By Hannah Graham
Recently, rising music artist Lauren Daigle has been under fire for trying to separate herself from the Christian genre. Daigle says she prefers to be known simply as an artist as this categorization “encompasses everything” more than the Christian artist label does. While I think it will be difficult for Daigle to remain unlabeled in the music industry as her lyrics seem to be pointedly praise oriented, she makes an interesting statement about the genre of Christian music (somewhat echoing Jon Foreman, the main singer of Switchfoot).
While genres are used to create distinctions between kinds of music, having a religious genre of music, such as Christian, necessitates separation from non-religious listeners. This becomes problematic for two reasons: First, as a faith that is called to encounter individual people at whatever walk of life they may be on, Christian music struggles to be a tool of evangelization. Secondly, the Christian genre of music is almost entirely made up of worship based songs. While this is a good thing in and of itself, it cannot relate to those (faithful or not) who are asking questions and struggling to understand different premises of Catholicism or Christianity. Admittedly, I do not want to undermine the value of Christian music here — the highest form music can take is praise of God which in itself is a form of prayer. Even theologian Thomas Aquinas recognized the need for music to be used as a way to awaken the hearts of those who may feel more estranged in their relationship with God:
“The praise of the voice is necessary in order to arouse man's devotion towards God. Wherefore whatever is useful in conducing to this result is becomingly adopted in the divine praises. Now it is evident that the human soul is moved in various ways according to various melodies of sound … Hence the use of music in the divine praises is a salutary institution, that the souls of the faint-hearted may be the more incited to devotion. (Aquinas, Summa TheologiaeII-II. Q91. A2. co.)
Aquinas notes that because music is naturally capable of moving the soul, then it should similarly be used as a tool to increase individual devotion towards God. Bear in mind that Aquinas is specifically focusing on the faint-hearted, not just the devoted. Music, then, should be created not only for praising hearts but also for questioning minds.
In order to combat the ways in which Christian music struggles to evangelize and empathize with the faint-hearted, there must be Christian artists whose faith informs their music but does not always segregate them from the undevoted. This means there must be a music that is influenced by the realities of the faith while simultaneously acknowledging what connects believers and non-believers: the experience of living in a fallen world.
Take Mumford & Sons, a band who plays across multiple genres: folk, pop, rock, and alternative. Similar to Daigle, Mumford & Sons have often been asked if they identify as Christian artists because of the way their lyrics wrestle with faith and God. They too have declined to be identified in this manner. What distinguishes these two artists, however, is their approach to the incorporation of God and religious imagery in their music.
In their lyrics, Mumford & Sons tend to focus on subjects such as romantic love, strained relationships, loss, and longing; however, they grapple with God in light of these things or acknowledge faith as a possible answer. That is to say, they acknowledge God in many of their songs as a reality, even questioning him, but not as the center of the song. For example, in the title song of their freshman album, Sigh No More, they croon: “Serve God love me and mend / This is not the end / Live unbruised we are friends / And I'm sorry”. In this song they sing of forgiveness, acknowledging faith and love as a framework by which they live their lives. They finish off the song singing: “There is a design / An alignment to cry / Of my heart to see / The beauty of love as it was made to be”. Here, Mumford & Sons identifies one of the most innate desires of the soul- to love and be loved in an ordered way, even going so far as to suggest we were designed to live in this manner.
What is particularly powerful about their lyrics is that anyone can identify with them because they sing about universals of the human experience. Mumford & Sons doesn’t seek to provide answers but they are willing to identify the sufferings and desires of their humanity and ask questions along the way. In their newest album, Delta, they end the album with their title song, asking: “Does my love prefer the others / Or does my love just make me feel good? / . . . And does your love prefer the others? / Does my love, just make you feel good?” While they provide no answer, the band asks the listener to question if their motives for love are selfishness or selflessness. Although the band isn’t trying to explicitly evangelize, their lyrics are capable of pushing people toward goodness whether their listeners live Christian lifestyles or not.
While Christian music has its place, music that grapples with God and belief is important. If we acknowledge that Christianity is a way of life, not simply a religion, then it will inform the art of musicians, writers, painters, and the like. Whether it is intentional or not, Mumford & Sons does this by focusing their lyrics around themes they have found in their own human experience, giving them a common ground with their listener, while acknowledging and exploring God as a reality in their songs. Instead of being separated from other genres, Christian musicians can use music in a similar way by tactfully creating music that shares in the basic questions and longings of all people and pointing them towards the answers along the way.