Music and Culture

Music Matters: The 10 Most Interesting Stories of 2012

A weekly review of music news through the lens of music as gift or god.

#10 The Minority Report: Why I Quit Listening to Christian Music

Drew Dixon over at the Christ and Pop Culture website outlines some great reasons why CCM artists do not delve in the heavier subjects of sin, suffering and doubt. He hopes that Christian musicians will write more songs that deal with these subjects instead of always focusing on the good, triumphant and living in victory. Further reading:  The 10 Kitschiest Christian Songs

#9 When Playing Nothing Gets You Something

Justin Howard, known as “Nordic Thunder,” won the Air Guitar World Championships.  Howard, moved around the stage pretending to play a non-existent guitar and narrowly beat out the other American in the competition. The prize for playing nothing? A handmade guitar! This might seem like a silly pastime but thinking about it deeply there are correlations to salvation through Christ. There is not a single thing we can do to earn our salvation but it is a free gift from God to accept. Like Nordic Thunder, life was meaningless before we met Jesus but now with Jesus the emptiness is gone and he is the one who fills you with his spirit.

#8 Working Hard for Something Old that Won’t Last

Thirteen violinists are competing in Toronto for the chance to rent out one of three Stradivarius violins for three years at no cost. These violins have a unique sound and have been treasured for centuries but what all of these violinists are competing for is a fleeting chance to play this old instrument for a short period of their life. One day their ability to play this prized violin for free will be taken away from them, with a slim chance to regain it again in the future. God, the ancient of days, on the other hand gives salvation as a free gift and yet he will not take this gift away from anyone who believes that his son Jesus is the messiah. Even after we mess up in life, God is still there with his gift of forgiveness through the blood of Christ. So the writer of this article is wrong when he states, “This is not the kingdom of God, after all, where the last shall be first.” The competition might not follow kingdom ethics but the one who reigns of the world does and his authority trumps any authority of man.

#7 Stained Glass Album Cover of a Gangsta Jesus

The rapper Game unveiled his album cover this week. The cover depicts Jesus as an African-American, with a bandanna across the front of his face and a teardrop tattoo near his eye set in front of a stained glass window with marijuana leaves. Game explained the cover:

“I did the album cover the way I wanted to. It embodies part of my career, my life; it’s all in that cover. And, you know, I love God, Jesus Christ is my savior and I’m still out here thuggin’.” Despite his newfound religion, he has resumed his usual hobbies of smoking weed — because “this is California” and he hasn’t read anywhere in the Bible that he can’t — and going to strip clubs because “that’s what I do.”

Many Christians would see that this is a man living with contradictions and not really wrestling with his sin in light of the gospel. Game then explains away his life within the context of the often misunderstood but heavily quoted verse, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1):

I know that might sound weird and that’s an awkward balance, but it’s my balance…I think that right before that person that wants to make judgments or pass judgment on my album cover, I think right before they do that, they should stop and they should look in the mirror and look at their own life.

#6 Ethnomusicology as Christian Responsibility

In this fascinating article, Nick Rynerson at Christ and Pop Culture argues that the preservation and study of music of all cultures throughout the world should be the duty of Christians. He states:

Within the Christian worldview, it is imperative that this culture be preserved and understood. As Christians, we are called to be redemptive culture makers. These cultures are important symbols that help us understand what Theologian Richard Lovelace would call “the spiritual realities” that are presented through culture, such as freedom, liberation and creative expression.

#5 John Cage at 100

Cage would have been 100 this week and the endless musical experimenter has had a profound effect on classical music as well as pop music. He was always able find beauty in the common things of this world by turning household items, cacti, etc. into musical instruments expressing their inner creation of the item in new and fascinating ways. But on the other end of the spectrum he was the master of the lack of noise, utilizing silence as a musical tool in the most complete way in his most famous work 4’33”. It is this living in the silence and noise while appreciating the mundane that Cage’s musical legacy will endure. For the Christian we need to learn how to escape to those moments of silence and connect with our heavenly Father through prayer.  Also we need to see that behind those everyday items of life is a Creator who provided those things to us and the beauty of the Creator bestowing his good gifts on us.

#4 Biology and Lady Gaga

Hey little monsters this one is for you. You know that group of ferns which botanists recently discovered? Well… guess what? All 19 of the ferns are being named after your favorite artist, Lady Gaga. According to Rolling Stone:

Among the more eye-popping fern names are Gaga germanotta – a nod to the singer’s real name, Stefani Germanotta – and Gaga monstraparva, which translates to “Gaga little monster,” an acknowledgement of Gaga’s dedicated “little monster” fanbase.

So little monsters be proud because you are now a beautiful fern not just a person idolizing another human being! See announcement video below (Thanks Duke University!).


#3 Does the Acceptance of “Gangnam Style” in America Mean Something?

When I first heard Psy’s “Gangnam Style” on the radio, I found it interesting that American radio stations would play a song which is sung almost entirely in a foreign language. I thought, “Is it possible that the musical palette of Americans could be broadening as we are becoming an increasingly global culture?” This is what Luke Larsen at Christ and Pop Culture explores in this thoughtful article. He states:

Somewhere between our subconscious spirit of American Exceptionalism and monolingualism rests a clear unwillingness to engage with media that is not in English. We respect ideas and concepts from other countries, but aren’t usually ready to open up to the world.

Then encourages all of us to leave behind our misconceptions about other cultures and embrace other human beings:

If we have any desire of reaching out to people outside our homes both personally and culturally, fear of “the other” — of people unlike ourselves — has to be a trait we learn to leave behind.

God has created so much beauty in the world that for a nation to ignore all the beauty which other cultures produce leaves us with a narrow view of God’s creative work through humanity.

#2 Lecrae’s New Album Gravity Debuts at #1

Christian rapper Lecrae’s newest offering debut as the #1 album on the iTunes hip hop charts and exposed his music to a mainstream secular audience. Unlike TobyMac’s #1 album last week, Lecrae’s album is theologically-rich and gospel-centered as he does not shy away from proclaiming the gospel on every single track. However, the song Mayday has created some controversy because it features the secular rapper Big K.R.I.T. Listen to the track below to see if Lecrae moved into territory not appropriate for a Christian artist.


#1 All Female Punk Band Sentenced to Two Years in Jail

Pussy Riot is a punk band who took to the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow singing their expletive-laden and anti-Putin Punk Prayer and were subsequently jailed. On August 17th the three women were sentenced to serve a two year stint in prison. There was immediate reaction from around the world as President Obama and a number of high profile musicians spoke out against the verdict.

The whole incident and trial bring up questions about sphere confusion with Russian Orthodox Church leaders being too closely connected to Russian politicians. Additionally, there is the idea of freedom of expression in a political environment where anti-government sentiments are not being tolerated. Then there is the attack on Christianity by the band itself trying to silence the voice of Christian people in Russia.  No party is innocent in this matter.


Church in the Wild(wood): ‘If I Die Young’

Deconstructing Christian faith as presented in country, bluegrass and Americana.

Soaked with Christian and Arthurian imagery (see the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, “The Lady of Shallot”), If I Die Young recounts the story of a young woman who has an untimely death. But the great thing about the song is that she does not mourn her imagined death but rather looks back at her life with joy. Stating that even though her life was cut short, “Well, I’ve had just enough time,” she also implies the purity of her life, “I’ll be wearing white when I come into your kingdom.” Imagine if all of us could look back at our life as the singer or Paul does:

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:6-8)

Furthermore, the singer cares more about the people she left behind rather than pondering why she had to die. She asks God to provide a sign to her mother (“Lord make me a rainbow… She’ll know I’m safe with you…”) and tells those at her funeral, “Gather up your tears, keep ’em in your pocket/Save them for a time when you’re really gonna need them.” The singer also provides them with burial instructions, which reframes her death as a celebration of a life, “…bury me in satin. Lay me down on a bed of roses/Sink me in the river at dawn/Send me away with the words of a love song.”

The tragedy of her death is continually overshadowed by glimpses of hope in the song since she had a life well lived and is now with Jesus. The loss of any believer in Christ, especially if they are a child, should move us to grief but as If I Die Young so beautifully demonstrates “death has no sting” when “God… gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” and changes our perishable body to an imperishable resurrection body (1 Corinth. 15:50-58). This is what underlies the hope of the song and the hope of all believers in Christ. One day we will all be reunited and the love song we were sent away with from this life will turn into a love song towards the savior (Rev. 14:1-5).


Through a Glass Darkly: The Devil(s)

In this series we explore the many intersections of metal and biblical allegory.

Metal bands have a long standing love affair with the use of the demonic, particularly Satan, in their lyrics. This is why a movie such as Tenacious D’s Pick of Destiny (a film built around references to heavy metal) relies heavily on Satan as the main propulsion of the narrative. Or why people at a metal concert will shape their hand in such a way as to create devil horns. Or why some Metal bands are actual Satanists (or gospel deniers). It is because of these overt expressions of the demonic that Metal and Satan have become synonymous in the minds of many. As Christians we should reject any positive depictions of Satan but should not be surprised when people blatantly align themselves with him since he is the “ruler of this world.” (John 12:31) With this in mind, we will explore three classic devil songs: Van Halen’s Running With the Devil, Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast and Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath.


Van Halen – Running With the Devil

Of the three songs, Running With the Devil is the most tame when it comes to presenting Satan but David Lee Roth’s insight on the spiritual forces behind his life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll is spot on. Roth further knows that if he continues with this life of debauchery that he will die at a young age. While he does not provide an avenue through which to escape an untimely death, he is right is singing that the problem lies in him not having “a love.” However, the love he describes will not be able to save him. Roth’s desire is for a stable romantic relationship with a woman to keep him from being in lockstep with the devil. Erroneously, he looks toward another human being as his salvation and misses the only person who can fill that role for him, namely, Jesus.

Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast

The Number of the Beast communicates the horrific vision of a demon terrorizing the protagonist of the story. Opening with a spoken paraphrase of Revelation 12:12 and 13:18, establishes that the demon in question is the antichrist and yet, despite being scared to the depths of his soul, the protagonist feels strangely drawn to the creature. Bruce Dickenson in the first line of the song indicates how the beast of Revelation was able to “possess his body” because his “mind was blank.” This is what Paul calls “setting your mind on the flesh” (Rom. 8:5-8) instead of on the “mind of Christ” (see Rom. 13:11-14 and 1 Corinth. 2:6-16). It is within this former context where people are more susceptible to sin and in extremely rare cases have actual demonic visitations.

But even Paul who was wholly devoted to knowing the “mind of Christ” was given “a thorn … in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” (2 Corinth. 12:7) Then there is the story of Job, a righteous man, whom God allowed Satan to have dominion over and destroy everything in Job’s life (Job 1). Unlike the protagonist of the song though, Job and Paul looked toward God and his grace and as Paul concludes about his harassment, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”(2 Corinth. 12:9)

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath

Geezer Butler the bass guitarist and lyric writer for Black Sabbath became interested in spiritualism and black magic in the early days of the band. Ozzy Osbourne knew of this interest and gave Butler a copy of a 16th century book on black magic written in Latin. Butler upon receiving this gift from Ozzy had an uneasy feeling about the book and immediately hid the book in his kitchen cupboard and went to sleep. That same night he woke up terror-stricken as he saw a black shadowy presence lingering at the foot of his bed, which then vanished into thin air. Frightened by this encounter he rushed to the cupboard to throw the book away only to find that the book was gone. Black Sabbath recounts Butler’s experience with this demonic figure with a fitting tri-tone inflected guitar riff. A scary reminder that demonic forces are real and not something we should merely brush off.  For further information on this topic see Mark Driscoll’s series on spiritual warfare.


Autism and Sound

NPR featured a video from the “Imagine Science Film Festival” on how someone with autism experiences sounds. This enlightening video shows how impactful sounds can be on a person’s life and is a great reminder for us to seek out times of quiet with God removing all sonic overload.

Remembering Post-Hardcore Through Underoath

Guest contributor Kiel Hauck at Christ and Pop Culture wrote about Underoath’s influence on post-hardcore bands as well as the effect of their lyricism on his own journey with Christ. He states:

 As a music listener, Underoath challenged me to think harder about composition and what actually makes a song or an album complete or meaningful. As a Christian, they confronted my fears and encouraged me to face my doubts with joy and acceptance rather than defeat and despair. As a human, they provided peace in the midst of pain and understanding in the midst of confusion.

Schmaltz-Free Christmas Music

If you enjoy new and eclectic Christmas music then you might want to check out Sufjan Steven’s newest offering Silver & Gold and Jason Morehead’s review

Country, Hip-Hop, Pop Music, Rock

The 8 Best Songs on Fatherhood

Covering the best and worst of the music world.

Being a father is messy business. Fathers at their best provide their sons and daughters the tough, rough around the edges, yet tender love which their children need. At their worst, they abandon their families (physically or emotionally) leaving their children without the needed love of a father. Unfortunately, we can easily see the outward effects of absentee fathers in the African-American community. But we often miss the more subtle effects of fathers in other communities who are physically present but do not engage and love their children. We live in a time where an entire generation of adults has been left with a skewed understanding of what fatherhood is. In the movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden wisely discerns his generation’s predicament, “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” — a profound statement on the importance of fathers.

Christian fathers’ responsibility is even greater as they have the honor and burden of being the spiritual head of the household. Not only are they commanded to “wash their wives in the word” (Eph. 5:26) but they must also raise their children in the gospel — both difficult tasks. Though when fathers look to their Father in heaven as their head, the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ trickles down into their marriage and the raising of their children. What we have then in the following songs are true portrayals of fatherhood, outlining all the ways we mess up as fathers but also the ways in which we succeed. Fathers are never going to get it right 100% of the time but we have a Father in heaven that will for us (Warning: Some of the videos below contain expletives).


Daughters – Nas: This is a song of regrets for how Nas raised his daughter and did not protect her from the things of the world to only end up like her Dad.


Papa Was a Rolling Stone – The Temptations: This song is a great example of how not to be a father, since this father does every possible thing wrong.


A Boy Named Sue – Johnny Cash: Okay so this song is obviously supposed to be humorous but what a deranged way for a father to make his son a strong man.


Cats in the Cradle – Harry Chapin: A sobering tale of a father too busy to spend time with his son, who then turns out to be like his Dad and too busy to spend any time with his father. This is the complete opposite story of Robert Munsch’s classic children book “Love You Forever”.


Der Erlkönig – Franz Schubert: A father desperately tries to rescue his son from a demonic creature.


My Father’s Eyes – Eric Clapton: Clapton explores the desire to be like his father in raising his children.


Just the Two of Us – Will Smith: A song of the joys and realities of fatherhood.


Isn’t She Lovely – Stevie Wonder: A beautiful song about the unconditional love a Father has towards his daughter at the moment of her birth.


Call for Articles: Christianity and ‘The Rite’ Symposium

Retuned welcomes 1000-1500 word articles on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” for an online symposium the week of May 26th, 2013. Authors are solicited to contribute to the symposium by exploring “The Rite” from a Christian worldview. Article submissions will be critiqued on quality, originality, appropriateness, significance, readability and relation to Christianity. If interested, please submit an article or a 100 word proposal to Submissions must be original and should not have been published previously.

Important Dates

  • Proposal Submission Deadline: March 1st, 2013
  • Final Article Due: April 1st, 2013
  • Publication Date: Week of May 26th, 2013