I Saw Sinners Making Music
As a student of the Bible, it is hard for me to miss biblical references and religious themes in music. Such language carries a certain amount of weight for me as I listen. If I am unfamiliar with the artist’s story, I might wonder if he too is a Christian. I normally know better, though, and find myself wondering what he was thinking while referencing these stories and what other listeners might find in the meaning.
It seems that biblical stories have become a kind of folklore for our generation–a common language to reference for impact in art and conversation. I suspect that the decline of reading and family time with fairy tales and classic novels have led to a more compact set of language, thus driving some to what they can recall from childhood Sunday school lessons and Bible-thumping friends. The artist knows that the overall meaning might be open to interpretation, but the basic meaning or background story he wants to get across can be said quickly and poetically with one quick reference.
In an NPR interview, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine said, “I could say, ‘Joe and Bob, where one is jealous and cruel and one is innocent and everything we want to be, they represent the duality that lives in each of us.’ Or you could say ‘Cain and Abel went to McDonald’s and smoked a bag of weed.’ It creates an economy of language.” You can see his latest use of Christian language in the narratives throughout Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean. It is most blatantly weaved through “Me and Lazarus,” Godless Brother in Love,” “Your Fake Name” and definitely in “Walking Far From Home.”
In an interview with Drowned in Sound, Beam says that he would not call himself a religious person: “..but I’m definitely fascinated by religion, and the way it works and the approach it takes. Christianity’s a big deal here, but mostly I like to use aspects of it just because it’s such a big part of our culture.” How incredibly ironic that churches are fighting to be more culturally relevant by avoiding Christian language while agnostics are naturally relevant by embracing such language!
In an interview following their 2010 album The Winter of Mixed Drinks, Scottish band Frightened Rabbit explains some of the themes found in their music. Frontman Scott Hutchison said, “Religious imagery is a very easy way to express ideas because it’s kind of universal, whether you are Christian or not. I just enjoy using the imagery; it’s there to be messed with.” In a radio interview about their 2008 The Midnight Organ Flight, Hutchison said that he uses the “quasi-resurrection” themes because ” there is something powerful in that imagery for things other than praising.” In working through the dark circumstances that humans face in life, such a theme, “helps make sense of the world,” he says.
What should I think when I am reminded that what I know to be absolutely true is being treated as a common fairy tale by the culture around me–by musicians that I dearly appreciate? Do I burn my CD’s and run for the hills? Goodness, no. Do I ignore those parts that I know may be skewed? Nope.
When it comes to my favorite artists, I listen to all of the lyrics with sensitivity, taking in the intended and the open meaning of the words (these artists write with both in mind). I think about it more, sometimes even reading or watching interviews for background stories (oh, how I love people stories!!). I might end up appreciating the biblical themes according to my Christian theology, which gives their music even more weight as I listen and experience it. Or I might conclude that their use of the languages is so flippant and skewed that I would rather skip the song instead of grit my teeth through it, as unfortunate as that might be. No matter what, though, I am hearing what they are saying and listening as they process life and write poems about the simplicity of love as they imagine it should be. And it all tells me about the human heart and the music that accompanies it–in the most beautiful and hideous ways.