Unlikely hymns

 

I grew up with traditional Southern Baptist worship music. My home church, First Baptist Montgomery, had a large and impressive sanctuary, whose exterior was modeled on the famous Duomo of Florence, while the interior featured an extensive array of stained glass. As befitting such a space for worship, the musical accompaniment at the church was dominated by a large organ. So during worship, it seemed only natural we would sing traditional hymns in the traditional way. The Baptist Hymnal, which I proudly keep a copy of even with me today, features a wide array of classic church music drawn from across the centuries, and from many different ecclesiastical and national backgrounds. For me personally, hymns such as “A mighty fortress is our God”, “Jesus shall reign”, “Fairest Lord Jesus”, “I’d rather have Jesus”, “Come thou Almighty King”, “O God our help in ages past” and many others still embody what would is my ideal and favorite worship experience. So I could definitely say that with my upbringing, I am mostly a traditionalist when it comes to church music, and my preferences still tend to run in that direction, even after years of serving in college ministry haha.

 

Of course through my work in campus ministry, I have become very familiar with contemporary worship music, and can appreciate and enjoy a variety of different artists in that genre. My first exposure to this music prompted a slightly different reaction though, back in the late 1990s. I can remember almost the exact moment I first encountered more contemporary church music. I was visiting my grandmother in Gardendale, Alabama, just north of Birmingham, and her church there, First Baptist Gardendale, had begun to adopt what today would be considered a “blended” style of music, combining traditional hymns with more contemporary worship songs and choruses. Initially to me though, the sight of a drummer, bassist, and guitarist in a worship service was almost comically jarring. I remember thinking to myself “this is a fad that will never last!” Haha—guess I was wrong with that prediction. My feelings at the time though were that the bass, drums, and guitar were the instruments of rock music, and so at first they seemed very incongruous alongside a piano or an organ. It turns out though that the incongruity I supposedly sensed was based on my own ignorance of the history of rock as a musical form. Because later as I studied more about the origins of this wonderful musical genre, and became a dedicated fan of many different rock bands, I realized increasingly that rock had some pretty deep religious roots. After all, rock had largely evolved out of the blues and country music, genres which in turn had connections back to African-American spirituals, and Gospel music, respectively. It’s not surprising then that such early pioneers of rock and roll as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis all grew up with strong connections to Gospel music. In fact even later after they had become better known for their rock recordings, these artists continued to perform and release Gospel material.

Of course a whole genre of rock music played by explicitly Christian artists eventually developed. But what is perhaps more surprising is the wide array of rock bands seemingly without any connection to the Christian world who’ve nonetheless decided to explore spiritual themes in some of their songs. The cliché of “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” would seem to hold true for much of what was written by many of these groups, and yet for whatever reason, they have also at times found themselves drawn towards God. I want to share a few notable examples of what might be termed “unlikely hymns”, from the golden era of rock and roll in the 1960’s and 70’s. Then I’ll discuss some reasons as to why even secular bands might have been drawn towards the spiritual, and try to tie this back to a Scriptural basis.

 

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During the Sixties, The Byrds epitomized the West Coast folk sound, and then later became known also for a pioneering single “Eight Miles High” released in 1966, which was considered a herald of the “psychedelic” era. But as the years progressed, and especially as they became more influenced by country music, The Byrds recorded two covers of songs with an explicitly Christian message, “The Christian Life” and “Jesus is just alright”, and thus helped expose these works, and their message, to a larger, more popular audience. The Velvet Underground meanwhile, were known as being among the most avant-garde of all 60’s groups. Coming from Manhattan, and being associated in their early days with celebrated pop artist Andy Warhol, the group fronted by the streetwise Lou Reed were known for exploring such hard-bitten themes as drug use, sado-masochism, paranoia, and prostitution in their songs. Yet their self-titled third album, released in 1969, contains the gentle ballad “Jesus.” The simple, almost child-like lyrics repeat throughout the song as follows: “Jesus, help me find my proper place/Jesus, help me find my proper place/Help me in my weakness/Cause I’m falling out of grace” Lou Reed, the song’s writer, came from a Jewish background, so we can only speculate the extent to which he was interested in Christianity, but there was another Jewish songwriter who came to prominence in the 1960’s, Canadian Leonard Cohen, who also revealed a lyrical fascination with Christ. Cohen’s 1967 tune “Suzanne” is ostensibly a love song, yet inserted into its midst are these meditations about Christ: “And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water/And he spent a long time watching from the lonely wooden tower/And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him/He said “All men are sailors then until the sea shall free them”/But he himself was broken long before the sky would open/Forsaken, almost human he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” While Cohen later became involved in Zen Buddhism, another songwriter from a Jewish background, Bob Dylan, that famously irreverent Sixties troubadour, pioneer of the Singer-Songwriter movement actually went through a well-publicized Christian conversion during the late 1970s. Dylan seemingly became a Christ-follower, and released two albums during this “born-again” phase. Although he later would appear to distance himself somewhat from these songs, in 2009 he did release an album of traditional Christmas carols, Christmas in the Heart. Was this release merely a nod to the seasonal music market, or perhaps a reflection of some spiritual beliefs still held by the oft-inscrutable songwriter??

 

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Of course during the 1960’s no group was any bigger than The Beatles, the “Fab Four” from Liverpool, who nearly single-handedly redefined the course of rock history during their recording years from 1962-1970. For all of their prolific songwriting on a variety of different topics, The Beatles rarely addressed religious themes. But in an early 1965 interview, Paul McCartney noted: “We probably seem anti-religious because of the fact that none of us believe in God.” During the same discussion, John Lennon added a slight clarification: “We all feel roughly the same. We’re all agnostics.” A little over a year later, in the spring of 1966, Lennon would infamously proclaim to a British journalist while musing on the Beatles’ fame: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” In the summer of 1966, Lennon’s comments were published in American newspapers, igniting a firestorm of controversy, particularly over the “more popular than Jesus” assertion. Some irate American fans even went so far as to burn their Beatles records and memorabilia in protest. But even as early as the fall of 1966, Lennon was softening his stance on Christianity somewhat, leading many to believe that his true spiritual views were more nuanced than that one particular soundbite. In a magazine interview given while filming his part for the movie “How I won the war”, Lennon observed: “I believe Jesus was right, Buddha was right, and all of those people like that are right. They’re all saying the same thing– and I believe it. I believe what Jesus actually said– the basic things he laid down about love and goodness…If they took more interest in what Jesus — or any of them — said, if they did that, we’d all be there with them.” Then, on June 25, 1967, The Beatles performed one of their biggest and most enduring hits “All you need is love” while being filmed for the “One World” television special, the first live, internationally broadcast program. Commenting years later on the event for The Beatles Anthology documentary, George Harrison noted in regards to the group’s song choice for the broadcast: “We thought, ‘Well, we’ll sing “All You Need Is Love”, because it’s a subtle bit of PR for God.” Meanwhile, Lennon’s religious views continued to move away from his earlier statements. In an unreleased 1969 interview with the BBC he discussed his views of Christianity while a member of The Beatles–“It’s just an expression meaning the Beatles seem to me to have more influence over youth than Christ. Now I wasn’t saying that was a good idea, ‘cos I’m one of Christ’s biggest fans. And if I can turn the focus on the Beatles on to Christ’s message, then that’s what we’re here to do. If the Beatles get on the side of Christ, which they always were, and let people know that, then maybe the churches won’t be full, but there’ll be a lot of Christians dancing in the dance halls. Whatever they celebrate, God and Christ, I don’t think it matters as long as they’re aware of Him and His message.” In that same interview, John Lennon went on to reveal that some of his supposed animosity towards Christianity was really based more on a distrust of organized religion, stemming back to a childhood incident at age 14, where he had been kicked out of an Anglican youth group for not being able to control his fits of laughter. “I wasn’t convinced of the vicar’s sincerity anyway. But I knew it was the house of God. So I went along for that and the atmosphere always made me feel emotional and religious or whatever you call it. Being thrown out of church for laughing was the end of the Church for me…I would have liked to have been married in a church but they wouldn’t marry divorcees? That’s pure hypocrisy.” Thus it would seem that for all their supposed irreverence and iconoclasm, The Beatles, and John Lennon in particular, might have been more interested in the Christian message than their reputation would warrant.

 

 

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Moving into another one of my favorite periods in rock history, the 1970’s, we find plenty of other examples of seemingly secular artists who made forays into Christian-themed work. Big Star was a power-pop group out of Memphis, Tennessee that achieved some limited success in the 1970’s and developed a cult-like following amongst music aficionados in later years. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that a group raised in the South, and exposed to the Gospel and blues traditions in Memphis might include spiritual themes in a song, but few tunes in the rock canon have ever been more straightforwardly Christian than Big Star’s “Jesus Christ.” Its lyrics could be straight out of a Christmas carol: “Angels from the realms of glory/Stars shone bright above/Royal David’s city/Was bathed in light of love/ Jesus Christ was born today/Jesus Christ was born/Jesus Christ was born today/Jesus Christ was born” Many other 70’s groups though were far less likely candidates for ever writing a Christian-themed song, and yet surprisingly enough we can find such works scattered across their catalogs. Roxy Music was a British “art-rock” band whose innovative visual imagery and use of an early synthesizer, helped them to stand out from many of their contemporaries. Roxy Music’s lead singer and songwriter Bryan Ferry penned the track “Psalm” for their 1973 LP Stranded, and true to its name, the track features overtly spiritual lyrics and imagery: “Believe in me once seemed a good line/Now belief in Jesus is faith more sublime/Head in the clouds, but I can’t see the Lord/Short of perfection, I’ll try to be good/ I’ll stand at His gate, I’ll wait for His sign/Then I’ll walk in His garden, when it’s my time/Drink from His cup, hush now don’t you cry/His quiet waters, will never, never run dry/Nearing death’s vale, He’s here by my side/He leads me to paradise, a mountain so high/Don’t be afraid, just treasure His word/Singing His praises, I know that I’ll be heard”

 

 

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Queen was one of the most successful and popular bands of the 1970’s, and their charismatic frontman, Freddie Mercury was as well known for his flamboyant and hedonistic personal life as for his vocal prowess. He died of AIDS in 1991, and would certainly never be confused for any type of spiritual spokesperson. Yet on the band’s self-titled debut, released in 1973, is Mercury’s rather earnest ballad, “Jesus.”—“Then came a man before His feet he fell/Unclean said the leper and rang his bell/Felt the palm of a hand touch his head/Go now, go now you’re a new man instead/All going down to see the Lord Jesus/All going down to see the Lord Jesus/All going down/It all began with the three wise men/Followed a star took them to Bethlehem/And made it heard throughout the land/Born was a leader of man/All going down to see the Lord Jesus/All going down to see the Lord Jesus” Mercury was of Indian origin, and had been raised in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, and yet these lyrics would seem to reveal at least some interest in the work and message of Christ. Or perhaps we could just write this off as a tribute to Mercury’s admiration for Gospel music, and an attempt to emulate that particular style and lyrical content. Even less likely candidates than Freddie Mercury to write anything that spoke favorably towards Christianity were the members of the British heavy metal group Black Sabbath, the band in which Ozzy Osbourne came to prominence as the vocalist. Their consistently dark stage and lyrical personas, did not preclude them however from including a track on their 1971 album Master of Reality that was entitled “After Forever.” And on this song, the band that had become the virtual poster-child for heavy metal excess turned their talents to a relatively serious endorsement of faith, and a rather strong critique of those who would disdain spiritual beliefs. “Have you ever thought about your soul can it be saved? Or perhaps you think that when you’re dead you just stay in your grave/Is God just a thought within your head or is he a part of you? Is Christ just a name that you read in a book when you were in school?…Well I have seen the truth, yes I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways/And I’ll be prepared when you’re lonely and scared at the end of our days/Could it be you’re afraid of what your friends might say/If they knew you believed in God above? They should realize before they criticize/That God is the only way to love…Perhaps you’ll think before you say that God is dead and gone/Open your eyes, just realize that He’s the one/The only one who can save you now from all this sin and hate”

 

 

Image result for alice cooper hello hoorayImage result for alice cooper 1972

But surely amongst the most surprising candidates to have ever penned a Christian-themed song would have been Alice Cooper. Born Vincent Furnier, this pioneer of “shock rock” became notorious to 1970’s audiences for his gory stage shows which included mock executions, live boa constrictors, chopped-up baby dolls, and all manner of other horrors, presided other by the gravelly-voiced Cooper, whose trademark snake-eye makeup gave him a particularly sinister appearance on stage. Yet in 1971, he penned “Second Coming” for the Alice Cooper band’s breakout third album “Love it to Death”. “I couldn’t tell, if the bells were getting louder/The songs they ring I finally recognize/I only know, hell is getting hotter, the Devil’s getting smarter all the time/And it would be nice to walk upon the water/To talk again to angels on my side/I just come back to show you, all my words are golden/So have no gods before me, I’m the light”

 

At times the lyrical hints can be very subtle, yet still telling. For example, Don McLean’s 1971 smash-hit “American Pie” has been played ad nauseum on radio from that day to this, and there have been numerous attempts to critically unravel the “message” of the song. Yet tucked away near the end of the tune is a Trinitarian reference, reflective perhaps of the fact that McLean grew up in a Christian household: “And the three men I admire most/The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost/They caught the last train for the coast/The day the music died.” In some instances, an artist never released any Christian-themed music for much of their career, but then suddenly an album comes out which makes you wonder if they hadn’t been wrestling with some of these themes all along. Judas Priest was a hard-edged band out of Birmingham, England, that, along with Black Sabbath was considered one of the pioneering groups of the heavy metal genre in the 1970s. Their lead singer, Rob Halford, later became known in 1998 for being one of the first metal singers to come out as openly gay. As they watched Halford up on stage, dressed from head to toe in leather and studs, and often making his entrance on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, even his most avid fans would have perhaps had trouble believing that their hero was actually raised in a Christian home, prays every day, and credits a belief in God to helping him overcome his alcohol and drug addictions in the mid-1980s. In 2009, Halford released a Christmas album called Winter Songs that included faithful, if albeit heavy-metal-tinged renditions of traditional carols such as “O Holy Night”, “What Child is this?”, and “O Come all ye faithful”.

 

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And the list could go on. I could talk about rock groups in later decades that explored spiritual themes, from such well-known artists as U2, to bands on the more “indie” range of the musical spectrum, such as Belle and Sebastian. But now I’d like to discuss just briefly about why it is that Christ and His message have exerted such an endearing fascination even in the world of rock and roll, which ostensibly celebrates so many values that would be opposed to Biblical truths. Certainly there are Scriptural passages which suggest that all people, even those who’ve never been exposed directly to the Gospel, are still able to access some knowledge of God through the direct evidence of the world around them, as well the promptings of their own conscience. Such a viewpoint is called “natural theology” and is expressed well by Paul in Romans 1:18-20—“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because, what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” Now Paul, who is among the greatest missionaries and evangelists of all time, is certainly not saying that God’s presence and message are so obvious that they need no communication. Obviously he dedicated much of his life to the very specific endeavor of seeking to spread the Good News of Jesus. But it does seem that Paul believes everyone should be able to at least arrive at a basic knowledge of God from those natural proofs of divine existence which, in addition to the order and majesty of Creation, would also include the innate sense of morality that we possess, try though many may to suppress it. Paul makes a somewhat similar point during his famous address to the Athenians on Mars Hill in Acts 17. Here, speaking to a crowd full of intellectuals and skeptics, as well as those immersed in pagan polytheism, Paul surprisingly suggests that many in his audience might be closer to the one true God than they realize. First, he makes mention of the monument which he noticed while passing through the Areopagus: “For as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you.” Then, in Acts 17:26-8, Paul continues his theme that God is more a part of the Athenian culture and intellectual landscape than his hearers could conceive: “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring” By quoting from a Greek poet, Paul further demonstrates that this Athenian culture is perhaps more open to monotheism than would be previously imagined. I bring up these examples from Paul to underscore my point that our own Western culture remains more influenced by and open to spiritual, and even specifically Christian ideas than we too might imagine. Taking rock and roll as a quintessential cultural product of the West, and specifically America, this also holds true, as we have observed by examining a selection of spiritually-influenced lyrics from bands who are in no way identifiably “Christian”.

 

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Having mentioned natural theology, and the foundational need that humanity seems to have to acknowledge the Divine, across different cultures and time periods, I would be remiss if I didn’t also consider the innate power of music to evoke spiritual feelings. Certainly the Psalms are an example of this natural, and deep-seated connection between music and the spiritual. Although they are technically considered part of the Wisdom Literature genre in the Bible, they are really unique in comparison to any other section of Scripture. The Psalms address an incredible breadth of subjects and themes. In the simplest terms, we could refer to the Psalms as the “songbook” of Ancient Israel. These poetic compositions were sung, often to musical accompaniment, and would have been part of the Temple worship of ancient Judaism. They continue to be important in Jewish synagogue worship to this day, and from the earliest history of Christianity, psalms also featured in the liturgy and worship practices of the Church. While the Psalms were probably originally used mostly in a communal worship setting, many of them, especially some authored by David, have a very personal and individual perspective as well. The name of the book of Psalms in Hebrew is “Tehillim”, meaning “praises”, a fitting title since almost every Psalm contains words of praise to the Lord. The Greek word “Psalmoi”, from which we get the English title “Psalms” means “instrumental music”, again reflecting the fact that the Psalms were originally designed to be sung to musical accompaniment.

 

 

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The 150 Psalms are the “songbook of life” because they express so many universal human emotions, ranging from joy to despair, while at the same time, they always point us back to God as the author and guide of life. There are psalms of praise and thanksgiving, psalms of lament, imprecatory psalms (calling for judgment on the enemies of God), and psalms of confession—those seeking forgiveness for sins committed. In dealing with love and hatred, sorrow and forgiveness, as well as the pure joy of praising and exalting God—we could say that the Psalms first covered many of the genres and moods that are by now cliché to sing about in popular music, including rock and roll. Bono, lead singer of the legendary Irish rock band U2 is a practicing Christian, who has often addressed spiritual themes in his lyrics, although U2 have never been regarded as a purely “Christian” group in terms of their song subject matter. Back in 1999, he reflected about the Psalms, writing at length: “That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me — the blues. Man shouting at God — “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?” (Psalm 22). I hear echoes of this holy row when unholy blues man Robert Johnson howls, “There’s a hellhound on my trail,” or Van Morrison sings “sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” Texas Alexander mimics the psalms in “Justice Blues”: “I cried Lord my father, Lord thy kingdom come. Send me back my woman, then thy will be done.” Humorous, sometimes blasphemous, the blues was backsliding’ music; but by its very opposition, it flattered the subject of its perfect cousin, gospel. Abandonment, displacement is the stuff of my favorite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it’s in his despair that the psalmist really reveals the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger: “How long, Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself forever?” (Psalm 89) or “Answer me when I call” (Psalm 5).”

 

Bono continues: “Psalms and hymns were my first taste of inspirational music. I liked the words but I wasn’t sure about the tunes — with the exception of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” I remember them as droned and chanted rather than sung. Still, in an odd way, they prepared me for the honesty of John Lennon, the baroque language of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the open throat of Al Green and Stevie Wonder… Psalm 40 suggests a time in which grace will replace karma, and replace the very strict laws of Moses (i.e. fulfill them). I love that thought. David, who committed some of the most selfish as well as selfless acts, was depending on it. That the scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me; now it is a source of great comfort.”

I love these words from Bono, not only because U2 is one of my favorite rock bands, but also because I feel like his description of the Psalms so seamlessly explains how this spiritual “songbook” expresses so many of the themes that thousands later worked their way into the forerunner of rock, the blues, and then rock music itself. Furthermore, I believe that the honest emotion, and the raw “realness” which enables so many people to resonate with the Psalms, is also a major factor in attracting listeners to rock music. In 1971, giving an interview to Rolling Stone magazine, and reflecting back on the beginning of his fascination with rock music, John Lennon observed: “It gets through to you; it got through to me, the only thing to get through to me of all the things that were happening when I was fifteen. Rock & roll then was real; everything else was unreal. The thing about rock & roll, good rock & roll…is that it’s real, and realism gets through to you despite yourself. You recognize something in it which is true, like all true art.” The raw honesty of the emotions that rock music can evoke in its playing might not always drive the musicians or their audience towards spiritual matters and God, but certainly I’ve tried to show in this blog post that it’s also not so much of a stretch to see how rock and roll, for all of its notorious reputation as an art form, can also at times celebrate more elevated spiritual thoughts and emotions. We have also observed how the long lineage of musical forms which led to the emergence of rock, including blues, country music, and Gospel music, all could be said to originate in the Psalms. Music then seems to be one of the ways that God has provided for us to express that which cannot be expressed otherwise, to unburden our souls, and celebrate both sacred, and profane longings.

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That such a medium could lead people closer to God then is not really too surprising. It certainly proved to be the case for the aforementioned Alice Cooper. The notorious “shock rocker” of the 1970s, once said this about his musical outlook: “We were into fun, sex, death and money when everybody was into peace and love. We wanted to see what was next. It turned out we were next, and we drove a stake through the heart of the Love Generation.” But despite such a nihilistic stance, Cooper had still maintained enough moral sensibility to write a song like “Second Coming”, whose lyrics I cited earlier in the post. And eventually, through the ravages of years of touring, and substance abuse, God reached even the supposedly hardened heart of Alice Cooper. He is now a born-again believer, a man who, when he is not touring, works with a faith-based organization he started called “The Solid Rock Foundation” to help at-risk youth through free musical training. Cooper reflected on his eventual conversion in a 2014: “So songs like ‘Second Coming’ and things like that were all pretty much always warning about Satan. Almost everything I wrote was ‘good and evil, don’t pick evil…You know, even when I wasn’t Christian I was saying that. You know, ‘God and the Devil, don’t pick the Devil, because it’s a bad idea… The very fact that He [God] cared enough about me to save my life about 20 times, you know, and help me survive a million different things to put me where I am now. And then the challenge I have now, being a Christian in the rock business. You know, He kind of put me in the philistines, the camp of the philistines, which is okay.” In the same interview, Cooper mused on the ways in which his life was transformed through putting his faith in Christ: “Well, before you are always self—you’re always self-centered. Everything is for you.  Your self is God. And we make lousy gods. Humans make lousy gods, I think. We need to let God be God and us be what we are. I think that’s what changes: the focus on who you’re serving. You’re not serving you. You’re serving Christ.” Finally, he addressed his struggle about whether to continue in his profession as a rock musician following his conversion: “God’s chipping away at your life all the time to try to make you more like Him. That’s what a Christian is, a person that’s being molded and shaped all their life …. I think the Lord expects you to do your best in His name. I had to struggle a long time about rock and roll. I realized it’s not really the music. It’s what’s being said with the music. So I think you have to be careful of what you’re writing, what you’re representing.”

 

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In that last quote, Cooper really gets at heart of why rock, like any other type of music, can be used to praise God as much as to distract or lead people away from Him. It’s not about the heavy drums, pounding bass, screaming electric guitars, or even the theatrical visual image portrayed by many rock performers. These are but the external trappings of the art form, although many critics have confused them for the essence of the message itself. Instead, it’s all about what the musician, or band has to say. And hopefully as this post has demonstrated, even some of the most worldly and irreligious rock groups have at times felt compelled to explore spiritual themes with their words. In Matthew 16:13-15, Jesus asks His disciples about His identity—first from the standpoint of outside opinions, but then from within the group itself. “He asked His disciples saying ‘Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” This question of Christ’s echoes down through the centuries, and it would seem, compels even those who are seemingly far from God to ponder the life, work, and message of Christ. Sure, one could dismiss these spiritual songs as anomalies in an otherwise thoroughly secular catalog for many of these artists. Perhaps they were written even from a tongue-in-cheek, or ironic standpoint, simply playing with the audience’s expectations by departing from the usual “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll” stereotype. Or, just possibly, they were written from a real, if perhaps even on some level subconscious desire by these artists to provide a response to the question of Jesus in Matthew 16:15. Certainly for me, when I hear these unlikely hymns, it’s a reminder to be on the lookout for those around me who might be searching for God, even those very ones who seem furthest from Him.

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2 thoughts on “Unlikely hymns

  1. You are so good at listening to God’s leadership and being obedient. So thankful for your thoughts here about music.
    Have you read Fisher Humphreys’ book, The Way We Were? He traces the history of Southern Baptists through the songs they sing. He taught at New Orleans Seminary and Samford.

    • Thanks so much Claire!! I haven’t read the Humphreys book, but that does sound interesting! I know Baptists have always been a very musical people, and certainly we have also been blessed at FBC to have some wonderful worship leaders. I hope all is well with you and your family. God bless!

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