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The spirituality of secular songs

Monday, 1 May 2017  | Megan Powell du Toit


Note: If you would like the soundtrack to the article, go to the Spotify playlist before you start reading.


Every year in May I get together with some friends to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. For us, it isn’t all about the songs. It’s about playing Eurovision bingo (points for wind machines, folk costume and Finnish death metal). But Eurovision is meant to be about the song – the entries are by country rather than about the artist, and every song has to be original. The winner for 2016, 1944, was an emotive song that referred back to the deportation of the Tatars. When you look at top 40 lists, there is a reason that instrumental music is extremely rare: there is a particular power to the song. It is the combination of words and music that produces a powerful impact. You can’t imagine a book written about the deportation of the Tatars having quite the same popularity. The church knows this – congregational singing survives as the mainstay of church services, not just because of the inertia of traditional practice but also because singing together has a spiritual impact.

Singing gets a lot of airtime in the Bible, with around 400 references and about 50 commands to sing. Why is this so? I think it is due to the power of song. It is the power of marrying the evocative nature of poetry with the easy access to our emotions of music. Emotion from music is proven to be able to cross over to other sensory experiences. It can amplify the emotion we feel, emotion already present in well-written words. At its best, we get people like Bob Dylan - who last year won the Nobel Prize for Literature - with songs like The times they are a changin.

The biblical emphasis on song is reason enough for the use of song in worship. I enjoy congregational singing – even if the chorus on loop style may not be my favourite. However, you would struggle to find any Christian artists on my most played artists list on Spotify. A friend recently suggested to me that, when you hear the qualifier ‘Christian’, you are suspicious that you are about to get an inferior product: Christian music, Christian singer, Christian movie, Christian fiction. I laughed – he had a point. So, my question is, if we can have a spiritual experience through worship songs, what about through the other songs we listen to, so-called secular songs?

Sometimes I go through a worship music phase – maybe if I’m in particular need of comfort. But mostly, in my private listening, I am drawn to secular songs. That is, songs not specifically written for the Christian market. We could see this as evidence of my unregenerate nature or my uncritical adoption of culture. I want to argue something different, though: these songs of the world inform my spirituality. I’m not alone. I asked in a recent Facebook post if others had secular songs with which they had had a spiritual experience. It was a popular post. The songs spanned the genres: rock, pop, metal, folk, jazz, indie. There were the usual suspects – Leonard Cohen – and the unexpected – Barbie Girl, anyone?

One reason is that lyricists aren’t averse to co-opting the power of religious allusion. Christians complain that worship songs borrow from popular love songs. But secular songs borrow from the sacred. Cohen’s Hallelujah is a case in point, using the story of David and Bathsheba and the exclamation of praise. Hozier’s Take me to church uses a gospel sound and the lover imagined as a religion. Both of these worship the experience of sexual love, but we can have a spiritual experience through listening to them. They can remind us of the power of such love and the temptation to idolise it. They can also then strangely draw us beyond it and back to the worship of the true God, as our hearts recognise the rightness of this intensity in our relationship with God. Christian versions of Hallelujah abound – Cohen has even given permission for some (here’s an example). I don’t listen to those much, though. The beauty of Cohen’s song is that the brokenness of his hallelujah mirrors the brokenness of our experience of the fallen world.

The strength of the secular song is that it provides a place to process our brokenness and does not resile from the messiness of life. The psalms are biblical examples of the kind of raw honest emotion we often find these days more often in secular songs, intertwined with the worship we are more comfortable with in a Christian setting. Many have lamented the lack of lament in worship, but I suspect that, even if lament became more common, it would be a struggle to get people comfortable with songs that detail sin, that swear at the world. We find this in secular songs. These songs have a confessional purpose. As our hearts connect with the fallenness of their humanity, our hearts are revealed to us in all their complexity. Worship songs can sometimes give us a false sense of our own spiritual superiority. But secular songs, instead, can hold up a confronting mirror to our weaknesses. Kate Miller Heidke’s Caught in the Crowd tells a story of peer pressure and complicity in mistreatment that brings to mind the story of the Good Samaritan. Of course, in choosing to play broken songs all the time, we can wallow in our own brokenness. We need to listen to our own hearts as we play these songs, discerning the effect they are having on us.

The spirituality of secular songs isn’t just one of individual confession. There is also the ability of such songs to have what we could call a prophetic voice within society. Again, in my experience, few Christian songs dare to boldly speak into the specific injustices of our world, while I have found this more often in the secular protest song. One song that swears in its title and utters the heartfelt cry about no longer believing in prayer is Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone, which speaks out the justified anger of the civil rights movement in America. A recent song with the same purpose is Glory by John Legend, which has an anthemic quality with distinct religious undertones. It is to our shame that there aren’t more Christian protest songs. Yet this would not replace the secular protest song – we do not stand apart from the struggles of other humans, and so these protest songs should move us and engage us, just as Christian songs do.

Some songs, and some songwriters, seem to have the key to the transcendent side of our humanity. U2 were mentioned several times by my friends. As Christians who speak to a secular audience; this isn’t unexpected. Where the streets have no name speaks to a longing we all have, but has particular resonance for those with a hope for the streets to come. Some songs seem to have an unexpected touch of the Spirit – the sneakiness of the sovereign God. Paul Kelly is another songwriter who has a transcendent feel. To her door is a song about broken relationship and the desire for reconciliation. More unusually, Paul Kelly, not a Christian, has a hauntingly transcendent song based on Psalm 23, Meet me in the middle of the air (Megan Washington’s version is particularly beautiful).

Part of what I’m saying is that we need to enrich our Christian song repertoire. But, more than that, I’m saying that our experience of the music of our culture shouldn’t be siloed away from our relationship with God. For those of us who enjoy listening to ‘secular’ music, we can embrace its interaction with all we are, including our spiritual selves. We can allow a place for the sovereign God to speak in the voices of these other humans seeking understanding of their lives and world. And to those of you who do the opposite, and stay in the comfortable and comforting soundscape of Christian music, maybe it is time to engage with the multifaceted reality that can be found in other songs. I’ve been part of a flash mob choir run by the City Hall. We sang I will survive – it was an experience of human resilience and joy in a world that certainly needs to be survived. As I’m writing this, I’m messaging an old school friend about going to one later this week – apparently Steve Kilbey from The Church will be there. I’m suspecting we might be singing about what we are looking for in Under the Milky Way. I think this is exactly where I should be as a follower of Jesus, engaging with my community as we express together the yearnings of our hearts.

Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist minister, Publications and Policies Administrator for the Australian College of Theology and incoming editor of the academic journal Colloquium. She is also a trained singer and has a not-so-secret love for karaoke.


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