Flashback: Music and Religion

In anticipation of the shutdown of Apple’s MobileMe service, I am re-posting some of my old blog entries before they become harder to retrieve.

This entry was originally posted on January 12, 2006. I have modified the URL’s of the references to older blog entries of mine by linking to the re-posts of those entries.

Looking over my blog entries about both the best music of 2004 and of 2005, I felt the need to qualify what may be regarded as a trend in my tastes.

I called the song “Come to Jesus,” by Mindy Smith the worst song of 2004 and “Let Go,” by BarlowGirl the worst free download of the week from the iTunes music store. The former song has a very overt message, expressed in its title. The latter is much more subtle and subversive in its lyrics. (Read them here…)

Back in the 1950’s, Rock and Roll music was regarded as a tool of the devil. A lot has changed in 50 years. Both songs that I mention here have catchy beats that are brought down — hard — by the message that the songs are trying to convey. And the message is one I cannot embrace, which is ostensibly a willingness to move away from personal responsibility in the name of religion.

I want to underscore that I don’t have an inherent dislike of the marriage of music and spirituality. Were it not for religion, we probably wouldn’t have music at all today. In just about every faith’s hymnals, you are bound to find songs to inspire and impress you.

Even in the rock music era, there is definitely room for spirituality. When I put in my votes for all-time greatest songs on WXPN , the two songs that came out on top of my list (“Fallen Icons,” by Delerium and “Idol” by Amanda Ghost) have extremely spiritual connotations, which I more than embraced. The former tells the story of the pursuit of “firecracker, lightning seed” culminating in the narrator realizing “It was always in me.” And the latter questions “Why can’t I find myself an idol, somebody that I can look up to?”

If the subtlety of the spirituality of these two songs is lost on you, how about the more overt lyrics of a song like “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen? (I’ve always had a fondness for Jeff Buckley’s version of that song.) Over and above the title, what about the reference to the Biblical tale of Samson and Delilah? “She tied you to her kitchen chair / She broke your throne and she cut your hair / and from her lips she drew the hallelujah.”

The simple truth is, when it comes to music and spirituality, the message is important. That was true back when all music was religious in some capacity, and it’s still true today. The only difference is that not all music is religious today. Unlike other kinds of music, you can appreciate the song without agreeing with the message. But when religion is used to further a religious or spiritual message, the music becomes the message. Therefore, if the message is objectionable, it needs to be regarded as such.

And I have found, in my experience, that bad lyrics can bring down a song that is good, musically, faster than bad music can bring down a song with decent lyrics.

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One response to “Flashback: Music and Religion

  1. I like this post so much that I read it twice!

    I’m not a fan of proselytizing through music. I don’t want to listen to a song that was for all “intensive porpoises” written in order to convince me of some mythological truth that the artist wants the world to embrace.

    I am, however, a fan of spiritual and religiously inspired music. A lot of times, I will chose a song with some spiritual or religious theme over a song about something wholey secular.

    I like songs that are inspired by and invoke strong emotions and I like songs that reveal deep truths about our shared personal experiences. Love songs, protest songs and religious songs tend to do this quite well.

    My favorite “spiritual” album is currently Mumford and Sons’ “Sigh No More”. This is, to me, a perfect example of what I love about religiously based music.

    Not every song on the album is religiously focused- I would put “Dust Bowl Dance” in the protest song category, even though “an Gorta Mór” was happening 160 years ago. It’s message (sadly) remains relevant.

    Most of “Sigh No More” is recognizably spiritual or at the very least written from the perspective of a deeply religious and profoundly philosophical personality. It’s an album of deep thoughts from a particular perspective- that of a Christian who posses a strong and loving faith in the brotherhood of man and the promise of eternal peace when this hard life is done.

    The song “Timshel” is probably my favorite song on the album, although “After The Storm” is right up there too. “Timshel”, if you have not heard the song, is obviously a song of solidarity in our imperfections and our shared human struggles to make the best choices in life. It’s religious only because it’s written from within a specific religious worldview.

    It’s also a song that can be understood to adress the subject of abortion. If you asked me, before I bought the album, if I would love a Christian song about abortion, I would have probably flipped you off and gone on a shreiking pro-choice rant. But, honestly, I love this song. I love it because it is about having a _choice_ and it doesn’t tell the mother what choice to make. It doesn’t judge; it just says (my paraphrase) “We all have hard choices to make in life… You are not alone in this… We’ll stand by you.” This touches me and reminds me of how good people can be to each other.

    Even though I do not believe in the Christian God or in any sort of Salvationist ideology, I can appreciate the peace that it bring some people and the way it inspired them to be better people. I wish it did this for everyone. Unfortunately the vocal and vicious minority are the folks who do not put their ego aside and who have no sense of humility.

    If you don’t already have “Sigh No More”, you should get it. It’s really nice to be reminded that not all Christians are the self-righteous imposing preachy ignoramuses that write songs and make videos about how wrong everyone else is and how we are all doomed to eternal punishment because we choose to exercise our free will.

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