rock and Roll. It’s the devil’s music. Christianity, in response, has burnt its records, told its believers not to listen and produced an entire shadow culture that provided a wholesome alternative replete with bands flinging Bibles into the crowd (Stryper) and cover songs that replaced questionable lyrics (DC Talk’s transformation of Nirvana’s “Everyone is Gay” to “Jesus is the Way”). It is a world that does not deal with the hard problems or, for that matter, the outside world at all. And the outside world has seen such absurdity and rightly mocked it.

Some Christians work around this, while some people who might not have been Christians see so much complexity in God's work that they attempt, through their work, to discern it. Sometimes it is personal, sometimes it is cultural. Some come to God clearly and that was all they needed. Some who are known for being confessional move this new understanding, or even old understanding, into their work. Sometimes it is required by genre, and sometimes it is viewed as literature.

But for the following ten artists, the first purpose was to make music, and in that way they were stealth Christians, rising into the stratosphere, outside radar. The point of these artists was not evangelical: following in a long tradition of artists that subsume their religious beliefs into the music and made it an inextricable element. I hope here to restore religion as a legitimate subject for inquires, not to be mocked but to be understood. Each of these ten illustrate another way of looking at how God works in personal and public expression, and are as diverse in genre as they are in age and intention.

Belle and Sebastian

Haunted by devotion, nearly every one of their albums has Stuart Murdoch singing something about Jesus. And, if you buy his work as autobiographical, the development of the thoughts of this non-believer fascinated by the Gospel’s and Paul’s journey is apparent. Witness 1996's If You're Feeling Sinister's title track, which has Murdoch using God as filling a hole, like sex or drink and the transformation in 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress which sees Murdoch almost commanding: "If you find yourself caught in love/Say a prayer to the man above/ Thank him for everything you know/You should thank him for every breath you blow."

Bob Dylan

Sometime in the mid 80s, Joan Baez told her concert audiences "I'm glad we got Bob back from Jesus". As much as I admire Ms. Baez and trust her as an expert on the cryptic Dylan, I don't think that she's right. Dylan loved Jesus before his famous saving, and loved Christ after his disavowal of Christianity's Conquering.

In 1966 Dylan got into a motorcycle crash, famously triggering a revaluation of his role in the world. Subsequently, he released the brilliant bleating of Blood On The Tracks, the haunting Desire and the polemic Hard Rain. God seemed to have left Dylan, but he would return with brimstone. On Slow Train Coming he came back as Southern Preacher, all of the loathing of humanity gave bloom to a fevered love of God. "You Gotta Serve Someone" was like pulling infants out of Moloch's mouth. If that wasn't obvious enough, the next album was called Saved, the titular song telling all of his new found interest in Holy Rolling.

The releases between Savedand his 1997 comeback Time Out of Mind are a mish-mash of bootlegs, live recordings, best-ofs, and other detritus. His reemergence from the wilderness was Love and Theft, an album that had citizens of Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans sitting shivah in advance. Listen to “Not Dark Yet” —and that chorus of "I've still got the scars the son don't let me heal". This awareness of his own fallen nature makes the Christianity of his Slow Train Coming period seem overly simplistic.

Bob Dylan and Jesus Christ are Jacob and his Angel. He sees the dark shadows on the wounds, sees the history of mockery and crucifixion in the divine son's eyes and is fascinated—the death of the world in the Revelations of John more heavy and rich for examination than the death of the world in Daniel.

Low

The LDS is a church that avoids long, dark nights of the soul. The hymnbook is filled with positive sentiment (see: "Scatter Sunshine", "Come Rejoice" and two dozen more with Praise somewhere in the title). Additionally, one of the core virtues of its young women’s programs is Joy. With such a slant towards service and communal effort, the element of happiness is doubly important. And it works: this is the group that built Utah out of the deserts and had more converts in the South Pacific earlier than any other Christian Sect.

What’s odd about Low is not that they’re Mormon, but how atypical they are among Latter Day Saint circles. They are melancholic, in a way that seems counter productive to communal effort. They think inward. On the edges Joseph Smith sneaks in, 1999’s Secret Name is filled with coded references to esoteric temple ceremonies, in which the devout are allowed to seek the mysteries and those less devout are not.

John Coltrane

The only one on this list that has a church named for him (The St. John Coltrane Church in the Mission in San Francisco) and the one on this list with the fewest lyrics. But, with his giant step away from bebop, it is clear that there must be someone to thank. Coltrane thanked God himself, coming to him after kicking a particularly hard heroin addiction.

The relationship flows through his most famous album, A Love Supreme, meant to be a representation of agape, the ultimate love, the one above all things human. The booming chorus becomes meditative, each repetition of the phrase A Love Supreme a new way of finding out about the person who claimed that God's first commandment was a desire to serve Him. The following albums moved into further abstraction. It was like the universe expanding from a central pivot point, into infinite blackness.

Violent Femmes

Gordon Gano was the son of a Preacher, raised Baptist in the suburbs of Milwaukee. Consequently, he didn’t hear much Rock and Roll in the house, substituting it for country and blues. The Carter Family told him about Jesus and Robert Johnson warned him about hell. In fact, Gano wanted the Violent Femmes to be a vehicle to spread the message of Christ. He met his band mate at a hall show in Milwaukee, the day before he was to play a gig for the National Merit Society (the conflation of punk into suburbia is not that unusual: consider the LDS kids in Provo and Salt Lake, who invented Straight Edge, washing the Kool Aid out of their hair on Sunday morning before going to Church).

The band mate in question, Brian Ritchie, had a secular upbringing, listening to the Beatles and playing the guitar like anyone else in middle America. Ritchie didn’t think heavily about religion, characterizing himself as a weak atheist. The duo fought about the inclusion of religious material on their first album, with Brian winning the first fight. After that, songs of devotion were subtly included. Too subtly, in fact, as some individuals assumed they were being ironic.

There is something touching about the group’s two most famous songs that deal with religion. They are about something real, deeply human and needy. Earnestness is not something that is dealt with very strongly now, as postmodern culture wants to see the wizard behind the curtain and assumes a certain distanced stance. “Jesus in Rio” sees Gano committing sins with a Rio girl while on a vacation (adultery and gluttony), as viewed by Christ on the Mountain and Christ in general, leaving Gano unable to live up to a certain authenticity. In “Jesus Walking on the Water” there is a need to believe in something that is real, coming to an aching conclusion with Gano begging for the miracles of Christ to be true. Authenticity, a hallmark of punk, could be an attempt to rend to Caesar what is Caesar’s .

Alison Krause

As a major country star, Jesus is part of the package, along with silly hats and apple pie. But Krause is different. She has sung hymns in the plain style as expected (her a cappella to "Down to the River to Pray" as part of the bluegrass soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou or her version of “I'd Rather Have Jesus” on the country/gospel compilation Amazing Grace). What she would rather have though, it seems, is not Christ, but America. Bluegrass did not come from African diaspora and Anglo-Scots border ballads like blues and country. It was an all-American folk music, from a region where Christ was enfolded into the flag, and, therefore, the children of that flag. She absorbed the authentic voices of bluegrass, absorbing whatever religion those voices were speaking.

Robert Johnson

At the crossroads he had to make a choice, between God and Satan, between eternal life and temporary devotion. He needed to say, for the sake of myth and remembering, that the guitar was worth more than God, more than life, acknowledging the fact that it would feed him. He begged for forgiveness from these shackles: hear him wailing on “Cross Road Blues”, for the Lord to: "Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please" or on “Preaching Blues”, where he talks about the music ripping him up inside, or more subtly that the choice to choose Mammon was not really a choice at all. The most soul wrenching of his works, though, is “Hellhound on My Trail”, where even the blues, his source of succor in religious turmoil, turns on him. Here, the blues fall down like hail, and you can hear in his voice, how they crush him. He is, quite literally, damned if he does and damned if he don't.

Sinead O’ Connor

When Joyce said Ireland was a sow who eats her young, he was really talking about the Mother Church. It of the abusive priests, slave labour under Magdalene laundries, lack of access to divorce and abortion and the wars between Protestants and Catholics. When Ms. O'Connor tore the picture of the pope up on Saturday Night Live, and when she refused to answer to anyone's national anthem, she was saying that she knew what the people of God have done in His name, and she knew how painful a nation’s birth pangs had been. Since then she has struggled with what God means, and what God wants her to do: moving from asexual to avowed lesbian to married housewife with two children. More importantly, she moved from the Roman Catholic Church to Atheist to priest in a Catholic breakaway sect. The titles of her albums are as clear an indication of her progress as anything. Her debut was named after a portion of Psalm 91, and her latest, apparently the last, changed the gender of the first verse of that psalm—"She who dwells in the high place shall fear the Almighty.” That returning to home, after being away to so many odd places strikes a balance, the alpha and omega are remade as female forms.

Destiny's Child

Destiny's Child comes from the Madonna school of theology. Our Lady of Pop Music was shown in Truth or Dare to be a deeply faithful Christian, praying for God to bless every performance, and to keep the keen, handsome dancers from breaking limbs. Subsequently, she also showed religion on stage, what with the rapturous moans and sleeping with black saints; something that DC doesn't do.

They thank God at every opportunity though, preaching abstinence and claiming they would have nothing, if not for God’s will. On award shows they burble about divine inspiration and in behind-the-tour documentaries they tell about how at every outfit has been approved by the Almighty.

This has been called Health and Wealth theology (devoutness can, and will, be rewarded in the physical world), and is used by many of an evangelist stripe. And while we’ll never know what He thinks of Beyonce rubbing against her fiancee in the “Crazy for Love” video—we do know that what she was wearing was A-OK.

Nick Cave

Maybe it’s Leonard Cohen Syndrome, where the lyrics are so drenched in religious metaphor and humble suffering that the assumption is religious mysticism, but maybe there is something more at work here. Cave follows in a grand tradition, singing traditional hymns with an outlaw’s fervor—look at the simplicity of “Jesus Met the Women at the Well” from his second solo record (it’s hard not to think of Cave placing himself as those women). He titled his third album Kicking against the Pricks, playing naughty boy to a divine father who warned against that kind of behaviour. “Sundays Slave” off of Tender Prey, talks of the world of man being one of suffering and his most famous, best selling work—Murder Ballads—asks for God's Grace on the first track and then reminds us that "all God’s children going to die" on the sixth.

This is the music, he wrote the introduction to the Gospel of Mark for Canongate books—the shortest and hardest to parse, with the bloodiest crucifixion at the end, Mark is the perfect Gospel for Cave's sensibilities. His novel, The Ass Talks to the Angel, is named after the dialogue between a prophet, a donkey and a divine servant mentioned in the 22nd chapter of Numbers. Playing like Robert Johnson and singing like Pentecostal preachers, he has talked about the fire of God as destructive force. He knows God, and like Moses this relationship is a devout terror.


By: Anthony Easton
Published on: 2004-01-19
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