By: Elizabeth Jean-Marie
Whether it’s singing out to the gospel classics of Kirk Franklin and Donnie McClurkin or playing acoustic guitar to the melodies of Hillsong United and Chris Tomlin, music connects Christians to God in a remarkable way. I can imagine that it would be difficult to find a church in the United States that hasn’t sung the classic Michael W. Smith songs “Open the Eyes of My Heart” or “Here I am to Worship”, songs that allow an honest conversation between us and God. In Psalm 18:49 it is written, “Therefore I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing the praises of Your name.” In Old Testament times, praising God through song was not only a vital part in expressing one’s love for God, but also in exercising a healthy relationship with Him. This is just as true for us as Christians today. But is there merit for a Christian in listening to secular music?
When it comes to listening to secular music, today’s Christians take a number of different stances. Some choose to listen to artists who publicly identify themselves as Christian, but don’t necessarily produce Christian music. Some popular artists that fit into this category are Evanescence, The Fray, Creed, and One Republic. Listening to these artists feels safe; I mean, they are Christian right? Other artists not only identify themselves as Christians but also release songs that subtly speak of their beliefs. Good examples are Lifehouse’s “Everything” and Switchfoot’s “Dare You To Move”, both of which had great success on Billboard charts. There are even artists that most people would never guess were Christian, like Augustana, Manchester Orchestra, Civil Twilight, Mat Kearney, Neon Horse and Sufjan Stevens—artists that separate their personal beliefs from the music they produce.
But then there’s Mumford & Sons—the prodigious British band whose new album Babel has already broken records for album sales in 2012. To say the new album has Christian undertones would actually be quite an understatement. Besides the fact that lead man Marcus Mumford sings “When I was told by Jesus all was well” in “Below My Feet”, and sings “I’d set out to serve the Lord” in “Whispers in the Dark”, there is at least one biblical reference in every song on the record. Even the name of the album (and title track) is referencing the Tower of Babel story from the book of Genesis#. When asked about the lyrics of the album in an interview with Big Issue Mumford explains that the album “is not an official statement of their Christian faith.” At first that caught me off guard, I listened to Babel from beginning to end, and I was certain I was listening to the honest words of a Christian and his journey with God. So I did a little more research, and found more quotations from other interviews. Mumford says quite a bit about how the album was “more social than religious, verging on the philosophical,” but then he said something that really struck a chord with me. He explains the album was “a deliberately spiritual thing… I think faith is something beautiful, and something real, and something universal… I think faith is something to be celebrated. I have my own personal views, they’re still real to me, and I want to write about them.” By his “own personal views” Mumford may be referring to the fact that he is a minister’s son, and that he was raised in a devout Christian household. In his lyrics, Mumford uses language that reads into his upbringing, such as his several mentions of flesh, sin, and kneeling#. So yes, the chart-topping album that is on its way to being the highest grossing album of the year not only has Christian undertones, but also is sung by a Christian. And yet Mumford & Sons, like many Christian bands on mainstream charts, don’t want their album to be taken as religious or as a “Christian statement.” So that begs the question, does it even matter that they’re Christian?
In my opinion, it does, because even though these bands aren’t explicitly playing “Christian music”, their Christian beliefs still influence the message of their music. A writer from Christianity Today, Kevin P. Emmert, explains this clearly: “Mumford & Sons herald a message that is rare and profound…Their hopeful affirmations distinguish them from the cynicism of many indie artists, and from the often shallow, hedonistic lyrics of many mainstream pop stars. Mumford’s lyrics even display a quality rarely found in most contemporary Christian music, where the lyrics tend to speak of God’s love, grace, and redemption only abstractly; Mumford’s lyrics are tangible—brutally honest and poetically robust. This connects with listeners. Ears and hearts are engaged.” Music is a great way for us to worship and praise God, but it can offer even broader appeals—it’s a raw and open space for emotions, beliefs, stories, guidance, peace and faith. Mumford & Sons gives voice to a message of hope, forgiveness and love; that voice speaks to us as listeners, giving us a chance not only to connect with them, but to connect with each other and God, with creation and Creator, in a profound way.