Ten years ago, I taught a University module on pop music and the Christian faith, which was the first such course to be taught in the UK. One of the essays I would give the students was on Australian rock star Nick Cave’s perspective that pop music expresses our desire to reach out to the sacred. “Ultimately,” he writes, “the love song exists to fill, with language, the silence between ourselves and God, to decrease the distance between the temporal and the divine”. This viewpoint inspired me to write a later article in Anvil: The Journal for Theology and Mission, which argued that a conversational approach to pop music should be an integral part of the Church’s outreach, especially in connecting with younger generations. The article is still available online: ‘Pop Music and the Church’s Mission’.
My thoughts on this subject have not changed. In fact, when I hear the lyrics of the music that my children play, I am more convinced than ever that pop music holds both a great challenge and a wonderful opportunity for Christians today. Our pop charts continue to be full of spiritual searching, with many songs suffused with direct religious imagery and references. “Baby, I’ve been, I’ve been praying hard… Seek it out and you shall find”, sing One Republic on ‘Counting Stars’, presently at number 3 in the UK charts (compare Matthew 7:7-8). Other recent songs have been even more direct with matters of faith. “When food is gone you are my daily meal; When friends are gone I know my saviour’s love is real”, sung Florence and the Machine on their 2009 hit single ‘You’ve got the Love’.
None of this is new, of course. Faith and spirituality have always had an intimate relationship with pop and rock music, from Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones (just listen to ‘Shine a Light’ and ‘I Just Want to See His Face’ on 1972’s seminal album ‘Exile on Main Street’), through to Madonna, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, and U2 (whose songs are even used in some churches to form the structure of a communion service, cleverly entitled the ‘U2charist’).
For most songs, however, it is not their direct rooting in theology or Christian imagery that encourages those of faith to take note of them. Rather, it is the fact that they deal specifically, if often unwittingly, with key Christian themes such as sin, salvation, love, responsibility to one’s neighbours, hope, loss of innocence, compassion and redemption. In so many songs, there is an implicit, rather than an overt, sense of transcendence, which accompanies a real search for hope and meaning in a seemingly cold and uncaring world. “I don’t know who you are, but I’m, I’m with you”, sung Avril Lavigne on her 2003 award-winning song.
With such a deep spirituality within much of today’s popular music, engagement and dialogue is essential, especially if the Church is to understand generations that are largely lost to its fold. Christians are called to a dynamic relationship with popular culture, in the same way that St Paul considered, and engaged with, the cultural and social make-up of the people to whom he was preaching (Acts 14:1-20). After all, both music and poetry harbour, to use Karl Rahner’s phrase, ‘the eternal marvel and silent mystery of God’ and so it is absolutely imperative that the Church takes seriously their contemporary forms. As William Romanowski puts it: “We need a different kind of Christian approach – an engaged, critical, and productive involvement with the popular arts – grounded in a faith vision that encompasses all of life and culture”.