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Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Music of the "Spiritual but Not Religious"

I have a problem with Christian music. There was a time in my teen years when I was caught up in the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scene (think Mercy Me, Michael W. Smith, Chris Tomlin, etc.), but I left that genre with a sense of disappointment. I grew weary of listening to other people worship. My personal distaste for CCM is more complicated than I have time to express, so I’ll boil it down this way: CCM to me seems to be poor-quality remixes of contemporary pop or rock music behind lyrics that sound too, well, “churchy.”

I left CCM and developed an appreciation for just about every genre of music.[1] I find that pop music, R&B, and rap are some of the purest expressions of the ethos of our culture and thus a distilled resource for just what the Church is working with when it works with people. My work in public education helps me stay current with popular artists and songs, too – my students are always playing their favorite songs and inviting me to comment on them.

I’ve noticed that pop/rap/hip-hop music has been allergic to lyrics and themes about anything holy or sacred. Almost by definition, pop music avoids these themes in favor of more shallow ones, giving more value to the overall sound of the track. It is not surprising that secular music avoids the sacred – the history of our cultural music demonstrates a bright line between “church music” and secular songs.

Popular music is an expression of the culture that consumes it – those tracks that are widely known among Baptists in Mississippi reflect their personal and communal values and hopes. The music my students listen to does the same. These two categories are miles apart, though; Saccharin-sweet Christian pop has little in common with the get-money, hyper-sexualized music that my students blast.

In the early years of this decade I noticed something changing. I discovered the band Mumford and Sons, and couldn’t get enough. Their lyrics were profoundly spiritual and seemed to be a conversation with God that was unlike anything I was used to on the radio. The band’s lyrics were not explicitly Christian[2], and the band resists the label of being a “Christian band.”[3] However, their music was certainly spiritual.

Mumford and Sons is certainly not the only band to sing songs with Christian themes and spiritual lyrics. What was so striking to me was that their type of music gained so much popularity in pop culture that it won “Album of the Year” at the 2013 Grammys.

The infiltration of such overt spirituality into popular music seems to have coincided with the rise of the “nones,” those who have been categorized as the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd. They are hungry for spirituality in life but are against religion and organized churches. We were suddenly aware of these millions of people (mostly the younger, music-savvy group) who resonated with the themes of Sigh No More and Babel and were unashamed of it.

Since then I’ve noticed more and more artists climbing the charts with songs directly addressing the role of faith and the Church in their lives:

Hozier’s self-titled album directly addresses his antipathy toward the Church in Ireland[4] but bears the unmistakable marks of the artist’s own personal spirituality. “Take Me to Church” is a powerful song, full of rich Christian imagery baptized in sacrilege.[5] The rest of the album addresses themes that are undeniably spiritual (“In A Week” is a haunting song about love outlasting death) but that are set free from the artist’s perceived ecclesial constrictions.

“Ghost” by Ella Henderson tells of the artist’s desire to be free from the memory of a former lover. Her lyrics include
 “I keep going to the river to pray
'Cause I need something that can wash all the pain
And at most I'm sleeping all these demons away
But your ghost, the ghost of you
It keeps me awake”

            “Each time that I think you go
I turn around and you're creeping in
And I let you under my skin
'Cause I love living in the sin

Boy you never told me
True love was going to hurt
True pain I don't deserve
Truth is that I never learn”

Lilly Wood and the Prick have released a song called “Prayer in C” which includes the lines
“Yeah, you never said a word
You didn't send me no letter
Don't think I could forgive you

See our world is slowly dying
I'm not wasting no more time
Don't think I could believe you”

This track seems to be a confession to a God that the artist cannot forgive for the evil and suffering in the world. It is a lament Psalm, a fist in the face of an apparently unloving God.

For other artists, like Quiet Company, Christianity is something that they’ve left behind in favor of atheism. They have not abandoned the vocabulary of faith or the forms of the Church in favor of the cold, scientific language of Dawkins; they retain the themes of spirituality that I had not noticed in chart-topping songs before.

Again, these are not the first artists to include deep spirituality or religious language in their work. What I’ve noticed, though, is that more and more songs that are full of Christian themes and spiritual issues are being consumed and praised at a rate formerly reserved for Brittany, Taylor, and One Direction.

I think we’re listening to the music of the “nones.”

[1] I still struggle to enjoy country music; it’s just not me.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Advent, Christmastide, and a High Ecclesiology

On Sunday, December 7th, I had the privilege of hearing a choir perform their annual Christmas music special at the First Baptist Church of a Mississippi City. The performance was predictable, but well done. There were traditional Christmas hymns intermixed with original songs, all performed wonderfully by the church choir and accompanied by an orchestra of mostly high school students. The songs were separated by narration that re-told the Christmas story and presented a basic plan of salvation to the congregation. Overall it was a solid program.

During the service, though, I had a recurring thought: “but it’s not Christmas…”

Yes, the sanctuary had been artfully decorated with garlands, candles, and other trappings of the Advent season.[1] But the performance of the Christmas music (and especially the accompanying narration) made it seem that Christmas had already come, that the “Silent Night” was passed, and that we should be reminded of the end-result of the Incarnation, that is, Christ’s crucifixion. It was as though the entire event was meant for a late-night Christmas Eve service. It would have been perfect for Christmas Vigil, in fact.

I realize that I am in the extreme minority among my Baptist peers when it comes to observing the Church Year, but my response to the service was more about our cultural relationship to Christmas than it was a desire to implement the Church Year in this local congregation.

I think I’m getting tired of synthesizing Christmas joy. There I sat, on December the seventh, participating in a performance that asked me to pretend that this bright, warm morning was Christmas Eve/Day. I was having to fake it. I do not mean this pejoratively; I simply mean that I was aware of the dissonance between the performance and the actual celebration of Christmas.

I need Advent. I need a time to reflect on my own need for the Incarnation. After all, since the last time the Church concentrated on the concept of “Emmanuel” I’ve certainly learned something new, forgotten something true, and sinned a great deal. I need Advent. But even if I emphasize the Hanging of the Greens, the Advent weeks, the candles, the readings and the rest, I’m bombarded by the earlier-than-ever Christmas shopping season, the radio station that my neighbor plays all day with its Christmas music, and Christmas parties for school and church.

Here’s a reality that I’m struggling with: we’ve allowed our work, school, and family schedules to divorce Christmas from the church, even in the church. Why do we have the annual Christmas performances of our choirs on December the 7th? Because our schedules and priorities have made the church give up one of its most important days. We would never be able to host a Christmas choral performance on Christmas Day. We couldn’t sync up the words we’re singing with the actual observation of Christ’s birth because, well, we’d rather be with family than at church. In truth, I’d rather be at home in my Christmas pajamas watching my daughter open presents than singing at church in a rented tux. That’s why I’m struggling with it: I’m tired of the dissonance but I don’t want to change.

I wrote several months ago[2] about the importance of Eastertide as a balance to Lent. I think that a similar argument could be made for the intentional delay of celebrating Christmas until after Advent. I realize that such a delay is impractical given the sheer momentum of our cultural observance of the Christmas season. However, it may be the solution to my feelings of synthesizing joy. I’d really just like to wait until Christmas to open my presents.

This is all wrapped up in what is becoming my personal theological project: a high ecclesiology for Baptists. I want to place a higher value on the believer’s participation in the congregation. I want the believers to make the choice to resist the cultural forces that divorce Christmas from the Incarnation, and thus the “season of giving” from the congregational celebration of God’s Gift to humanity. I’ve found some success in introducing Advent into my local congregations, but there is still the parallel “Christmas Season” that takes energy away from the heart’s contemplation of our need for and God’s provision of a Savior.

I want the church to matter more to Baptists, and I want it to matter in such a way that one day, against even my own preferences, we could sing “Joy to the World” on the same day that we set aside to remember Christ’s birth.

[1] The church itself does not observe the Church Year, but it certainly participates in the traditional de-facto liturgical calendar of the SBC.