Monday, January 23, 2006

Songs that Deal with Theological Concepts

I have a friend at Messiah College named Jeff Rioux. Jeff is in charge of coordinating cultural events at the college -- conferences, films, concerts, etc. He's been asked to put together a suggested music list to accompany a book that is presented to all first-year students. And he's looking for recommendations. I gave him a few, as shown below. But since you, my dear and faithful readership, are such a literate and musically attuned buch, I thought I would solict your suggestions as well. What do you think? What else would you recommend for Jeff?

Here's our e-mail exchange. Jeff's comments are in italics. Mine are in normal font.

I’ve been asked to help put together a study guide of sorts for a book that is used as common reading on theology for all first year students at Messiah College. For each chapter in the book, they are looking for examples from popular culture (film and music) that will help students reflect on the themes in the chapter. A song may support or contradict what the authors say. They are not looking for didactic songs, but songs that might help students think about what they read.I should have said no way, this is going to take weeks. But I didn’t, and the deadline has already passed.

I have many ideas, but too much of it is artists that I listen to. Anyone want to suggest some? I’m looking for songs here, but I’ll post also over in film if you want to suggest films. Here are the chapter titles and very brief descriptions – not mine (I know this isn’t really enough to go on):

This chapter argues that love and grace form the core of the gospel and that those who call themselves Christians need to demonstrate love and graciousness in all they do. Unfortunately, graciousness of faith is not the norm. Christians, as well as followers of other religious traditions, often seem mean spirited or even violent in the ways they present their faith. Some have suggested faith itself is the problem. What are some pop culture artifacts that engage themes of grace, suffering, conviction, and complexity?

Bruce Cockburn, "Fascist Architecture," from Humans
Mark Heard, "Everybody Loves a Holy War," from Victims of the Age
Richard Thompson, "Outside of the Inside," from The Old Kit Bag (and whose lyrics deserve to be quoted in full, because they are written by a Muslim from the point of view of someone who believes that Muslim extremists have it all wrong):

God never listened to Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker lived in vain
Blasphemer, womaniser,
Let a needle numb his brain
Wash away his monkey music
Damn his demons, Damn his pain

And what’s the point of Albert Einstein
What do we need Physics for?
Heresy’s his inspiration
Corrupt and rotten to the core
Curse his devious mathematics
Curse his deadly atom war

There’s a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won’t realise I’m there

Shakespeare, Isaac Newton
Small ideas for little boys
Adding to the senseless chatter
Adding to the background noise
Hard to hear my oratory
Hard to hear my inner voice

Van Gogh, Botticelli
Scraping paint onto a board
Colour is the fuel of madness
That’s no way to praise the Lord
Grey’s the colour of the pious
Knelt upon the misericord

There’s a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won’t realise I’m there

I’m familiar with the cover
I don’t need to read the book
I police the world of action
Inside’s where I never look
Got no time to help the worthless
Lotus-eaters, Mandarins, crooks

There’s a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won’t realise I’m there

Chapter 1 God and Creation
This chapter gives a sweeping picture of the mysterious God who made the world. Touching on Trinitarian concepts, the authors focus their energies on the character of God as love – lavishly poured out for the world in expansive and embracing graciousness. What are some examples of how artists view creation and how humanity is positioned within it?

Bruce Cockburn, "Lord of the Starfields," from In the Falling Dark
Bruce Cockburn, "Creation Dream," from Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws
Mark Heard, "Orphans of God," from Satellite Sky
Julie Miller, "Orphan Train," from Broken Things

Chapter 2 Human Nature
In this chapter, the authors guide readers through the great complexities of the human condition. From the Imago Dei to issues of freedom, failure, dignity, and doubt – the authors are pressing toward a faith that works toward love, justice, and concern for common humanity. What are some pop pictures of these themes today?

Neil Young, "Why Do I Keep Fuckin' Up?," from Ragged Glory. No, I'm not kidding.
Jim Carroll Band, "Everything is Permitted," from Catholic Boy. Shades of Dostoyevky and the Grand Inquisitor
The Weakerthans, "Aside," from Left and Leaving
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?," from Armed Forces
Julie Miller, "Broken Things," from Broken Things

Chapter 3 Hearing God’s Voice
A challenging topic, the authors give a brief vignette of vocation. Dancing through tough topics like General Revelation, Christology, and Prayer – the author’s move toward problematizing God’s voice so that readers look for a little more than just the proverbial “writing on the wall.” What ways do you see the public communicating or wrestling with conviction, divinity, revelation, and Truth in today’s culture?

Problematizing? I'm ready to foamatize at the mouth over that one.

Bill Mallonee, "River of Love," from Killing Floor
Van Morrison, "Rough God Goes Riding," from The Healing Game
Jackson Browne, "Farther On," from Late for the Sky

Chapter 4 The Fullness of Salvation
This chapter points readers to more than just personal piety or abstracted generalizations. How do you see salvation being communicated in culture today? What themes do you see emerging in our modern society and what could educators capture and share that exemplifies this for students?

Victoria Williams, "Psalms," from Loose
Peter Case, "Poor Old Tom," from The Man with the Blue, Postmodern, Fragmented, Neo-Traditionalist Guitar (which still contains one of my favorite couplets: "Progress and love got nothin' in common/Jesus healed a blind man's eyes with mud").
Mark Heard, "The Dry Bones Dance," from Dry Bones Dance
Bob Dylan or Buddy Miller, take your pick, "With God on our Side," from The Times They Are A'Changin' or Universal United House of Prayer

Chapter 5 The Spirit and Life
The authors spend most of their time here in a conversation about the work and role of the Holy Spirit. While the church is trying to manifest the fruits of the Spirit – the wider popular culture may see them doing something embodying something else. Is there anything out there that deals with dying to self so that one might live again for others?

Talk Talk, Spirit of Eden (the whole album)
Van Morrison, "And the Healing Has Begun" from Into the Music
Bill Mallonee, "Driving the Nails," from Driving the Nails

Chapter 6 Being the Church
What, in popular culture, points out how confusing the Church really is for those who don’t often make it on Sunday mornings? Who is reminding the Church that it is still vital to the world today? Perhaps you will find someone who has a picture of what it could be…?

Steve Taylor, "Steeplechase"
Steve Taylor, "I Want to be a Clone"
Pierce Pettis, "Family" from Chase the Buffalo
Bill Mallonee, "Drunk on the Tears," from Jugular

Chapter 7 The Bible
Is there anyone out there who is exploring the dynamic text in a living, revelatory way?

Tonio K., "Hey John," from Rodent Weekend '76 - '79 (Any song with a chorus of "Hey John, I can't deny/You sure as hell could prophesy" is fine with me).
Van Morrison, "Rolling Hills" from Into the Music (some great -- and funny -- verses about Bible study)

Chapter 8 The Future
The authors are trying to share a picture of faith that is hopefully looking forward. I’m sure there is a ton of stuff flying around that smacks of cynicism but what helpfully could point people toward a new understanding of the Kingdom while authentically dealing with the pain of the passing age?

All Things Bright and Beautiful, "The Marriage Feast of the Lamb," from Love and Affection
Bruce Cockburn, "The Rose Above the Sky," from Humans
Bruce Cockburn, "Festival of Friends," from In the Falling Dark. Which again deserves to be quoted in full, just because:

An elegant song won't hold up long
When the palace falls and the parlour's gone
We all must leave but it's not the end
We'll meet again at the festival of friends.

Smiles and laughter and pleasant times
There's love in the world but it's hard to find
I'm so glad I found you -- I'd just like to extend
An invitation to the festival of friends.

Some of us live and some of us die
Someday God's going to tell us why
Open your heart and grow with what life sends
That's your ticket to the festival of friends.

Like an imitation of a good thing past
These days of darkness surely will not last
Jesus was here and he's coming again
To lead us to his festival of friends.

Black snake highway -- sheet metal ballet
It's just so much snow on a summer day
Whatever happens, it's not the end
We'll meet again at the festival of friends.


Anonymous said...

I thought Richard Thompson was a buddhist. Did he convert? Regardless, that's a great song. Neil Young's "When God Made Me" from Prairie Wind might be considered for the introduction, as a song to wrestle with. Don't forget soul music and the civil rights songs, such tunes as Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," "We Shall Overcome," "I Shall Not Be Moved," Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," and I'm sure I'm forgetting some others. Dylan's "What Good am I," and probably some of his other "Christian" songs might be appropriate. Then there's Al Green: "Let's Stay Together," "Still in Love With You."

Just some thoughts. Of the songs I'm familiar with, you came up with a great bunch.

danthress said...

Chapter 1 God and Creation:
Coltrane, A love Supreme

Chapter 3 Hearing God’s Voice
Keith Jarrett, Radiance
Miles Davis, pick any ballad

Chapter 6 Being the Church
Jill Scott, Golden

Chapter 8 The Future
Yes, Bill, People Get Ready.

Anonymous said...

I think Simon & Garfunkel's "Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall" is a great song to go with the chapter on Human Condition. Your man Sufjan's song "John Wayne Gacy Jr." would be nice here as well.

Anonymous said...

Hey Andy...Tom from the Saints list here: I might think of more later but I'd say Over the Rhine's "Within Without" would be great for chapter five.

danthress said...

Is this book for white christians, or black christians? i don't remember much "diversity" on the messiah campus, but regardless, i submit:

Chapter 8, The Future
The Staple Singers
I'll Take You There

Aaaaah, haaa
I know a place
Ain't nobody cryin'
Ain't nobody worried
Ain't no smilin' faces
Mmm-mmm, no, no
Lyin' to the races
Help me, come on, come on
Somebody, help me, now
(I'll take you there)
Help me, y'all
(I'll take you there)
Help me now
(I'll take you there)
Oh, mmm-mmm (I'll take you there)
Oh, oh, mercy
(I'll take you there)
Oh, let me take you there
(I'll take you there)

Oh-oh-hoooo, let me take you there
(I'll take you there)

Play it Mary, play your
Play your piano now
All right
Aaaaaah, do it, do it
Come on now
Play on it, play on it
Big Daddy, now
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy
Play your, ummmmm

Ooh, Lord
All right now
Baby, little lady, easy now
Help me now
Come on, little lady
All right
Doin' sockin' soul

Aaaaaaah, oooh, aaaaah
I know a place, y'all
(I'll take you there)
Ain't nobody cryin' there
(I'll take you there)
Ain't nobody worried, y'all
(I'll take you there)
No smilin' faces
(I'll take you there)
(Lyin' to the races)
(I'll take you there)
Oh, oh, no
(I'll take you there)
Oh, oh,
(I'll take you there)
Mercy now
(I'll take you there)
I'm callin' callin' callin' for mercy
(I'll take you there)
Mercy, mercy
(I'll take you there)
You gotta, gotta, gotta let me
Let me take you, take you
Take you over there

John McCollum said...


I suppose U2's too obvious a choice, but I've been really moved by their live version of "Wake Up Dead Man."

Good call on the Orphan Train. Dang, that song makes me cry. And blog.

Andy Whitman said...

Dan wrote:

"Is this book for white christians, or black christians? i don't remember much "diversity" on the messiah campus,"

No, there's not much diversity there. But as far as I know it's intended for all students. The diversity issue in a setting like Messiah College is an interesting one. Messiah is part of the Pietistic/Anabaptist wing that brought you everyone's bonnet-wearing favorites, the Amish and the Mennonites. They have brethren, but probably not too many brothers, although it's an intriguing concept.

Mark K. said...

Chapter 3
Lifehouse's Breathing from No Name Face

Anonymous said...

ditto the comment on U2. On chapter 7 - the tune Yahweh from their most current album might be a good fit.


Anonymous said...

i was turned on to your blog by mutual friends...

how about unbroken chain by lesh/peterson

for the intro.

(btw i have quite a few boots of GD doing "mama tried")

Blue light rain,
Whoa unbroken chain,
Looking for familiar faces
In an empty window pane.

Listening for the secret,
Searching for the sound
But I could only hear the preacher
And the baying of his hounds.

Willow sky,
Whoa, I walk and wonder why,
They say love your brother,
But you will catch it when you try.

Roll you down the line boy,
Drop you for a loss,
Ride you out on a cold railroad
And nail you to a cross.

November and more,
As I wait for the score,
They're telling me forgiveness
Is the key to every door.
A slow winder day
A night like forever,
Sink like a stone,
Float like a feather.