This summer my wife and I moved from the medium sized central Illinois community of Normal to the Chicago suburbs. I grew up in Normal, went to college in Normal, and started my career in Normal—and I assumed I was going to spend the next few decades (at least) there. I don’t particularly like change and I don’t particularly like taking risks, so naturally the move has stretched me.
The week before we closed on our house in the suburbs singer-songwriter Jason Isbell was passing through one of our favorite venues in central Illinois. My wife and I love Jason Isbell (and needed a date night) so we got there early to get a place to stand front and center.
It was a fantastic show—he puts on a great live performance. But about halfway through his set Isbell strums the first chords of “Alabama Pines,” and my wife and I both start weeping. “Alabama Pines”—an Americana ballad about feeling displaced, being away from home, and figuring out your identity amidst unfamiliarity—is one of our favorites and at the time was about as applicable as a song could be. In that moment, six feet from one of our favorite musicians, we were comforted in our insecurities, fears, and doubts. Even though we had never met, it seemed like Jason Isbell understood exactly what we were going through.
Once again, as happens often for me, music went beyond entertainment and became a means of grace.
Growing up, music was not just background noise but a world to explore. When most parents were playing children’s music or pop radio for their kids, I was being introduced to Buddy Holly, The Coasters, Chuck Berry, and Bob Dylan. My dad told me all sorts of stories about different musicians, studios, and venues that captured my imagination. Rock & Roll, Country, and the Blues were the folklore that implanted itself in my imagination, and like good folklore does, it filled me with wonder and awe.
Music was more than entertainment, it shaped me.
The love that I developed in childhood wasn’t just for music itself, but what it allowed me to express and articulate in remarkable detail. If I was upset I could listen to The Clash, who would identify with my angst. If I was sad I could listen to Bright Eyes lament. If I was feeling like I didn’t have a friend in the world, the Flaming Lips could always reassure me that there are people who are just as weird as me. Music naturally became a sort of language for me to articulate—if only to myself—what I was thinking and feeling.
Rock & Roll Music: Unredeemable Smut?
When I became a Christian, I thought I had to give up my love of the “secular” music that I grew up on. Like many who come from an unchurched background, I had to wrestle to understand how the things that I loved before I became a Christian should be incorporated in my new life. Before I was a Christian I certainly resounded with the refrain in Wilco’s “Sunken Treasure,”
Music is my savior
I was maimed by rock and roll
I was maimed by rock and roll
I was tamed by rock and roll
I got my name from rock and roll
When Jesus saved me I woke up to the reality that Rock & Roll is a lousy savior. I’m too big of a sinner to be saved by Rock & Roll. I needed Jesus.
But did that mean I must stay away from Rock & Roll altogether?
After much trial and error, counsel, prayer, and grace I realized I loved music for a God-given reason. God, in making man in his image, made humans musical creatures. It is our natural response to sing and express ourselves. From sports teams (you never walk alone!) to national anthems to love songs. We seem bent on expressing our loyalty, our love, and our sorrow through non-rational, rhythmic aesthetics. That is why Martin Luther said,
“I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given mankind by God. . . . Our dear fathers and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence we have so many songs and psalms.”
It is easy to see how we are discipled by music in the context of a worship service, but what about Rock & Roll? Country? How could that disciple us in anything other than debauchery and paganism?
By having my eyes opened to the real world—a world created by God, haunted by grace but caught in sin—I could see the image of God in the music I loved. It was my idolatry that was the problem.
Music as a Means of Grace
In 1 Samuel 16, when Saul is harassed by an evil spirit, it is the soothing, skillful lyre of David that brings relief. When Adam meets his bride Eve in Genesis 2 he responds in song. And in Acts when Paul wants to show how close to the gospel the Greeks were, he read them their own poetry—a musical literary genre. Music acts as a relief of the soul and a longing for the divine, even when we don’t intended it to be such.
Let’s jump back to the Jason Isbell show for a minute. As we were there having a good time and listening to some tunes, something happened. “Alabama Pines” struck our hearts and hit us square in the chest. At that moment the emotions and aesthetics of that song acted as a kind counselor by identifying and validating what we were going through. It was just for a moment, but it was nonetheless moving and cathartic. Isbell didn’t mean for his song to comfort us in our spiritual affliction, he probably just meant to write a good song.
Likewise, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco has said that the guitar solo in his song “At least that’s what you said” is a musical representation of what his anxiety attacks feel like. Tweedy expressed, as best as he knew how, a complicated emotional state and wound up creating something profound. I can hear my own anxiety, unbelief, and fear in his guitar. It does for me what David’s lyre did for Saul, and in that I can see the kindness of a God who relates to and understands his children.
When I am feeling hardhearted (which is often, if I am honest) there is music that tenderizes my heart and reminds me of God’s grace. Often this music is not explicitly theologically-driven or written by people who claim to be Christians. My wife and I chose The Avett Brothers’ gentle ballad “Murder In The City” for our first dance because of it’s softening power and beautiful picture of humble love. The same comes over me when I listen to A.A. Bondy’s album “American Hearts,” an album ripe with biblical imagery and poetic beauty.
These are what theologian Jerram Barrs would call “echoes of Eden.” Pictures of the way the world was supposed to be and a glimpse at the coming Kingdom.
Grace in “Secular” Music
Is there sin in “secular” music? Yes.That’s because it is made by sinners. But those sinners are also made in the image of God. Therefore, we have something to learn from even the least holy music.
The seemingly “secular” or “profane” always hold some divine significance in the world created exclusively by God.
That does not mean we should not be discerning. In fact, it means we should be extremely discerning! As I listen for God’s voice in the unpredictable world of Rock & Roll music, I find things that are not upbuilding that I do not want to identify with. But for all the unhealthy and broken music there is so much beauty and truth.
The temptation is to ingest music uncritically with little care or thought to the significance of the music being consumed or to find spiritual significance only in explicitly Christian music. Outside of the occasional time Coldplay talks about heaven, we hardly realize that we music has a profound spiritual quality.
We have access to our culture’s hymn book, and if we took the time to read it we might find what Paul found, that “He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).
It takes a heart awake to grace to perceive nonbelievers perceiving God’s attributes. The more we understand the gospel, the more we will begin to realize that God’s grace is so close, so tangible that non-Christians sing about it without even knowing they are singing about it. Grace sometimes offends our religious sensibilities by being so visible in lives of those who have no religious sensibilities.
Do you think that Paul would’ve been comfortable quoting Greek poets or acknowledging that “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” before he was awake to the gospel of Jesus? Even in describing the sin of humanity, Paul wanted the Romans to know that their pagan neighbors perceived the reality of God.
I’ve found that the more I understand God’s grace (which still isn’t very much), the more I am open to seeing God’s grace in places I wouldn’t think to look for it. That’s why I dumped my love for music when I first became a Christ and why I soon came back to it. As the Holy Spirit continually grows our understanding of God’s grace, we will see it in places we could’ve never imagined it would be—like Rock & Roll music.
Nick Rynerson lives in the west suburbs of Chicago with his groovy wife, Jenna. He is a staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture and a marketing coordinator at Crossway. Connect with him on Twitter @nick_rynerson or via email.