Catholic Phoenix


How the Catholic Church is Like the Grateful Dead

For Younger Readers of Catholic Phoenix: This Was What Mankind Used Before the iPod Was Invented

I had an acquaintance in my college years who used Black Sabbath, AC DC, and the Grateful Dead all in one breath in a conversation with me, as if they were one style musically and uniformly distasteful. This was a tragic misconception to my ears, but words could not resolve the problem.

A friend created a mix of the bluegrassiest, folkiest, jazziest (and least psychedelic) Dead tracks he could lay hands on for her. We presented it as an unnamed band that her folky tastes should appreciate.

This folk music lover enjoyed the music so much she wanted more and demanded the name of the band. Having put her prejudices aside, she had listened openly and heard something she liked.

I often hear people describe the Catholic Church as though they somehow knew that it was all religion and no spirit, all works and no faith, all rules and no grace, all earth and no heaven. These are people who have not studied the Church.

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen said it best:

There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church, which is, of course, quite a different thing.

8 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Cyril

    Great point about the Church. Reminds me of what Fr. Neuhaus used to say, that he did not believe in the God in which the “new atheists” did not believe. The name may carry odious connotations, but things change when you put aside prejudice–when you listen to the mix tape without the label.

    I have to say, by the way, my experience of the Dead parallels that of your friend. All I knew at first was the taboo of their name and their wacky cult following. Real enough. But the beauty of much of their music does, I think, transcend those things. I won’t extend the comparison with the Catholic Church too far, though…


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  3. John

    Well call me paranoid or just paying attention to Pope Benedict’s commentaries on the matter (not just rock but “pop” as well: Truth and beauty go together, but that doesn’t mean the devil can’t “use” samples of truth or even beauty (alternately, never in tandem) to deceive people, ultimately drawing them away from both. Some of my best friends are deep into Rock. They’re nice enough, even fairly articulate, though not the best informed people I know (of course my standards for information are ridiculously high as anyone will tell you), but well-meaning. I’ve learned not to directly challenge their nirvana (pun intended), but I’m careful to avoid the stuff and drop a shower of hints until they take one. This is a bear of an issue to find clarity in. (To make matters worse I’m also an Aspie so I hate loud noise generally.)


  4. Bette

    A fitting analogy. There are probably vast numbers of people who hate the Dead for what they believe them to be and who hate the Church for what they believe it to be. Now if we could just play an old mix tape of Catholicism for the unsuspecting Church haters…


    1. Denys

      There are also plenty of people who are rightfully suspicious of the Dead not for “what they believe them to be,” but for what they actually were. The fact that lots of their music sounds cool and that lots of their fans were weirdos ought not to obscure the sad story of drunkeness, sexual debauchery, and drug abuse that the members of the band themselves took on the road with them. Pigpen Mckern–dead early of liver cirrhosis. Jerry Garcia–hardly the cute, teddy-bear of a figure he liked to portray himself as.

      The entire iconography of the band screams “culture of death”. At some point, it doesn’t matter any more that some of their music sounds cool–the band is the whole package, not just some folksy songs on a mix tape.


      1. Bette

        Thanks. I meant to say, “what they believe their music to be”. That’s what I got from the post . No one is trying to canonize the Dead or their fans. The point is that the people who judge without information, knowledge, or experience might just end up surprised by reality. The Bishop Sheen quote really says it all.


        1. Denys

          Point made clearly. Agreed.

          We Catholics have some peculiar artwork as well–someone who didn’t know any better would look at Michaelangelo’s “Last Judgment” and conclude that Catholicism is some kind of weird torture-death cult, in which nudity plays a large role.

          Those pagan-hippie album covers with the skeletons smoking joints have got nothin’ on us–and our iconography is DEEPER. Plus it’s true.


  5. Cyril

    Denys and Bette: Excellent discussion, all around. But I have one tiny nit to pick: through his early and later career, the wolf-in-teddy-bear’s-clothing Garcia did inspire a fair number of musicians to love beauty and tradition in music, rather than shiny leather postmodern trends. If they made it beyond the weird cult, that is.

    John: I can’t agree more. Since eternal salvation is rather an important issue, and esoteric moments of beauty in music are arguably fleeting, I’d err on the side of caution, choosing carefully what I submit my ears to. There’s no way my soul would be worse off without having heard “Sugar Magnolia,” and that’s for sure.