I was at my church’s yearly “Women’s Retreat” this year — a weekend of sisterhood, spiritual growth, and, as always, chocolate. It was a bit more stressful than past retreats: I had roles to play in the drama (used as a springboard for discussion on the spiritual themes), and had written the bible studies for the small groups and was as usual nervous ab0ut how they would be received. Also, the site was a problem: it was hilly, and I have been in an extended fibromyalgia flare for the past several months. I bought a walking stick, but by the time I left I was in considerable pain.
During one of the workshops, a discussion arose about the importance of Christian music. I kept my mouth shut, mainly because I just didn’t have the bandwidth to put forth my views, which were mainly that Christian radio was a waste of good frequencies that could be put to better use, such as listening to crickets chirp. After the exchange of information about good local Christian radio stations, another woman in the room, bless her heart, spoke up and gave the opinion that she had grown up in a household that really didn’t play much Christian music, and that a lot of secular music had strong spiritual messages — she referred to U2 as a good example. After the group ended, I went and thanked her for saying what I was thinking.
My feelings on contemporary Christian music range from indifference to disdain to deep dislike. The best — which includes most, but not all — of the worship music we use in our contemporary services, is decent. The worst, such as much of what is played on Christian radio stations, is overblown, saccharine crap.
Jesus deserves better.
I have a “Spirituals” playlist on my iTunes. There is not one “Contemporary Christian hit” on it.
Don’t get me wrong — there is religious music. There are traditional hymns sung by contemporary vocalists: “Down to the River to Pray” by Alison Kraus, “Amazing Grace” and “Simple Gifts,” by Judy Collins, “Morning has Broken,” by Cat Stevens. Don’t ask me why, but traditional hymn are so much better written than contemporary Christian music.
But the rest of it is “secular” music. Some of that music mentions Jesus: “Travelin’ Thru” by Dolly Parton, for example. (And then there is “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister, which doesn’t mention Jesus but which lifts its refrain from the Catholic Mass.) Most of it does not.
But the music is spiritual nonetheless — for example, what else can you say about a lyric which include the lines “Tonight I feel like all creation/ is asking us to dance”? (“Asking Us to Dance,” written by Hugh Sherwood, performed by Kathy Mattea).
There is the music with no words: “Fanfare for the Common Man,” “Appalachian Spring,” Beethoven’s Ninth, “Rhapsody in Blue.”* Oh, and “Soul Sacrifice” — the eleven-minute live Woodstock version. Have you seen the painting “The Dance” by Chagall? “Soul Sacrifice” is what they were dancing to. Had to be. Even though the painting was created fifty years before Woodstock.
The rest of it is mostly just songs you might have heard on the radio at some point — crossing genres: pop, rock, country, a little blues, a little jazz, and because I’m who I am, show tunes (even aside from Godspell). Some Beatles, a little Clapton, Randy Newman, CSNY. No gospel per se, although I am firmly convinced that Aretha Franklin is, in fact, the voice of God.
And two of those secular songs have appeared in worship services at our church: “The Garden Song” (written by Dave Mallet) and “Stand by Me” (written by Leiber & Stoller). We’ve also sung “I Can See Clearly Now” (Johnny Nash), and at the retreat itself we sang The Judds’ “Love Can Build a Bridge,” and Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.”
All of that music fills something in me that could be called spiritual: either joyous and thanksgiving (“Good Morning, Starshine,” “Happiness”), or full of lamentation (“Louisiana, 1927,” “Wish You Were Here.**”). It’s about seeing God in nature (“Colors of the Wind,” “Morning has Broken”), and God in each other (“Matthew”). There are prayers (“Will I?” from Rent, “Let the Sun Shine In”*** from Hair). And there are a lot of songs that make me strong and fill me with resolve, and a lot of songs that I can’t even classify. Sometimes it’s the words that move me, just as often — or more — it’s the music.
My choices would not move everybody, possibly even not most people. But that’s okay — there are a billion songs out there in the world, and some of those will say something to someone.
What songs speak to your spirit? Where do you hear God? Where can you listen to the voice of the divine?
* Without “Bohemian Rhapsody” attached.
** Not quite on topic, but one of the ways I knew I would like our church’s new rector is that in his bio he listed Dark Side of the Moon as an important early spiritual influence.
** A few years ago, we sang the second half of “Let the Sun Shine In” at our Easter services. I was really annoyed. First of all, it’s only half a song: the first half, called “The Flesh Failures,” is about death and despair. The second half, the familiar “let the sun shine” is a prayer for deliverance, not rejoicing at resurrection. My friend Jennifer said it didn’t matter, that a) most people wouldn’t know and b) using it in the context of Easter changed the meaning of the song. Poppycock. Context is context, and “Let the Sun Shine In” is a Good Friday song.