Secular Songs of Praise
While Christians often distinguish between ‘secular’ and ‘Christian’ music, many Uniting Church members find ‘secular’ music useful for their relationship with God and their ministry.
In his 1995 classic, The Post Evangelical, Dave Thomlinson writes that music can help develop and deepen faith, even that written by an artist apathetic or antagonistic towards Christianity.
Many Christians, Thomlinson writes, “testify to feeling…stimulation—even spiritual stimulation—from ‘secular’ sources.”
The author goes on to suggest that Christians do well to closely and carefully listen to these ‘sources’ and discern their import to their faith.
“[T]o characterise something like a record, a painting, a novel, or a system of education as ‘Christian’ or ‘non-Christian’ or more commonly ‘secular’) is quite often to judge such things only on their superficial merits—for example, whether or not they talk explicitly about Christian themes.”
“In reality, there will almost always be a mixture of influences, and discerning which is a dominant influence does not always mean looking at the obvious signs. For instance, a song may well be recorded by Christians and have lyrics with an overtly Christian theme, yet it can nonetheless betray attitudes like arrogance, intolerance or sexism which are profoundly unchristian.”
“On the other hand, a so-called secular album may, on the surface, be criticising or even ridiculing Christianity, and yet at the same time be conveying a deeply Christian truth.”
The Reverend Radhika Sukumar-White agrees. Based at West Epping Uniting Church, music has long been a part of her ministry, and she does not mind what type.
“The language of Christian music versus secular music is a misnomer,” Rev Sukumar-White said. “I believe music and creativity are two things God created and blessed in humanity, so all, or at least most music, has something of the sacred in it.”
The Reverend Martin Goodwin is Minister of the Word at Rockdale Uniting Church. He also told agrees that secular music could work towards helping Christians’ faith journeys.
“Many Christians believe that God is involved in the world (after all God loved the whole world so much…) and believe that God is seeking to show grace to all humanity as well as the whole of creation,” he said.
“Some though would make a distinction between the care and love and grace that God show to sinful humanity and fallen creation, and that which God offers to his chosen ones.”
This distinction, he observed, is sometimes referred to as the difference between common grace and special grace.
“A Christian songwriter will be seen as being inspired by God—that they have a gift from God—and that their music is especially uplifting and moving,” Rev. Goodwin said. “A secular songwriter might be inspired but it isn’t really a gift of God—it isn’t ‘special’.”
However, Rev. Goodwin suggests that, “God’s grace will make use of anything God wants to make use of. As Jesus once said, if [God’s people] keep quiet, the stones will cry out! Leonard Cohen once said “there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” I think he nails it.”
“As someone hungry to feed on God, I will take whatever crumbs I can from whatever source I find. Does a hungry person ask the baker—“are you a Christian?” before they will take his loaf of bread?”
Songs That Inspire
Taking up this idea that the secular can inspire thoughts about the sacred, Insights asked a number of Uniting Church people about what music inspired them in the development of their faith.
Dr Matt Anslow coordinates Hope Uniting Church’s Community Garden project in Maroubra and has played in worship bands.
“We all have places or memories that are attached to particular songs or compositions. Music has a power to dramatically shift a particular moment in time for the listener, or even to alter their way of seeing the world,” he said.
Dr Anslow lists a number of acts, secular and avowedly Christian, as having had an influence on him.
“For me, I think of the beauty of Sigur Ros, the emotional complexity of Radiohead, the spirit of Springsteen, the passion of Rage Against the Machine, and the love of life of Queen as examples of music that has drastically shifted my horizons, not only of music itself, but of the intersection of art, life and meaning.”
Chris Hartley is a Project Officer for the Homeless Persons Legal Fund and a member of Hope Uniting Church. In particular, he pointed to the work of a number of Indigenous Australians as music that had helped inspire his passion for justice for Australia’s first people.
“I really like the quote that ‘music is what emotions sound like’ and I think that also resonates in terms of connections of emotional expressions and faith,” he said.
“Music by artists such as Paul Kelly, Kev Carmody and Archie Roach were foundational for me in understanding the indigenous connection to the land.”
“Kev Carmody also gives expression to the ongoing strength and resilience of indigenous people and of their connection to faith despite the injustice they have suffered. One of his songs ‘Thou Shall Not Steal’ is very powerful on that front.”
“I also connect spiritually to the music of K.D Lang and Gurrumul Yunupingu. The beauty of their voices reveals the divine.”
Rev. Goodwin noted a number of acts as being similarly revelatory, including Midnight Oil, Sinaed O’Conner, and Regina Spektor. He said that the ability to find new music almost instantaneously was something that he appreciated.
“I give thanks to God for the opportunity to live in an age where so much amazing music is accessible,” Rev. Goodwin said. “I thank God for the creativity of men and women who can so powerfully move me and inform my faith.”
No Ordinary Life
No Ordinary Life is a cabaret-style concert performed by two Uniting Church ministers, The Reverend Claire Wright and The Reverend Radhika Sukumar-White. Rev. Sukumar-White told Insights that the performance intersperses anecdotes and reflections on life and faith stories with “almost entirely” secular music.
“For example, I talk about being brown, and then sing ‘I Know Where I’ve Been from Hair Spray’,” she said.
“Claire talks about being a woman in ministry, and then sings ‘If I Only Had a Brain’. The whole idea is to use music to evangelise, in a manner of speaking.”
Previous No Ordinary Life events have taken place at Canberra City and Bathurst Uniting Churches.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ editor