I am compelled by a phenomenon that I see in modern culture. Maybe it is not a new phenomenon, but the current expression of it is new (because it is happening now). The video above is an example: Jesus, Jesus, is a haunting ballad of the unbeliever by Noah Gunderson.
It is, perhaps, ironic that the lyric displayed in the video reads, “Does it matter if we are unhappy?” More on that later.
The phenomenon that compels me is the spiritual artistry of sensitive, creative and talented people who come from and out of a religious background. The spirituality is palpable, and there is a strong undercurrent of Christian or biblical influence, but these artists have walked away from the Christianity and Church of their youth and do not consider themselves Christian artists.
Some of these artists include Mumford & Sons (see Hopeless Wanderer), Noah Gunderson and many others. Others may consider themselves Christians but decidedly do not want to be considered Christian artists. Their music is not readily identifiable or considered to be “Christian”. Some seem uncomfortable with the thought of being labeled a Christian artist, yet their music and lyrics are clearly informed by Christian and biblical imagery. Artists like that include Sufjan Stevens (see Abraham) and others.
Others maintain an uncomfortable association with Christian artistry, like Gungor. Beautiful Things is an incredibly worshipful song and has been sung as worship in church services. Gungor, however, has been soundly scolded by the Christian community for his expressed doubts about the literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis. (Christian Singer Michael Gungor Makes More Outrageous Claims)
If you watch American Idol or The Voice, you find that many singers developed and honed their voices in church. Some of them go on to become “Christian artists”, but many of them do not. One constant theme I see is that spirituality, whether in tension or harmony with artistry, adds a layer to the artistry that is compelling and transcendent.
Still others have moved from worship leading to secular sounds like Johnny Swim (see Hallelujah compared to Diamonds) and Brooke Frazier (see Hosanna and C.S. Lewis Song compared to Kings & Queens) Then there are artists like U2 who are not considered “Christian” at all, but they have surprisingly deep and orthodox faith. (See this interview with Bono about his faith)
It is easy and tempting to be judgmental of the angst, doubt and discomfort many artists with spiritual backgrounds and spiritual tendencies express in their moments of honest reflection. Those moments of honest reflection are played out in the music they create for the world to hear, as if we are secreted into the bedrooms of their lives like voyeurs. Maybe the honesty is compelling to me.
I was once a spiritual traveler, a truth seeker in my youth. I still am. I did not realize when I really started the journey that I would find what I was looking for in the Bible and in the person of Christ. I was raised in a Christian household and went to church every Sunday; yet I was no closer to being a follower of Jesus than the person who never set foot in a church. The truth is that I was uncomfortable there, like many of these artists who come from a church background.
I have seen others who embraced the piety of religion in their youth, only to abandon it for the broader boulevard of common culture in young adulthood. I see a difference between the prodigal son and his older brother. Neither one has a genuine relationship with the father. The difference is in the conformity, or lack thereof, to decorum and honesty in the relationship. While the younger son takes his inheritance, leaves and spends it seeking fulfillment in all the world has to offer, the older son maintains the decorum to earn his share through “honest” work and effort to please the father with whom he has no real relationship.
One is more “honest” then the other.
I am not saying that we should encourage our children to abandon the church in reckless pursuit of sex, drugs and self-fulfillment. Not at all. Far from it. There is profound truth in the statement that those who find God in their youth are truly blessed. Not many of us are so fortunate, even in the church. The example of the prodigal musician is just a public microcosm of the story of the children in our churches in general, but we should not despair.
The story of the prodigal shows us that there is something more compelling in the recklessness of honesty seeking than in the piety of salvation by works. If you were to meet either one of the brothers while the younger was on his walkabout, you would reach very different conclusions about them compared to meeting them after the younger son returned to the father. Having sought fulfillment in everything but relationship to his father, and finding nothing but emptiness and ruin, he was eternally grateful for the grace of his father’s love.
What if the father had not seen the prodigal coming from afar off and gone out to meet him? What if the prodigal son met the older brother first? I can imagine the scolding the older brother would have given him – a scolding he undoubtedly feared he would receive from his father. Would he have turned away in bitter disappointment? Would he have consigned himself to the fate of eternal separation from his father, having squandered everything he was given? Would he have allowed the condemnation ringing in his ears to overwhelm and subsume him?
How do you greet the prodigals you meet? Do you turn them away from the father with condemnation? Do you stand in the way of the prodigal?
The collective response of the Church and Christians to contemporary artists is an allegory to the way we engage the world (or not). People are watching our reactions like they watched Jesus react in the crowds everywhere He went. We preach in the way we react and treat these artists, but are we preaching the Gospel?
We do not know the hearts of artists who are on their own spiritual journeys, but the Father does. Their expressions are the expressions of all spiritual seekers. I find something refreshing and hopeful in the honesty, something compelling, like the cry of a soul in the darkness seeking the light. The prodigal son is no worse off than the older son; and he may be better off for the honesty of his life. Those who are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, are the ones in danger of being spit out.
Some prodigals, no doubt will not make their way back to the Father’s house. The prodigal who does not find his way back to the Father’s house will forever be separated from the Father’s love. We do not want to be stumbling blocks to the prodigals’ return. Do we stand in the way of the prodigal? Or are we helping them turn and journey back? These things I consider as I listen to the music of some modern prodigals.
Postscript: my daughter expressed to me a while ago a sentiment that I think captures the heart of her generation, my generation and most generations in modern American culture: it is the idea that happiness is the pinnacle of human existence. Of course, it is an illusion. Our The US Constitution (which we were discussing) does not promise happiness, though some seem to think it does; it promises the right to pursue happiness. The pursuit of happiness, however, is a rabbit hole. It is like the oasis mirage in the desert; it is perpetually out of reach in this life, or so I have come to believe (and with some very convincing evidence). Most of us simply settle for occasional excitement, satisfaction of some sort and pleasure. It is a powerful illusion that tempts us to the broad boulevard of human existence. I have found, though, that joy is found through the narrow gate.