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I still remember the night I fell in love with the Beatles. It was a summer night in 1970, and I was six years old. When I went to bed in our house in Maryland in those days, it was often to the sounds of my oldest brother Joe playing music in his room a few feet away down the hall.
One night, Joe put on “A Hard Day’s Night,” the soundtrack to the great Beatles film. Many people recall their first experience with the Beatles as cataclysmic, life changing, revolutionary. Like an atomic bomb, the Beatles supposedly destroyed everything that had once stood before, creating the future and a new landscape. Yet on that humid night in 1970, my six-year-old reaction was quite different. I didn’t think of war, revolution, my parents or drugs. I thought of a girl. I thought of Lisa, who lived next door. I was in love with Lisa, and I found that love reflected back to me in the music of “A Hard Day’s Night”. In hearing “And I Love Her,” “I Only Want to Dance With You,” and “If I Fell” from Joe’s room, my imagination took off. As Paul Quay had described, the woman opening herself up to a man and her giving – or rather, their mutual self-giving as an expression of love of God – John, Paul, George and Ringo offered the same message. Like intense and very effective prayer, you could feel God in their sound – the happy bounce of “I Should Have Known Better”; the mystical, hopeful solemnity of “Things We Said Today”; the orgasmic cries of “When I Get Home.” In those brilliant notes, I saw myself and Lisa dancing, laughing, kissing, being husband and wife. If this was revolutionary music, it was preaching a very old lesson: the power of love.
I recently listened to “A Hard Days Night” again, and while I did think of love and even Lisa again, I was staggered by another revelation: rock and roll is a Catholic art form. The connection between the two seemed so obvious, I felt like Chesterton when he was asked what he liked about Western civilization. He didn’t know where to start.
I know, I know: This will take some explaining. Allow me to try. I’ll start by observing the obvious.
You don’t need to work at MTV to realize that love – and it’s loss – is the great theme of popular music, from Louis Armstrong right down to Justin Timberlake’s new single. Indeed, Timberlake’s brilliant song “My Love” evokes the initial ecstasy Adam felt when he first saw “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone”; the song even boasts an angelic vocal in its final few seconds. Whether it’s the Supremes declaring that there ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from you, the Beatles heralding the good news that she loves you, or Van Morrison whispering to his darling about this lovely night for a moon dance, this great desire to return to our original union with God – including the conjugal union between Adam and Eve that preceded the Fall – is the urge that launched a thousand hits. It is such a ubiquitous theme that it’s impossible to run through my favorite bands without coming face to face with it. The punk band the Replacements, my favorite band when I was in my twenties, have a song, “I Will Dare,” about working up the courage to meet a girl. The Allman Brothers sing of “Sweet Melissa.” The entire Motown canon, from Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder, is a joyful soundtrack of the quest for love – more specifically, the quest for the love of that one person whom you were meant to be with, the one who is the answer to a prayer, who can make time stop.
As I am writing this, I am listening to the song “Original of the Species” by U2. The play on Darwin in the title is the introduction to the song’s grander point: that each human being is individual, non-repeatable, unique. This is why when real love comes into our lives it is such a staggering experience: we are meeting, in the words of the great theologian William May, “a bearer of transcendent value, the subject of a dignity and a sanctity that ought to be recognized by others and protected by society.” U2 singer Bono heralds the arrival of his beloved: “you are the first one of your kind.” Then the heady chorus kicks in:
And you feel like no one before
You steal right under my door
I kneel ‘cause I want you some more
I want you some more
I want you some more
In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love), Pope Benedict refers to the love between a man and a woman as “that love which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings.” In the U2 song, love “steals right under my door,” neither planned nor willed. Bono can only cry for more, delirious with the fecundity and gratuitous grace of God. It’s probably no mistake that he cried for more three times, reflecting the Trinity.
This all works because in the last 30 years the Catholic Church has closed the gap between eros and agape – the love of man and woman and the love between God and man. The Church has never denied this connection, but since the pontificate of John Paul the Great it has been developed in powerful ways – and ways that make rock and roll music seem a power tool of evangelization. In his massive series of lectures that are known as the Theology of the Body, John Paul II revolutionized Catholic teaching about sex – a revolution that is now just starting to unfold as people distill the dense and gargantuan work. In the Theology of the Body, John Paul talks about the Song of Songs, those wonderful, and even steamy, love poems of the Old Testament, not as a metaphor of the love of God for His people, as was traditionally done in Catholicism, but as the reflection of a very real event – the love of Adam and Eve before the Fall. In one crucial passage, John Paul II contradicts the notion that God made Eve as a “helper” so she could get next to Adam to push the plow in the Garden of Eden. In fact, Eve’s help was spiritual help. She would do no less than make it possible for Adam to experience the Trinitarian love of God. Prior to this Adam “sensed that he was alone.” He was different from the animals, and while in communion with God, he was not God. Eve, rather than bringing about Adam’s ruin, allowed him to experience the interior life of God.
Suddenly the metaphysical imagery of so much pop music – the love that brings joy, sweet delirium, a touch of the eternal – seems not childish infatuation but a prayer to something more real than the air we breathe. We begin to understand why we will move heaven and earth to find and keep the woman who will change everything. Because she will.
Mark Judge, grandson of former baseball Senator Joe Judge, is author of “Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington’s Only world Series Championship” and “God and Man at Georgetown Prep.”