A Ragged Chorus of Faith

A couple of weeks ago J. Max Wilson1 put out a request for popular music with Biblical references for a playlist he was building. Finding religious themes in popular music is a passion of mine, so I went a little nuts with some off-the-cuff recommendations on his Facebook wall. But I didn’t stop there. I went and dug up my old MS Word doc where I’d been collecting music for a variety of related playlists that–taken together–I like to call the Ragged Chorus of Faith. Since not all the songs qualify for Wilson’s criteria2 and since I thought it might be of general interest, I decided to turn it into a post.

Let me explain the title really quick, however. I love me some conventional religious music. I have been a huge, huge fan of The Tallis Scholars ever since my parents took me one of their performances when I was a kid, and  their rendition of Miserere mei, Deus is (just as an example) breathtaking.3 But, in some ways, I almost feel unworthy of the harmony and the beauty of their music. It doesn’t feel broken. And, most of the time, I do. An additional consideration is that I worry listening to an exquisite piece like this rendition of Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing on a daily basis might desensitize me to the beauty. I needed music that turned my thoughts to God, but that was more workmanlike. More durable. Closer to my lived experience today and not a hope for transcendence tomorrow.

That’s what first attracted me to screamo. Screaming is what human beings do when we’ve lost control, when we’re overwhelmed, and when we’re on the point of exhaustion. And all of that is also a part of the religious life. I would never say it’s a great part, but for me over the last decade or so it has certainly felt like the most relevant part. I feel weak and small and with my head barely above the waves. And so I take great comfort in music that expresses the raw, jagged edge of a broken and injured soul desperately aware of their need to be saved. Thus: ragged.

It’s ragged in another sense as well. You might notice as you go through the list that a lot of the songs embrace philosophies or theologies that contradict each other and contradict what I believe in. I know. And several of them are not religious at all and are (for all I know) written by people who would be irritated to find out their music was being included on a faithful playlist. I know that, too. I just happen to think that life isn’t a theology exam. I’m sure I don’t have it all right myself, and I’m not looking for that kind of perfection in anyone else either. This isn’t a harmonious playlist in terms of style, genre, ideology, religion, philosophy, or anything. That’s OK. I’m looking for beauty and encouragement and truth wherever I can find it, and–in that sense–I’m just not picky.

As for chorus? Well, I started out with a realization that in addition to the majestic control and talent of The Tallis Scholars, the raw pathos of Dusin Kensrue‘s screaming was another way of approaching spirituality. And, once I recognized two ways, I started to see more. I’ve got everything from bluegress to hip-hop and from obscure to world-famous bands in this line-up. More and more I like the idea of a symphonic approach to the Kingdom of God. We have different strengths and weaknesses, insights and perspectives. The best way to contribute to the Kingdom of God is to find out where we fit. An orchestra is powerful not just because of how many players it has, but because of the diversity. Strings and brass, percussion and woodwinds. It takes a chorus. And this is what mine sounds like. So far.

Give a listen to the ones that look interesting to you, and let me know in the comments of any suggestions you have to add. (I may make some edits myself from time to time when I remember old songs I love or find new ones to add.)

Faith and Belief

These songs are about faith in terms of belief and knowledge, which makes it different from the fidelity aspect of faith that I emphasize on my Discipleship playlist (a little further down).

“I Believe” by Dustin Kensrue on Please Come Home

And all the answers that I find,
only take me so far down the line.
The tracks always give out
yeah it’s a leap from the lions mouth.

“King Without a Crown” by Matisyahu on Youth

With these, demons surround all around to bring me down to negativity
But I believe, yes I believe, I said I believe
I’ll stand on my own two feet
Won’t be brought down on one knee
Fight with all of my might and get these demons to flee
Hashem’s rays fire blaze burn bright and I believe
Hashem’s rays fire blaze burn bright and I believe

“Bling (Confessions Of A King)” by The Killers on Sam’s Town

The lyrics to this song are not entirely clear4, but from interviews you can learn that this is the story of Brandon Flower’s father’s conversion to Mormonism.5

It ain’t hard to hold,
When it shines like gold,
You’ll remember me.

“Stare at the Sun” by Thrice on The Artist in the Ambulance

I’ll stare straight into the sun
And I won’t close my eyes
Till I understand or go blind

Love (as in Charity)

“For Miles” by Thrice on Vheissu

The opening lyrics of this song definitely make it a good contender for the Hope playlist, but once I realized that the title “For Miles” was a reference to Matthew 5:41 this song became my favorite song about love.

41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

As the song says, “one day, all our scars will disappear, like the stars at dawn,” but until then:

as long as we live, every scar is a bridge to someone’s broken heart
We must see that every scar is a bridge, and as long as we live
We must open up these wounds

There is a way to find meaning in our own suffering, and that way is love.

“Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons on Sigh No More

Love that will not betray you,
dismay or enslave you.
It will set you free.
Be more like the man
you were made to be.

Tell the World by Lecrae featuring Mali Music on Gravity

I ain’t love you first, but you first loved me
In my heart I cursed you, but you set me free
I gave you no reason to give me new seasons, to give new life, new breathing
But you hung there bleedin’, and ya’ died for my lies and my cheatin’, my lust and my greed, (and Lord!)
What is a man that you mindful of him?

“Loyal to No One” by Dropkick Murphys on The Meanest of Times

This one, on the other hand, is the story of what happens in a life without love.

You said we die alone.
In this case you were right.

“I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie on Plans

A lot of the bands that I choose are overtly religious. Others, like the very Irish Dropkick Murphys, at least have that as part of their culture. Death Cab for Cutie? Not so much, as far as I can tell, but I still like this song. It lacks hope, but it’s got a great sense of love; a love that is greater than self.

If there’s no one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark

“Forgiveness” by Collective Soul on Disciplined Breakdown

I believe that the album title, “Disciplined Breakdown” is about the process of having our heart broken in the sense of Psalm 51:

17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

If I’m right6, then this is a great and very Biblical concept album.

So I wash away stains of yesterday
Then tempt myself with love’s display

“Believe” by Yellowcard on Ocean Avenue

This was Yellowcard’s tribute song for the 9/11 attack. I was serving my mission in Hungary in September 2001, and so I missed out on the spirit of national grief and unity that everyone at home felt. For me, listening to this song after I got home was one of the first times I understood some of the significance of what had happened. It’s a terrific tribute to the first responders who died that day, and a testament to the love they had and the love we have for them.

Let it all go, the life that you know,
just to bring it down alive
And you still came back for me

“Life of a Salesman” by Yellowcard on Ocean Avenue

The title of this track is not subtle but, just in case anyone misses it, it’s a rejection / riff on the famous Arthur Miller play about a clueless and inept father: Death of a Salesman. I don’t mean to knock the play, but a main plot point in the play is that the father cheats on his wife and thereby completely obliterates his son’s faith in him. “Life of a Salesman” goes the other way, and it’s a great song about the love between father and son. That’s a love I feel towards my dad and towards my kids, and one I hope that they can always feel towards me.

Father I will always be (always be)
That same boy that stood by the sea
And watched you tower over me (over me)
Now I’m older I want to be the same as you

“Just Like You” by Lecrae on Rehab

This is a really, really powerful follow up to Yellowcard’s “Life of a Salesman.” It’s that autobiographical story of Lecrae’s life without a father and, in his absence, the longing for an ultimate father figure. It takes the idea of love between fathers and sons and makes it about love between us and God.

I wanna be like you in every way,
So if I gotta die every day
Unworthy sacrifice
But the least I can do is give the most of me
‘Cause being just like you is what I’m supposed to be

“Snow” by Ryan Shupe & The Rubberband on Simplify

I can’t find a video for this song, unfortunately.7 It’s a great song about God sending a blanket of snow on the day that one of his prophets died. It’s a poignant song about God’s love for His servants. You can find it on Spotify, however, on their 2011 album Simplify. (I originally heard it, and found out about the band for the first time, on the God’s Army soundtrack.)

No, it wasn’t a lightning storm
ripping leaves and limbs off of trees.
And it wasn’t a massive earthquake,
the earth buckling from beneath.
Because he wasn’t quite that sad,
and he wasn’t quite that mad,
but his messenger died yesterday
and he wanted us to know.

“Beggars” by Thrice on Beggars

This song makes me think irresistibly of King Benjamin’s sermon in Mosiah 2:

25 And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you. 26 And I, even I, whom ye call your king, am no better than ye yourselves are; for I am also of the dust. And ye behold that I am old, and am about to yield up this mortal frame to its mother earth.

King Benjamin’s point is that we depend utterly on the grace of God and therefore ought to show the same grace to our brothers and sisters. As He loves us, we should them.

Can you see now that everything’s grace after all?
If there’s one thing I know in this life: we are beggars all.

Hope

It is easy for me to believe in ideals like kindness, forgiveness, and sacrifice for others. That is obviously not to say it is easy for me to live according to those ideals, but their goodness and the beauty seems self-evident even when I fall short. What it much less obvious and easy to believe, however, is that somehow God will actually one day reconcile this world and its pain and injustice and hatred with those ideals. I do not see how it can be done. And so there’s always a temptation to reduce the Gospel to symbolism. To nice stories that embellish good principles but that, in the end, are just wishful thinking or gestures towards a promise we will never see fulfilled. This is why hope matters to me so much. Because hope is what gets me from a tragic view of a world eternally and miserably short of the beauty and peace to the idea that one day we’ll actually see beauty and peace realized on Earth. What I hope for is that it’s all real, and so the songs here are just the songs that speak most unabashedly of God’s existence and the message of Jesus. That makes it a bluegrass-heavy portion of the playlist.

“Shouting on the Hills of Glory” by Ralph Stanley on Clinch Mountain Country Music

Oh what a blessed reunion
When we’re together over yonder
There’ll be shouting on the hills of God

“When I Wake To Sleep No More” by Ralph Stanley on Clinch Mountain Country Music

Leaving behind all troubles and trials
Bound for the city up on high
When I wake up (when I wake up)
To sleep no more (to sleep no more)

“Weary Saints” by Dustin Kensrue on Please Come Home

Time will cease to stalk us
Death will be undone
We’ll shine with the light of
A thousand blazing suns.

“Do You Want To Live In Glory” by The Lonesome River Band on Talkin’ To Myself

From this world of pain and sorrow
To that golden promised land
There are goals for tomorrow
I know God can hold my hand

Discipleship

This playlist includes songs about faith in the sense of fidelity. It’s about trying to follow God instead of the world, about being on the outside, and about sacrifice. It’s very heavy on Thrice, but if that’s not your thing there’s some Pink Floyd and Mumford and Sons as well. These are the songs that I actually listen to the most, by the way, because it’s what I usually feel the most need for: encouragement to keep pushing as hard as I can every day to try harder than the day before to do and to be the things that I want to be as a follower of Christ.

“Divine Intervention” by Lecrae (featuring J.R.) on Rehab

The inversion of the meaning of the phrase “this is my moment”  is profound. Instead of meaning “this is about me,” in this song the phrase means “this is my sacrifice to you.” It’s incredible. No one can preach it like Lecrae and his crew preach it.

Here is my moment, here is my lifetime
All that I have I will give to You
In this moment, ’cause nothing really matters at all
Everything that this heart longs for other than You I will let die
Take all that I am ’cause nothing really matters right now
This is my moment

“Image of the Invisible” by Thrice on Vheissu

Though all the world may hate us, we are named
Though shadow overtake us, we are known

“Children of the Light” by Lecrae (featuring Sonny Sandoval and Dillavou) on Rehab

We are children of the light
Royal rulers of the day
Saints, no prisoners of the night
Trust and love will lead the way
We are free

“The Artist in the Ambulance” by Thrice on The Artist in the Ambulance

…I know that there’s
a difference between sleight of hand, and giving everything you have.
There’s a line drawn in the sand, I’m working up the will to cross it.

I still wonder, at the end of this song, if the artist in the ambulance is a reference to the singer or the one who saved the singer.

Fuego by Lecrae featuring KB and Suzy Rock on Gravity

I’m on and this little light I got
Imma let it shine til the day I drop
Heart quit pumping only way I stop
Til then I’m a light post on your block

“Identity Crisis” by Thrice on Identity Crisis

I’ll walk into the flame
A calculated risk to further bless your name
So strike me deep and true
And in your strength I will live and die, both unto you

“Like Moths to Flame” by Thrice on Vheissu

This video is based on footage from Passion of the Christ. It may not be easy to watch.

and then I met your eyes, and I remember everything
and something in me dies, the night that I betrayed my king

“Paul” by Haun’s Mill on Haun’s Mill

This song was written and is performed by my mission buddy Nord Anderson and his band Haun’s Mill. Yes, that Haun’s Mill. They are rocking a Decemberists vibe, and it is clearly working for them. They are running a Kickstarter at the moment. You should check it out and listen to more of their songs (with better recording quality!).

Today I was awakened, was lost but now am found

“Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd on Wish You Were Here

And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?

If that doesn’t resonate immediately, consider Isaiah 5:20-25, and especially just verse 20:

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!

I use this song every time I teach that chapter of Isaiah in Sunday School.

“The Cave” by Mumford and Sons on Sigh No More

The video here is a bit silly, but I still love the lyrics.

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Yearning for Home

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a sense that this world is not my home. That I came from somewhere else, and that I’m headed somewhere else. It turns out that’s not an uncommon feeling: the yearning for a home we cannot remember. The songs on this playlist all share that yearning: a painful flipside to the Hope playlist from earlier on. After Discipleship, these are the songs that I listen to the most.

“In Exile” by Thrice on Beggars

I am a pilgrim – a voyager; I won’t rest until my lips touch the shore –
Of the land that I’ve been longing for as long as I’ve lived,
Where there’ll be no pain or tears anymore.

“Come All You Weary” by Thrice on The Alchemy Index: Volume 4 (Earth)

This one, because it depicts the ministry of Jesus, could fit in the Hope playlist, but the emphasis is clearly on the weariness and longing of His followers both in the lyrics and in the music.

Come all you weary
Come gather round near me
Find rest for your souls

“The Melting Point of Wax” by Thrice on The Artist in the Ambulance

Since there’es a lot of Thrice on these playlists, I went with an acoustic version this time.

“There’s no promise of safety with these secondhand wings.”

“Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape” by Underoath on They’re Only Chasing Safety

Although most of the screamo on this playlist come from Thrice, the best single example of the genre as it relates to Christianity actually comes from the band Underoath. It won’t sound like screamo at first. It starts very soft and gentle, but the sense of pain and loss and disappointment builds and builds quietly until the screaming crescendo of yearning. If there’s any one song where a scream makes sense, it is this song. It’s one of the most powerful songs on the entire playlist. I know not everyone will enjoy the song, but I don’t think there’s a single one of us alive on this planet who haven’t felt this way at some point.

Hey unloving, I will love you.

“Please Come Home” by Dustin Kensrue on Please Come Home

This song doesn’t really need a clarification: it’s a retelling or the story of the Prodigal Son.

Don’t you know son that I love you
And I don’t care where you’ve been
Yes and i’ll be right here waiting, ’til you come around the bend

“God of Wine” by Third Eye Blind on Third Eye Blind

This is another one of those songs that isn’t really overtly religious, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that it fits on the list playlist.

The God of wine comes crashing
Through the headlights of a car
That took you farther than
You thought you’d ever want to go
We can’t get back again
You can’t get back again

“Go Back” by SweetHaven on SweetHaven

This is a song that was featured on The RM, a ridiculous Mormon comedy about a return missionary that I had the misfortune of watching right after my (rather traumatic) mission where the humor mostly passed me by and the whole thing just triggered flashbacks. This song was good, though.

You’ve been runnin’ hard
You can’t find your place
And the memories won’t erase

“There is a Light That Never Goes Out” by The Smiths on The Queen is Dead

This is another one that might not seem obvious at first, but the sense of longing and theme of death (which means my wife refuses to let me listen to this song in the car) definitely fit.

And if a ten-ton truck
Kills the both of us
To die by your side
Well, the pleasure – the privilege is mine
Oh, there is a light and it never goes out

“Roll Away Your Stone” by Mumford and Sons on Sigh No More

It seems that all my bridges have been burned
But you say, “That’s exactly how this grace thing works”
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with every start

“Wayfaring Stranger” by Eva Cassidy on Songbird

This is an 19th century folk/gospel song with a lot of variations. I really like Eva Cassidy’s.

I’m going there to see my father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

“Blanket of Ghosts” by Dustin Kensrue on Please Come Home

Wake me when it’s spring time in heaven
and the tears are all wiped from my face.
Wake me when it’s spring time in heaven
When I’m strong enough to walk in that place

“Setting Sail, Coming Home” by Darren Korb on Bastion Soundtrack

This track comes from the soundtrack to one of my favorite video games of all time, Bastion.

Lie on my back,
Clouds are making way for me
I’m coming home, sweet home
I see your star,
You left it burning for me;
Mother, I’m here

2 thoughts on “A Ragged Chorus of Faith”

  1. Good list. Surprised there’s no mention of David Eugene Edwards. “Horse head fiddle” is classic in my opinion”

  2. Most of these I don’t know. But I know and like the Mumford & Sons songs especially.

    Are you familiar with Sufjan Stevens?

    In case you’re not, I think you would like some of his stuff:

    A good song about frustration in faith:

    Casmir Pulaski Day:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EzeW5KoPUI

    All the glory that the Lord has made
    And the complications when I see his face
    In the morning in the window

    All the glory when he took our place
    But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
    And he takes and he takes and he takes

    This one is fairly overtly Christian but elegantly simple:

    Vito’s Ordination Song:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-xBhiU1C80

    I always knew you
    In your mother’s arms
    I have called her name
    I’ve an idea

    Placed in your mind
    To be a better man,
    I’ve made a crown for you
    And put it in your room

    And when the bride groom comes
    There will be noise.
    And there will be glad
    And the perfect bed

    And when you write a poem
    I know the words,
    I know the sounds
    Before you write it down

    When you wear your clothes
    I wear them too
    I wear your shoes.
    And the jacket too

    I always knew you
    In your mother’s arms
    I have called you son.
    I’ve made amends

    Between father and son.
    Or if you haven’t one
    Rest in my arms,
    Sleep in my bed,

    There’s a design
    To what I did and said
    Rest in my arms,
    Sleep in my bed,
    There’s a design

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