by Ben Shine
I went to the Sufjan Stevens show last Saturday night at Old National Centre. It was a pretty intense experience. His most recent release, Carrie and Lowell, is largely about his mother’s absence from his life, her death and dealing with a complicated family reality -- and, as usual, his lyrics were scattered with references to his Christian beliefs.
The release has stirred up a lot of conversation about the nature of Christian music in today’s arts scene. Writers make a big deal out of the whole thing, parsing Stevens’ lyrics for their religiosity as much as over-evaluating and often stereotyping his audience or Christian music in general.
For me, it all seems a bit reductive to describe his music as “hipster Christian” or “indie folk praise.” For innumerable years, people have made music as an act of faith, because it was a part of their lives. It’s just as present in the great composers as the pioneers of blues, and even weird New Jersey families . Stevens’ music is really just an expression of his life, and a part of his life is apparently his belief system.
That got me thinking. I wanted to hear from people who love music about the spiritual songs that have deeply impacted them. So I asked some friends who are well versed in combining faith and music, because I want to discover more artists who make their beliefs a sincere, honest part of music making:
Daniel Fahrner, Smallbox/Liz Janes
Pastor T. L. Barrett And The Youth For Christ Choir -- Like a Ship…(Without a Sail)
This album embodies the spirit of the gospel to me, which is one of the most influential concepts in history. The "Good News" is all about not having to go it alone, that you have a partner in life through every peak and valley. Barrett shows this with an amazing choir, inspired performances, and also the fact that he originally self-released it in 1971. Before there was an Internet, this dude knew the lord would bring his music the audience it needed.
Patty Griffin -- Living With Ghosts
Maybe it’s because she’s audacious enough to spot the divine in the messy little lives of imperfect people like me. Or maybe it’s because she sings rapturously, like it’s an act of worship. All I know is that I feel an inexplicable longing and a beautiful ache every time I listen to lyrics with imagery like this: "Mama says that God tends to every little skinny sheep. So count your ribs and say your prayers and get to sleep."
Pam Blevins Hinkle, Spirit & Place Festival
Susan Werner -- The Gospel Truth
The Gospel Truth captures the nuances and tensions of my own faith journey. She sees hell in self-righteousness, closed minds and narrow hearts. She sees heaven in acts of compassion, justice and service. And despite a persistent and humorous thread of doubt that won't relent, there is reverence for mystery and unwavering hope that unity and love will win the day in this world ... and maybe in the next.
Chris Overpeck, Indy Film Fest/Tonic Ball
Larry Norman -- Only Visiting This Planet
I grew up in religious household -- church every Sunday, youth group, church camp, the works. Mercifully, I wasn’t forced to listen to terrible Christian music. On the rare occasion that Christian music was played, it was good (seriously). The best of it was by Larry Norman, maybe the leading pioneer of Christian music. His influence spreads far beyond the steely confines of religious folks, which is a tremendous feat, indeed. His best album, and my favorite, is Only Visiting This Planet. I love this album for a lot of reasons, not least of which is simple sentimentality, but revisiting it as an adult yields some astonishing moments. It can be a little in-your-face with Christian themes, which I’m sure Norman would have argued was exactly the point. But some of these songs are good enough to win over the most ardent atheist music fan -- to the music, if not the faith.
Mitchell Harris, Gentleman Caller
Otis Redding -- Good to Me Live at The Whisky A Go-Go
Otis is not a smooth singer, but he yearns with an intensity and verve fueled by a faith that is influenced by gospel but turned toward the subject often explored in soul and rock music, individual love and longing. As a young man hearing this, I connected deeply to his desire for love and for the attention he wanted as a sexual and spiritual individual. He is young and hungry and he had faith, in himself, and in his ability to let himself express desires that, if done properly, fueled his spirit, as well as called out to a larger chamber. He becomes a mouthpiece for our yearning and search for connection, but with a playfulness and deepness that is superb. The finishing touch for me is that this record never came out, as there is a severely out-of-tune trumpet player; that imperfection makes the reality that much more authentic. I can’t hear these songs any other way, nor would I want to.
My Catholic upbringing informed a lot about who I wanted to be in the world, but I live a very secular life. Still, some of my favorite music is heavily spiritual. That’s why I ask everyone I know to tell me about the music they connect to the most. I can listen to it with different ears. When people share their connection with a higher power, I don’t have to feel the same thing to know that the message is authentic, powerful and moving. And I don’t have to feel a pull to another realm to experience that music as transcendent.
“Why on earth are you there when you’re everywhere?” --John Lennon.
Let’s hear it from you. What album or piece of music do you think is a true work of faith? Or, what has been your spiritual go-to? Leave a comment below or join the conversation over on our Facebook page.