When Rick MacArthur turned 8 years old, he asked his family to throw a birthday party not for him, but for his hero, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Buddy Holly.
“We put our money in the jukebox and listened to ‘Oh Boy’ and ‘That’ll be the Day,’” he recalled.
Holly died in a plane crash the day before MacArthur turned 9. The boy was heartsick.
“I think I cried myself to sleep that afternoon,” said the pastor of Arlington Hills Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minn.
Years later, as a student at the University of North Carolina, MacArthur studied radio and television production and worked as a DJ at the campus radio station. But being a radio announcer “never lived up to all the hype,” he said.
Still later he heard — and answered — God’s call to ordained ministry. But he never quite let go of the folk, Motown, British Invasion and all the rest of the foundational rock ‘n’ roll music of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
He’s found a way to bridge both loves, offering a week-long History of Rock and Roll class during the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School, held July 24-29 at Buena Vista University. About 625 people attended.
While he said he’s struggled a bit to make connections that the music of, say, Simon and Garfunkel or The Supremes have with matters of faith, MacArthur said that afflictions that hit us all — alienation, heartbreak, anxiety, separation, inner turmoil — turn up in the music that MacArthur and most of his 25 students listened to while growing up.
Take the Smokey Robinson and the Miracles song, “The Tracks of My Tears”: “People say I’m the life of the party, because I tell a joke or two/Although I may be laughing loud and hearty, deep inside I’m blue ...”
“That’s the turmoil that all teenagers feel,” MacArthur said, “and I think it’s important for people to connect with the memories these songs bring back.”
Even a song like J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers’ “Last Kiss” (“Where oh where can my baby be?/The Lord took her away from me”) has the singer vowing to be good following his girlfriend’s untimely demise, “so I can see my baby when I leave this world.”
“Early on I think that worked for me,” MacArthur said with a smile. “But it’s not my faith now.”
He said his goal for the class hasn’t wavered since he first started planning the course months ago.
“I want people to remember the joy and celebrate the diversity of these musical roots and all the memories that come flooding back,” he said. “That’s when we allow the music to speak to us afresh.”
Mike Ferguson is a member of United Presbyterian Church in Lone Tree, Iowa, and a reporter for The Muscatine Journal, the newspaper where Mark Twain got his start. He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.