Most religious music tends to express theological viewpoints that could be described as conservative or traditional. While much of this is beautiful music, it does not provide a musical option when people want to express a faith that is more progressive, inclusive, modern, or liberal.
Although many people experience a progressive type of faith, this type of faith is almost never reflected in music.
Music for a progressive faith needs two components to make it meaningful. These components are not found in popular or traditional religious music (and they are not found in secular music). The first has to do with how faith is defined, and the second has to do with the use of religious metaphor.
Music for a progressive faith focuses on a belief in goodness and beauty, whereas other religious music emphasizes themes of power.
As described on the page, “what is progressive faith,” I define faith as a belief in a type of goodness and beauty that both touches and transcends human experience. Although this definition can be meaningful without using religious terminology, for myself, this definition captures the most important characteristic for how I understand God.
This perspective on faith is different from how God is typically portrayed in mainstream religious music. Most religious music defines God in terms of power. Although there is a long tradition of defining God in this way, this is not how I experience God. Instead, I have the strongest awareness of God when I encounter goodness and beauty in the world, and this inspires me to seek this goodness and beauty, to do things that might promote and sustain it, and to oppose that which destroys it. It leads me to focus on themes of social justice, inclusiveness, showing compassion for people, and concern for the environment. This is how I experience faith, and this is the type of faith that is reflected in my music.
Mainstream Christian music focuses on themes of power.
To provide an example of how themes of power may appear in music, let's consider mainstream Christian music, and specifically, the types of words and phrases that are commonly found in this music. This could include both traditional Christian hymns as well as contemporary Christian music, because similar themes appear in both of these musical styles. In general, three basic themes can be identified in this music, all of which pertain to power.
First, this music focuses on the power of God, and accordingly, it frequently uses words such as: almighty, crown, glory, honor, king, majesty, master, reign, ruler, throne, and victory. Second, this music focuses on how people should respond to a powerful God, and accordingly, it frequently uses words such as: believe, exalt, follow, obey, praise, surrender, and trust. Third, this music focuses on things that believers get from a powerful God, or things believers get when they are loved and favored by a powerful God, and accordingly, it uses words such as: cleanse, comfort, joy, grace, heaven, mercy, pardon, peace, protection, purity, redemption, rest, righteousness, salvation, and sanctification.
While there is a long tradition of music focusing on the power of God, I think there are three possible dangers that may come with an extensive or exclusive focus on this perspective.
1An excessive focus on the power of God can lead to religious ideas that conflict with science. A power is a force that can cause something to happen or stop something from happening. Thus, to the extent that God is defined primarily as a power, God is viewed as a force that can cause or prevent things from happening. This creates a potential dilemma because scientific investigation seeks to understand the forces of cause and effect. This means that science might provide an explanation for the cause of something that was previously attributed to the power of God, or it might find situations where things presumed to be caused by the power of God fail to occur. On the one hand, these types of scientific findings can be viewed as clarifying the processes through which a powerful God acts. On the other hand, these types of findings sometimes become threatening to a faith that understands God primarily in terms of power, and this can lead to a faith perspective that opposes science (or a scientific perspective that opposes faith).
2 An excessive focus on the power of God can foster a type of “us versus them” mentality. When God is defined in terms of power, then it often becomes important to belong to a religious group that gives the appropriate response to a powerful God, and in this way, it is possible to reap the benefits of belonging to the favored group. With this focus, it becomes necessary to define clearly who is in the favored group and who is outside the group. This places an emphasis on the presumed contrast between members of one’s own religious group who have gained the love, mercy, and protection from a powerful God and the people outside this religious group who have not gained this love, mercy, or protection. This, in turn, has the potential to foster a judgmental attitude toward people who choose to remain outside.
3 An excessive focus on the power of God can make it easy for politicians, government leaders, or dictators to manipulate religion and use it to promote their own power. If a leader claims to be on the side of a powerful God, this may enhance the leader’s own appearance of power. If a leader claims to be endorsed by a God who demands obedience – a God who gives rewards and punishments – then it becomes important to be obedient toward the leader as well. In line with my discussion above about “us versus them” mentality, a focus on the power of God can increase feelings of identity and loyalty within one’s own religious group (the group that receives God’s favor and access to God’s power) and increase feelings of antagonism toward people who choose to remain outside the group. Thus, a leader can capitalize on this by claiming to be a member or representative of a religious group and by labeling his or her enemies as being people outside the group. This, in turn, can amplify the group’s feelings of loyalty toward the leader and amplify the group’s antagonism toward the leader’s enemies.Putting all this together, a key risk of defining faith in terms of power is that this defines faith as something that is primarily self-serving. The goal of faith becomes to gain the rewards and avoid the punishments that can be given by a powerful God.
When the focus of music is on the power of God, it tends to portray faith as something that is self-serving.
Most mainstream religious music focuses on this type of faith. It emphasizes the advantages that people gain from faith in a powerful God (for example, gaining peace or going to heaven).
In contrast, when faith is defined as a belief in goodness and beauty, then the focus is placed on what people of faith can do for the world.
Specifically, when faith is defined as a belief in goodness and beauty, it puts the focus on what people can do to find, promote, and sustain goodness and beauty. Music from this perspective is designed to celebrate the places where goodness and beauty are found, grieve over injustice and exploitation, inspire us to show compassion and to embrace human diversity, and marvel at the splendor and complexity of the environment. It is music that sings about the world as we see it now and the world as we hope it will become, not necessarily because a powerful God is going to intervene, but rather, because we have experienced a transcendent type of goodness and beauty, and this in turn has inspired us to act.
A second component of music for a progressive faith has to do with how metaphors are used.
Metaphor plays an essential role in almost all music written to reflect a faith perspective. This is because faith often involves a belief in things that are difficult to define precisely and concretely. For example, someone attempting to describe God might say, “it is as if God is a king on a throne in heaven,” or, “it is as if God is a beautiful blooming flower.” Typically, when people say these things, they do not believe they are providing literal descriptions of God. They do not believe God is actually siting on a literal throne in the sky, or that God is literally a flower.
According to a philosophical tradition called apophatic theology, we cannot perfectly understand God, and although we can describe what God is NOT, we cannot make perfectly true statements describing what God IS. In a similar vein, some theologians have suggested that anything we say about God needs to have an, “as if,” component; in other words, it needs to be a metaphor. We cannot completely and perfectly define God, but we can speak in metaphors that describe our experience of God. Thus, when I say that I experience God as, “goodness and beauty,” this is a metaphor. It is the best way I know to describe my experience of God, but it is not a perfect, complete, and absolute definition of God.
This means that, when music is written to reflect a faith perspective, metaphor is a crucial component. This is a type of music that must be, and should be, filled with metaphor.
Music for a progressive faith uses metaphors that are nontraditional and, intentionally, somewhat ambiguous.
Not all metaphors are the same. Some types of metaphors are traditional and may be perceived has having a relatively clear meaning. Other metaphors are nontraditional and may be perceived as having a more ambiguous meaning. In general, music for a liberal faith will gravitate toward metaphors that are nontraditional and ambiguous.
In contrast, mainstream religious music uses traditional metaphors. These metaphors are drawn from a basic set of metaphors that have been widely used for many years within a given religious tradition. For example, within the Christian tradition, the metaphor of God as a king has been widely used. When a composer includes traditional metaphors in a song, it places the song clearly within a specific religious tradition, and most people within that tradition easily recognize the metaphor and perceive it as meaningful and acceptable. In contrast, if a composer uses a nontraditional metaphor, then the religious tradition to which the song belongs becomes less clear, and there is some risk that people might fail to recognize the metaphor or fail to find the metaphor meaningful or acceptable.
To some extent, people often perceive traditional metaphors as conveying a meaning that is relatively clear and precise, whereas they may perceive nontraditional metaphors as conveying a meaning that is more ambiguous. For example, if I say, “God is a judge,” this could be classified as a traditional metaphor within some traditions, and the meaning of this metaphor may be relatively clear to many people. In contrast, if I say, “God is music,” this is more of a nontraditional metaphor, and the meaning of this metaphor is more ambiguous.
When I write songs for a progressive faith, I tend to use nontraditional and somewhat ambiguous metaphors. One reason for this is that I find this approach more artistic. From my point of view, good art needs to have a degree of ambiguity. A painting that conveys a clear meaning might not be as interesting as a painting that makes people ponder and speculate about its meaning. I would rather invite others to explore an idea than proclaim something to be absolutely true. When the metaphor is nontraditional and somewhat ambiguous, it draws the listener into a dialog. It encourages the listener to think about it, allows the listener to react to it, and it invites the listener to create his or her own meaning.
The parables of Jesus could be good examples of metaphors that utilize ambiguity.
The Christian Bible describes Jesus as telling several parables, and each parable is a story or analogy that can be interpreted in many different ways. For example, in one parable, Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of seeds, but when planted, grows in to the greatest of trees, so that birds make nests in its branches (slight variations of this parable are found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke). This parable has the potential to inspire many different ideas. The Kingdom of God could be a type of community that people create today, something that people experience inside themselves, a future event on earth, or an after-death experience. We could see ourselves in this parable as the person planting the seed, as the seed itself, or as the birds that nest in the tree’s branches. Each one of these options could lead to a multitude of possible conclusions about what the parable means.
The ability of the parable to elicit multiple meanings is precisely the thing that makes this parable good. The parable is a metaphor with ambiguity. This invites us to use it, explore it, and make or own meaning out of it. This type of parable provides a good model for the types of metaphors I seek to employ in my songs.