Guest post by Reverend Jonathan Evens.
For over 50 years, pop musicians of all genres have explored the meaning and significance of Jesus in their music. The result is a rich collection of songs that address important spiritual issues like faith, doubt and prayer in unique and often provocative ways.
Delvyn Case and I recently had a conversation in a short series for HeartEdge to try and tap into this rich resource to share rock and pop music for Lent, Easter and Christmas. We both have a deep interest in how faith is expressed in and through pop music in all its forms. So in this series, we’ve tried to tap into our different interests and knowledge by choosing four songs for each festival we’ve discussed. In this article, I would like to share 4 songs that we have chosen for Lent.
THROUGH THE PATH OF PAIN by Julie Miller
Julie Miller (of Rhapsody) has been described “as the most idiosyncratically breathless spiritualist-sensualist this side of Victoria Williams”. Like her friend Williams, Miller is one of the few songwriters who has managed to balance adult themes with the Christian mandate to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. She is a singer-songwriter who has overcome considerable difficulties; a brother who died in a freak lightning accident, a friend who committed suicide shortly afterwards, and his own lingering pain and fatigue from fibromyalgia, which often prevents him from performing and working. Because of her pain, Julie Miller writes the most transparent and transformative songs, ‘By Way of Sorrow’ being one of them.
Lent is all about going through pain and limitations, whether it’s following Jesus’ 40 days in the desert and his passion or giving up something for the season to focus more on prayer. The song is about going on this kind of journey. I wonder who is making the journey described in the song? It could be a song about Jesus or a song about us, or both. In the song there is, I think, a balance between the difficulty of the journey and the joy of the arrival which can be similar to that found in Psalm 23.
PSALM by Roxy Music
Our second choice was also a Psalm, but this time it’s ‘Psalm’ by Roxy Music from the album ‘Stranded’. It’s a song that is sermon-like in structure and sound and is written as a form of testimony with a movement of understanding that goes from trying God to standing by his door and knowing that you will be heard by him. Like Julie Miller’s song, it’s a song in which we are taken on a journey, although in this case it sounds like a journey to God rather than a journey through pain. Whatever our Lenten journey, our goal is to draw near and encounter God. Quite surprising for a band like Roxy Music, this song takes us on this journey.
This excellent song-by-song analysis of the lyrics and music from Roxy Music points out that there was a lot of God-rock going on at the time this song was written, including songs by George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Talking Heads , Talk Talk and Tom Waits, among others. In light of this fact, it’s perhaps not so surprising to find Roxy Music recording a Psalm. It’s also worth noting that Roxy Music saxophonist Andy McKay later recorded a solo album based on the Psalms called “3Psalms”.
THE SOUND OF FISHERMEN from The Clash
If it seemed surprising to find a religious song on a Roxy Music album, it is perhaps more surprising to find one on a The Clash album; yet ‘The Sounds of Sinners’ is right there on ‘Sandinista’. “It’s not a piss-take. I was thinking about LA and the big earthquake,” lead singer Joe Strummer said in an interview with Bill Flanagan.
The song offers a different take on the possibility of the apocalypse than that found in “London Calling” where, “The ice age is coming, the sun is getting closer / Fusion awaited, the wheat is / growing thinner / The engines are stop working, but I’m not afraid / Because London is drowning / I live by the river Jim Connelly writes: “And you wonder: is he sincere? Is he playing a character? And does it matter with such a catchy and fun song? The answer, as always, is the latter. It may be “the most fun Joe Strummer has ever recorded”.
The song’s themes of judgment and penance tie the song to Lent, though, as with the Roxy Music track, we wonder if they are heartfelt, ironic, or indecisive, and does it matter if the song allows for a useful reflection.
JESUS COMING by Rapsody
Our final choice fell on a more recent track, “Jesus Coming” by Rapsody, which tackles gun violence head-on with a mix of testimonies and prayers. Three stories of those who are shot to death intercut with an excerpt from “Time to Go Home” by Gospel singer Otis G. Johnson. The house could be understood as the paradise after death or as the return to faith, in both cases Jesus comes although he is not mentioned anywhere in the lyrics. Each character reviews their life and choices as they die. The song is a true example of penance and repentance while being a powerful statement against gun violence.
So how would I use these songs in a church setting? I can imagine using ‘By Way of Sorrow’ to provide a reflective moment after a sermon, in the same way hymns are often used in an Anglican setting. I might consider connecting ‘Psalm’, ‘The Sound of Sinners’ and ‘Jesus Coming’ for a study in repentance that could explore what repentance looks like and how and where it begins.
The arts as a whole are constantly opening up Christian themes or Bible stories in new ways, and these songs are no exception. We are surprised by those we find engaged in Lenten themes of journeys involving pain, penance and repentance. We are also surprised by the ideas they bring and the empathy they show. The Holy Spirit of God is present and active in all forms of music in ways we have not realized before by providing streams of light in dark corners.