Religious Poetry and Popular Music: Five Examples

Professor Williams’ fascinating lecture today highlighted some of the many ways that religious poetry can work on its readers. Standard, conversational speech often tries to communicate a “plain” meaning. This is especially the case in religious instruction. If I preach a sermon, for example, I aim to take a text or the abstract commandments of God and make them intelligible to the day to day life of the believer sitting in the pews before me. Religious poetry, however, does not function in this manner. In Professor Williams’ words it acts as “creative speech”: it works to open the reader to new states of being and view the divine in a different manner. In this way religious poetry is “mind altering” in the best possible way – whether it is Rumi providing us with glimpses of the divine by his surprising interruptions and shifts in authorial voice in his poems, or the paradoxical images of purity and impurity used by John Donne (“Except you enthral me, never shall be free\Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me”).  But religious poetry is still alive and well today in a surprising context: popular music. In the following post I want to highlight five songs  that highlight way in which contemporary artists have used their lyrics to get the listeners to consider different religious positions (with Youtube links so that you can listen). Being focused on Western artists, this list is entirely Christian – please let me know if you have any further suggestions for other faiths!

Sufjan Stevens, “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”\“To Be Alone with You” (Illinois 2005\ Seven Swans 2004)

Stevens is one of the most theologically interesting artists performing today – see “Vesuvius” from his later album (which I’ve written more extensively on here). On “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” he shocks the listener with his stark articulation of the Protestant doctrine of mankind’s total depravity (universal sinfulness). The song features the chilling tale of the infamous serial killer and rapist, leaving the listener horrified at his deeds before Stevens closes with the admission that “even in my best behaviour\ I’m really just like him”. A similar inversion occurs in “To Be Alone With You”, in which Stevens declares his desperation to be with Jesus (“I’d swim across Lake Michigan… To be alone with you”) before the dawning realisation that Jesus had in fact given up more than the singer could ever hope to sacrifice to have fellowship with him (“You gave your body to the lonely… a wife and a family…To be alone with me\ You went up a tree [i.e. the Cross]”). These inversions, like the best religious poetry, aim to shock the listener into reconsidering the situation they find themselves in and re-examine their own religious positions.

Vigilantes of Love, “Resplendent” (Audible Sigh, 1999)

A haunting folk rock song by the Bill Mallonee led band, “Resplendent” deals with the tragedies hitting a farmer in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Like the book of Job, the song tackles  the inscrutability of God’s purpose. After losing both wife and daughter and seeing his harvest destroyed, the farmer is left to ask whether it is his sin, the randomness of life, or Satan’s persecution of the faithful that is responsible for his suffering: “How much of this is meant to be\ How much the work of the Devil\ How far can one man’s eyes really see\In these days of toil and trouble?\ How much of this is failing flesh\ How much the course of retribution?…” The song, again echoing Job, disturbingly offers no answers to the tragic turn of the singer’s life, before wryly observing that all men like to disavow responsibility for their own decisions: “My, my how we declare our innocence\Long after we’ve made our contribution”. Mallonee’s work is probably the most theologically interesting of anybody working today, I’d encourage you to dig a little deeper into his catalogue if interested in deep thought in music.

The Mountain Goats, “Genesis 3:23” (Life of the World to Come, 2009)

A band with an unconventional religious background (band leader John Darnelle attends both a Catholic Church and Hare Krishna meetings), the Goats’ most recent album featured tracks each based around a particular biblical verse. This song, based on the verse where Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden, reimagines the singer’s visit to his old house. Forced to pick the locks to enter, Darnelle muses on the failures and disappointments of dashed hopes. What was once familiar to him becomes alien and frightening. What was once a place of comfort and peace has become a place where he must hide his presence: while recalling a place that was once “familiar and warm” now he must “cover up [his] tracks” as he leaves. Returning to his own home he, like Adam and Eve, is forced to contemplate the newly open and uncertain world. Even the stars now appear threatening: “like teeth in the mouth of a shark”. As a meditation on the first verses of Genesis it works, like much of the album, remarkably well.

Belle and Sebastian, “Ghost of Rockschool”, (Write About Love, 2010)

A recent article noted that as opposed to artists catering for the “Christian” market (recording “praise and worship” songs) who sing to a God “up there”, believers working in mainstream contemporary music tended to record music reflecting the immanence of God and his closeness in everyday life. God, in other words, is all around us.  “Ghost of Rockschool” reflects, simultaneously, how close the divine is to singer Stuart Murdoch and (conversely) how far away: “I’ve seen God in the sun\God in the street\God before bed and the promise of sleep\God in my dreams and the free ride of grace\But it all disappears and then I wake up”. The song concludes, however, with the singer finding God’s presence in other people: “I’ve seen God in the puddles\And lanes besides houses\I’ve seen God shining out from her reflection”. In other words, those who follow and love God, those who reflect his glory and his created image, manifest God to us.

All of these songs try to tell us something about ourselves and something about the divine. They don’t necessarily offer all the answers, but give us new prisms through which to examine our own religious beliefs (or lack of them). Whether these songs offer, along with Rumi’s poetry, “the essence of our state” is questionable, but they amply display the survival and flourishing of religious poetry in contemporary society.

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About andrewcrome

Lecturer in religions and theology at the University of Manchester.
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