Whether they like it or not, the icons of pop culture owe a lot to the Good Book. Michael Frost, a theology lecturer at Alphacrucis College examines the far-reaching power of the scripture in song.
When the church has considered the influence of the Christian gospel on popular culture, it has often done so by reflecting on the Christian artist (whatever we might mean by that). Whether the artist is a songwriter, musician, filmmaker or poet, we’ve ruminated on how they can express their talent and passion in light of their faith in Christ. For some this has manifested in a direct relationship between their art and their faith; for example writing songs that deal clearly with issues of faith, Christ and the gospel. Others have become what the church has sometimes referred to as “secular” artists; in other words, those whose expression of faith is considered to be more indirect; influencing popular culture through expression of Christian character and witness rather than through explicitly “Christian music”. There are also those who have attempted to straddle both worlds, becoming enigmatically referred to as the “crossover” artist. In each case, these approaches are shaped by a perspective that looks at art and music as a means to connect with the “world” and influence it for Christ.
More recently however, the Christian community has begun to remind itself that music and art, in and of itself, is beautifully spiritual. And that perhaps our past paradigms, while helpful for a time, have not always empowered Christians to infuse their art and music with their faith in organic, authentically human and profoundly influential ways. Even further, we might also want to take the time to contemplate the ways in which Christ and the gospel are already at work within the culture in which we live. If we open our ears and eyes to the ways that God is already at work we might be both surprised and encouraged.
The scriptures have had, and continue to have, a significant influence on the ideas and themes of music and popular culture beyond the church. At the roots of twenty-first century music itself lies a heartbeat that draws on the African-American spiritual, and much closer to home we find scripture and biblical themes deeply embedded within many Māori waiata. In this respect we find that the influence of the Christian gospel and scriptures is not just a matter for the contemporary artist but is also profoundly implanted within our own indigenous story.
The scriptures also continue to shape and influence contemporary music through lyrics and themes that surface in intriguing places. While we might expect artists such as U2 and Mumford and Sons, given their historical connections to Christianity, to employ biblical ideas and imagery, we should also notice that it is Lady Gaga who uses the imagery of Judas to convey the depth (and the allure) of the dark side of that which can be experienced in love. Or Florence and the Machine who employ the figure of Delilah as a metaphor for betrayal. While not always using biblical texts and images in ways that the church does, what we can recognise is that despite the common idea of advancing secularism, biblical ideas continue to thread themselves through various aspects of our culture today.
When we take the time to recognise the many ways that contemporary artists draw on scriptural themes and imagery to articulate meaning, it should give us a reason to pause and reflect. Sometimes the church has responded negatively when seeing scripture finding its way into popular culture. We might be disturbed at the secular use (or distortion) of the biblical text and feel a level of offence. At other times we might leap to the opposite extreme and try to declare that certain secular artists might in fact be Christian and therefore glorified as a potential witness to the world. But I wonder if there’s something much deeper going on here. Perhaps the themes of scripture find their way into the lyrics of popular music because the narrative of scripture tells and re-tells the story of the human heart. The stories of betrayal, brokenness, frailty and hope for redemption sit at the very heart of the gospel story. The scriptures resonate because they don’t just tell the story of ancient peoples, they are also telling our story. And this is not just the story of the church; it is the story of humanness. It’s here that we find the longings and desires of the human heart unfurled. The scriptures do not shy away from our darkness, but neither are they content to leave us there in isolation. They draw us towards hope and into the wide, open spaces of reconciliation and forgiveness. In light of this, and especially in a culture that has historical roots in the biblical narrative, it makes sense that the scriptures continue to find their way into the thoughts, ideas, themes and imagery of popular culture, well beyond the influence of the church itself.
Perhaps when we see scripture and the gospel emerging within popular culture, rather than defaulting to the alternating responses of offence or celebration, we might also take the time to listen. Sometimes we have become so used to the texts and stories that we think we know what they mean and what they’re trying to say. But perhaps, just perhaps, we might find that in the voices of those beyond our community we can hear a re-telling of the scriptures that enlivens and awakens our own understanding. That perhaps the Spirit is at work in the world, not just to speak to “them”, but also to speak to “us”. Perhaps in this way, we might find that God is calling us all into the story, He is inviting us all to participate in his life, even in ways that we might not see coming.
This article features in our latest Parachute Magazine - read it here.