Sacred, Secular or Both?

A guest post by Churspacious Facilitation Team Member Yve Taylor

How often has someone suggested to you that popular, especially rock music is demonic and you shouldn’t listen to it, especially if you are a Christian? Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that all sacred music is past it’s sell by date and irrelevant! I adore too much of it! However, I think we miss out on some profound and powerful modern expressions of faith, spirituality and search for meaning within the many secular genres of music, because of what we may have once been told. Social commentary and reflection on issues concerning the culture of the time, inspired and written from the hearts of those who perform them, just like the Psalmists, Kings David and Solomon, Mary, Simeon, all the great requiem composers and hymn writers did.

Who knew that lead singer with heavy rock band Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson is a Christian? The song ‘Lord of Light’, on their 2006 album ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ is rich in apocalyptic interpretation, encouraging listeners to ”Free your soul and let it fly. Give your life to The Lord of Light”. This informs me, consciously or unconsciously, that Holy Scripture is alive, constantly evolving, relevant and travelling with us in all walks of life, especially those places many of us may fear to go.

For example, The 1965 hit for The Byrds, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ is based on the book Ecclesiastes. John Newton’s great hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ was given a beautiful a capella makeover by Judy Collins in 1970, became a No5 hit, and spent a total of 67 weeks in the charts. In the same year, The Beatles’ song ‘The Long and Winding Road’, described life as a journey. Is that not what the Christian life is too? Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s No1 that year, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is reassuring balm for anyone in times of trouble just like we find in the Psalter (Ps.46:1). The 1977 progressive rock ballad ‘Hymn’ by Barclay James Harvest, recounts the story of Jesus concluding that ‘in God alone we fly’. The beautiful prose of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1984 No1 ‘The Power of Love’; “… a force from above, cleaning my soul, flame on burn desire, love, with tongues of fire, purge the soul, make love your goal”, could be from the Song of Solomon. The 1987 U2 hit ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ suffuses longing, desire and very Advent, while their 1992 hit ‘One’ is like a jilted lover’s lament at not respecting and prizing love more highly (see 1Cor.13) and how we all need each other to survive. Pearl Jam’s 1992 hit ‘Alive’ isn’t obviously spiritual and most likely about dysfunctional relationships but the chorus “I oh I yeah I’m still alive…” made me think of Jesus telling the disciples “In the world you face persecution. But take courage: I have conquered the world!” (Jn.16:33)

George Michael’s 1996 No1, ‘Jesus to a child’, compares the purity of one person’s love for another to Jesus’ love for a child; which revisits him when he’s lonely and cold, making him complete (cf. Col.2:10; 1Jn.4; Phil.1:16; 2:2). The Verve’s 1997 No1 ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, laments the evils of money, materialism and the brevity of life. “Well I never pray, but tonight I’m on my knees yeah. I need to hear some sounds that recognise the pain in me yeah”. Echoes of Jesus at prayer (Mt.6:24; Lk.16:13) and C.S. Lewis; “God whispers in our pleasure but shouts in our pains”. The Josh Groban hit from 2003, ‘You Raise Me Up’ is like a psalmist’s weary lament of longing and waiting culminating in joy at being raised up and made strong (cf. Psalms 145:14; 146:8; 121; Ezek.11:24; 1Sam.2:8). The Leonard Cohen song ‘Hallelujah’, a No1 for Alexandra Burke and posthumous No2 hit for Jeff Buckley in 2008, is steeped in biblical imagery of Kings David and Solomon, of mercy and grace tempered by failure and faith! More recently, the Justin Bieber song from 2015, ‘All in it’ acknowledges that flawed humanity disappoints but he gives thanks to God who recognises him and never does, (see Rom.5:5).

Songs like Foreigner’s 1985 No1, ‘I want to know what love is’, the 1993 R.E.M. hit ‘Everybody Hurts’ and the beautiful Sting song ‘Fragile’, which only made No70 in 1988 all sing of human fragility, of betrayal, abandonment, loss and pain, learning to trust again and make sense of the world as they experience it. The words “Perhaps this final act was meant, to clinch a lifetime’s argument, that nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could. For all those born beneath an angry star, lest we forget how fragile we are” are summed up in the words “Love One Another” (Jn.13:34-5) spoken by Jesus immediately after he had shared the last supper with his disciples, including Judas who betrayed him. These songs inspire and touch us as deeply as sacred music, often influenced by and complementing Holy Scripture. We are encouraged to engage with ‘the world’ but not be conformed by it (Rom.12:2). The human creativity of both secular and sacred song is all the gift of God and I think engagement with secular song can only enrich our engagement with and understanding of the Divine, The Word, the world in which we live and those of all beliefs and none with whom we share our God given life.

Yve Taylor is a Churspacious Pastoral Care Advocate and a music aficionado. Yve says that “The title of an O’Jays song ‘I love music… any kind of music” says it all for me and has kept me sane all my life. Song or instrumental, give me a good melody and rhythm with meaningful lyrics and the chances are it will resonate me as much as many sacred texts and songs do.”

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