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Glimpses of God (Vol. 1)

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier and Andy Argyrakis Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Glimpses of God (Vol. 1)
Exploring the increasing tendency toward spiritual longing in today's mainstream music, including Grammy-winning albums from Bruce Springsteen and Coldplay.

This feature isn't about "safe music." We're not vouching for the personal faith of the artists listed below, nor are we suggesting that they don't have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

What we are calling attention to is the increased interest in spiritual subject matter in today's popular music outside the Christian subculture. Despite the rise in explicit content within popular music in recent years, there has also been a rise in spiritual soul searching, with artists expressing a longing for something much deeper than the infamous sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

Skeptical? We would be too. But the artists listed here wouldn't be included if we were just highlighting what Christian listeners wanted to hear. Some of these artists do indeed come from a Christian background, offering glimpses of their faith through their craft. Others still don't know Christ, but they certainly know of him — enough to communicate spiritual longing with an honesty that is refreshing.

We present to you our first edition of "Glimpses of God," six of perhaps many current examples of spirituality found in today's mainstream music. Most songwriters will tell you they like to let listeners interpret songs for themselves rather than define their music for them. Decide for yourself from these examples, but we believe that if nothing else, you can use the music of these artists to, as one speaker once put it, "preach from a common pulpit."

Bruce Spingsteen
The Rising
Classic rock

"There's spirits above and behind me, faces gone black, eyes' burnin' bright/May their precious blood bind me Lord, as I stand in your fiery light" — from "The Rising"

Such is the plea from the title cut of Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band's Grammy-winning Best Rock Album, The Rising, a project on which he still reigns supreme as The Boss while also wearing the hats of both a preacher and a peacemaker. Springsteen has frequently woven themes of spirituality in his songwriting — this disc provides deeply personal, spiritually inspired material about September 11 amidst heavy doses of merrymaking rock and roll.

For instance, cuts like "The Fuse," "Worlds Apart," "Empty Sky," and "You're Missing," a quartet of tactful mini-sermons covering mourning, anger, loss, and restoration. In "Further On Up the Road," Springsteen looks to the hope of heaven for comfort in the loss of a friend: "One sunny mornin' we'll rise I know/And I'll meet you further on up the road." He also expresses faith to persevere in "Lonesome Day" by singing, "'This too shall pass,' I'm gonna pray … Let kingdom come, I'm gonna find my way through this lonesome day."

"My City of Ruins" obviously inspires an image of a stricken and wounded New York, but it is actually about Springsteen's New Jersey upbringing, toward which he pleas for restoration and revival — "The church's door thrown open/I can hear the organ's song/But the congregation's gone/My city of ruins." The chorus soon becomes an intercessory prayer as Springsteen cries, "With these hands I pray for the strength, Lord/With these hands I pray for the faith, Lord/With these hands, I pray for your love, Lord."

In fact, the only song that seems to conflict with the other prayerful tracks is the rousing "Mary's Place," a party-styled anthem in keeping with The Boss' classic "Glory Days" in which he sings "I got seven pictures of Buddha/The prophet's on my tongue." Is he singing personally here or in character for the song? Beyond that track, Springsteen steps up his faith awareness throughout the rest of The Rising, providing solace in his words of faith, hope, and restoration.

A Rush of Blood to the Head
Alternative pop/rock

"In my place, in my place were lines that I couldn't change … I was lost, I was lost, crossed lines I shouldn't have crossed … I was scared, I was scared, tired and under-prepared, but I'll wait for it/If you go, if you go and leave me down here on my own, then I'll wait for you." — from "In My Place"

Coldplay's shimmering sophomore effort (a Grammy winner for Best Alternative Music album) is one of those projects that maddeningly blurs many lines, not just between pop and art, but also between songs of earthy love and spiritual yearning. The average listener will surely lean to the former interpretation because of the vagueness of the lyrics, but as with the music of Lifehouse, there seems to be much more at stake here than a simple unrequited crush.

The search for purpose, meaning, and (above all) love, is a recurring theme set-up by the majestic "Politik" — "Give me strength, reserve control/Give me heart and give me soul … but give me love over this." The first radio single, "In My Place" (cited above), is as honest a confessional as any modern worship song or Psalm. The second single, "Clocks," similarly expresses a prodigal's humility and longing to return home — "Lights go out and I can't be saved/Tides that I tried to swim against/Have brought me down upon my knees/Oh, I beg, I beg and plead." The chorus of the song is simply "You are" and the bridge "Nothing else compares."

Strangely enough, "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face" offers the album's most definitive and yet cryptic references to the Almighty: "Ah, when you work it out, I'm worse than you/Yeah, when you work it out I wanted to/Ah, when you work out where to draw the line/Your guess is as good as mine." Perhaps Chris Martin is singing about the fine line between sin and pleasure, stating that everyone is sinful and falls short and that there are no degrees. A few lines later, he sings of God's mercy: "Don't ever say you're on your way down/God gave you style and gave you grace/And put a smile upon your face."

According to various interviews and articles, Chris was raised in a Christian home — the son of a minister, in fact — but has since expressed bewilderment with people's interest in it. Yet A Rush of Blood to the Head is filled with little examples of contrition and redemption. The closing song, "Amsterdam," expresses depression and the state of mind of a man at the end of his rope — literally or figuratively, it's not entirely clear — but someone cuts him loose at the song's end. Is this freedom from depression, or does it refer to a deeper bondage? Much of A Rush of Blood to the Head is abstract enough to leave it open to interpretation, but the themes are just as applicable to matters of faith as they are to matters of the heart.

Mary Star of the Sea
(Martha's Music/Reprise)
Modern/alternative rock

"Jesus, I've taken my cross/All to leave and follow thee/I'm destitute, despised, forsaken/All to leave and follow thee." — from "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea"

When the Smashing Pumpkins died of natural causes in 2000, their inscrutable singer/songwriter Billy Corgan could have easily packed up his instruments and retired from his hectic rock and roll lifestyle with mounds of money in the bank. Instead, he re- teamed with Pumpkins' drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in 2001, adding guitarists Matt Sweeny (Skunk & Chavez) and David Pajo (Slint, Papa M, Tortoise, Stereolab), plus bassist Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle). The alternative rock quintet christened themselves Zwan, making their official major label debut with Mary Star of the Sea, which incorporates melodic pop, arena rock, and sophisticated, spiritually tinged songwriting.

Spiritually tinged? Corgan? Yes, and it's present from the very first verse of the album's first song, "Lyric," in which he wails, "Here comes my faith to carry me on, a faith not ungreat/I fight to stay strong so I stand accused of playing numb/I know it is wrong for I give my strength/I give my heart, take these chains." His reflections may seem to some nothing more than the poetic prowess he's demonstrated with Smashing Pumpkins, but others might interpret lines that come later in the song as pointing toward heaven above — "A lyric, a time, a crusade, a line/One minute, a friend, a road without end."

Religious mentions are equally evasive on "Declarations of Faith" as the front man groans, "So stop laughing and play the muse/This heartache rots that which spills from my heart into your will/ So give in to the rivers' wind/I declare myself, declare myself of faith." Metaphors for earthly love or indications of a higher power?

By far the most intriguing selection is the epic medley of "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea," a song that stirs up bombastic instrumental rage with gargantuan guitars and progressive percussion. The lyrics just don't get more specific than this, with Corgan clearly singing "Jesus, I've taken my cross/All to leave and follow thee." This is later followed by stirring choruses of "Jesus, Jesus … reborn, reborn," which could either refer to spiritual renewal or brand new artist life after the end of the Pumpkins.

This is all pretty stunning coming from a man who once declared God "empty" with the Smashing Pumpkins — a new article from Rolling Stone magazine indicates that Billy was taught to believe this from his father. Still, Corgan is credited in the liner notes under the name "Billy Burke," a well-known evangelistic preacher from Florida, which implies that this could possibly all be tongue-in-cheek. It should also be noted that there is some brief profanity found in the songs "Baby, Let's Rock" and "Yeah." Questions of context aside, these things pale next to the surprisingly uplifting music of Mary Star of the Sea, which provides a masterful balance between the catchy and cathartic.

Dave Matthews Band
Busted Stuff
Progressive acoustic jazz/rock

"I'm on bended knee, I pray, Bartender please/Oh when I was young I didn't think about it/But now I can't get it out of my mind/I'm on bended knee, please father, please" — from "Bartender"

Arguably the second biggest band in the world today behind U2, the Dave Matthews Band has only grown in popularity over the last decade, defying all age and race demographics. In the summer of 2002 they released Busted Stuff, a reworked collection of songs shelved from a previous recording session. Good thing these acoustic jazz/rock tracks didn't slip through the cracks. Much of it ranks with Dave Matthews's strongest work. It's also some of his most deeply felt, soul-searching, and biblically inspired music since 1994's "Christmas Song," which focused on Christ's birth and death.

As the title suggests, recurring themes of brokenness permeate this sobering album, especially in tracks like "Grace Is Gone," "Raven," and the title cut. Amid the loneliness and grief is a buoyant hit single called "Grey Street," in which Dave sings about a young woman who finds herself slowly losing hope in light of a fallen world: "There's an emptiness inside her/And she'd do anything to fill it in/And though it's red blood bleeding from her now/It's more like cold blue ice in her heart." Ignoring Dave's choice in pronoun, most (if they're being honest) can relate to the doubt expressed from some point in their lives — "How she wishes it was different/She prays to God most every night/And though she swears it doesn't listen/There's still a hope in her it might/She says, "I pray, but they fall on deaf ears/Am I supposed to take it on myself to get out of this place?"

It's sad but true that people question this, but there's a shred of hope to build upon here — at least such people are acknowledging the existence of God. "You Never Know" similarly contemplates our existence and whether or not God is still playing a role in our lives. The song "Big Eyed Fish" explores what happens when people out of desperation try to live outside the life they were created for, with a plaintive and prayerful chorus that states, "Oh God, under the weight of life things seem brighter on the other side." One could even interpret the album's other hit single, "Where Are You Going?," as a seeker friendly song: "Where are you going, where do you go?/Are you looking for answers, to questions under the stars?/If along the way you are growing weary, you can rest with me until a brighter day/It's okay."

The most intriguing track on Busted Stuff is the rock jam, "Bartender," a song rife with guilt, a desire for redemption, and several biblical references. Judging from the quote cited above, this seems to be a prayer directed to the One from whom all things flow: "Bartender please, fill my glass for me with the wine you gave Jesus that set him free after three days in the ground … Bartender you see, this wine that's drinking me came from the vine that strung Judas from the devil's tree roots."

Who can say exactly where Dave Matthews is going with all this? I'm not even sure he can, since his own personal beliefs are all over the map (he seems to have been raised Christian and believes in God, but has since embraced many other religious beliefs). What is certain is that these are the words of someone searching for comfort and meaning to this life. Considering the popularity of the band, this album is a tremendous opportunity for Christians to use as a launch pad for a deeper walk with a Savior who makes beauty out of busted stuff.

Robert Randolph & The Family Band
Live At the Wetlands
(Dare/Warner Brothers)
Soulful, bluesy rock jams

"Problems at my home, I've got to press on/Problems on my job, I've got to press on/When I'm down to my last dime, I've got to press on/When I don't have my friends, I've got to press on" — from "Pressing My Way"

Listening to the six extended jam sessions on Live at the Wetlands has an electrifying, almost dizzying effect on listeners, but one that nonetheless sweeps away your cares and worries thanks to Robert Randolph's steel guitar mastery. Perhaps the album's inspiring elements are due in part to Randolph's Christian upbringing at the Pentecostal-based House of God Church in New Jersey where he not only grew in faith, but in steel guitar proficiency. "There's a long history of guys playing at my church, playing lap steels and pedal steels throughout the years," Randolph says. "It's one instrument that you would always see people play there, so I just felt like playing it."

The talented musician and his three equally impressive bandmates (who play drums, bass, and B-3 organ) have helped foster a new interest in the "sacred steel" movement — a fusing of gospel, country, and blues that is slowly finding a new audience. The unique and successful sound has afforded Robert Randolph and co. opportunities to back The Blind Boys of Alabama on their Higher Ground album, tour with John Mayer, and play at the final show in the now defunct New York club for which this disc was named. Throughout the album's 70 minutes of concert footage, the words are few and far between, with the majority of his musings steeped in instrumental jamming.

There are, however, some instances of sung dialogue, such as the aura of unconditional perseverance surrounding "Pressing My Way" (cited above). In addition to the joyful steel guitar and organ solos, the jam soars to new heights when bassist Danyel Morgan lends his very feminine sounding vocals to the mix, sounding as though he were pulled straight from a gospel choir: "I feel like pressing on my way/Through the storm/Through the rain/I feel like pressing my way."

Though tracks such as "Ted's Jam" and "The March" are completely instrumental, they are nonetheless inspirational, putting listeners into a gleeful, perhaps even praiseworthy mood. It's even safe to say, based on video concert footage, that Randolph's playing literally gets people dancing and rejoicing as though they were in a Pentecostal church! "Most of the ministers will tell you that it's wrong, but I'm doing it basically for the instrument," he explains. "So many people don't know what pedal steel is and what you can do with it. It's been hidden for so long. I'm trying to get it out there and make it as well-known as possible." It's a joyful noise indeed.

Tribe of Judah
Exit Elvis
(Spitfire Records)
Heavy modern rock

"You take offense in what I say/Can't have it any other way/We're all subject to the altar that we bow/And to those who disagree/And still believe they can be free/You're just clinging to a rotten sacred cow" — from "Left for Dead"

Tribe of Judah is the latest artistic endeavor of Gary Cherone, the lead singer of the defunct heavy metal band Extreme, who later recorded one album as the lead vocalist of Van Halen. He also happens to be an outspoken Christian, and if you have doubts (like U2's Bono, he's occasionally prone to profanity), listen closely to the content of the songs he's written. Extreme's 1991 hit, "Hole Hearted," is about the search for fulfillment, and in Gary's case, the hole was God-shaped.

The new album re-teams Gary with Extreme bandmates Pat Badger on bass and Mike Mangini on drums, along with guitarist Leo Mellace and keyboardist Steve Ferlazzo. The result is a blend of Extreme's pop-metal bombast with modern industrial electronica — Van Halen or Def Leppard meets Nine Inch Nails. Even more intriguing than the sound, however, is the album's theme.

If you "read behind the lyrics" in the album's liner notes, you'll find a quote by Fyodor Dostoevsky: "If there is no God, then all things are permissible." Pair that phrase with the Apostle Paul's words from 1 Corinthians chapters 6 and 10 ("'Everything is permissible for me' — but not everything is beneficial.") and then listen to Exit Elvis. The opening song, "Left for Dead" (quoted above), argues over man's free will and essentially concludes that there is no room for both God's will and ours. In Rolling Stone magazine, Gary says: "If there is a God, an absolute law, then ultimately man has to be subject to that … in order for man to be free, he would have to put God to death."

From that statement one could view Exit Elvis as a darker It's a Wonderful Life, imagining a world without God, completely run by man — it's not a pretty picture. "Ambiguous Headdress" challenges those who believe that all religions are equal and faith is arbitrary. "Suspension of Disbelief" cynically takes the atheist point of view, declaring that, "heaven's only just a state of mind." A similar theme is expressed in "My Utopia," which is subtitled "anthropolemic" — one who worships human beings.

Fortunately, Exit Elvis is not completely devoid of faith and hope. "East of Paradise" is a strong song of surrender to the Lord: "Take me to another time and place me down upon the water's edge/Tell me that I'm not the only one who fell in over my head/Baptized me in your water/Wash iniquity aside, or sacrifice me at the altar." From the other side of the relationship, "Celibate" seems to be a lonely plea from God for us to return to a relationship with him: "Love me again/Rise from your fall from grace … Return from whence you came/Thirst for this cup again."

If you think these themes would pass over the heads of the average listener or concertgoer, you'd probably be correct. Likewise, most Christian listeners probably won't grasp the cynicism and hypothetical themes. Most, in fact, will have a hard time getting past the intense album cover that sequentially shows a handgun being shoved hard against Gary's neck. The controversial image is an attempt to illustrate the theme of free will and man being the measure of all things. A song of grace that clearly points to the cross would have made for a stronger and more meaningful ending to this seemingly bleak and sometimes (ahem) extreme album, but this is nevertheless challenging and creative music written from a faith-based perspective that recalls the convicting works of Christian artists like Steve Taylor and Mike Roe.

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.Click here to view Glimpses of God (Vol. 2), featuring best-selling artists Linkin Park and Evanescence