Why a Non-Christian Can Love Gospel Music
Why I Love Patty Griffin's "Downtown Church"
I’ve been hooked on a couple of great albums lately, neither of which bears any resemblance to the other. One is “El Camino” by The Black Keys, an album that sounds like it should have been recorded in the late 1960’s – early 1970’s, which in my mind was the heyday (so far) of classic rock. The other is “Downtown Church” by Patty Griffin, a collection of mostly traditional Christian songs: gospel, spirituals, folk, and even a couple of hymns. The fact that I’ve been going back and forth between the two reveals how eclectic my music tastes have become in my old age. But like all great albums when you first discover them, they make listening to other albums a relative disappointment, and you end up listening to little else until the new stuff loses some of its freshness.
To people who have read some of my religiously-oriented posts, it may be surprising that I would enjoy an album of Christian songs so much. I don’t exactly, after all, ascribe to the theological concepts presented in the songs. Some of my enjoyment of the music, however, has little to do with the lyrics: the purity and soulfulness of Griffin’s voice, the simple beauty of the traditional melodies and arrangements, and the variety of musical forms that somehow blend together so well. The older I get, the more I find myself attracted to stripped-down songs that rely on that elusive quality called “soul” instead of the flashy arrangements (and noise) of so much contemporary rock and pop. As the years have passed, my MP3 player has accumulated an increasing amount of folk, blues, bluegrass, and even traditional country. One of the benefits of becoming a bit older and more mature is that I can now allow myself to like music that I was not supposed to enjoy when I was younger, and I no longer worry so much about labels.
With Griffin’s new album, however, I am not just attracted to the beauty of the music. The Christian lyrics, rather than getting in the way, are an integral part of what draws me in. Christianity, like all major religions, confronts the ultimate questions of life, issues that all of us cannot avoid. So when Griffin sings about an eternal life in which people will never again grow old, there is a part of me that wants to go to that place, a longing for a land without suffering, loss, deterioration and death. When she sings about death holding a warrant over all of us, it’s a powerful reminder of my own mortality. And when she sings about a man traveling around forgiving sinners, I am reminded of some of the positive aspects of the Christian faith. I am then drawn back to the faith of my youth, to the theological concepts that inevitably permeate any thoughts that I will ever have about the ultimate questions of life.
Music, more than anything else, can draw emotions out of me that are generally pushed far beneath the surface, and listening to the right song at the right time is about the closest I ever get to a spiritual experience. For others, these moments of mysticism may happen through other experiences, many of which do not fit the conventional perceptions of religious ritual. But since we all face the same fundamental, deeply rooted fears and desires, all people, regardless of their religious beliefs, have the potential to connect with other people and ideas on a deep, spiritual level. And since spiritual music directly confronts the ultimate issues, it can, if we let it, dig more deeply than just about anything else.
My problem, however, is that I often let the theology get in the way. But as a self-professed Unitarian Universalist, there is no reason why it should. On an intellectual level, I recognize all theologies as metaphorical systems providing images that give insight into life’s ultimate mysteries. The lessons and principles embodied into the metaphors are what matter, not the literal truth of the images and stories. But unfortunately, my self-professed beliefs and my actual thoughts/emotions are often misaligned, and I find myself passing judgment on people’s religious beliefs, fixated on the facts instead of the truths. It is possible, however, that I am finally showing the first signs of real spiritual wisdom. For when I listen to Patty Griffin sing about heaven and Jesus, my beliefs and emotions, if only for a moment, become more closely aligned, and I get a glimpse of the deeper meaning behind the religious metaphors. I am then able to recapture some of those emotions that I thought were gone when I stopped believing in the literal truth of Christianity.
Many people are attracted to religious beliefs because of the emotional comfort that they provide, not because they have done an in-depth study and have determined that a particular religion is the most rational alternative. Emotion generally plays a bigger role than reason, and beliefs are often more a reflection of personality than of intelligence. And while I am unable to make myself believe in something just because it is emotionally appealing, I would be lying if I said that I do not need some of what religion provides. Death makes me sad and nervous. I need something to give my life meaning and purpose. When people die, I would love to have the opportunity to see them again.
Great religious music can bring us face to face with these emotions that all of us experience, helping us feel connected to other human beings. For at least a few moments, we can then look beyond the petty theological differences that divide us and become the people that all major religions, at their best, inspire us to become. After all, if our religious beliefs do not make us more compassionate, empathetic, moral human beings, then what good are they? And if music helps us get more in touch with our inner selves and feel more connected to others, then who cares what religious tradition it came from.
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