, in which the drumming was performed by the virtuoso African ensemble Osibisa). Whatever Jagger’s intentions, the fact is that regardless of the text’s subtleties it was widely and understandably interpreted in its cultural context as a straightforward tribute to the Prince of Darkness. It is not hard to imagine the  cumulative effect of their 1969 US tour set, with its plethora of openly violent numbers such as Jumping Jack Flash, Midnight Rambler, Street Fighting Man and Sympathy, and to understand why fans and press alike should have taken Jagger’s Luciferian stage persona seriously. Certainly the Stones themselves did nothing to discourage the interpretation and everything to stoke it. Playing sorcerer’s apprentice in this way, although hugely commercially profitable, would backfire horribly on the band in the tragic events of December 6, 1969 at Altamont Speedway.

Accounts of this legendary and disastrous free concert, culminating in the death of Meredith Hunter, are innumerable and need no repeating here. The debate about who exactly was to blame for the mayhem captured chillingly on film in Gimme Shelter continues after forty years, although the general consensus is that a toxic combination of factors were involved which coalesced around the Rolling Stones (the inadequacy of the facilities, alcohol, ‘bad acid’ and the calamitous decision to put the Hells Angels in charge of security being the principal contributing elements). What is beyond dispute, however, is that commentators, whatever their religious convictions or lack of them, remain haunted by the coincidence of the imagery of Sympathy for the Devil and the actual violence unleashed at Altamont.[11] The press reaction to the Rolling Stones’ débâcle leaves the reader with the impression that the sheer scale of the event (300,000 people plus) and the crowd psychosis it engendered could only be described in symbolic, trans-personal terms for which the use of diabolical metaphors was so natural as to be unavoidable; indeed Mick Jagger himself would later comment that  ‘if Jesus had been there, he would have been crucified.'[12]  Perhaps the dark spiritual heart of the Californian hippie dystopia of December 1969 is best captured not in prose but by the poetic conclusion of Don McLean’s famous song  American Pie:

There we were all in one place
A generation lost in space With no time left to start again
So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candle stick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend.
As I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that satan’s spell
And as flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw satan laughing with delight
the day the music died.



[1] Timothy Leary, The politics of ecstasy, 164.

[2] Ibid., 166.

[3] Ibid., 167.


[5] R.C. Zaehner, City within the Heart, 35, quoted Jeffrey John Kripal, Roads of excess, palaces of wisdom: eroticism and reflexivity in the study of mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 197.

[6] R.C. Zaehner, City within the Our Savage God: The Perverse Use of Eastern Thought (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1974), 41-43. An interesting refutation of Zaehner’s thesis in Our Savage God (generally regarded as one of his less coherent studies) was given by his successor as Oxford Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics:
‘While I concede that the salvational aim of Indian mysticism is not always compatible with a moral aim, I must emphasize that the so-called monistic philosophy of the East certainly cannot endorse a Charles Manson, as my predecessor feared. Charles Manson’s quoting of the Bhagavadgita is no more surprising than the devil’s quoting the Bible’ (Bimal Krishna Matilal, The Logical Illumination of Indian Mysticism, Oxford University Inaugural Lecture, 5 May 1977, 25).

[7] It should be noted that Faithfull’s husband John Dunbar was involved in the running of the Indica bookshop, and that she appeared in an issue of The Process’s magazine devoted to death, although she would subsequently express her reservations about the cult’s Fascist tendencies. Marianne Faithfull would go on to play the part of Lilith in Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising.

[8] Gary Valentine Lachman, Turn Off Your Mind : The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (New York : The Disinformation Company, 2001), 294-295. Baudelaire and Huysmans are interesting references in that they both indicate the proximity of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ forms of transcendence (one might equally have added Scriabin, theosophist composer of both ‘White Mass’ and ‘Black Mass’ Piano Sonatas). The true extent of Baudelaire’s Catholic commitment remains a subject of academic controversy, but the saturation of his work with religious imagery is evident; subsequent to the publication of his quintessentially decadent A Rebours Joris-Karl Huysmans reconverted to Catholicism and became a Benedictine Oblate.

[9] ‘Spanish’ Tony Sanchez, the Stones’ drug dealer at the time, provides a telling comment in the book Up and Down with the Rolling Stones (whose literary expression is the work of London journalist and ghostwriter John Blake): ’With his characteristic restlessness, Mick rapidly became bored with the mumbo jumbo of satanism. It was power that fascinated him, the ability to control individuals, audiences, even societies – and he knew Satan wasn’t to thank for his strength in that direction’ (Up and Down with the Rolling Stones (London: John Blake, 2010), 162). The evolution of Jagger’s religious views remains a matter of considerable debate and confusion in the secondary literature. The singer’s views on religion in the late 1960s for example include the Lennon-like statement  that while the church has done ‘more harm than good’,  ‘Jesus Christ was fantastic and something to base your life on’ (quoted in Time & Tide Business World, vol. 50 (July 24-30, 1969), xxxii). Despite an ongoing commitment to a lifestyle of untrammeled excess, there is considerable evidence of an interest in Christianity on Jagger’s part in the years immediately following the Altamont fiasco, with the singer following an obligatory course in Catholicism prior to his marriage to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias in St Tropez in May 1971, wearing a wooden crucifix on his next US tour and writing the Stones’ only song about Jesus, ‘I just want to see his face’ (Exile on Main Street, 1972). The overt Gospel influence apparent in Exile‘s songs such as Shine a Light has been attributed to organist Billy Preston, who apparently took Jagger to church services in Los Angeles during the album”s final recording sessions. More recently, while most of Jagger’s pronouncements on organized religion have remained consistently negative, his solo release Goddess in the Doorway of 2002 would include tracks with titles such as ‘God gave me everything’ (co-written by Lenny Kravitz).

[10] Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 111.

[11] Sanchez and Blake provide the classic example in a description which could not be exceeded by any religious fundamentalist account, suggesting that this was nothing less than a 1960s Rite of Spring being grimly played out in reality. Sanchez recalls how, even in the seemingly innocuous song O Carol, a deranged crowd began to believe inexplicably:

‘crawling to the stage as if it were a high altar, there to offer themselves as victims for the boots and cues of the Angels. The more they were beaten and bloodied, the more they were impelled, as if by some supernatural force, to offer themselves as human sacrifices to these agents of Satan. The violence transcended all comprehension. It had become some primaeval ritual ; the victims were no longer merely tolerating pain and evil and bestiality but were actively collaborating in it. And now the pounding voodoo drumming and the primitive shrieks echoed out, and the Stones were into their song of homage to the anti-Christ. Another sacrificially naked girl climbed on to the stage, and six Angels leaped on her at once to toss her from the stage like so much human rubbish. Jagger could ignore what was happening no longer. He broke off in mid-verse to murmur resignedly, ” Something always happens when we get into this number. . . “’ (Up and Down with the Rolling Stones, 202).

[12] The Oregonian, Jan 19, 1970.

****’With his characteristic restlessness, Mick rapidly became bored with the mumbo jumbo of satanism. It was power that fascinated him, the ability to control individuals, audiences, even societies – and he knew Satan wasn’t to thank for his strength in that direction.’ (162)

Spirituality in and out of focus – hellhounds on the trail? (i)

After a prolonged summer break, it is now time to pick up the thread of this post where it left off, namely with the 1960s counter-cultural migration to Europe via the Beatles. Over the next couple of episodes we will be dealing with the radical and in some respects highly sinister musical and spiritual direction taken in 1966-1969 by the prime movers of those heady years, terminating in the gruesome Manson Family murders and the Rolling Stones’ disastrous appearance at Altamont Speedway in December 1969,  which many cultural historians see as ‘the day the music died’. This was the time when, to paraphrase Yeats’ The Second Coming, the 1960s ‘ceremony of innocence’ was definitively drowned.

Eglise de la Réconciliation, Taizé (photo: Damir Jelic)

There is no doubt that the stamp left on popular culture at many levels by the music of this brief but incredibly intense era has been an enduring one, with the songs of the late 1960s still functioning for many as an interpretive framework for their experience of the world. During my summer travels I was provided with some humourous but telling evidence of this from some seemingly unlikely quarters. One instance of this was at the Taizé ecumenical community in France, where one of the brothers (not wearing his monastic attire at the time, I have to say) interspersed his thoughts on the parable of the Prodigal Son with quotations from the Beatles’ Piggies (from the ‘White’ album of 1968) and even Serge Gainsbourg’s and Brigitte Bardot’s/Jane Birkin’s infamous Je t’aime … moi non plus (1967/1969). A second instance was at the windswept castle of Fort La Latte in Brittany, where my family and I had gone for what had been billed as a ‘medieval children’s festival’, a description which proved somewhat thin when we discovered that the sole entertainment on offer was from a local musical comedy act of decidedly limited ability. On seeing them appear in period costume I imagined that they would be providing the pseudo-troubadour fare that I have heard at similar events in French historical venues, so it was very much to my surprise that they launched into a spoof cover version of ‘Sympathy for ze deveel’ by Les Pierres qui roulent (the Rolling Stones). Making up in attitude for what they clearly lacked in basic artistic talent, they came up with some lines in what I can only describe as pidgin franglais which had at least one member of the outdoor audience splitting his sides with laughter. Let me try to transliterate a couple of examples from a language which has no official written form but which is all too commonly practised in this part of the world:

‘Medieval food is dégueulasse [disgusting]. It taste zhjust like McDonaldsse’ [that actually rhymes reasonably well in franglais when pronounced properly]

‘We not look for la bagarre [We’re not trying to pick a fight]. We zhjust wanna be medieval rock-stars [see comment above. The final ‘s’ of ‘rock stars’ is silent] !’

I have to admit that to call this a ‘song’ would be stretching the meaning of the word a little beyond its normal limits, and yes, the Jimi Hendrix imitation at the end when the amplified lute player started trying to play his instrument with his teeth was frankly pretty limp, but this bizarre piece of humour did serve to illustrate the mythological place that the Golden Age of Rock continues to occupy in popular consciousness.

As part of their caricature, the group ended by making mock ‘Devil’s horns’ signs (an integral element of Heavy Metal’s grand guignol behavioural code[1]) with their index and little fingers, a gesture which was not so much sinister as interestingly indicative of a certain stereotype concerning a supposed alliance of popular music and the demonic which, as we shall see, has been around for a very long time.

Fort La Latte, Brittany (photo: Benh Lieu Song)

At this point I would like to issue some immediate caveats concerning the perception of a connection between the evolution of rock music during the period under question and a resurgence of interest on both sides of the Atlantic in the occult. It seems that two interpretive extremes need to be avoided here. The first is that represented by many accounts stemming from conservative Christian circles (whether Protestant or Catholic) demonizing rock music per se as occult to its very core. This approach is perhaps best typified by an obsession with finding hidden messages encoded backwards in songs such as Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven; anyone who has made an objective attempt to assess the so-called ‘evidence’ adduced by the conspiracy theorists in this respect is likely to be as unconvinced as I am that there is some kind of supernatural origin to purported messages such as ‘start to smoke marijuana’ in Queen’s Another one bites the dust that some claim to have found ‘inexplicably’ engraved on vinyl when played in reverse. The mere fact that it takes a high degree of intentionality for anyone to want to sift through the repertoire backwards (a fairly masochistic aural exercise) suggests that the researchers have simply found exactly what they were looking for – to construe the slurred and barely distinguishable syllables of Freddie Mercury’s back-to-front voice in this way requires some pretty creative imaginative work. It is furthermore interesting to speculate what might be found if some warped soul subjected Bach’s St Matthew Passion to the same kind of ‘analysis’; I am more than willing to bet that somewhere in the three hours of gobbledygook German in retrograde someone might after repeated listenings hear the odd mildly subversive line or two such as ‘time to get out of our brains at the Biergarten’ (in 18th century Leipzig dialect, of course).

In my opinion one of the problems with the blanket demonization of rock music by religious fundamentalists (which needless to say are particularly widespread in the blogosphere) has been to overshadow any kind of more nuanced appraisal of the spiritual dynamics of rock in its formative years, a serious subject which clearly calls for a balanced and historically-grounded account.[2] As a result commentators can frequently fall into the opposite error from that of rock’s religious despisers, namely that of failing to engage with the evidence that something strange and in some respects unnerving was indeed going on at a social level in the late 1960s that merits substantive comment. Merely to brush off the sudden and dramatic turn to occult themes in the counter-culture of the late 1960s as a temporary fad or an inexplicable case of mass psychosis best left untouched is an act of considerable intellectual laziness which abandons the field to zealous but undiscriminating writers who evidently lack the analytical equipment to deal with the topic in an intelligent manner.

In trying to approach this subject responsibly, it seems that some points of method are in order. Firstly, it is evident that one of the main reasons for the paucity of responsible mainstream scholarly discussion of the phenomenon of rock music’s love affair with occultism is the fact that those who have been willing to approach the topic at all have normally done so on the basis of an a priori commitment to a certain metaphysical position regarding the reality of supernatural beings (other than God) and their dealings with humanity. Secondly, this is all too often linked to an uncritical attitude towards widely-circulated and unsubstantiated master narratives of plots to destroy Western culture from within (launched by a variety of candidates including the CIA, British Intelligence, the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations and a Theodor Adorno supposedly not only writing all the Beatles’ lyrics but also taking 12-tone music from the Baal priesthood and the cult of Dionysus). As with all such conspiracy theories, the fatal flaw of too many religiously-motivated accounts of the 1960s attempting to prove the innate evil of rock ‘n’ roll is the forcing of often undocumented evidence into a pre-determined scheme. It ought to be patently obvious that serious sociological and historical research cannot be carried out in this manner. Not only are such readings ruled out of court at the outset by those for whatever reason are unwilling to share the metaphysical outlook of  the conspiracy buffs (i.e. belief in the existence of non-human personal evil), but they are almost always undermined by their penchant for exaggeration, over-simplification, sensationalism and the failure to distinguish fact from urban legend. The premature introduction of simplistic theological arguments as a substitute for careful analysis of a complex web of human interactions makes no contribution to genuine understanding of rapidly evolving, multi-layered cultural situations. What seems clear is that, in order to come to grips with the subject-matter, we have to find some way to talk rationally about the rôle played, not so much by the question of ‘supernatural’ agency (even if ultimately that is a challenge which theology cannot evade) as by human belief in the working of supernatural forces.

One study which attempts to do this, but which ultimately fails to avoid the interpretive traps I have just attempted to outline, is the highly ambitious and initially promising study of Catholic author and recovering hippie E. Michael Jones published by Ignatius Press in the mid-1990s, Dionysos Rising: the Birth of Cultural Revolution out of the Spirit of Music, a sustained and flamboyant polemic against what Jones perceives to be the Nietzschean dimension of counter-culture. At first glance his eloquently written and frequently fascinating analysis might seem to merit serious consideration, not least for its attempt to link the emergence of the 1960s counter-culture to the void left in the wake of classical music’s demise in the decades following World War II. Jones argues that

‘a massive shift of allegiance took place, similar to the first shift from Schönberg to jazz that had taken place when the first black jazz band arrived in Paris after World War I. Only this time it took place on a much more massive scale. Faced with a choice between Stockhausen and Muddy Waters, British working-class teenagers in the early fifties had the sense to choose at least some semblance of musical life, and they went with Muddy.’[3]

Muddy Waters, 1971

Jones supports this with the example of a British professor who attempted to bring a Stockhausen recording to some jam sessions

‘in the empty art-school classrooms that were now the hangouts of the British youth who in another age would have gone into the military or an apprenticeship. There is no indication that anyone listened twice. As the sixties progressed, a massive shift of allegiance took place. The postwar generation coming to maturity in the early sixties converted to rock ‘n’ roll’.[4]

This bold thesis is not without a certain prima facie plausibility. It should be acknowledged that the explosion of popular music did indeed occur during a time when ‘classical’ music was struggling to find its way (many young European composers feeling, not without a certain justification, that the high bourgeois culture whose history was deeply intertwined with the Austro-German symphonic tradition was fatally compromised during the Third Reich). The correlation between these two phenomena clearly does merit exploration, but Jones overstates his case in his efforts to lay the blame for what he perceives as the collapse of Western culture at the feet of ‘degenerate moderns’ (the title of another of Jones’s book-length studies). For the author of Dionysos Rising, who unsurprisingly makes frequent allusion to Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, the chief culprits in classical music are clearly identified as Schönberg and Adorno, representatives of the ‘arriving German professoriat’ who took up residence in the US when fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s:

‘Bauhaus was installed in Black Mountain College in the woods of the South; Gropius ended up at Harvard, Marcuse in California, and Tillich at Union Theological Seminary – and Kulturbolschewismus became our national educational policy. […] The German professors injected the Nietzsche virus into the bloodstream of American education, which has had an immune deficiency ever since.’[5]

The tone of these remarks is unfortunately typical of the book’s tendency to construct a politically–oriented master narrative out of half-truths, insinuation and sweeping generalizations. Where, for example, is the proof that British teens after World War II were actually making a ‘massive shift of allegiance’ away from classical music, which would imply that they had been interested in it previously? Jones’s blanket term ‘British youth’ fails to take account of the diversities in class background within those embracing rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s; there is no evidence that ‘working-class teenagers’ were actually choosing between Stockhausen and Muddy Waters (as if they would have opted for Brahms or Chopin against the Chicago Blues), especially in the early fifties, when New Music in England in any case primarily meant Benjamin Britten rather than cultural ‘Bolshevism’ from Donaueschingen. It would seem far more credible to assert that the working-class felt that classical music per se was essentially a highbrow activity closed to them (as Paul McCartney explained in a televised interview in the late 1960s). And if we are to bring Stockhausen into the discussion at all, can a general thesis really be constructed on the basis of Jones’s example of a jam session rejection of the Darmstadt school in South London?  What is to be made of the fact – inconvenient for Jones’s thesis – that the composer of Kontakte was one of the figures on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (top row, fifth from the left) and exerted a major influence on the experimentation of the ‘White’ Album?

More troubling still than Dionysos Rising’s one-sided historiography are the racist overtones of its overall narrative of increasing Western cultural degeneracy. We for example find such disturbingly reductionist statements as

‘The 1960s were an erotic Great Awakening. As Nietzsche had predicted, the Negro was the catalyst for the overturning of European values, which is to say, the most effective enculturation of Christianity. The civil rights movement was nothing more [!!!] than the culmination of an attempt to transform the Negro into a paradigm of sexual liberation that had been the pet project of the cultural revolutionaries since the twenties.’[6 – emphasis mine]

Jones attempts to lend academic respectability to his reading by making certain qualifications such as admitting that the modernist fascination with ‘the Negro’ was largely the projection of white fantasies, which had begun with Nietzsche. He likewises correctly recognizes that ‘the Negro’ as white socio-historical construct had little to do with the reality of African-American life which was if anything more deeply impacted by Christianity than white society. However, there remains something insidious in Jones’s insinuation that responsibility for the portrayal of the ‘Negro as a paradigm of sexual liberation’ lies not only with the white moderns but also with ‘the Negroes who were willing to go along with the white boys’ Kulturkampf for whatever gain it would bring them.’[7] For all its literary flair and mine of information about the 1960s, the flaws of Jones’s overall argument and tendency to overstep the boundary between responsible scholarship and ideological polemic ultimately make for frustrating reading.

In contrast to the two extremes I have mentioned – either a reduction of rock culture to ‘demonism’ or a flat refusal to engage with a mass of phenomenological evidence suggesting an extremely tight correlation between musical developments of 1966-1969 and a sudden surge of interest in the dark side of mysticism – what seems required is an approach which looks dispassionately at the evidence on an a posteriori basis, distinguishing rigorously between what can be established as fact and what is to be treated as conjecture or metaphysical speculation. Such an approach simply ‘brackets’ the question of whether ‘occult forces’ are at work as outside the scope of inquiry (whatever one’s personal convictions on the matter). Neither the positing of the existence of such forces nor their a priori denial should be allowed to colour the discussion; only by proceeding in such a manner can anything cogent be said on a sociological level about the frenetic end of the 1960s and its subsequent legacy for popular culture. From such an analysis the reader should then be free to draw her/his own theological conclusions, if any.

The difficulty of such an endeavor is compounded by the fact that distinguishing truth from the mass of disinformation and partial truths abounding in the literature concerning the birth of rock music in the 1960s is not in itself sufficient for an appraisal of the period. Like any sub-culture, rock has its own foundational myths whose importance is in some way independent of their grounding in real history. The facts about John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page or any of the other cultural icons of rock music are in this respect certainly less influential than their perception within popular consciousness, however distorted this may be with regard to actual historical data.

As an illustration of this, let us take as an example the strange case of the man who is widely regarded as the ‘Godfather’ of rock music,  the ‘King of the Delta Blues’ Robert Johnson (1911-1938), whose iconic status since the 1960s is out of all proportion to the size of his output (29 songs recorded in Texas in 1936 and 1937, plus 13 ‘lost’ takes only issued in 1970). The recordings are certainly remarkable in themselves for Johnson’s innovative guitar playing, the disturbingly expressive quality of his voice, and the haunting imagery of his poetry. However, within his own blues community Johnson was not regarded as particularly important during the two decades following his early death. Despite its intrinsic quality, his ouput is not in itself enough to explain the extraordinary rise of Johnson as a cult figure in the 1960s and his canonization as the spiritual as well as musical ancestor of rock by a generation of white musicians living an ocean away from the Mississippi Delta.

It is clear that the Robert Johnson revival was catalyzed by the release in 1961 of the LP King of the Delta Blues Singers at the instigation of Columbia Records’ John Hammond (who had sought out Johnson for his Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing concert in December 1938, where Count Basie topped the bill, the program notes of which effectively started the Johnson mythmaking by claiming that the bluesman died the very day that he was told that he was to play at Carnegie Hall).  The importance of the Delta Blues idiom for the emergence of rock in the years immediately following the release of King of the Delta Blues is acknowledged by all commentators as immense, with the songs both of Johnson and Muddy Waters providing both the inspiration for bands such as the Rolling Stones (whose name was derived from the title of Waters’ first hit in 1948 after moving from the Delta to Chicago), Cream and Led Zeppelin. The influence is of course readily apparent on a technical level in terms of the blues structure of the songs, vocal delivery and guitar style. It is however also clear that the blues were equally important on a symbolic level, with Johnson – whose persona was essentially fabricated by Frank Driggs’ liner notes for King –, becoming the equivalent of an African-American Arthur Rimbaud. Here was a poète maudit, mistakenly described by Driggs as having recorded his songs as a teenager, whose frequently tormented lyrics (assumed, rightly or wrongly, to be autobiographical) spoke to a generation who projected their own existential concerns back into the radically different socio-cultural environment of the American South of the 1920s and 30s. The appeal of Johnson’s lyrics is captured memorably by a description by Giles Oakley: ‘visions of a restless, self-destructive interior world filled with secret fears and anxieties. At times he seems … on the edge of an abyss of complete psychic disintegration.’[8] It is arguably this poetic element – seen through the romanticizing lens of the 1960s – which made Johnson rather than Waters or other bluesmen the ‘ancestor of choice’ for rock’s British pioneers such as Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. Part of the attraction undoubtedly lay in a dark and disturbing side to Johnson’s words which on occasion featured precisely the same combination that would, unfortunately but incontestably, characterize certain streams of post-1966 rock and which persists to this day as the default position in much Metal – the combination of an invocation of the occult with violent masculine sexuality. What are we to make, for example, of the threats in 32-20 Blues (‘And if she gets unruly, thinks she don’t wan do, Take my 32-20 now and cut her half in two‘) or the famously chilling text of Me and the Devil Blues?

Early this morning
When you knocked upon my door
Early this morning, oooo
When you knocked upon my door
And I said hello Satan
I believe it’s time to go

Me and the Devil
Was walkin’ side by side
Me and the Devil, woooo
Was walking side by side
And I’m going to beat my woman
‘Til I get satisfied

An integral part of the Robert Johnson mythology was clearly (and still is) the morbid fascination exerted by the legend that Johnson’s remarkable guitar playing was the result of a pact with Satan made at the crossroads of highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi (where Muddy Waters also grew up). The origins of this story will be assessed later, but it acquired considerable traction after 1966 when related in an article by blues scholar Pete Welding in the widely-read Down Beat magazine entitled Hellhound on His Trail: Robert Johnson. In this article Welding presented the legend not as hearsay but as a serious belief transmitted by one of the Delta Blues’ founding fathers, guitarist Son House, who had been both Johnson’s and Waters’ teacher.[9] In the course of the next few years – when rock’s flirtation with the dark arts was at its height – making cover versions of Johnson’s Cross Road Blues would become almost obligatory for any aspiring rock band laying claim to the heritage of the Blues, the most famous being the rendition of Eric Clapton’s Cream in 1968.[10]

Robert Johnson

Musicologists Susan McClary and Patricia Schroeder are surely correct in asserting that the legend of Robert Johnson was essentially a projection born of the fantasies of the 1960s. McClary for example claims that for British rockers, ‘African Americans were thought to have access to real (i.e. preindustrialized) feelings and community – qualities hard to find in a society that had so long stressed individuality and the mind/body split’.[11] Schroeder surmises that ‘[i]t could be that the story of Johnson’s pact with the devil (which, as we have seen, was not widespread until the mid 1960s) burgeoned because of the alienated sensibilities of the generation that resurrected him: it is a product of the Age of Aquarius.’[12]

However, while this Faustian myth undoubtedly possessed a powerful transgressive mystique in the late 60s, it was not merely a literary construct. It also spoke to the musical intuition of young musicians such as Clapton, Page and Keith Richards seeking to explain for themselves the unprecedented power of amplified guitar music (linked to the psycho-acoustic phenomenon of aural saturation). It is phenomenologically extremely striking that many leading rock musicians of the time would speak of the actual experience of live, collective music-making at high volume levels – frequently intensified by the use of psychedelics – in terms of openness to external forces (the concept of the ‘shamanistic’ rock musician, a recurring image from the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead to Carlos Santana’s Shaman album of 2002, would merit a post in itself). Given that the Robert Johnson ‘crossroads’ legend was entirely consonant with their musical experience, it is not surprising that, as Patricia Schroeder contends, rock’s pioneers should have ‘made a cult figure of a Robert Johnson with preternatural skills and supernatural connections.’[13]

Intersection of Highway 49 and 61, Clarksdale (photo: Joe Mazzola)

The question of the extent to which the Robert Johnson mythology is rooted in fact is extremely difficult to answer for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has proved notoriously hard for scholars to assemble verifiable details about his life for the lack of solid written documentation in an oral culture marked by the frequent embellishment of eyewitness reports (meaning that even statements by Johnson’s entourage are often contradictory) and where the boundary between historical reality and mythologizing seems highly fluid. Secondly, it is clear that, even if the entry of the legend of Johnson’s crossroads deal with the devil into the popular white consciousness can be dated to Welding’s article of 1966, it stems from a mythology of the blues as the ‘devil’s music’ which was already well in existence in Robert Johnson’s own lifetime in his own African-American culture. As blues scholar Robert ‘Mack’ McCormick pointed out in a compelling 1992 documentary made in the Delta by John Hammond’s guitarist son, Johnson’s decision to become a professional musician seems to have been a response to the condemnation he received from his family on the death of his first wife Virginia during childbirth while Johnson was away from home playing music at Delta juke joints. McCormick argues persuasively that the appearance of diabolical imagery in many of Johnson’s songs is a reflection of the charges laid against him by a deeply religious community for which to play the blues (rather than Christian hymnody) was already to have sold one’s soul to the devil.[14] It seems psychologically more than credible to assert with McCormick that Johnson simply assumed an identity that others had effectively created for him, taking his images from an existing stock of archetypal myths circulating in the Delta. His fellow musicians such as Son House and Honeyboy Edwards being equally impregnated with this collective mythology, it is wholly logical that they should have attributed Johnson’s seemingly miraculous transformation from a mediocre blues musician to a guitar master during his absence from the Delta in 1930-31 to supernatural forces. It moreover seems that Robert Johnson’s was not an isolated instance, a similar equation of superior guitar playing with a Satanic pact having been made in the case of his namesake Tommy Johnson (1896-1956). Whether the singer of Hellhound on my trail propagated the myth of his own diabolical musical abilities is a matter of scholarly debate, but it is certain that he did nothing to oppose it and that he derived a certain notoriety from the persona generated by the legend.

The question of whether Johnson made a bargain with a genuinely existing spiritual entity of whatever nature is not only of course totally unverifiable (and therefore to be bracketed from discussion), but far less rich in implications than the historical and sociological issue of the broader perception of the blues as the music of the devil and the subsequent appropriation of this association by the rock vanguard in the 1960s. This appropriation would in some cases see the confluence of two legends originating on opposite sides of the Atlantic, which would merge as a result of the American-British cross-fertilization that was very much a feature of the later 60s (the most spectacular instances of this convergence being provided by Keith Richards and Jimmy Page). If the myth of Robert Johnson, and the blues more generally as the ‘devil’s music’ was one mythic hero, the second would be a figure whom I would personally prefer to ignore as intensely distasteful, but who unfortunately cannot be left out of any account of rock spirituality in its strange post-1966 quest for negative transcendence – Aleister Crowley.



[1] Although the origin of this hand sign is contested, it is widely attributed to John Lennon, who can be seen making the gesture on several photographs from 1967 which provided the basis for the cartoon art in the Yellow Submarine film (1969). It is sometimes asserted that Lennon was actually making the American sign language gesture for ‘love’; while this is plausible, the two signs are similar yet distinct, and it was Lennon’s hand position which – for whatever reason – was subsequently adopted by overtly occult bands from the end of the 1960s onwards.

[2] In this respect a particularly welcome development is the recent establishment of the Rock and Theology project spearheaded by Fordham University professor and rock bassist Tom Beaudoin.

[3] E. Michael Jones, Dionysos Rising: the Birth of Cultural Revolution out of the Spirit of Music (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 160-161.

[4] Ibid..

[5] Dionysos Rising, 156.

[6] Ibid., 85.

[7] Ibid., 94. In recent years, E. Michael Jones, presently editor of Culture Wars magazine, has increasingly been perceived as a conspiracy theorist rather than a serious scholar, dogged by persistent accusations of anti-semitism from many sources. The Catholic University of America’s cancelled a scheduled appearance by Jones in a lecture series in 2008, while in 2006 the Archbishop of Prague mentioned Jones by name as a panel participant in his condemnation for political extremism of a talk by Prof. John Rao, President of Roman Forum, titled “Novus Ordo Seculorum and the War on Terror”. Typically, Jones – whose claim to be ‘anti-Jewish’ but not ‘anti-Semitic’ speaks for itself – saw the Cardinal’s statement as the result of manipulation by local Jews.

[8] Giles Oakley, The Devil’s Music: a History of the Blues (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 219. Quoted Patricia R. Schroeder, Robert Johnson, mythmaking, and contemporary American culture (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 38.

[9] It is clear that Johnson’s fellow musicians made major contributions to the propagation of the Johnson mythology; it was for instance Sonny Boy Williamson who spread the idea that Johnson (who probably died of internal bleeding after being given poisoned whiskey) spent his last hours in a state of total breakdown, barking like a mad dog. This story naturally gave birth to the legend of the bluesman overtaken by the ‘hellhounds’ which can still be found in popular sensationalist treatments of Johnson’s life. In Robert Johnson: lost and found, scholars Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch make the important point that Johnson’s peculiar vocal delivery and playing on Hellhound seem to refer to an existing blues genre practised by artists such as Skip James, thereby suggesting that ‘autobiographical’ readings of the song are musicologically inappropriate.

[10] Intriguingly, Eric Clapton himself, whose descriptions of Johnson’s playing and singing verge on the religious, saw the Crossroads legend as baseless (see Andrew James Kellett, Fathers and Sons: American blues and British rock music, 1960-1970 (ProQuest: Ann Arbor, 2009), 231).

[11] Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom: the Content of Musical Form, (Berkeley/Los Angeles : University of California Press, 2000), 55.

[12] Patricia A. Schroeder, Robert Johnson, 40. As evidence of the continued hold of the Clarksdale myth over musicians’ imaginations,  it is interesting to note that in a PBS interview in 2004, Bob Dylan mysteriously referred to himself as making a ‘big deal’ at the ‘crossroads’ when asked about the source of his extraordinary creativity in the early 1960s, describing his own songwriting as inhabited by a type of magic. Dylan’s reasons for making this deliberate public reference to the Johnson legend are as unclear as the nature of this ‘deal’, but the poetic/symbolic allusion is explicit (Dylan began quoting  Robert Johnson in his songs as early as 1963 (‘Corrina, Corrina’ on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)).

[13] Ibid., 39.

[14] This is illustrated by the etymology of the word ‘juke’ or ‘jook’, whose origins are to be found in the Wolof word ‘dzug’, meaning ‘wicked, disorderly’ (Kellett, Fathers and Sons, 236n.). The links between the blues and folk ‘hoodoo’ religion in the American South have been powerfully explored by African-American scholar Julio Finn (The Bluesman: the Musical Heritage of Black Men and Women in the Americas (New York: Interlink Books, 1986) , who argues that Johnson’s Cross Road Blues alludes to the traditional guardian of the crossroads, the ‘trickster’ deity Legba of African folk religion, fused with the Christian Devil in the syncretistic context of the encounter of African religion with Southern Christianity. Finn asserts that it is by no means implausible that Johnson should be describing a ‘hoodoo’ ritual (Johnson’s acquaintance with local hoodoo practice being suggested by the inclusion of the hoodoo term ‘hot foot powder’ in Hellhound), and that the unwillingness of white academics to take the ‘supernatural’ accounts of Johnson’s work seriously merely reflect an inappropriate imposition of Western thought categories on a local situation heavily influenced by its African spiritual heritage.


Spirituality in and out of focus – on being fair to Paul Tillich (ii)

Artistic style and Ultimate Concern

In the last instalment of this post we looked at Christian theology’s ambiguous relationship to the developing counterculture of the 1960s, with a lead role being played by Paul Tillich and his students. If Tillich’s influence has waned considerably since his death, his engagement with the arts is one area where he continues to command respect if not agreement. In the current instalment we will take a closer look at Tillich’s provocative views on the nature of ‘religious’ art, asking among other things whether his comments, which are primarily focused on the visual arts, might also have a musical application.

One of Tillich’s basic contentions, expressed with great cogency in his essay Existentialist Aspects of Modern Art [1] is that it is a mistake for theological aesthetics to concentrate attention uniquely on works which have a directly religious subject, since all art is revelatory of humankind’s spiritual situation in an existential sense. As such it contains a message to which Christian theology needs to respond, but whose substance requires eliciting through careful reading. Tillich identifies four levels at which art and religion interact, with religion defined in two senses. Of these, the first is broad: ‘being ultimately concerned about one’s own being, about one’s self and one’s world, about its meaning and its estrangement and its finitude’, while the second is more narrow: ‘a belief in the existence of a God, and then […] intellectual and practical activities following out of this belief.’ Leaving aside the question of the validity of such definitions, this leads Tillich to a thought-provoking classification.

Firstly there are works which seem purely secular, but which express ‘power of being in terms of an unrestricted vitality in which the self-affirmation of life becomes almost ecstatic’ (thinking musically, here one might place the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Bartok’s Dance Suite or much jazz). These Tillich sees as ‘indirectly religious’ on accounts of their dynamism, since ‘God is present in secular existence as much as he is present in sacred existence’.

His second level – and the one which is perhaps the most interesting, as it offers the tantalizing possibility of a bridge between theology and music history, is that of ‘religious style, non-religious content’. At this ‘existentialist’ level the intensity of the work both in terms of form and content is such that it attains a metaphysical depth by ‘going below the surface’ both of nature and of human personality. Here Tillich’s examples include Van Gogh’s Starry Night (the same could be said of Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement inspired by the Dutchman’s picture) and Picasso’s Guernica (for which we could substitute, say, Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony or Penderecki’s Lament for the Victims of Hiroshima), the ‘metaphysics of time’ in Chagall (paralleled in Messiaen’s ) or the ‘uncanny, that which you cannot grasp’ in Munch (mirrored in the early atonal works of Schoenberg such as the Opus 16 Orchestral Pieces). While in all these paintings there is definite subject matter, Tillich contends (not unlike Adorno, whose Habilitationsschrift Tillich supervised while teaching philosophy in Frankfurt between 1929 and 1933) that it is the approach to form which speaks volumes about the human condition, whether the artist realizes it or not. He compellingly asserts that ‘the disruptedness of expressionism, surrealism, and all the other recent forms of styles, such as cubism and futurism, is nothing else than an attempt to look into the depths of reality’. The shattering of form is a way to penetrate beneath appearances in order ‘to see the elements of reality as fundamental powers of being out of which reality is constructed’. Such a line of interpretation would seem to provide rich possibilities for theological exploration of, say, the early Stravinsky, a piece such as Webern’s Six Pieces, the mysteriously elemental music of Edgar Varèse or Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question. Or for that matter any work characterized by what Tillich calls ‘religious style’, ‘because it puts the religious question radically, and has the power, the courage to face the situation out of which this question comes, namely the human predicament.’ This is not merely a question of  the artist’s individual subjectivity; if he ‘cannot help but betray by his style his own ultimate concern'[2], personal style is also inevitably related to the concerns of a human group and epoch. Tillich’s point here is surely well-taken, even if one may find his broad definition of ‘religious’ problematic.

The third category, for which Tillich reserves his unmitigated scorn, is that of ‘non-religious style, religious content’, i.e. art which although dealing with religious subject-matter, makes no attempt to reach any level of existential depth. Here Tillich would appear to be attacking the school of thought which locates the ‘sacred’ in art uniquely at the level of thematic material while seeing its artistic realization as irrelevant (musical examples are too numerous to mention, as any church music director reading this will probably testify!). The kitsch which constitutes the great majority of sentimental religious imagery is not only clearly regarded by Tillich as inferior to his second level, but indeed as ‘dangerously irreligious’, ‘something against which everybody who understands the situation of our time has to fight’. Here my only addition would be an even more dangerous sub-category marked ‘non-religious style, religious content, commercial motivation’ …

It is only at the fourth level that religious style and content are in harmony, as in the crucifixions of El Greco or Matthias Grünewald, whose Isenheim Altarpiece shows that ‘expressionism is by no means a modern invention’. As fourth-level musical examples we could of course cite the Passions of Victoria, Schütz, Bach or Arvo Pärt, as well as the greatest sacred works of Bruckner, Messiaen, Gorecki, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, MacMillan …

El Greco, La crucifixión, 1597

Rediscovering the questions?

Tillich argues powerfully that the Church needs to take heed of art – and particularly in his case the existential art of the twentieth century – in the light of its smug participation in the ‘petty bourgeisie resistance against modern art and against existentialism generally’. The Church refused to engage with the metaphysical questioning implicit in art because it felt that it had no need to do so, having all the answers to the human situation, but such answers ‘were no longer understood because the questions were no longer understood, and this was the churches’ fault.’ Tillich’s conclusion would seem to bear repetition as having lost none of its validity half a century later; existential art, says Tillich, ‘has a tremendous religious function […] namely, to rediscover the basic questions to which the Christian symbols are the answers in a way which is understandable to our time. These symbols can then become again understandable to our time.’

It is sometimes objected that the credibility of Tillich’s view of art is vitiated by an arbitrary bias in favour of expressionism as the criterion of religious style. While this equation of aesthetic authenticity with art that is ‘form-shattering’  is understandable given Tillich’s own life experience (not least of the trenches in World War I), it can hardly be raised to a general principle. When his metaphysical concerns are back-projected into the art of distant epochs his position becomes extremely dubious . An example of this is Tillich’s interpretation of Giotto as analysed by Michael Palmer in his monograph Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Art. Tillich praises Giotto as epitomizing the spiritualizing ideals of the High Middle Ages in his portraiture; his St Francis is ‘the expression of a divine power by which man is possessed and elevated beyond his individual character and personal experiences’, marked by the ‘transcendent reality to which Giotto subjects all individuals'[3] Such a reading, argues Palmer, completely ignores the revolutionary formal breakthrough in Giotto’s ‘restoration of naturalism and in his belief that the visible world must be observed before it is understood'[4], an attitude which attributes significance to the surface in a manner far removed from Tillich’s own idealist metaphysics. Palmer effectively objects that Tillich’s interpretation does not arise from the artwork, but treats the latter as a means of illustrating the former, a strategy which can only be carried out by ignoring crucial aspects of the art which are uncongenial to his thesis. Here Palmer joins the many critics of Tillich’s application of the correlative principle, namely that for all his laudable talk of listening to the ‘questions’ coming from culture, his brand of apologetics is only interested in rediscovering those questions which can be paired conveniently with answers which a theological reading of history has already determined in advance. Anything which might raise the possibility that the answers might need to be rethought finds itself screened out.

Giotto - St Francis (Confirmation of the Rule)

There is certainly no doubt that Tillich’s aesthetics are historically, geographically and socially conditioned, and yet this can arguably be seen to be their strength as well as their weakness; if his view that the period from the seventeenth century to 1900 was empty of authentic religious expression in art seems like a gross exaggeration, his readings of the European artistic production of the fin de siècle and early twentieth century remain compelling, for the simple reason that Tillich is talking about his own cultural Hintergrund. Again the comparison with Adorno’s writings on music seems apposite, in which the philosopher’s remarks on the Austro-German tradition, and particularly the expressionist works of the Second Viennese School, are far more insightful than his ill-considered diatribes against Sibelius or jazz.

A reading of North American avant-garde culture in the late 1950s and 60s, the time of Tillich’s greatest influence, in terms of a search for religious or pseudo-religious answers to existential questions likewise seems well-founded with regard to a period characterized by great idealism, however naïve and inchoate. For example, the turn to psychedelic drugs and Eastern spirituality among the American intelligensia in the 1950s and 1960s clearly corresponds to questions to which young intellectuals could find no answer within their own tradition, as we saw when discussing the crucial role of disaffected Protestants in the foundation and early years of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. The account given by Jeffrey Kripal of Esalen director Frederic Spiegelberg’s rejection of institutional Christianity in favour of nature mysticism provides striking evidence of this progression:

‘Spiegelberg’s phrase “the religion of no religion” had deep existential roots. It was based on a mystical encounter with the natural world he experienced as a young theology student. He was walking in a wheat field on a bright day when, quite suddenly, his ego vanished and what he calls the Self appeared. Through this altered perspective, he began to see that God was shining through everything in the world, that everything was divine, that there was nothing but holiness. As he reveled in this revelation, he came around a corner and found himself confronting a gray church. He was horrified. How, he asked himself, could such a building claim to hold something more sacred, more divine, than what he had just experienced in the poppies, birds, and sky of the now divinized cosmos? It all seemed preposterous, utterly preposterous, to him.'[5]

A generation felt compelled to resort to chemical experience and Asian religious traditions  in order to fill a spiritual vacuum that the conformist mainstream American culture of the 1950s and a Church oblivious of its own mystical foundations had left empty. Tillich scholar Donald F. Dreisbach makes this plain when recalling his years at MIT as one of many students ‘looking for solace and some freedom from the world’:

‘Except for stories coming down Massachusetts Avenue from the Psychology Department at Harvard, I knew nothing of anyone using drugs more powerful than alcohol, caffeine, and aspirin. But I did know several aspiring engineers who were reading the Eastern mystics.'[…] ‘I knew nobody who was interested in the Western mystical tradition, perhaps because of young people’s rejection of Christianity, but more likely because most students of my generation did not know that a Western mystical tradition existed.’[6]

Paul Lee corroborates Dreisbach’s remarks: ‘The pity is that our everday religious experience has become so jaded, so rationalized that to become aware of the mystery, wonderment, and confusion of life we must resort to the drugs.'[7]

The foregoing comments have tried to suggest that there may well still be theological mileage in applying Tillich’s question-answer methodology inasmuch as the culture of a given epoch is characterized by its engagement with existential concerns, whether these are expressed in overtly religious language or not. That such an existentialist thrust was germane to the world of European expressionism and the 1960s counterculture seems beyond dispute. If Tillich’s method seems less applicable to cultural contexts characterized by an apparent indifference to existential questions (which might be said to be a feature of the West in the late 1970s and 80s), a case can be made out for saying that the present context of global ecological and financial crisis, together with heady and bewildering technological change, is sparking a new ‘age of anxiety’ favourable to a revival of Tillich’s work.

The charges against him nonetheless remain serious, and it remains to be seen whether Tillich’s reputation has been damaged beyond repair. In the light of the evidence of the last two posts it is now therefore time for a verdict in the case against the author of The Courage to Be. The jury is out and will return in the next instalment.



[1] In Carl Michalson (ed.) Christianity and the Existentialists (New York: Scribner, 1956), 128-146. Except where noted otherwise, the following series of quotations are all taken from this essay, the full text of which can be found online at

[2] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C. Kimball (New York: OUP, 1959), 70, quoted in Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art and Rhetoric (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000), 155. Fordham professor Richard Viladesau makes impressive use of Tillich and Tracy in his constructive proposals for theological engagement with the arts as offering texts not only of theology (‘as an expression or embodiment of the Christian tradition and, hence, as an extension of the revelatory word of God in Christ’) but also of texts for theology, since art ’embodies and expresses the “spiritual situation” of a particular culture to which a religious message is addressed. For a more detailed but also more critical appraisal of Tillich’s views on art, see Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise (London: Continuum, 1991), Part I.

[3] Paul Tillich, Writings in the Philosophy of Culture (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1990), 172.

[4] Michael Palmer, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Art (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1983), 178.

[5] Jeffrey Kripal, ‘From Altered States to Altered Categories (And Back Again): Academic Method and the Human Potential Movement’, published on-line by the Martin Marty Center at ), 13. The role of the ‘gray church’ in this passage is curiously similar to that of the white Dutch Reformed Church in Van Gogh’s Starry Night as commented on by Makoto Fujimura: ‘Notice that the church is the only building in the painting that doesn’t have light shining inside. He’s trying to tell you through this visual parable that though the church still holds these disparate matters of the Spirit and Nature together in the world, the Spirit has left the church and went swirling into Nature and the Cosmos.‘ See the post ‘Fujimura’s Refracted Light’ on this blog.

[6] Donald F. Dreisbach, ‘Tillich’s Ambiguous Attitude Toward Mysticism’ (402-414) in Gerd Hummel and Doris Lax (eds) ‘Mystical Heritage in Tillich’s Philosophical Theology’, Proceedings of the VIII. International Paul-Tillich-Symposium, Frankfurt/Main 2000, (Münster: Lit, 2000) 402-414:410. As Donald Dreisbach and James Horne have emphasized, Tillich defended Christian mysticism, but distinguished it clearly from ‘absolute’  mysticism, as is shown by his discussion of the issue in his History of Christian Thought:

“Can mysticism be baptized?” I. e., can it be Christian? is that possible? Mysticism is much older than Christianity, it is much more universal than Christianity. What about the relation of Christianity to mysticism? Now in this seminar we came to the final answer that it can be baptized if it is made a concrete Christ-mysticism – in a very similar way as it is in Paul – -a participation in Christ as Spirit. And now this is just what Bernard of Clairvaux did. He is really the baptizing father in the development of Christian mysticism. This is his importance. And whenever you are attacked, and some Barthians tell you that Christianity and mysticism are two different things; you are either a Christian or a mystic, and the attempt of almost 2000 years to baptize mysticism is wrong – then you must answer that perhaps the most important figure in whom mysticism is expressed is Bernard, and this is the mysticism of love, and only if you have a mysticism of love can you have Christian mysticism. (See Donald F. Dreisbach, ‘Tillich’s Ambiguous Attitude Toward Mysticism’ and James R. Horne, ‘Mystical Characteristics Of Tillich’s “Absolute Faith”‘ in John Jesse Carey (ed.), Theonomy and Autonomy: Studies in Paul Tillich’s Engagement with Modern Culture (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984), 157-170.

[7] Quoted in Timothy Leary, High Priest (Berkeley: Ronin, 1995), 288.


Tillich rightly rejects the notion of an ethical imperative based on Divine commands as the expression of an ARBITRARY Divine will completely alien to human nature and therefore unknowable to humanity. For Tillich, the term “Will of God” “is not an external will imposed upon us, an arbitrary law laid down by a heavenly tyrant, who is strange to our essential nature and therefore whom we resist justifiably from the point of view of our nature. The “Will of God” for us is precisely our essential being with all its potentialities, our created nature declared as “very good” by God as, in terms of the Creation myth, He “saw everything that he made.” For us the “Will of God” is manifest in our essential being; and only because of this can we accept the moral imperative as valid. It is not a strange law that demands our obedience, but the “silent voice” of our own nature as man, and as man with an individual character.’ (24)

Jacques Ellul and the Empire of Nonsense (ii) – the modernist cookbook

In Part I of this post I introduced Jacques Ellul’s The Empire of Non-sense (1980) and his reading of the inner logic of modern art in terms of the demolition of content through technique. Here I would like to explore his view of how this despressing situation come about, before asking whether things have improved since 1980 and if so, how.

Edouard Manet, 'Bar at the Folies Bergères' (1881-1882)

Charles Baudelaire

The death of the symbol

Tracing his genealogy of modern art (with particular regard to France), Ellul sees the predominance of form, or rather the act of artistic production, over content as already visible with Manet, whom he contrasts with Baudelaire, who upheld Stendhal’s view of painting as la morale construite and the link between art and metaphysics. [1]  With Manet as Ellul reads him, the relationship between the object painted and the painter is no longer the principal locus of interest.[2] Objects are no longer important as symbols pointing to anything or anyone else; what is important is the autonomous image. It is not difficult to see this tendency towards a concentration on the technique of painting in the various ‘isms’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – impressionism and pointillism being two obvious cases in point as movements defined by their technical procedures rather than their subject matter; a parallel phenomenon of the non-referential use of words can be seen in Mallarmé’s poetry. Ellul bemoans the long-term triumph of the aesthetic stance associated with Manet, leading to a situation in which art in all its branches has been reduced to pure abstraction, nothing more than a formal arrangement of signs without meaning. Ellul here attacks Saussure’s famous statement  that ‘the linguistic sign does not unite a thing and a name, but a concept and an acoustic image’ [3] as an encapsulation of this anti-symbolic shift . The central point of Ellul’s thesis is that, whereas many artists and art theorists have regarded this radical abstraction as artistic liberation, even one with a spiritual dimension (as with Kandinsky, Malevich or Mondrian), it should rather be viewed as the capitulation of art to the all-pervasive empire of Technique which characterizes the modern world.

Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) 'Suprematist Composition', 1916

The symbolic dimension of art has been obliterated, Ellul asserts, by modernism’s obsession with procedures and methods, its abandonment of the desire to communicate. In the field of literature, this can be seen in the French structuralist and post-structuralist debates of the 1950s and 1960s; with the New Novel of figures such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and the theories of Roland Barthes, the author is for example reconceived as ‘a transmitter of orders and a performer of calculations’ [4], generating a ‘textual machine’ which can only be deciphered by a reader equipped with an arsenal of complex interpretative techniques. A century after Manet, modern art and literature have taken the aesthetic which arguably first manifested itself in paintings such as Olympia to its logical conclusion:

‘We all now know that signs (sounds, words, images…) carry quantities of information independent of the meaning of the intended message transmitted by means of them: the task of technique is to improve these signs indefinitely. The task of modern Art is to make the radical break between the independent information specific to the sign, and the message, which in the last analysis must be excluded.’ [5]

Here Ellul notes a paradox: once meaning has been eliminated, what is left is nothing but the means which were invented to convey it, but which no longer relate to any intelligible content. Art is no longer a means of creating human community, since the latter implies commonly shared symbols which have now disappeared:

‘And so we arrive at the final level, that of perfect isolation via what ought to be a means of communication. But the communication of something. This art presents itself as a marvellous network of telephone lines of all colours and capacities, co-axial cables, automatic switchboards, but there is nobody speaking into the mouthpiece, and nobody to listen and reply. The public is simply invited to admire the art of the engineer and the skill of the workers who have been able to produce such beautiful bundles of wires.’ [6]

The irony of this situation – and its logical incoherence – is that the posture of modern art is one that ‘refuses’ meaning, a refusal which mirrors the organizing technical principles of society at large, yet this is a meaning in itself, the communication of an anti-metaphysical stance. But this return of meaning is for Ellul purely negative, since art has given up trying to find anything beyond the technical system to which it has enslaved itself: ‘if one puts oneself inside this art of non-meaning, one there again finds meaning and coherence […] but a meaning which is nothing other nor more than that included in technique itself’. [7]

Once signs have been stripped of meaning, there is only one place for art to go if it is to be consistent with its own nihilistic urge.[8] The suicidal extension of this artistic trajectory is for art to become non-art, the destruction of the  artistic sign itself, the search for pure absence. This Ellul sees as the pathological denial of all that has in human history been associated with the word art, which has always assumed its own de facto participation in an overall context of human and natural meaning:

‘If there is no subject, intention, meaning, transmission of significant information, beyond operation, there is no art. Or at least, what until now has commonly been meant by this word. If this is how things are, the movement that we have just analyzed is the negation of all that has been considered an art since the beginnings of humanity.’ [9]

What has been put in place of meaning? Theory. Modern art has surrounded itself with a complex, opaque theoretical discourse, contends Ellul. It has a compensatory role, in that its function is to mask the vacuity of the art itself (which can only be enjoyed by the circle of initiates familiar with the theory), its incapacity to produce meaning (‘the gravity and depth of the theory is only there to veil this incapacity, this impotence’). [10] Paradoxically, the more intellectually and technically accomplished the work, the greater its emptiness: ‘an extraordinary complexity, prodigious means, an unrivalled intellectual and technical prowess, producing negativity. The most perfect organizational theory produces an incredible disorder.’ [11]

Jacques Ellul

The modernist cookbook

The only way in which such art is able to legitimate itself is by re-writing existing aesthetic norms and ‘educating’ the public as to the new canons of art in an effort to show that the Emperor is not naked, despite all appearances to the contrary. But this strategy is misguided and self-deceptive; here Ellul reaches for a strikingly blunt example demonstrating the limits of this kind of revisionism in order to show that his argument is not merely reactionary but possesses an objective basis. There is one art which cannot simply be re-defined arbitrarily according to a logic that says that ‘anything goes’ – cooking! Ellul’s analogy with modern art is consciously provocative and exaggerated, but nonetheless thought-provoking:

‘Apply for example the following recipe: take a glass of paradichlorobenzene, add a big tube of neoprene glue, sharpen it with a touch of ascorbic acid. Cook at a low temperature. Then cut some large slices of expanded polystyrene, heat it up in industrial oil, cover with sauce and serve hot … You can torture the ear and assault the eye, but you cannot taste just any old thing: that is the limit of reality.’ [12]

Ellul is of course arguing with characteristic sarcasm that aesthetics have an objective foundation, which modern art is only able to flout because the human spirit does not react immediately as the throat does to sulphuric acid:

‘Painting, literature, and music – [classed as] modern for their obedience to ‘anything goes’ are of the same order as my cooking recipe, but because their effect is only on the nerves, then the psyche, then it is intellectual, ethical and finally spiritual, and because nothing registers on a seismograph at any of these stages, we don’t care.’ [13]

With regard to music, Ellul clearly follows Adorno’s penetrating analysis (1941) of the inner logic of twelve-tone composition as a system designed to organize the free atonality of the revolutionary (and in my view the finest) compositions of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in their expressionist period. Adorno shows how the dodecaphonic system, intended to provide the composer with the means of total mastery over a raw material become ‘blind’ (since the twelve tones have no innate properties, being essentially equal, undifferentiated from one another except numerically), cruelly turns into a set of rules paralysing the imagination, a compositional straightjacket.[14] Where Ellul is perhaps more remorseless than Adorno is in showing that this mirrors exactly the modern world’s relationship to technology. The dissonances of Schoenberg’s music on one level speak of humanity’s condition in the twentieth-century, of the trauma of alienation in a world where human community has been replaced by machines. Yet on another level the mechanical procedures governing twelve-tone music reflect the extent to which this very music has been invaded by the technical environment, Ellul contends. Even those who protest against it, or try to expose it by replicating it (as in the case of Andy Warhol), end up having to work with this environment’s categories, which places modern art in a terrible bind.

What does Ellul offer by way of a remedy? He concludes by asserting that

‘art can only retrieve its critical force and word if it breaks radically with the system of technique, stops functioning with raw material and permutations, stops being enthused by materials and new machines etc.; there is no avoiding a return to values, ethics and meaning. Herein lies the choice. This does not of course mean repeating traditional values, returning to a meaning already affirmed previously, bourgeois ethics! No, art must precisely be inventive (beyond modernity), but inventive of that [i.e. values, ethics, meaning] and nothing else. The rest is comedy.’ [15]

One may criticize Ellul as being at times excessively pessimistic, cantankerous and unnecessarily confrontational;  his analysis of artistic modernism is undoubtedly one-sided, his treatment of the spirituality of artists such as Kandinsky excessively dismissive, while twelve-tone music is certainly susceptible of other interpretations (it is worth noting that Anton Webern was a key influence not only on the Western European post-war avant-garde, but also on figures such as Pärt and Gubaidulina). Ellul seems too to have overlooked the link between John Cage, roundly attacked in The Empire of Non-Sense, and meditative spirituality, a connection made explicit in American minimalism in the works of figures such as Tom Johnson.

Yet if his work is not immune to the charge of sweeping generalization, the force of Ellul’s cultural reading is such that once you have read him, he is difficult if not impossible to ignore. The  issues which he consistently raises are too serious and urgent to be put to one side, while his recuperation by present-day ecologists, critics of global capitalism and adventurous ‘Jesus Radicals’ of the blogosphere indicate that his analysis is anything but reactionary.

Has anything changed thirty years on? Is the artistic Empire of Technique still intact, or have we reached a time of ‘de-colonialization’? Is meaning making a comeback? These are the questions to which part 3 of this post will turn.


[1] ‘Stendhal said somewhere: “Painting is nothing but constructed morality!” If this word morality is understood in a more or less liberal sense, the same can be said of all the arts. As they are always the beautiful expressed by individual feeling, passion and dreams, that is to say variety in unity, or the different faces of the absolute – criticism touches upon metaphysics at every instant‘ (Charles Baudelaire, Le Salon de 1846 in Oeuvres Complètes Vol. 2 (Paris: Michel Lévy, 1868), 83). [‘Stendhal a dit quelque part: « La peinture n’est que de morale construite ! » – Que vous entendiez ce mot de morale dans un sens plus ou moins libéral, on en peut dire autant de tous les arts. Comme ils sont toujours le beau exprimé par le sentiment, la passion et la rêverie de chacun, c’est-à-dire la variété dans l’unité, ou les faces diverses de l’absolu, – la critique touche à chaque instant à la métaphysique.’]
[2] Ellul’s polar opposition between Manet and Baudelaire is borrowed from the work of the French art historian Pierre Daix. As the latter shows in his subtle account of the famous scandal surrounding Manet’s Olympia, the relationship between the two is considerably more complex than Ellul makes out; it is clear that he is using ‘Manet’ and ‘Baudelaire’ as ciphers for two opposed tendencies in art. Daix however makes a point which underlines Ellul’s judgement when he says that Manet’s Olympia, in the deliberately shock of the contrast between the crudity of the subject-matter (which Daix relates to modern pornography) and the virtuosity of Manet’s technique, is a key moment in modern art’s irreligious redefinition of transcendence: ‘Nobody can understand him because the transcendance is not in the subject-matter which the public wishes to read, but in the act of painting alone.’ [dans la seule peinture] (Pierre Daix, Pour une histoire culturelle de l’art moderne (Paris : Jacob, 1998), 204) It is of course worth pointing out that Ellul’s appeal to Baudelaire’s definition of artistic ‘morality’ has nothing to do with bourgeois ethics – Baudelaire famously having been taken to trial in 1857 for obscenity in the case of Les Fleurs du Mal, but rather in the transcendent depth beyond the visible posited by the poet. Although Ellul does not say as much, Baudelaire can be the starting-point for an interesting counter-narrative in French art based on the primacy of the imagination (as in symbolism or surrealism), with Debussy and Messiaen as its most eminent musical representatives. For a study of the powerful interaction between ‘mystic modernism’ and the French intellectual Catholic revival of the first half of the twentieth century, see Stephen Schloesser, Jazz Age Catholicism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), passim.
[3] Quoted in Ellul, L’Empire du non-sens (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1980), 192.
[4] Ibid., 193.
[5] Ibid., 191-192
[6] Ibid., 188.
[7] Ibid., 195.
[8] Here Adorno’s famous statement that ‘modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal’ (The Philosophy of Modern Music (London/New York: Continuum, 2004), 133) comes to mind. However, Adorno still sees a redemptive potential in modernism’s apparent refusal of false meaning in the critique of the meaningless world that it implies. If modern music is the ‘surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked’ (ibid.), it nonetheless constitutes a message. Ellul’s contention is that modern art has abandoned the very notion of such communication.
[9] Ellul, L’Empire, 196.
[10] Ibid., 203.
[11] Ibid., 204.
[12] Ibid., 233/234.
[13] Ibid., 234.
[14] ‘Twelve-tone technique is truly the fate of music. It enchains music by liberating it. The subject dominates music through the rationality of the system, only in order to succumb to the rational system itself […] This technique is realized in its ability to manipulate the material. Thus the technique becomes the designation of the material, establishing itself as alien to the subject and finally subduing the subject by its own force. If the imagination of the composer has once made this material pliable to the constructive will, then the constructive material cripples the imagination’ (Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, 67-68).
[15] Ibid., 282.