“They Sold Their Souls for Rock N Roll” – A Critical Review

I did a major website overhaul some years ago to get rid of out of date or irrelevant content, but I continue to get requests for this article so I have chosen to repost it. Enjoy!

Introduction

Pastor Joe Schimmel is founder of Fight the Good Fight Ministries and pastor at Blessed Hope Chapel in Simi Valley, California. At one time his main area of concern seemed to have been exposing the evil behind rock music. This was reflected in a video series which came in various packages of varying age and length (the largest is a full ten hours!).

I watched two of them (including Rock-n-Roll Sorcerers) to appease a friend, and I include the material from both here. The videos consist of Schimmel’s commentary followed by clips demonstrating his points about various artists and the effect he believes their music is having on the world.

Good Points

For an anti-rock “expose'” the arguments are not as bad as many have been in the past. Schimmel avoids some of the more cliché (and, I believe, absurd) arguments such as rock’s alleged “demonic drumbeat,” or the idea that some music styles are evil in and of themselves. He also states that music can be used for good or evil. This admission of neutrality on the style end of things is refreshing. Instead, he focuses on the lyrics, lifestyles, and statements made by the artists as evidence of his points.

Schimmel also admits that Satan has many tools of deception and is not limited in his influence to rock music, or even music in general. Schimmel does, however, think that Satan can inspire music based on a popular but questionable understanding of Isaiah 4 and Ezekiel 28. (Many people think these verses refer to Satan, although they do not actually mention him.)

Further, the videos provide enough examples to leave little doubt in the viewer’s mind that there is much evil in the music business (whether or not this is really relevant remains to be seen).

Bad Points

You might notice that I devote the majority of this article to “the bad points.” This is because it takes a lot longer to explain these than to simply list them (as I have the good points, which require little in the way of explanation or examples). Although Schimmel presents some good information here and there, there are so many problematic issues that only a very careful viewer will get much good out of them without also imbibing the bad.

There is a lot to this production and I wrote over 6 pages of notes as I perused the series. While a whole book could be written in response (and would be required if it went point-by-point), it will have to suffice to point out some general categories of problematic issues that repeat throughout the presentation.

End Times Speculation meets New Age Conspiracy Theory

Schimmel links the evils in the music arena to Satan and the coming New Age rule of the Antichrist. While New Age conspiracy theories have become rather passé in Christian circles since the mid-90’s, end time mania has not let up (and the rather embarrassing success of the Left Behind series will probably keep it going for some time). Schimmel attempts to link both of these pop theology themes to pop music.

Schimmel cites verses concerning the end that have been true in every generation as evidence that this generation is “exactly what prophecy predicts about the end times” (like musicians being lovers of money – was this never the case with anyone else before now???). Further, like most end-time speculators, Schimmel grasps at any connection (real or imagined) to make his points. He even states that the Internet (WWW) = “666” in Hebrew, as do bar codes, in his attempt to show how the taking of the mark is “right around the corner.” (Note that the number of the beast is not “six-six-six” – i.e., three sixes; rather it is “six hundred sixty six” – the amount. Nice try though.)

Poisoning the Well

Schimmel claims early on that his video collection will show clearly to anyone who has eyes and ears that the claims he makes are correct. However, he then resorts to what is called “poisoning the well” in debate circles. To poison the well basically means to set up your opposition to look bad before they get a chance to represent themselves. Schimmel’s commentary that he gives prior to each piece of evidence is really pre-interpretation. It sets up his audience to “see” his particular understanding rather than allowing the material to speak for itself. If what he is exposing is so “obvious” and “clear”and “incredible” (as he states over and over again), then why all the pre-commentary?

Many of the “clear and obvious” evidences that Schimmel brings to the table would be useless without this rhetorical move. For example, he says Jimmy Page is invoking Satan by pointing his bow at the crowd in four directions during a live guitar solo because this is similar to an Aleister Crowley ritual. Then he shows the video. But, could it be that Page simply wanted to include the whole audience in his pointing?

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Nowhere is Schimmel’s pre-interpretation tactic more apparent than in his “demonstration” of backwards messages (these are different from intentional back masking, as Schimmel admits). He plays segments of rock songs that have long been “known” to contain backwards messages to link these artists to Satanism.

He attributes the alleged backwards messages to Aleister Crowley, who instructed his followers to learn how to do things like walk and talk backwards. What is interesting is that Crowley was clearly not talking about the speech reversals that Schimmel uses for his evidence. In the very passages Schimmel cites, Crowley writes that one should practice saying, “Eh ma I,” instead of, “I am he.” But this is not a backwards message! “Ehma I” reversed does not sound even remotely like “I am he.”

The fact is that without a script most people cannot decipher these so-called messages in the first place, and the number of different “obvious” interpretations of these alleged messages bears testimony to the fact that they are really the product of one’s imagination. The most famous of these is from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. I have found numerous conflicting “messages” claimed to be present in the same passage (yet all sound equally plausible when you listen for them). None of them match, and Schimmel’s is actually the least popular of them all.

Steve Terreberry has several videos devoted to debunking these claims.

So-called backwards messages have been found in songs from Popeye the Sailor Man to the laughing song in Mary Poppins. The obvious conclusion is that these speech reversals are common . . .and meaningless.

Further, even if our minds could somehow grasp these hidden messages while unprompted and played forward (which has never been shown to be the case), how could something so ambiguous be of any use to Satan anyway? Even if these “messages” were somehow understood,they would still have to find their way into our intellect in order for us to act on their suggestions (which few are even said to contain) -and in that case we would still be free to choose (and responsible for our choices).

Questionable Use of Juxtaposition and Assumption of Causality

Schimmel often edits song and event footage together to show what he thinks are causal connections. The first chapter of the DVD overlays video footage of the Columbine shootings over lyrics to songs that he believe inspired the acts. Now, it would be difficult to argue that there is no connection between the music people listen to and their actions if they are very similar. Some people directly claim that music was, in fact, their inspiration. However, it is a classic mistake in thinking to confuse correlation with causality. The problem lies in two areas: causality and its direction.

First, in order to show that two things are in a causal relationship it takes more than merely showing that they are both present, near in time, or even vary with one another. For example, it is true that as ice cream sales increase or decrease, so do drownings. Does this demonstrate a causal connection? No, because there is a third cause of both – heat. The hotter it gets the more people buy ice cream and go swimming (and thus drown). There is no causal connection between the two. Schimmel does a good job of showing correlations, but provides no arguments for causality.

Further, the direction of causality (if present at all) must also be demonstrated, not simply implied as if it is obvious. It may be that evil people simply enjoy evil lyrics. Perhaps the lyrics even provided an outlet for the person’s evil. But in this case it was the person’s character that caused them to choose that music – not vice versa. Schimmel makes no attempt to prove any of these connections, he merely asserts them and then plays emotional music with evil lyrics juxtaposed with shock footage of actions that he claims were caused by it. Actual argument is needed if one is going to blame a song for an action.

Fallacious Logic 1: Illicit Minor

Schimmel makes other classic blunders while arguing his case against rock music. One common one is that of the Illicit Minor fallacy, which is concluding a certain universal truth about a subject with only particular proofs. This type of fallacy occurs when one derives a conclusion that says more than the premises of the argument will allow – thus invalidating the argument. For example, if I state that my dog is black, and my neighbor’s dog is black, it would be illicit to conclude that all dogs are black. In order to validly make a universal claim I have to say something universal in the premises of my argument.

Now, it would, of course, be unfair to ask Schimmel to survey every artist in every possible genre to make his case. In fact, he wisely attempts to get his examples from mainstream, popular artists, and in this he is fairly successful (although his choices for heavy metal are often more fringe). However, he repeatedly takes these cases to be evidence for the whole of popular music. “Rock-n-Roll” is not indicted as a genre by even a majority of evil artists. In order to validly conclude that the rock genre is to be avoided as evil, Schimmel would have to argue something that is true of all of it – but he does not.

Fallacious Logic 2: Special Pleading

Special Pleading is taking only the evidence that supports your case and ignoring that which does not, or would work equally well against your own case. Schimmel makes sweeping judgments of bands based sometimes on a single reference. Pink Floyd, for example, has one relatively unknown song that misquotes a Psalm in its lyrics. Schimmel concludes from this that they are a satanic band. Is this fair? Apparently,according to Schimmel, if a band has a single “evil” song he believes this is enough to slap on the satanic label.

However, following the same logic I could find a single “good” song and conclude that the band is Christian! Instead of focusing on Iron Maiden’s rare controversial songs (e.g. The Number of the Beast*), why not list their many morally upright songs (such as Powerslave, their song about an Egyptian pharaoh who realizes that he is not really a god, or the musical version of Samuel Taylor Colleridge’s epic poem The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, their quoting of G. K. Chesterton in Revelations, or the nod to C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet?). Do these songs make Iron Maiden morally upright?

*This song , by the way, is simply a report of a dream the bass player had, and is not promoting the taking of the number as Schimmel implies. The lyrics indicate quite the opposite in fact, as the subject of the song is specifically said to be working evil in the taking and giving of the number – in fact, isn’t that sort of like what the Bible says about it too?

Ignorance of Context and Significance

In a similar vein as above, another questionable Schimmel tactic comes from his “proof-texting” practices with lyrics and statements. Often there is simply not enough context given to adequately judge the significance of the artists’ passages. Now, it must be admitted that he already has over ten hours of material, and this could easily turn into hundreds if full context were shown in every case! However, it must also be noted that it would be very easy to cite things far enough out of context to present an inaccurate picture.

The Christian band Saviour Machine, for example, has a series of songs concerning the end times that include songs about the antichrist. One of their projects, Legend, has several songs with satanic themes – one that even distorts the Lord’s prayer. But they do this to show the evil of the antichrist (something Schimmel would appreciate!). As this is a musical drama made up of several songs, there is not enough context in any one of them to show that the band is trying to make true statements about evil and not trying to promote it. If I played only these songs (and primed the pump a bit before letting someone hear them) it would be easy to conclude that Saviour Machine was a satanic band when they are in fact the exact opposite.

In one example Schimmel attacks U2 for singing The Beatle’s Helter Skelter because this was the song Charles Manson referred to when he spoke of his version of Armageddon. But the the song is just about playing on a slide, and in concert U2 specifically said that their reason for playing the song was to “take it back”from Manson!

Even artists employing sarcasm to make a point, or simply to lampoon, are lumped into the same category as those who are serious about what they are saying. Weird Al Yankovic spoofs many of the artists that Schimmel quotes simply by singing their lyrics to polka music, so he could be made to look pretty bad himself! Or consider Schimmel’s example of the KISS song God of Thunder. It was written as a joke by Paul Stanley to make fun of Gene Simmons being so “scary.” How many other examples like these might Schimmel be citing?

Bad Hermeneutics

Schimmel quotes many songs throughout his presentation that he claims make his points obvious, but many times he is actually doing injustice to the artists (as well as the art and science of interpretation). His well-poisoning tactics come on strong here, as he gives his pre-commentary before showing the lyrics as evidence. Schimmel reads his own interpretations into the meaning of a given song or statement and then blames the artists for his misunderstanding.

For example, Schimmel states that the 80’s world hunger benefit song We Are The World is a satanic description of the one world new age empire under antichrist. He claims that the phrase “we are the world, we are the children” is speaking against the biblical truth that we are supposed to be children of the light – not the world. This is an equivocation on the word “world” -the song clearly does not have the world / Church distinction in mind here! When the song says we should be “bound together as one,” Schimmel makes reference to the kings of Rev. 6 who were “bound together “against Christ. This would be hilarious if Schimmel were not serious!

Even feeding the hungry (which we are commanded to do in Mt. 25 – an “end time” text no less!) comes under Schimmel’s attack as he thunders, “Man shall not live by bread alone!” to the wild applause of the audience (who apparently did not notice that it still takes bread to live, and that’s all the song is asking for). When the song says we can “save lives” Schimmel says we cannot! But he is referring to everlasting salvation versus temporal, physical life. Of course this is not what the song is saying.

Christians would never allow this kind of mishandling when it comes to a skeptic’s understanding of the Bible. But many will swallow it hook, line, and sinker so long as it seems to supports their preconceived conclusions. There are two more categories of this kind of poor interpretation that are so prevalent they deserve their own headings:

Christianizing the Artists’ Statements

Schimmel makes the claim that when it comes to his conclusions of demon possession and the like, that we don’t have to take his word for it because we can just listen to what the artists say about themselves. However, as he does with many of his song examples, Schimmel will often lay a “Christian spin” onto the meaning of a given song or statement and then blame the artist for this misunderstanding.

For example, when Madonna speaks of having “lots of demons in her,” is it really fair for Schimmel to quote this as an admission of being demon possessed? Or is it more likely that she is simply repeating a common phrase to speak of inner struggles?

When an artist claims that they were “given” a song, or that they were inspired by voices or spirits, Schimmel simply concludes that these must be demons and therefore the artists themselves are admittingto being demon possessed! In another instance Schimmel blatantly twists the words of Jim Morrison who thought Indian ghosts or spirits gave him his lyrics. Schimmel restates this as an admission of demon possession. It is simply not fair for Schimmel to impose a Christian interpretation on someone else’s words and then blame them for what they said.

Oddly, these claims are really not that much different from many Christians’ claims of “inspiration” from God. How many Christian artists give God credit for their work? Does this really mean that God inspired them? Doubtful. Why, then, trust the secular artists’ explanations? It seems safer to say that many artists (Christian or non-Christian) think their material comes from outside themselves and that their label for this phenomena depends on their world view.

Satanizing the Artists’ Statements

Many of the statements Schimmel uses as evidence carry no necessarily satanic overtones, but are merely secular ideas that any non-Christian might embrace. But Schimmel seems to equate any similarity of practice or language with a satanic conspiracy.

So, for example, when Aleister Crowley says, “‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law,” then anyone who promotes a “do it your own way” message is not only non-Christian, but is actually a Crowley-disciple (or at least an occultist). This is seriously and obviously flawed thinking.

Just because occultists practice something, that does not mean all who practice that thing are occultists. When satanist Aleister Crowley promotes walking and talking backwards is this really an indictment of Michael Jackson’s moon-walking? (Yes, Schimmel actually makes this connection!)

Urban Legends

Schimmel also buys into numerous urban legends and quotes them as facts. He cites, for example, one of the more famous ones: that the Eagle’s song Hotel California is about the Church of Satan. He cites as clear and unmistakable evidence the fact that the Church of Satan was on California street in San Francisco and the fact that it was founded in 1969 (a year mentioned in the song with reference to the absence of wine – clearly a reference to Christ of course!).

Now, this reveals an ongoing problem in the interpretation of art. Good songs will rarely just come out and say something in a way that is obvious- it’s simply not artistic. Thus, in many songs there are many different possible “interpretations.” In these cases the artists alone have the authority to explain what they were referring to.

The Hotel California legend (as well as the claim that the Church of Satan’s founder, Anton Lavey, is pictured on the back cover) has been debunked time and time again – but Schimmel claims his interpretation as authoritative. (Even if the song is interpreted in this fashion it is certainly not promoting the Church of Satan. The “Hotel California” is a bad place that the singer wishes to leave!)

Libel and Slander

Many of the above problems lead to a place no Christian should ever go – the sins of libel or slander. Both concern false statements made about a person or persons whether in writing (libel) or in speech (slander). To paint many of these artists with such a broad brush based on Schimmel’s own questionable interpretations of their work is extremely dangerous and could easily lead to bearing false witness (one of the “big ten” in the sin list).

Conclusion

Schimmel succeeds in showing, that the pop/rock music culture has a lot of evil in it. I don’t think any knowledgeable person would deny that. But so does country music. And Hollywood. And books. And painting. And professional baseball. And politics. And construction work. And . . . you get the picture.

Why is this the case? Because people are responsible for doing these things, and people are, to various extents, evil.

So long as we keep this in mind, and our assessment of individual examples are accurate, we can make good judgments. One who has the ability to do this will find some of They Sold Their Souls for Rock-n-Roll or Rock-n-Roll Sorcerers of the New Age Revolution useful. But those who have not been trained in critical thinking or are ignorant of the facts should be extremely careful in accepting what Schimmel tells them to conclude.