Exploring Theological Themes in the Music of Singer-Songwriters

Introduction

Music is an important aspect of human culture, art, and well-being. Music pervades almost all arenas of society, from national anthems to religious spirituality; and at the same time, almost all of human life is the subject matter of music. As Christians, we are used to engaging with music written and intended for the Christian community’s internal practices. It is, however, rarer for Christians to explore theological themes within songs not intended for Christian use or an explicitly Christian audience.

This article analyses the inclusion of theological themes in the work of six Australian contemporary singers-songwriters; concluding that popular music is an invaluable tool for theological reflection and exploration. The article hopes to broaden the general understanding of Christians and theologians towards popular music as a valuable tool for theological undertakings.

Definitions

For this article, a singer-songwriter (artist) is a person or group that plays their own instruments (including the use of computers to produce electronic music) to create both the majority of their own music and lyrical content. Also, the chosen artists do not publicly promote the Christian faith, nor is their work identified as being for an explicitly Christian audience. These artists may or may not be aware of, nor had the goal of including theological themes and understandings within their respective works.

Music

The lyrical components of a song are an important feature as they are the primary vehicle which artists utilise to convey their messages. The musical component is also important in conveying messages, though far more equivocal. Moreover, similar lyrical messages can be conveyed utilising a variety of musical elements. Comparing Paul Kelly’s From Little Things Big Things Grow[1] with Urthboy’s Empire Tags[2] we see two very different songs stylistically but very similar songs in the messages they convey, specifically Australian Indigenous peoples’ land rights and their treatment from White Australians.

Music is an important tool for cultural reflection and evolution. It not only reflects the culture it is created within but also connects others within that culture and pushes it towards change. Perlovsky suggests that music reconciles culture with basic conceptual and linguistic needs; reconnecting emotional needs within the music with cultural concepts in the lyrics.[3]  The book of Psalms is an important example of songs in the bible which fulfil the function just described. Although each psalm was likely written with a specific incident that spurred its creation, their wider use is intended for fostering community both towards God and other people.[4]

However, Kelton Cobb suggests that many people are turning away from traditional theological frameworks (found, for example, in the Psalms) for understanding their day to day lives and experiences. He states that a theological framework for appropriately assessing popular culture is essential for continued relevance of the Church in a society that has less and less exposure to and knowledge of the biblical texts.[5]

Artists’ Expressions of Theological Themes

While scripture is central for matters of faith and life for Christians, one need not reference the Bible to engage important theological themes. Below are examples of modern music exploring theological themes whether intended or not.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ song The Ship Song[6] can be interpreted as an example of the relationship between Christ and the Church, much the same way that the Song of Songs has been historically interpreted by Christians. The Ship Songs’ lyrics describe the artist speaking to his love and asking the lover to enter into a place of safety and refuge in him. The lyrics’ imagery paints a picture as if to say that the artist is able to deal with what the lover can throw at them, as Christ has suffered for the Church. The artist asks the lover to burn their bridges down, as Christ would ask his followers to forsake their former lives and live for Him. Cave has stated that the Psalms, “…teeming with all the clamorous desperation, longing, exultation, erotic violence and brutality that I could hope for”,[7] have been a source of inspiration in his own song writing. Cave’s own definition of a love song is that “…they all address God”[8] and can only be a love song if it deals with the joys and the sorrows, the heights and depths of human emotion.[9] Cave captures a difficult concept but one that is deeply rooted in good theology. His efforts to not separate love and despair, joy and sorrow are also present in the Psalms and the eschatology of the New Testament. In contemporary Christian music we are used to songs about the love of God; focusing on the positive elements of relationship with God and skipping over the challenges. We might speak of the challenges the world throws our way but not often the challenges of relationship with God. Cave, while not explicitly speaking of relationship with God, has not shied away from this difficulty, as his quote above shows, but embraced it; something that can provide a fresh canvas for theological exploration.

Paul Kelly is well known for his portrayal of Australian life and themes through his work. One of his most poignant pieces is They Thought I Was Asleep.[10] This song shares the emotions he felt as a child after seeing his parents fighting. The work clearly conveys the pain, hurt, and confusion of the artist as he recalls witnessing this argument. The song does not give details about the cause of the event nor the outcome of the situation but skilfully draws its listeners into the midst of the pain and anguish of the scene; in this way it is very much like a biblical lament. The artist is left somewhat paralysed during the event, unable to move out of the way of the tragedy despite not wanting any part of it. We all encounter events that bring pain into our lives, sometimes there is no resolution or explanation for these events, sometimes the only thing we can do is cry out to God for help in learning to live with the impact that these events have on us.[11] The song highlights our helplessness through the lyric “I prayed for Jesus to send his grace and all our souls to keep”;[12] [13] a situation that believers will find themselves in at points in their life. Laments are not a common part of contemporary Christian music but these explorations are taking place in contemporary music; both those inside and outside of the Church can use songs like these to contribute to theological understandings around such themes.

Urthboy (Tim Levinson) is a Hip-Hop artist from Sydney. His work is heavily focused on social justice and inclusion. In the chorus of his piece, Little Girl’s Dad,[14] he sings “You ain’t daddy’s little girl, he’s a little girl’s dad.” By flipping this relationship upside down we can see parallels to way the Kingdom of God in the New Testament, a phenomenally inclusive document,[15] causes its audience to view culture differently and to challenge its values. We can see a strong example of this in Luke 14 with the Parable of the Great Banquet, a challenge for radical inclusion despite society’s expectations. Urthboy challenges fathers to remember that they are instrumental in raising healthy and whole members of society and that their actions directly affect the self-esteem and self-worth of their daughters. He places the responsibility squarely back on fathers to act in a way that creates healthy humans and healthy relationships, not to act in a way that perpetuates destructive or disempowering stereotypes of women. It echoes the equality found in the work of Christ where all are alike in their need for Him and their acceptance by Him, regardless of gender or status.[16]

Missy Higgins is another artist that is exploring themes that are found in the bible. Her song Steer[17] is a hopeful piece that fills its audience with joy and the prospect of new beginnings. The song speaks of letting things that have held the artist back fall away and stepping into something new, a change in direction and being filled with hope. Hope and its recognisable feeling is something that God fills His people with upon their re-connection with Him. Missy Higgins captures and expresses the joy and empowerment of making a choice that leads to freedom and renewal. While hope is a very common theme in the music of the Church (both modern and older), it is important to remember that hope is found in many places. The greatest hope is in Christ, but if Christians can understand hope outside of the Church, they can then better point to Jesus as they build connections through popular culture.

In The Dark[18] by Kate Miller-Heidke, explores the kind of hope that is mingled with despair. It is a song that walks the depths of loss while looking forward. The song is about the death of a family member and the pain it causes, closing with a burst of strength and hope for healing despite the rawness of the loss. It is this kind of hope that we see in the bible through the laments in the Psalms and the weariness of Christians in the New Testament looking forward to the return of Christ in the face of persecution. This kind of hope moves beyond fleeting moments of happiness and sets itself deep in the heart. It serves as a foundation to continue in the face of fierce opposition.[19] This feeling is one of deep theological significance, intrinsically linked to the biblical narrative.

Further Considerations

Stanley Grenz, in Created For Community, begins with a definition of theology: “teaching concerning God”.[20] This simple definition allows for broad and deep reflection. Grenz also states that the three resources for theologians are the Bible, the heritage and traditions of the Church, and the thought forms of our culture.[21] If we agree with Grenz that we are all theologians[22] then it becomes quite easy to see theological themes in the works of those who would not (yet) identify with Christ. To agree also recognises that theology is happening in the absence of those with traditional theological training and deep relationship with Christ. As wider audiences are exposed to theological themes there are great opportunities for Christians to participate in the theological reflections and explorations of those who are not yet united with Christ and offer guidance to point to the truth in Him and further our own theological horizons.

Conclusion

The themes described and explored by the above artists become creative expressions that blur sacred/secular boundaries. They become explorations of issues in which God is intimately and unavoidably involved. The assertion that theology must take place in community means that as Christians we cannot ignore the wider community in which we exist. Further to this Kelton Cobb, closes his work by saying:

“… our cultural expressions can testify to a reality that transcends them – a reality that is really there, that matters, and in which providence is at work. Theology offers a language to speak about this reality, and can help articulate what is going on in the depths of popular culture.”[23]

He notes that the creators and artists within pop-culture will not always create things that point to the divine or highlight beauty and goodness (as opposed to evil) and theology and theologians can help to highlight these, but that theology and theologians “can also lose their way”[24] and thus need to remain open to the realities of popular culture. In the above works we see some important theological themes being explored in ways that modern Christians can explore outside of a Church context. By exploring theological themes in contexts that are more broadly accessible to those outside of the Church we can help them to see God and Christ in fresh and exciting new ways that are relevant to them. Further to this we can deepen our own understanding of the significance of these issues in a broader society and help ourselves and others to engage theologically with the world around us and its art forms.

 

About the author:

Andrew Murray is a chaplain in two local public schools, he graduated from AC in 2016 with a Diploma of Ministry (Chaplaincy) and in 2017 with a Bachelor of Ministry. He attends Beyond Church in the Hunter Valley and holds a Provisional Minister’s Certificate.

 

[1] Paul Kelly, Songs From the South: The Best of Paul Kelly, Mushroom Records MUSH33009.5, 1997.

[2] Urthboy, Smokey’s Haunt, Elefant Traks ACE077, 2012.

[3] Leonid Perlovsky, “Cognitive Function of Music. Part II.”, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Volume 39 Issue 2 (Jun 2014), online at  http://bit.ly/2kacDbi [accessed January 2017], 179.

[4] Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms, (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 47.

[5] Kelton Cobb, The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture, (Malden, USA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 6-7.

[6] Nick Cave &The Bad Seeds, The Best of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Liberation Records MUSH33103.2, 1998.

[7] Nick Cave, “The Secret Life of the Love Song” (lecture presented at the Vienna Poetry Festival 1998, Vienna, Austria), transcript online at http://everything2.com/title/Nick+Cave%2527s+Love+Song+Lecture [accessed January 2017].

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kelly, Songs From the South.

[11] Shane Clifton, “Theodicy, Disability, and Fragility: An Attempt to Find Meaning in the Aftermath of Quadriplegia”, Theological Studies (Online), Volume 76 Issue 4, online at http://bit.ly/2kq1INp [accessed February 2017], 782.

[12]Kelly, Songs From the South.

[13] The lyric closes with “back then I believed”. This indicates the author has departed from his faith but also reveals a sad truth that something occurred in his life at some point that left him faithless. Though the inclusion of the rest of the lyrics would remove the ambiguity regarding the definition given that the artists are not Christian, its inclusion would indicate that faithlessness is the only response to tragedy when this is not the case.

[14] Urthboy, The Past Beats Inside Me Like A Second Heartbeat, Elefant Traks ACE140, 2016.

[15] Ben Witherington III, New Testament History: A Narrative Account, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 282.

[16] Lisa P. Stephenson, “A Feminist Pentecostal Theological Anthropology: North America and Beyond”, Pneuma Volume 35 Issue 1 (March 2013), online at http://bit.ly/2jupJn0 [accessed February 2017], 39.

[17] Missy Higgins, On A Clear Night, Eleven: A Music Company ELEVENCD70, 2007.

[18] Kate Miller-Heidke, Nightflight, Sony Music 88691974412, 2012.

[19] Tremper Longman III, “Getting Brutally Honest With God”, Christianity Today, Volume 59 Issue 3, online at http://bit.ly/2kQnOcK [accessed February 2017], 56-59.

[20] Stanley Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 14.

[21] Ibid, 21-22.

[22] Ibid, 24.

[23] Kelton Cobb, The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture, (Malden, USA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 294.

[24] Ibid.