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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.

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