Showing, Not Telling in Religious Music

I follow a small number of blogs that interest me and one of them is by a Marc Barnes called Bad Catholic. Today (yesterday on all of your times) he had a post about an album by an Audrey Assad called Fortunate Fall.

Now I realize that music can be a very subjective experience so the following is with that fact in mind. I find a boring complacency in this music. There is no sense of any opposition to this music, no tension. It has all the emotion of a Norah Jones yarn about losing a boyfriend. Yawn.

If you are going to have that music and singing style, the lyrics hardly matter. It will make whatever the lyrics are that music. People nowadays seem to have this fixation on lyrics (or words) to the utter exclusion of whatever else is going on. Merely singing the praises of God will evoke the emotion of praise for God. Merely singing lyrics about lamenting God’s absence will, magically, convey the emotion of sadness or whatever the lyrics tell us we are supposed to feel.

There is a rule in fiction writing: Show, Don’t Tell.

I had a conversation with someone many years ago about Jewel’s first album which I loved then and still love now. The person thought it was odd that I, a guy, should like it at all. She’s girl music, right? I told him I liked it because she made me feel miserable. “Why the hell listen to it?” “Because,” I said, “She made me feel.”

That is the trick to pull off in music. That is the only trick to pull off in music. It is not to inform, to teach, but to invoke emotion.

Now remember what I said about the subjectivity of music while I slide home here, and that I am talking about modern music.

Is the subject of religion a yawn? Is that the experience? Is it a matter of routine? I ask because I get no sense of anything religious here. I rarely get the sense of anything to do with religion when I listen to religious music. Where is the exaltation? The torture of the Passion? The profound doubt of Mother Teresa? The anger at a silent God? Or one that seems to cause senseless pain? All the profound extremes and paradoxes of the human condition? The agony in the garden of Gethsemane? If God is mighty and glorious and awful to behold at the same time, the whole of the music, if that is the “subject” of a piece, should reflect that. A piece on God’s wrath should be ominous, the listener should feel goosebumps and feel a sense of dread. A thunder of heaven should be – a thunder of heaven.

My complaint is the music does not match up to the subject. (Although I will say that Assad is better than a lot of the stuff to be heard in that genre. But that is hardly a compliment since the bar is sitting on the floor.) If that is all religion means on an emotional level, it means hardly squat. You can substitute any Norah Jones lyric out for Assad’s and it doesn’t change the tenor of the song as a whole one bit. Unless you are of that modern bent that relies solely on lyrical content for emotional response, but we aren’t really discussing music entirely then.

There is a song on Assad’s album called Help My Unbelief. This could be a song of heartbreaking lament, but it has no different emotional import than any other song on the album. We are only told, but we are not shown.

Now let me bring in two counter examples to illustrate what I mean. The first is by Jewel called Angel Standing By. It is not explicitly religious but does invoke the concept of an Angel. Note the use of harmonics in falling tones almost like cascading rain. It almost sounds like an Angel descending from heaven to watch over a child. And then her lyrics are not simply sung as if it were the same song as the one before but specifically tailored for the subject, the feel, the meaning of the song, to convey not only an image, but that from which the image is born, the emotion.

It is a perfect song, simple, but perfect. That is not only telling, for words always tell, but showing, it takes you in and you are what it is in that time.

The second song is from a much darker corner. It is from the band Tool (who are not a religious band by any stretch of the imagination), and the song is called Wings for Marie . It is actually the second part of a two part song, but the impact is all contained in the second part. Now anyone who has read this far, listen to this song – all 11 minutes of it. From what I can tell it is about a mother’s faith that inspires the son, or something like that. And he imagines her worthy to demand her wings upon coming home. If this song leaves you unaffected at the end, you are a materialist, never had a mother and were raised by wolves, or are emotionally dead. Or can’t abide an electric guitar.

This song, if one can acclimate to it (it is so worth the experience) creates a visceral tearing of the emotions. If you are unfamiliar with Tool, here is a tip. Be patient, the song is a 9 and 1/2 minute build-up with a minute and a half cool down at the end. Now it is not a praise the Lord song, but it does evoke some of the profound emotions I would expect to be associated with religious music. My unstated premise here is that religious music is not synonymous with “feel-good” music.

Now that was a music experience worthy of being called religious, was it not?


2 responses to “Showing, Not Telling in Religious Music

  • taichiwawa

    There is as much truth in a baby’s breath as in an ocean gale.

    • bensira587

      Who said otherwise? There is as much truth in a beast’s bark as in a lover’s whisper; as there is as much love between mother and child as there is between the heavenly spheres. And repeat.

      I was drawing a difference that I do not see in your reply. Meaning I see no difference in the baby’s breath and the ocean gale in terms of truth.

      Truth in music is an odd notion, is it not?

      I also don’t know how you’ve addressed anything mentioned here since you listened to none of the music. Unless you decided not to use the links I provided and sought your own recordings.

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