Last year I wrote a post about my atheism and some of my basic notions about why I felt opposed to religion; I also spoke about this topic at some length with JJ Schultz during our interview on The Utah podcast (Episode 6). Today I want to talk a little about why there’s some religious music I absolutely love, somewhat in spite of myself.
Not that I think anyone would think this, but just to be quite clear, I’m not talking about any genre with the word ‘Christian’ in it. I sometimes even find myself rubbed the wrong way by a non-religious, maybe even otherwise good song that makes some reference to or assumption about god that I take to be fallacious. For some reason, the only example popping into my head is “Born To Be My Baby” by Bon Jovi. Whatever, it’s a good song, shut up. Anyway, the lyric I object to is: “Only god would know the reason / but I bet he must have had a plan”. Not that it ruins the song for me; I mean, if you admit to liking a song like that, you must already be pretty determined not to let anything ruin it for you. But other times, a songwriter will pen an overtly religious verse, and despite the fact that I can’t relate to the faith aspect of it, there’s something else I feel connected to.
Take the Brother Ali song “Picket Fence”. Clearly this song has a lot to offer outside of a religious message; it’s a profoundly vulnerable confession about deeply personal trauma. But the most powerful moments are the slightly varied choruses (the first spoken by a kindly nun who comforts him as a child, the second by his wife):
“You look the way you do because you’re special
Not the short bus way, I mean that God’s gonna test you
And all of this pain is training for the day when you
will have to lead with the gift God gave to you
Grown folks don’t see it but the babies do
And there’s a chance that you can save a few”
And time will prove that, she started my movement
She didn’t tell me to take it – she told me to use it
Now I don’t believe in a divine will being realized or ‘everything happening for a reason’ in any case–not in the case of Jon Bon Jovi’s persecuted love affair, and not in the case of Brother Ali being ruthlessly teased about being albino. The fact that the latter may have somewhat more emotional credibility perhaps plays a role, but I don’t merely tolerate his mistake. I actually find something very beautiful about his feeling of there having been a purpose behind his tragedy, leading to an even more honorable outcome, so that he is not degraded but elevated. And certainly I can relate this to times in my life that I’ve struggled and suffered, except I don’t imagine that my suffering has any intention or meaning other than that which I assign it.
I guess in the end I take a somewhat postmodern view of songwriting: whatever the songwriter may have intended or believed, once the song is shared with an audience it has its own life and anyone can assign meaning to it. Not that the songwriter’s own commentary on the work doesn’t have a unique authority; it does. But for me, the speaker in a song like “Picket Fence”–who, in an autobiographical case like this, is not really distinct from the artist himself–becomes a character, with admirable qualities as well as flaws, possibly even tragic ones. Of course, their faith does not necessarily have to lead to their demise, and in Brother Ali’s case was probably even his salvation. But in either case their failings add to their humanity and the beauty of their drama.
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