Monday, September 29, 2014

Hymn 005: Lord Give Me A Sign by DMX

When he’s not acting in movies or getting arrested, Earl Simmons, aka DMX, is busy being one of the best selling musical artists of all time. From 1998 to 2003, DMX released five consecutive albums which debuted at number one. That’s a pretty impressive achievement, especially considering DMX’s chosen genre is hardcore rap. Wikipedia explains the content of hardcore rap this way: 

“Hardcore hip hop reflective lyrical themes include partying, braggadocio, crime, violence, sex, nudity, wrath, poverty, menacing, omen, rebellion, profanity, racism, drugs, weapons, resentment, ghettos, gangs, social issues, consciousness, struggling, nihilism, distrusting, life, death, police brutality, and the harsh experiences of the rapper's urban surroundings.”

Yow. I’m fairly certain the contents of that list break more than ten commandments. But as comprehensive as it is, there’s one subject not shown that DMX often covers in his songs; God. As AllMusic’s Steve Huey says about DMX’s lyrics, “He could move from spiritual anguish one minute to a narrative about the sins of the streets the next, yet keep it all part of the same complex character, sort of like a hip-hop Johnny Cash.”

You see, during one of his many times as a guest in one of our government’s fine correctional institutes, DMX started to read the Bible and envision his future in a different light. In an interview with Christian Today, the rapper stated that his time in jail “has gotten me closer… to realizing, to actualizing my true calling in life, which is to be a pastor.”

Oh sure, given his recent troubles, he’s not quite preacher material yet, but we’re all works in progress, aren’t we? Let’s be charitable and say that DMX, like so many others, is still trying to find his way. “Lord Give Me A Sign” may start with a defiant quote from Isaiah 54:17, but by the end, it’s the cry of a man who just wants to know what God wants from him. We’ve all been there.

“But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in mercy and truth. Turn to me, be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the son of your handmaid. Give me a sign of your favor: make my enemies see, to their confusion, that you, Lord, help and comfort me. (Psalms 86: 15-17, NABRE)”

Purchase the single "Lord Give Me A Sign" at Amazon

Monday, September 22, 2014

Hymn 004: Faith by The Violent Femmes

Nothing ambiguous here. When the Violent Femmes weren’t singing about teenage rebellion, the frustration of not being able to find someone to have sex with or, perhaps, masturbation (the band denies that last one), they were pretty much expounding on singer and lyricist Gordon Gano’s Christian beliefs in songs like “Faith.” As a minister’s son, Gano had obviously heard a few of the Psalms as a kid.
“Praise the Lord, my soul; I will praise the Lord all my life, sing praise to my God while I live. Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save. Who breathing his last, returns to the earth; that day all his planning comes to nothing. Blessed the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord, his God.” (Psalms 146:2-5, NABRE)
Of course, the rest of the band wasn’t always too happy about Gano’s lyrics, particularly bassist Brian Ritchie, who is a committed atheist. In an interview with Atomic Duster, when asked about any friction this may have caused in the band, Gano had this to say: “I’ve never enjoyed hearing Brian Ritchie’s views on religion but he seems to enjoy expressing them. It’s never affected the music and that’s what the band is about. Only one comment of possible interest: when we first started playing together, he refused to play my gospel songs and I was fine with that because I thought that I had so many songs anyway and the ones not played now would be played some other time and place. But soon after that he said ‘Let’s do your gospel songs, they’re some of your best songs’, and that by playing them in a punk rock club context we would do more ‘punk’ than if we only played more or less ‘punk’ material.”
Ritchie, atheist though he is, may have been on to something there. In his book “Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion,” philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote, “Moral traditionalists, who believe in the wisdom of the past, seem to their opponents like drab, dour doomers and damners. But they are not. They are rebels, for in an age of relativism, orthodoxy is the only possible rebellion left.” Oh, and Kreeft added one more thing about those orthodox rebels. “They sing as they fight.”

Monday, September 15, 2014

Hymn 003: Hunger For The Flesh by Howard Jones

For a few brief years in the mid-80s, Howard Jones was one of THE poster boys for synth-pop. You might remember he scored big hits with upbeat, positive tunes like "Life In One Day" and “Like To Get To Know You Well,” and if you cut on the radio at all, then you know the Phil Collins remix of “No One Is To Blame” was pretty much inescapable.

But if all you heard of Howard Jones is his radio hits, then you probably missed some of the more interesting cuts tucked away in the corners of his albums. Jones is a committed follower of the teachings of the 13th century Japanese Buddhist monk, Nichiren Daishonin, and his spiritual beliefs often find their way into the lyrics of his songs.

“Hunger For The Flesh” addresses one of the four noble truths of Buddhism, mainly that all human suffering results from an inordinate attachment to desires. On his website, Jones writes, “Fame, wealth, social standing can not be carried through to our next existence and so Buddhism is teaching me to develop a life state that is truly happy whatever my circumstances may be.” Hmm, where have I heard something like that before?.

“But you, beloved, remember the words spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, for they told you, ‘In [the] last time there will be scoffers who will live according to their own godless desires.’ These are the ones who cause divisions; they live on the natural plane, devoid of the Spirit.” But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in the love of God and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” (Jude 1:17-21, NABRE)

You see, the Catholic Church considers all goodness and truth found in other religions as "a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life." So the Church has no problem with the idea that separating oneself from inordinate desires is a big part of personal holiness, and consequently contentment and true happiness.

Of course, as Pope John Paul II was quick to point out in “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” not all of Buddhism is compatible with Christianity. Reincarnation, which Jones hints at in this sing, is a no-go. Still, we Christians have our own ideas of a “new birth,” so that lyric really isn’t a problem either.

The dancer in the video, though, that’s another story. That guy and his skin puppets is pure nightmare fuel. Am I the only one who was getting a Texas Chainsaw/Silence of the Lambs vibe off of that? I gotta lay off the horror movies.

Purchase the single "Hunger For The Flesh" at Amazon

Monday, September 8, 2014

Hymn 002: Divine Intervention by Matthew Sweet

In an interview with One Chord Progression, Matthew Sweet was asked who his favorite carpenter was?  I’m not sure if the interviewer meant one of The Carpenters or just carpenters in general, but Sweet replied, “I don’t know any carpenters but Jesus so I guess it would be Jesus. He is just all right. I’m not religious, but I sometime feel like I follow Jesus’s teachings more than religious people. I am open and inclusive with everyone. I think religions are bad but Jesus is just all right.”

That kind of sentiment always cracks me up because Jesus pretty much taught that you needed to be religious. I suppose it’s possible that someone (not me) could try to make the argument that when Jesus told Peter “upon this rock I will build my church,” his intention was to start the world’s first non-religious religious institution. Still, if that had been the case, you would think that the early Christians might have mentioned that instead of wasting their time starting an organized religion.

Oh well, despite such silly statements, Matthew Sweet has turned out a heck of a lot of good power pop over the last few decades. One of my favorites of his is “Divine Intervention” from the album “Girlfriend.” It’s one of the many songs on the album that explores Sweet’s emotional turmoil over the breakup of his marriage to his first wife. “It was the most terrible experience of my life.” he told Rolling Stone magazine.

You can feel the palpable sense of complete abandonment in “Divine Intervention.” When Sweet belts out, “Does he love us, does he love us?” it’s a lament worthy of a Psalm.

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief.” (Psalms 22:3, NABRE)

Most of us have experienced that feeling at some point or other, haven’t we? Even Jesus himself had a moment on the cross in which he felt God wasn’t there for him. But seasons change, and things eventually come back around. God was there all along. Even Sweet’s desperate cry of a song can’t help but end on a hopeful note. When he comes, the sun shines. Here it comes.

Purchase the single "Divine Intervention" at Amazon

Hymn 001: Oh Happy Day by Spiritualized

Could there be a better example of what this blog is all about than “Oh Happy Day” as performed by Spirtualized?

"“Oh Happy Day” has a long and convoluted history stretching back to the mid-18th century. Penned by United Methodist pastor and poet Philip Doddridge, the hymn that would eventually become “Oh Happy Day” was originally entitled “Rejoicing in Our Covenant Engagement to God,” with lyrics based on 2 Chronicles 15:15 and a melody lifted from an earlier 1704 hymn composed by J. A. Freylinghausen. In 1854, a new refrain was added to the hymn by London organist Edward F. Rimbault with the title “Happy Land! Happy Land!” Finally, in 1969, the Edwin Hawkins Singers gave the song a soul-gospel makeover and "Oh Happy Day" as we know it hit the airwaves, becoming a top-five Billboard pop hit in the process.

Obviously, the song “Oh Happy Day” itself is religious. But Jason Pierce, lead singer and songwriter of Spirtualized, isn’t.

“I get asked quite often about why I have references to the lord in my music.” Pierce said in an interview with Pitchfork. “I've never been and will never be religious, but as soon as you have a conversation about Jesus, you know what you're talking to him about: how it is to be fallible and question yourself and your morals. Like on my new album, with the line, ‘help me, Jesus’-- you know I'm not asking for help fixing the ******* car. You know there's a certain place you'll get to before you'll ask for that kind of help. It's like an immediate shorthand to the nature of the song.”

So, when Pierce is singing “Oh Happy Day,” what he’s going on about is his deliverance from a 22 year drug habit that almost killed him. He’s using the religious experience expressed in the song as a cultural touchstone to communicate the depths of his own joy and relief at still being alive. He doesn’t intend for it to be taken as a literal religious experience.

But, of course, it is. Who else but God is the addict calling out to when they hit rock bottom?

“Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck. I have sunk into the mire of the deep, where there is no foothold. I have gone down to the watery depths; the flood overwhelms me. I am weary with crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, from looking for my God.” (Psalms 69: 2-4, NABRE)

And who else are they thanking when that deliverance comes? The head may come up with a lot of different answers, but the heart knows the truth.

Purchase the single "Oh Happy Day" at Amazon

What Is This All About?


Contemporary Christian music isn’t bad. Well, not all of it anyway. In fact, over the last seven or eight years of blogging, I’ve had the honor of making the acquaintance of a number of fine Christian musicians, folks like Dan Lord, Mike Furtaw, and Nick Alexander.

But there is no escaping the fact that I’m a lifelong rock and roll kind of guy. Secular or not, the art form has provided me hours of joy and helped get me through some pretty rough times. I may not thank God for all the popular music out there (I’m pretty sure Pharrell’s “Happy” is playing on a loop in hell right now), but I definitely do for some of it.

Now, that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to hear it during mass. Pope Benedict XVI infamously condemned rock music as being opposed to the essence of sacred liturgy when he wrote…

“In not a few forms of religion, music is ordered to intoxication and to ecstasy, music supposedly of holy madness, through the delirium of the rhythm and the instruments. Music becomes ecstasy.  We experience the profane return of this type today in rock and pop music… Because rock music seeks redemption by way of liberation from the personality and its responsibility, it takes, in one respect, a very precise position in the anarchical ideas of freedom, which predominates today in a more unconcealed way in the West than in the East.  But precisely for that reason, it is thoroughly opposed to the Christian notion of redemption and of freedom as its exact contradiction. Not for aesthetic reasons, not from reactionary obstinacy, not from historical immobility, but because if its very nature, music of this type must be excluded from the Church.”

Fair enough. I’m not convinced his assessment of rock music applies to every single song out there, but I absolutely agree that particular forms of music are better suited for liturgy than others.

But, you know, just because it’s not really suitable for the holy mass, I still believe you can find God in some popular music if you look for him. If you’ve read my other blog, The B-Movie Catechism, you know how this works. You just have to take a cue from Acts 17 of the Christian New Testament in which St. Paul ran across an altar in Athens dedicated to some “Unknown God”. Paul used the altar as a springboard for conversation with the locals about his new religion and its own "Unknown God," Jesus. He took something non-Christian and showed how to recognize Christian ideas in it.

Well, that’s what I’m going to try and do here. Each week I’m going to add a song or two to the Jukebox Hero Hymnal, my breviary with a backbeat, and take a look at the possible spiritual content found within them. Some of the tunes will be obvious. Others, not so much. Some of the artists will have purposely alluded to God in their work, others would probably deny it. Either way, I’m going to find it.

Feel free to argue my selections. Suggestions are also more than welcome. Let’s listen to some music and have some fun.