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.
Saint James says that we can control the entire body with our tongues, like the bridle of a horse or the rudder of a ship. Taming the tongue can tame the body. We are going to stand before Jesus one day and give an account of what we did while in our body, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5). And if our speech is so closely tied with the rest of how we discipline our bodies, how are we not more concerned with the impact of what we say?
In his letter, James addresses a church that simply is not loving one another. They are worried about money and social status, ignoring the true needs of each other and those outside of their group. And when they sensed tension and strife within the church, they are speaking harshly toward one another, only fanning the flames of contention and pride. They are destroying each other with their words, burning each other’s wounds and fears with salt.
Who hasn’t been both blessed and burned by the words of someone trusted? Who hasn’t experienced the immense power of speech? James says that uncontrolled, they can start vicious fires, turning the life of entire forests into ash–just from one.small.spark. How many forests have we seen burned down by a careless confrontation or two? How many sparks have we thrown into already choking thickets of uncertainty?
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body…It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
Great. Not only is my tongue a match. Now it’s a flammable toxin itself. (And those, I guess, destroy the ozone layer and will melt and suffocate the entire earth into ultimate extinction! Flaming, poisonous tongues, oh no!)
I don’t think that James is saying that we shouldn’t talk because our words have no potential or goodness.
But he wants us to know the weight and the potential of our speech.
Words can kiss. Words can kill. They can warn and save, and they can sleep and coward.
The proverbs are all about wisdom and showing where our talk comes from and that they can hurt and they can heal. The prophets were called to ministry through their words alone – what they said would often be a bridge between the wrath and the mercy of God (hello, Ezekiel 33).
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring…neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
What we say has to come from more than just a whip of our tongues. When our words just happen to spew in every direction without any care for the depth they should come from or the ground they should fall on, flames are kindled, only a slight fan away from a merciless, uncontrollable fire. To praise God and to love our neighbors, our hearts have to be filled with what is true and eternal. What is this pool of refreshing goodness – the Word of God. Fill yourself with goodness and your words will be like the sweet rain falling on a parched land. Fill yourself with shallow thoughts and empty pursuits and your words will spark the same hopelessness wherever they are cast.
Jesus says it best, when confronting the fancy-talkin’ Pharises:
For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.
Store goodness within yourself!