In my last article I slung some mud at our modern conception of Christian music; how we, in false humility short change the wealth of creativity from an infinite God, and become derivatives of derivatives, pruning secular music of its obscene rough edges yet implicitly admitting its artistic superiority. Now I want to take a step back and ask: what is Christian music? And what is secular music? And why make music at all? If everything we create is secondary to God’s creation, why not just take Him in? Why attempt our own art when we are surrounded by His superior art?
God created a beautiful canvas in nature; a symphony of rhythms, tunes and patterns that constantly give back to him even without us. Psalm 19:1-4 says “The heavens are telling of the glory of God… Day to day pours forth speech… There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard… Their utterances to the end of the world…” Romans 8 talks about creation groaning for redemption (more on this later) and in Luke 19, during Jesus’ triumphal entry, as His followers worshiped him and the Pharisees begged Him to shut them up He proclaimed “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out.”
But we see implied in this last passage that of all creation, we are His first choice for expressing worship. And we see in Genesis, Job and so many other places that along with praising God itself, nature is designed to inspire us to praise as well. God created us to make noise; to break the silence…to play poetic parts in a grand drama. Unlike the New Age or Buddhist religions, our goal is not to sink into the peaceful lull of nature. Though we learn from and are inspired by nature, we are beings designed to know each other and know a creator; to distinguish between right and wrong and live valiantly. For some reason, God desired that we use the resources he gave us to build, craft, write, imagine and offer back. Our product is the result of the creativity he implanted in us. Nothing that we create is something that He could not have imagined, lest we are tempted to worship it or ourselves; but creating utilizes the gifts and spirit He has knit in us. So it is a sin to worship what we have created, but I believe it is also a sin not to create.
Secondary creativity is an act of honesty: it is being ourselves but seeking more; being personal while tapping the universal; being humble while tasting the divine. In this sense, secular music has just as much capability for power and truth. Secular artists are just as human and just as much God’s image-bearers as we Christians are.
I would not divide music into camps of secular or Christian. It is an unfair label for secular artists and an absurdly impossible and contrived one for Christian artists. We are all deeply flawed, sinful human beings. For a believer to write music under the label of “Christian” or “religious” music is extremely…bold. Rather than an attitude of walking with and learning from Christ, we have his stamp of approval on everything that goes through our minds. And from an artistic standpoint, is forcing God into every song honest? Though we as Christians have times in our lives of sweet closeness to God, we are told that for now we see “through a glass darkly,” that we are hoping for something to come in a world that is falling apart now. Think of all the wailing in the psalms and prophets about God’s seeming absence, of Solomon’s cynicism in Ecclesiastes, of all the messed up things that happen to the Israelites and the perverseness of the early church, of Paul’s horror at this “body of death” we are trapped in… And this all from the Holy Word of God! Could this be? That in scripture, God actually inspires prophets and poets to express human angst! True art can overflow from any life if motivated by sincere passion and honesty. Though no one seeks God, art seeks truth and gives us a taste of God. So let’s level the playing field. I would submit that a “secular” lament over God’s absence is often more artistic (honest) than a cool “Christian” pop song saying “He’s my buddy.”
When I listen to the new album by Icelandic band Sigur Ros, “Kveikur,” I can hear creation groaning. From the grinding bass lines of “Brennisteinn” and the title song (at times the crackling overwhelms the mix as if a guitar was unplugged and the hot cable dragged across the studio), to the epic chorus of “Hrafntinna,” to the anthems of “Isjaki” and “Bladpradur,” (and of course I expect you to retain these song titles…) I am swept across a spectrum of treacherous peaks, crystal streams, wild, unkempt fields and remote, ancient villages. I can taste adventure and chaos, nature and industry; like the soundtrack to a more modern, Lord of the Rings type saga. Compared with previous albums, this one is darker than Takk and much more focused and intentional than their last, rather weak effort, Valtari. As usual, frontman, Jonsi’s plaintive, falsetto vocals and groaning, screeching bow guitar (he plays the electric guitar with a violin bow) create their signature sound. The rhythm and backdrop: strings, horn, piano, groove and lush harmonies are equally well-orchestrated with subtle complexity. At times the symphonic instruments barely breathe and at others, they threaten to overwhelm the mix. This dynamism is part of what makes Sigur Ros so rewarding and richer with repeated listens.
American fans have created their own titles for Sigur Ros’ decade and a half of magnificent Radiohead meets hippy New Age catalogue: the disjointed but brilliant “alien baby album” to the desolate, wintery “()” (which I would call their masterpiece) to the more joyful “Takk…” (this is the actual title, meaning “Thanks…”) to the very accessible “Naked Album” (because it features band members running nude across a field… I told you, Radiohead meets hippy…). I had the privilege of hearing them play in San Francisco and was blown away by the mix and performance, drawing you in to intimate hushes and then shaking you to the core with full force anthems on foundations of reverberating piano lows and crunching bass. An experience you should not pass up if you can help it.
Why do these textured strains in a foreign tongue send chills up our spines? What is this mysterious role music has in our emotional process? Maybe our creating pronounces nature’s groaning for redemption. Maybe the human spirit, in creative expression, utters the mysterious depths of universal stone hearts and cursed nature the way the Holy Spirit utters the needs and desires of justified hearts to the Father. Could art be friends with infinity? Does music not imply a spiritual dimension? Something made of earthly elements yet stirring us with the mysterious?
Music holds a course between the known and unknown and expresses from our hearts the desire to know and be known. We have been handed a cold plate of scientific method and dull, practical destiny. The “known” we are handed now explains very little of what we feel and long for. Even being known by those close to us in this realm feels pretty lonely. There’s so much inside and outside of us that our lovers and friends cannot understand. And so we continue to utter pagan groans and Christian prayers… Longing to know the heights and be known in the depths.