Christian truth presented by non-Christian rock artists?! James Lewis takes a look at "spiritual truth given by the spiritually blind".
The first time a song spoke to me of the character of God was when I was listening to Cvndi Lauper's "Time After Time". The chorus reminded me of the patient nature of the father of the Prodigal Son - "...If you're lost you can look/And you will find me/Time after time/If you fall/I will catch you/I will be waiting/Time after time" - a response to the inadequacy and confusion of the person singing the verse. Now no-one would suggest that Cyndi, singer of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and the infamous "She Bop", is a Christian, but nevertheless "Time After Time" was one of a growing number of examples of a record demonstrating spiritual truth given by the spiritually blind.
As pointed out in Cross Rhythms' recent Prophetic Music article, the Spirit can use man/woman love songs as a metaphor for Jesus and his Church. But not all revelation is in the form of metaphor. Some artists in the secular music business seem to have had a touch from God, whether or not they realise this. My particular area of experience is within rock, so apologies if you feel I have left out any important examples - this is not meant to be comprehensive by any means.
Possibly the largest area of revelation within non-Christian music would be of the Ecclesiastes train of thought. Whilst Bruce Springsteen is well known for use of biblical imagery in his songs, his country cousin, John Cougar Mellencamp, and his Canadian counterpart, Bryan Adams, have both delved deeper into the Bible and come up with some very accurate portrayals of life without God or purpose - you might say a painting of the "God-shaped hole within us all".
"Void In My Heart"
John Cougar Mellencamp is probably best known for "Jack And Diane" - a humorous song with a tongue-in-cheek refrain, "Let it rock/Let it roll/Let the Bible Belt come and save my soul", but more recent albums have been more reflective and have contained striking insights into society and the human condition. From 1987's "Lonesome Jubilee"(which contains a passage from Ecclesiastes in the sleeve), "Paper In Fire" warned of the consequences of greed and lust for both the individual and society, whilst "The Real Life" spoke of mid-life crisis and the need for meaning - "I want to live the real life/I want to live life close to the bone/Just because I'm middle-aged that don't mean/I wanna sit around my house and watch TV". Other songs deal with the inability of people to be vulnerable with each other, and the stripping of dignity through un-employment - all issues that Christians should be addressing! 1989's "Big Daddy" contains more insights into life and love and also contains "Void In My Heart" - quite possibly the most poignant song ever to deal with the "God-shaped hole". Mellencamp sings about all the things he's done in his life to try and fill the gap, but ends by saying "God, you made me like I am/Can you heal this restlessness/Will there be a void in my heart/When they carry me out to rest". Let's hope John listens to the answer. If this has you saying, "Well, maybe John's become a Christian now", the next album contained ridiculous advice in the form of "Get A Leg Up", as well as the prophetic "Now More Than Ever" - "Now more than ever/What the world needs is love/Not just a slogan/But the world needs love".
Bryan Adams - most famous for "that" song, as he calls it, is probably almost as well known for "Run To You" - a song where the singer apparently condones adultery, as long as you don't get caught! 1987's "Into The Fire", however, was a considerably more thoughtful work. The title track illustrates the relentless march of time and the futility of hoarding in this life - "You can't take it with you/Into the fire", and "Only The Strong Survive" talks about the need for the support of friends despite the dog-eat-dog world that its title suggests. The reflective fit was no doubt a result of a near-fatal incident while rock-climbing prior to the album -something to make anyone, including a self-confessed atheist/agnostic like Bryan evaluate his priorities in life.
Not all insight given by God, though, is of the negative kind. Many non-Christians have performed excellent "message" songs - some of which have been covered later by Christians - for example "Ball Of Confusion" and "Law Of The Land" by The Temptations. In the rock mould, Free performed some excellent songs - "Wishing Well" was a compassionate warning about destructive escapism. The lyrics were apparently directed at Paul Kossoff, the band's guitarist, who unfortunately didn't heed the rebuke and died aged 25 from sustained drug abuse. Several other songs could fit comfortably within a Christian blues-rock outfit's set, notably "Sail On" - a song of encouragement for when things turn out wrong, and "Little Bit Of Love" - a positive take on reaping and sowing. Remember, you heard it here first!
"Life Beyond The Sky"
Historically there have always been artists who suffer from spiritual schizophrenia - people like Marvin Gaye, Prince, George Jones, Little Richard and MC Hammer, who have been content to sing some wonderful and genuinely inspiring material on one hand, and pornographic sleaze on the other, sometimes even combining both in one song, eg, "Sanctified Lady" originally titled somewhat differently. Jeff Healey, a blind, hard rock/blues guitarist from Canada, has written and sung some very good and perceptive songs. "Life Beyond The Sky" and "Dreams Of Love" combine commentary on social ills with a longing for heaven to put things right. "Dreams Of Love" begins by warning "Angels falling from the skies/The Devil's weaving golden lies". "Life Beyond The Sky" has a chorus thus - "There's a place beyond us all/When you reach it you will never fall/World turns, spirits fly/We'll rise together in a life beyond the sky" and goes on to say "I see all things/From the wings/Of the Eternal Dove". "Heart Of An Angel" deals sympathetically with a girl duped by a preacher and reminds her that the truth is to be followed from within and not by relying on charismatic but insincere conmen. "House That Love Built" is from the view of a prodigal husband who tells himself, "Forget about my past/Forget about my guilt/And go back to the house that love built" after realising he is over "...the riverbed/One step closer to Hell". Shame then, that the same LP contains "Baby's Lookin' Hot" where he asks if his baby thinks "...I'm irresponsible/If my hands start to play with your thighs"! "Evil And Here To Stay" by comparison is a relatively harmless take on the "Mannish Boy" style of bragging endemic to blues (and later, rap), which isn't to be taken too seriously. It is interesting to note, perhaps, that Jeff
J Jeff Healey Band has covered three of John Hiatt's songs, Hiatt of course being a believer.
In a review of the somewhat misguided Giant, I compared the lyrics to Toto and others, saying they used religious imagery as a metaphor for love. Perhaps this was a little unfair. Although most of their early input was spiritually shallow, Toto's last couple of releases have contained some deeper material. 'The Seventh One' included "Only The Children", basically a lament for the innocents who suffer at the hands of adults particularly through the trauma of divorce. "Home Of The Brave" is a plea for continued freedom of expression. But the final album with their original drummer, Jeff Porcaro, who died due to the damage of drug abuse at the beginning of Toto's career, contained "Wings Of Time" and "How Many Times". "Wings Of Time" seems to be a prayer beginning with a confession of failure to a "faithful companion". He goes on to "surrender my heart to the sky" and asks "Lord, give me some peace of mind/Temptation before me/Ahead lies the tower of truth that I must find". "How Many Times", although admitting "...I took some bad advice/I paid too high a price/If I could sell my soul/You know I wouldn't think twice" goes on to ask "How many times do you look for some sign/That there's hope/And your life has some meaning?/Almost every day...Is nothing ever gonna free me from this hell I'm living in?" Jeff Porcaro appeared on a few Christian albums and John Elefante does backing vocals on a track on "Kingdom Of Desire" along with Richard Page (remember Mr Mister and "Kyrie Eleison" and "Broken Wings").
Other people have been definitely interested in Christianity and reflected this in songs that they've written at the time - Cat Stevens, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison - all three have dabbled with Christianity, although not exclusively. Cat Stevens supposedly teetered between Buddhism and Christianity for a while, before becoming a Muslim. Eric Clapton flirted with the Jesus People for a time at the time of Blind Faith, when he wrote the superb "Presence Of The Lord" -covered by Rez. "I have finally found a way to live/Like I never knew before" -unfortunately, it seems he hadn't and subsequently descended into severe alcohol and drug problems. Still, later albums included spirituals like "Jesus Is Coming Soon" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", and much later, after the tragic death of his young son, Eric attributed surviving the trauma to God's strengthening, possibly due to Alcoholics Anonymous' influence.
Van Morrison of course is famous for his spiritual pilgrimage - having been brought up a Jehovah's Witness, he then dabbled with Scientology, Eastern Meditation and other religions. Having said that, Van produced some gems, not least of which is the joyful "Full Force Gale" where he says, "I was lifted by the Lord/Like a full force gale". "Dweller On The Threshold" spoke very strongly to a friend of mine when he was at the point of becoming a Christian. More recently Van has sung convincingly of healing people through Jesus in his surprise hit with Cliff Richard "Whenever God Shines His Light". However when asked if he had embraced Christianity he gave a typically Van remark that did nothing to really confirm his faith - it seems that, for Van the search may not be over yet.
Mike Scott from the Waterboys must be Van Morrison's spiritual offspring - whilst making many references readily recognisable to any Christian - "Church Not Made With Hands", "Spirit" and "Fisherman's Blues", which touches on the Great Day - "...Well I know I shall be loosened/From bonds that hold me fast/And the chains all hung around me/Will fall away at last/And on that fine and fateful day" and which Eden Burning cover live. However Mike has sung with equal interest in Pan and the faeries. Of particular interest to anyone trying to work out his direction is the latest album, 'Dream Harder', on Geffen. A listen would suggest that Mike has just had some sort of conversion experience. The album starts off with Mike proclaiming "...and I'm free at last/All mistakes are in the past/The New Life starts here" and asks "Are you under the mercy/Are you under attack/Are you goin' forward/Or are you going back" and evens encourages us - "Mock the devil/Make him sweat/He hasn't won the battle yet". On the last track, "Good News", he ends by whispering "...and I'm a functioning part/Of the master's plan". Most intriguing of all, though, are "Glastonbury Song" and "The Return Of Pan". In the former he name checks all kinds of folklore before shouting "I just found God/I just found God/Where He always was", and the latter seems to be talking about hedonism (the old man) refusing to die - "...in a thunderstorm/On the very night that Christ was born/A mighty voice cried "Pan is dead'/So live for the Christ as best you can/Pan is dead, long live Pan". The enthusiasm contained here is infectious and I defy anyone to hear this album without it gladdening their heart. Interestingly enough, Mike has been a big fan of CS Lewis for a long time, who used classical mythology like Pan in quite a few of his books.
Other bands fall within the "are-they-aren't-they" category - bands like Hothouse Flowers and the Hooters. Hothouse Flowers are Irish of course, and as such must be reckoned to have been strongly influenced by Catholicism. However, many of their songs speak with more insight than could be expected from those merely brought up in a religious environment. Songs like "Forgiven", "Saved" and the gospel-style "Easier In The Morning" and "Stand Beside Me" -"Stand beside me, God/Stand before me, Stand behind me/So I can follow in love". And a b-side song, "The Seasons Wheel" (co-credited to a "Scott"!) goes as far as to promise "And it's for you my maker/That I spend my mortal days/As you proceed to guide me through this haze". Most of their songs address everyday life with a viewpoint compatible with Christianity, subjects such as giving to charity, escapism, the need to apologise, compassion, the environment, standing by a friend and acting with integrity.
The Hooters are probably the closest American counterparts of the Waterboys and are probably best known in this country for "Satellite" - an extremely acidic attack on TV evangelists/the prosperity gospel from '"One Way Home'. However, other songs have included "All You Zombies", a loping white reggae track using Old Testament examples, Noah and Moses, to blast apathy, concluding "Holy Father/What's the matter?/Where have all your children gone?/Sitting in the dark/Sitting all by themselves/You don't have to hide anymore!". "Heaven Laughs" reminds us that when we say goodbye to someone -"It ain't too far to the other side/Someday soon we will meet again/Say it over and over and over 'til then". "One Way Home", the title track from their second album for CBS, tells the singer, "Hey son, it's time to find the one way home...which direction will you take/On the journey you must make". Rob Hyman from the band in fact co-wrote "Time After Time" -makes you think!
There are many other examples, both in the rock world (Bon Jovi, Chris Rea, World Party) and in other areas as well, but what are we as Christians to make of this? Some Christians are suspicious of anything not on a Christian label, let alone a song by a self declared agnostic or even an atheist. For myself, I find a special joy in stumbling across God in unexpected places. Not that there really should be any unexpected places, because we have a God who consistently refuses to be boxed in - he will touch whom he chooses to touch, and not according to our evangelical formulae. He chose to use Balaam, a man of dubious qualities, to bless Israel and proclaim their place in God's sight to their enemies, the Moabites - who had hired Balaam to curse Israel! I think it was George MacDonald who said, "All truth is God's truth". No one would ask their postman whether or not he was saved before accepting their post - and we should all endeavour to be teachable.
"A Second-Best Alternative?"
Perhaps we should also address here the ghetto of Christian music - I have no problem with releasing albums of exhortation or ministry for Christians, but there is no point in releasing an album to convict people of their need for God on a Christian label - it is preaching to the converted in the most literal sense. Apart from a few people who will hear them at a Christian friend's house, almost all of this will fall on sanctified ears! Gordon Dalbey talks about Alcoholics Anonymous in his book 'Healing The Masculine Soul' as a secular fill-in for a gap un-met by the Church. "The ability of AA to attract men should prompt a profound embarrassment among churchmen, for it reveals our own unwillingness to wield the manly sword of truth ourselves - to be honest about our own brokenness and be tough with one another...I believe that God raised up AA as a second-best alternative to his Church because it proclaims both forgiveness and redemption." Perhaps we should look at the proliferation of message songs written by non-Christians as a reprimand from God, and use it to spur us to reach the world with songs inspired by a direct relationship with God.
This is not to say that we should be praying to release an album of John 3.16 set to music on Sony or Music For Nations - people need songs of integrity and artistic excellence, teaching scriptural precepts to a world in desperate need of guidance beyond the all-pervading relativism.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.