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Intersection of Life and Faith

Glimpses of God (Vol. 3)

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Glimpses of God (Vol. 3)

More examples of the increasing tendency toward spiritual longing in today's mainstream music—including Daniel Bedingfield, Ben Harper, and popular hits from Train and Live.

We live in strange musical times. In 1984, pop icon Madonna gleefully declared that she was a "Material Girl" living in a material world. Now almost 20 years later, the Material Girl is decrying greed and pleading for family values on her American Life album.

For most artists, songwriting represents a process of personal growth. Albums offer snapshots of an artist's life: emotionally, socially, and spiritually. The Glimpses of God series was created to call attention to specific examples of mainstream artists exploring subjects of faith. Some are professing Christians approaching their craft outside the gospel music community; others are non-believers searching for answers. All are artists you can pray for and albums you can use as common ground with a non-Christian friend.

Volume 3 of Glimpses presents four examples of acclaimed artists who incorporate Christian themes—intentionally or not—into their songwriting.

Train
My Private Nation
(Columbia)
Classic pop/rock "I need a sign to let me know you're here/'Cause my TV set just keeps it all from being clear/I want a reason for the way things have to be/I need a hand to help build up some kind of hope inside of me" — from "Calling All Angels"

For Train founder Patrick Monahan, the rock star lifestyle initially included drug and alcohol abuse. With role models such as Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and The Beatles, the aspiring artist assumed such vices were necessary to inspire creativity. After years of struggles and frustrations, Monahan eventually changed his way of thinking. He cleaned up his act and left his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania for San Francisco, where he formed the Grammy Award-winning rock band Train, best known for their smash hit "Drops of Jupiter."

How things have changed since those wild days of youth. Compared to most pop/rock bands, Train is downright wholesome, espousing themes of commitment and family values along with the typical subjects of romance and life struggles. "I'm a 34-year-old guy," Monahan said in an interview with Cleveland.com. "I'm not an 18-year-old kid playing punk rock, drinking booze and smoking weed every night. I already did that. That's not what I want in my life. I want to be a great friend, husband and dad."

Such sentiments crop up in many of Train's songs, often autobiographical for Monahan. "I'm About to Come Alive," from My Private Nation , is a heartfelt outpouring of a man determined to live out his obligations as a loving father and husband. But even more intriguing is Train's willingness to explore matters of faith. The band's mainstream hit, "Calling All Angels" (excerpted above) is a response to tragedy and a fallen world, likely inspired in part by the events of 9/11. A song of faith and hope, it can be interpreted in a couple of ways. Monahan told Cleveland.com he didn't envision angels in a biblical sense, but as a call to action for all of us to practice more random acts of kindness to one another. Either perspective fits in with a Christian worldview.

When Monahan sings "I need a sign," it's less an expression of doubt than it is a plea for reassurance-similar to Styx's 1990 inspirational hit "Show Me the Way." The line "I won't give up, if you don't give up" may simply be intended to encourage peace among the nations, but it might also be viewed as a pledge to a merciful and patient God. Regardless of the multiple takes, there's little question the song is ultimately directed to God. The video even shows the band treading a bleak wasteland with the heavens eventually opening to shower the world with light.

Another example of faith on My Private Nation can be found in the chorus of "When I Look to the Sky," which reads like something found on Christian adult contemporary radio: "'Cause when I look to the sky something tells me you're here with me/And you make everything alright/And when I feel like I'm lost something tells me you're here with me/And I can always find my way when you are here." Though the song is actually about the passing of a loved one and the hope of eternal life beyond this world, it's still an expression of faith-though faith in what, only Monahan can say.

Train may not be the most obvious example of a "Glimpse of God," but they are one of the most well-known, thanks in great part to the success of "Calling All Angels," which at least gets people thinking about faith, hope, and love. That such a song could so easily find a home on mainstream radio is surely an indicator of society's increasing openness to those themes.

Ben Harper
Diamonds on the Inside
(Virgin)
Bluesy rock, soul, folk, funk, and reggae

"We long to be a picture of Jesus/In His arms so many prayers rest/I long to be a picture of Jesus/With Him we shall be forever blessed" — from "Picture of Jesus"

This highly acclaimed Californian is steadily gaining the kind of notoriety for which legends are known. Ben Harper's parents, both musicians, raised him on a variety of styles, and his grandparents run the Folk Music Center near Los Angeles. A skilled songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist, Harper's instrument of choice is the Weissenborn, a 1920s Hawaiian lap slide guitar.

Best known for his single "Steal My Kisses," Harper's highly acclaimed solo debut in 1994 combined a wide range of classic sounds-rock, blues, soul, funk, folk, and reggae. Imagine an impressive hybrid of Lenny Kravitz, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Prince, Dave Matthews, and Jack Johnson. Harper's versatility is also evident as a guest artist on Higher Ground, the 2002 album from the Blind Boys of Alabama—a CD which also features the talents of Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Like those two artists, Harper deftly combines a respect for traditional genres, an appreciation for new sounds, and a love for improvisational musicianship with expressions of faith.

On his latest recording, Diamonds on the Inside, Harper and his band, The Innocent Criminals, are joined by Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the a capella "Picture of Jesus," which sounds like a long-lost cut from Paul Simon's Graceland. "Picture of Jesus" (excerpted above) is a stunning expression of faith from a so-called mainstream artist.

Inspired by the image of Christ on Corcovado Mountain in Rio, "Blessed to Be a Witness" expresses the Lord's sustaining power: "So much sorrow and pain/Still I will not live in vain/Like good questions never asked/Is wisdom wasted on the past/Only by the grace of God go I." The beautifully instrumented "When She Believes" acknowledges God (and Mother Mary) for blessing him with such a wonderful wife. The classic rocker "Everything" can be interpreted as a love letter to his wife or to God: "You're my first thought in the morning when I rise/You're my last thought in the evening when I rest my head at night/You mean everything to me."

Faith is a regular subject in Harper's work, but his private life is another matter. He has been known to smoke marijuana, and his music sometimes includes racy themes of "sexual healing." Perhaps he's since grown out of those tendencies, now that he's a family man. And in interviews, he regularly calls himself a "believer" to whom faith is important. Are these spiritual references in Harper's songs sincere or are they simply done for style? There are many conflicting factors at work concerning Ben Harper, so it's probably best to take Diamonds on the Inside at face value—a delightful crossroads of musical styles that offers some seemingly well-intentioned declarations of faith.

Live
Birds of Pray
(Radioactive)
Anthemic alternative rock

"I don't need no one to tell me about heaven/I look at my daughter and I believe/I don't need no proof when it comes to God and truth/I can see the sunset and I perceive" — from "Heaven"

In a sense, Live is to mainstream music what The Matrix is to the movie industry. Like the films, Live combines loud bombast with striking beauty. The band also boasts big-budget polish and production, due especially to the mixing talents of the great knob-twirler Tom Lord-Alge. Most analogous of all, Live presents a hodgepodge of spiritual beliefs like The Matrix films, with songs that explore Christian themes from time to time.

Together for more than 15 years, Live's quest for faith and truth is fascinating. Though lead singer and lyricist Ed Kowalczyk apparently grew up in a Christian home, he came to resent the religion in the years leading to the formation of Live. With the band's 1991 debut Mental Jewelry, based on the writings of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, Kowalczyk-who had apparently embraced Eastern religion-blasted Christianity in the song, "Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition)."

Rejecting Christianity would not prove permanent, however. The band's 1994 breakthrough sophomore effort, Throwing Copper, marked a seemingly reluctant return to Christian imagery, though offering a few mixed messages in the process-the cover art is an indictment of Christians too pious to show love and compassion. Not until Live's fourth album, 1999's The Distance to Here, was there a seemingly dramatic turnaround in Kowalczyk's beliefs. "Where Fishes Go" is a solid illustration of evangelism, "Run to the Water" a powerful testament of grace and renewal, and "Dance with You" is virtually a prayer of thanks and surrender. Such themes continued to a lesser extent into Live's fifth effort, 2001's V, with such faith-based songs as "Hero of Love" and "Call Me a Fool."

Live's latest, Birds of Pray, isn't quite as faith-focused as the title might imply, but there are some interesting glimpses of faith. "Heaven," excerpted above, is the album's first single and was inspired by the birth of Kowalczyk's daughter. Though some may react to such sentiments as New Age treacle, the additional lyrics suggest a faith strengthened by the evidence of God in creation. In the idealistic (and rather confusing) "The Sanctity of Dreams," Kowalczyk may be hinting at the miracle of Christ's resurrection: "I dream of love and of the empty graveyard." On "What Are We Fighting For?" he uses Christian imagery to decry war: "The crucifix ain't no baseball bat/Tell me what kind of God is that?/Ain't nothing more godless than a war/So what are we fighting for?"

Sensitive listeners beware: Live uses several profanities on each of their albums. They also regularly return to a theme of sexuality—sometimes treated crudely, sometimes with reverence. Birds of Pray may not offer nearly as much spiritual nourishment as The Distance to Here, but if you're looking for songs addressing issues of faith, this is a band to pay attention to. Live's inclination toward exploring spiritual themes has consistently earned them comparisons to U2. It will be interesting to see if their spiritual journey leads them to a point of fully embracing and clearly communicating the gospel.

Daniel Bedingfield
Gotta Get Thru This
(Island)
Programmed Euro pop/R&B

"If only I can get thru this/God, God, gotta help me get thru this" — from "Gotta Get Thru This"

Born in New Zealand and raised in London, 22-year-old Daniel Bedingfield is quickly gaining attention as a production wunderkind. It would be tempting to write him off as the Euro pop equivalent to Justin Timberlake or Aaron Carter, though his sound more resembles pop groups such as Take That and Boyzone. The reality, however, is that he's too talented for such teen pop comparisons.

Bridging together elements of pop, rock, R&B, and dance, Bedingfield doesn't just write and sing his own material, which is already a step ahead of most teen pop artists. He also records it all in his bedroom with a computer and a microphone, playing most of the instruments himself and tweaking the mix later in a professional recording studio. It sounds terrific (testament to today's technology) and it's earned him deserved comparisons to George Michael, Stevie Wonder, Craig David, and Michael Jackson. Bedingfield even pressed and distributed the original CDs of his song "Gotta Get Thru This," a dance-pop hit in clubs on both sides of the Atlantic.

Turns out that Bedingfield's also an outspoken Christian. Depending which bio you read, his parents are either missionaries or social workers. He openly shares his faith in concerts and in some of his music. For example, "Gotta Get Thru This" is essentially a plea to cope with a first-time crush. Okay, so the only spiritual line in the song (excerpted above) is a bit of a stretch. There are still a handful of sweet, unrequited love songs showing remarkable wholesomeness and maturity concerning romance-including two with references to prayer: "If You're Not the One" ("I pray you're the one I build my home with") and "Without the Girl" ("Heaven knows everyday I pray that someday she will belong to me").

Of course, he's not the first mainstream artist to pray for perfect love. Christian listeners are bound to be more impressed with "Blown It Again," which initially seems like a song of reconciliation between friends. It is, but chances are he's referring to a more long-time and heavenly friend: "Diggin' up the heart within me/Dismay is the only feeling I see/I have to say my heart ain't what it could be … You can't live a life if you don't ask why/Such a thing as too much information/Trapped inside this condemnation/I could've told you all my fears all those years/Now I'm ashamed of my ways."

Then there's the gentle acoustic "Honest Questions," which seems inspired by Psalm 63 and/or Isaiah 35. It's stunning to hear a song this faith-based on a mainstream release: "Oh look down and see the tears I've cried, the lives I've lived, the deaths I've died/You died them too, and all for me/You say, 'I will pour my water down upon a thirsty barren land/And streams will flow from the dust of your bruised and broken soul.'"

Most of Gotta Get Thru This is best described as irresistible romantic dance-pop fluff. Especially fun are the infectious dance pop/rock of "Girlfriend" and "Inflate My Ego" (which incorporates Henry Mancini's well-known "Peter Gunn Theme"). Christian listeners will rejoice more in the knowledge that the album is "utterly and completely dedicated to the creator, Yahweh" and that Bedingfield points "with [his] broken fingers toward the only safety I know-greater love hath no man than he …" (both indicated in the liner notes). I get the feeling we'll be hearing more from Daniel Bedingfield inside and outside of Christian music.

Do you have a current "Glimpse of God," an example of perceived spirituality in popular music? Drop us an e-mail with your suggestion, and we'll consider it for future editions.

Glimpses of God (Vol. 1), featuring 2003 Grammy-Award winners Coldplay and Bruce Springsteen. Glimpses of God (Vol. 2), featuring best-sellers Linkin Park and Evanescence.