Secular Worship, Or, My Album for Breaking Up with Evangelicalism

Let me tell a story.

So, as you all know, I am a teacher.  I teach in a school that serves a very specialized population, and because of that population, we frequently make use of an online content delivery system to cover the curricula of the various classes that we are required to teach.  That by itself isn’t a big deal, and is tangential to this post.  What is important about this system is that my students spend a lot of time working independently, and they really like listening to music on their computers while they work.

I am not the biggest fan of much of their music.

So I listen to my own.  When I first came up with this brilliant plan to combat the melodic cacophony of my classroom, I was fond of using Pandora, because I live in a musical bubble and otherwise would never hear about any artists besides the ones I’m already acquainted with.  Eventually Pandora got blocked from our school network (I suppose streaming music nonstop every day for a couple months might draw attention from the network admin) and I had to resort to playing music that I already have in my personal library.  This naturally means that my students get a huge helping of what I was listening to about five or six years ago when my personal library last went through any kind of significant expansion.  It’s endlessly delightful for a student to cry out, “What is this crap you’re listening to, Mr. Jones?” when the Beatles or Bob Dylan comes on (almost as delightful as when a student recognizes Johnny Cash and goes all smiles before asking if I can play “Boy Named Sue” to which I must ruefully reply that I only have the live version with the bad word that isn’t appropriate at school).

But I’m digressing.  The point is that I started listening to Pandora, and in the process I became rather fond of Mumford & Sons (especially after hearing “Little Lion Man” one too many times and realizing the chorus is chock full of that most egregious of bad words that is never to be tolerated in an educational setting).  So I asked to get some of their music for my library this past Christmas.

I received a copy of their first album, Sigh No More, and I have to say I’ve been enamored with it.  Rachael likes to poke fun because the lyrics are honestly a little simplistic and perhaps nonsensical if you’re just listening casually (I can’t claim to have done that, since I’ve probably listened to the album around 150 times since I got it, and am now very well acquainted with all the lyrics).  That’s okay though, because Sigh No More is definitely one of those musical endeavors that really takes itself seriously (or at least does its best to get the audience to take it seriously).

So why do I like this album, anyway?  I mean, the easy explanation is that Mumford & Sons is popular right now, and the music is catchy so why wouldn’t I like it.  The more complicated answer involves worship music and the ongoing willful separation of myself from evangelicalism.

If you’ve ever been an evangelical, then you’ve done this. Admit it. It’s okay, I don’t know why I did it either. (Image credit: worship.12stone.com)

For anyone who’s not familiar with the whole evangelical subculture and its peculiar infatuation with worship music, I’ll explain a couple of important things that must always be remembered about this facet of the evangelical life.  First, good worship music is easy to learn (instrumentally, if you’re a musician, and preferably a guitarist, as well as vocally, if you’re everyone else).  The lyrics need to be able to stick in your head even when you’re not in the middle of a crowd with their hands in the air making the O-face for God (full disclosure: I may have made the O-face a few times when I was an evangelical, but I never put my hands in the air; that’s just creepy).  Second, worship music (of the variety that’s popular in contemporary evangelical churches) is about creating a mood that lets you coast on a high of emotion.  If it doesn’t make you want to make an O-face, then it’s not good worship music.

I think that Mumford & Sons makes use of these aspects of worship music in their own songwriting.  If nothing else, I think they’re quite adept at appropriating the cultural cues to appeal to the evangelical market (aside from myself, most of the other people I’ve met in person who like Mumford & Sons identify as evangelical Christians).  Essentially, they’re a secular worship band (and that is awesome because I really love the conventions of worship music–so long as I can listen to it privately without anyone watching me make an O-face).

It helps that in addition to writing songs that are orchestrated to really up the emotional intensity (something about banjos and flugelhorns really gets my blood pumping; that might be a leftover from the musical education I received from my dad: Earl Scruggs and Chuck Mangione anyone?), the lyrics also deal heavily in imagery that’s going to appeal to anyone with a Christian background:

“But there will come a time you’ll see

With no more tears

And love will not break your heart

But dismiss your fears” (“After the Storm”)

Or how about,

“Love it will not betray you

Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free

Be more like the man you were made to be” (“Sigh No More”)

Well, I’m sold.

Of course, the flip side of an album that’s playing so openly with imagery and ideas from Christian theology is that there’s plenty of room for mockery here.  About half the songs on the album seem to be about break ups, and they’re all steeped in a strange rejection of things that are highly reminiscent of evangelical doctrine.

Here’s “Roll Away Your Stone,” which I think is the most overt in its rejection of evangelical dogma:

First off, pay attention to how the crowd’s reacting when they’re deep into the meat of the song.  It’s like a really high energy version of what you get in congregations during a good worship band’s set.

Anyhow, that refrain from the middle of the song (“Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think / And yet it dominates the things I see”) reminds me so much of the evangelical mindset: we’re not about negativity or anything, but there’s a lot of dangerous stuff out there in the secular world that you need to be careful of.  One of the most salient things I remember about being an evangelical was how much I distrusted everything that wasn’t explicitly Christian.

Then you get to the change at the end with that victorious declaration,

“And so I’ll be found

With my stake stuck in this ground

Marking the territory of this newly empassioned soul”

That’s kind of how I feel about leaving evangelicalism behind.  I’m happier being outside of it, and I want to lay claim to what feels like a reinvigorated identity for me.

There are other songs that evoke similar sorts of strong reactions for me, like “White Blank Page” reminding me of what I can really only describe as this weird abusive quality that evangelicalism has in relation to its adherents where individuals are expected to submit everything about themselves to an artificial ideal that maintains power and privilege for the few who naturally fit the mold.  It’s a very unChristlike thing, and I’m not sure I’m articulating it well, but it’s there.  Then, paired with that is “I Gave You All,” which in my more angry moments really feels like a great expression of how evangelicalism treats people who turn away from it; we’re backsliders, heretics, apostates.  We can’t just be people who think there is a better way for us to be Christians, or for anyone who’s left the faith, people who have been hurt too much by all the baggage that comes with evangelicalism.

And then, despite all the angry and defiant music, the album ends with “After the Storm,” which strikes me as just breathtakingly simple and hopeful for reconciliation.

“Get over your hill and see, what you find there

With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair”

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