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How is Spiritual and Religious Awareness in the Contemporary World Reflected in Popular Music

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Pop music has thrived since the post-war boom in youth culture and is now an established part of our contemporary culture. Spirituality can be defined as that which affects ones inner life or spirit, an incorporeal aspect to life which is often associated with religion. This essay will look at the aspects of spirituality such as the desire for something beyond the self, the search for community, the search for meaning and the expression of love and other emotions, and whether they are reflected in popular music. This essay will look at religious awareness in the contemporary world and how this is reflected in popular music.

Our post-modern society is increasingly one without a shared set of values. Society is isolated in the present with little heritage and a fear or ambivalence of the future[1]. Consumer culture places greater emphasis on ‘things’, personal relationships become devalued.

Average church attendance in the Church of England in 2005 was 988,000[2] every week. CD sales in the UK in 2005 were 33,375,000, and 11,443,000 downloads[3] (with the majority of all purchases made by those aged 25-44), this equates to an average of 861,885 CD and download sales a week.

What these figures don’t tell us is how many people listen to music, and those figures are much higher. Figures from RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research Limited) suggest that in 2008 in the UK 45 million people listen to the radio each week[4], which equates to 90% of the UK population listening to the radio.

The figures also do not reveal the wider context of church attendance versus the purchasing of music. The 0.9 million who attend church regularly are from a larger pool of church attendees, numbering around 1.7 million. Whilst the number of people buying and listening to music comes from a pool of the entire population.

What this means for society in the UK is that people have a far greater exposure to pop music than it does to the church. The two things are not directly linked, but the decline in church attendance since the 1950’s is symptomatic of a society with other distractions of consumerism and leisure (to simplify the issue hugely!), pop music being one of those distractions.

The spiritual and religious awareness in pop music is perhaps inevitable as it reflects the immense changes in society and culture over the last fifty years. It could be argued that the UK has a heritage of Christian belief[5] which expresses itself and organically emerges in the medium of pop music.

Inevitably the picture is more complex than this but the emergence of pop and rock music can perhaps be linked with the erosion of inherited faith and church attendance[6]. Alongside this is how religious awareness is reflected in society at a time when the church appears to be in decline.

Berger, in his book ‘A Rumours of Angels’, writes that the final third of the 20th century can be seen as when ideas of the supernatural and ideas about God ceased to be prevalent in society. Berger contends rather dramatically that ‘God is dead’[7].

Alongside the consumer culture, society is pre-occupied with the ‘natural’, the everyday in which we live and act, rather than the ‘supernatural’ in which religion makes sense of the everyday reality. The rock group Pink Floyd sum this up in their 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon, ‘And all you touch and all you see, is all your life will ever be’.

Modern society is increasingly accepting the ideas of science and rationality, and rejecting the possibility of a supernatural world, becoming increasingly secular. Berger goes on to suggest that church goers are less likely to be looking for salvation and transcendence and more likely to be looking for moral teaching for their children, or attending church as part of their social life[8]. This rejection of the supernatural and the reliance on the here and now is the process of secularisation.

Through our consumer society we have the power to have, to buy anything we want. Benton writes that through this power we have become like gods, we have the promise of happiness through material goods[9]. To have this power we need money, and whilst credit is easy to obtain, in popular culture the fast route to wealth (and happiness) is through achieving fame. With the advent of television programmes such as The X Factor the route to fame is presented as being achievable through pop music. Pop and rock stars are society’s new idols, concert arenas the new cathedrals. So any spiritual and religious content in pop music has a large and receptive audience.

Religion and the spiritual needs of the population are becoming separated from how society is run. The church increasingly does less in terms of government, education and socially within society. This process of secularisation would suggest that the spiritual needs and religious awareness are declining. However, in America where the separation of church and state is written into the constitution, church attendance and religious awareness is very high[10].

There is also evidence to that the figures suggesting a decline in church attendance are misleading, and church attendance is changing and evolving as society does. Many churches saw increased attendance after 11th September and far from being in decline religion is still in demand and is very much resilient[11]. Also, Church of England figure imply that spiritual awareness is growing, in 1987 27% were aware of the presence of God, rising to 38% in 2000[12].

The demand for religion and for people to express their spirituality is still apparent in society; the problem is how people perceive the Church itself. Research has suggested that the church is disconnected from society, and is perceived as out-dated and irrelevant[13].

Society seems to evolve and move away from the church, but this isn’t always the case. Secularisation is a complex idea, and while it is clear that society is changing, human nature doesn’t keep pace with this change and the spiritual needs remain in place. Within secularisation, religious belief and practise is often pushed from the public realm to the private[14], and popular music can be seen as a means by which religion and spirituality re-establishes itself with a legitimate public role.

Consequently, whilst society seems to focus on the individual, popular music often rebels against this to focus on the community and the search for the greater good. The longing for community and the sense of belonging to something greater than oneself is part of the search for spirituality, and this is evident in a lot of popular music.

For example, pop music has always been quick to respond to and reflect current events, and has frequently had an element of social commentary. For example from the early political folk music of Bob Dylan (such as ‘The Times are a Changin’ album from 1964) through to the recent 2003 song by the Black Eyed Peas, ‘Where is the Love’, with its very Christian plea for help:

‘Father, father, father, help us,

Need some guidance from above,

These people got me questioning,

Where is the love?’

Charity records are another example of pop music expressing its social conscience, the first example of this being the Band Aid single Do They Know It’s Christmas in 1984. Band Aid and the subsequent Live Aid was the reaction to famine in Ethiopia and has led to many other charity singles expressing similar concerns about concerns in society.

More generally pop music has been a challenge to established authority, society and the church. Popular music emerged as we know it as Rock and Roll in the 1950’s. Early Rock and Rollers, such as Elvis and Little Richard were inspired by the passion of the American Pentecostal Church, and used the language and tools of the established church to attempt to seek out a new transcendence. Combined with this was the use of strong rhythms and beats which were considered exotic and pagan, originating from African tribes with ritualistic backgrounds[15]. Also the sexual performances and suggestive lyrics were part of an overall social revolution, empowering teenagers and young people and challenging authority.

This challenge to authority was in some cases explicitly anti-Christian. For example, the Bible says to honour your father and mother (Exodus 20:12). But encouraged by popular music, teenagers were going against their parents and finding a new freedom, exploring sex and drugs, with no room for the established church.

One of the results of the social revolution of the 1950’s and 60’s was the growth of individual spiritual exploration away from the inflexible theology of the church. Rather than faith and church attendance being inherited, there has been a growth in spiritual awareness away from the church, such as astrology, and new age and eastern philosophies.

While society seems to be encouraging selfish individualism the above examples show that music can be against this consumerism. There could be said to be a resilience of such spiritual and religious ideas in the recent emergence of charity records and rock bands being increasingly vocal in supporting charities.

What started out as a Godless expression of a rebellious youth is beginning to come full circle, to embrace, express and question Christian faith and theology. Rebellious rock stars can now be the voice of morality and reason within society, such as former punk musician Bob Geldof organising the famine relief of Band Aid, Bono being heavily involved in the politics of the Jubilee 2000 campaign and the lead singer of Australian rock band Midnight Oil being elected to the Australian parliament as minister for the environment.

In pointing to the spiritual there is always the danger of misuse of these ideas within music. In the 1970’s rock bands such as Judas Priest were accused of encouraging Satan worship by allegedly putting backwards messages in their albums. Even today, so called ‘emo’ rock bands are often accused of glorifying self-harm and even suicide. The ‘emo’ (short for ‘emotional rock’) band My Chemical Romance has recently been in the press, the Daily Mail contained the headline, ‘Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of emo’[16], which blamed the ‘sinister teenage craze’ for the suicide of a teenage girl.

The other side to this argument is that even with music which glorifies alienation; a focus is created for those who listen to this type of music, such as those who listen to ‘emo’ music. The music then acts as a point of communal common interest, and far from creating alienation, helps to create communities and serves as a starting point for people to come together.

One of the ways in which contemporary society comes together and attempts to express a sense of belonging within a community which is increasingly isolated is through shared experiences. That may be through a football match, or a pop/rock concert or a nightclub[17]. Despite the isolation of individuals in society there is still a desire to have something in common with others, to be part of something bigger than themselves. In the past the church would have filled this role, but increasingly a sense of community is now expressed at other events, among them those involving popular music.

The person at a rock or pop concert, or a nightclub, may experience a common humanity and a bonding with others in the venue. They may feel something ‘wholly other[18]’ in this experience as separate from reality. This can be seen as displaced transcendence where the pop artist is worshipped. The concert itself can then be seen as religious ritual, with those attending coming out feeling altered, cleansed and uplifted from their experience.

Nightclub culture began to take off in the late 1980’s; Dante describes the movement as almost religious in its meaning and fervour among the youth of the time:

‘The music was the Genesis, the illegal parties were the gospel, and the drugs were the revelation’[19].

Dante goes on to say that the club culture and the associated drug taking was part of a search for something that was missing in their lives, something more than the everyday, that in the short term drugs and dance music seemed to provide.

Dance music and culture is very much concerned with achieving those moments of present-tense ecstasy, through the repetitive beats and ‘loved-up’ lyrics (and sometimes through drugs, usually Ecstasy). This combination of drugs and music combine to produce an exhilarating trance like state, similar to tribal rituals or religious ceremonies. Some have even argued that the night club ‘rave’ is a religious ceremony in itself with the mixing desk as altar and DJ as priest[20] (the dance group Faithless even released a song called God is a DJ).

The sociologist Durkheim writes about and how a person talking to a crowd (which could equally be applied to a musician or DJ) finds the feelings he is expressing are amplified within the crowd, creating a powerful ‘passionate energies’[21]. Durkheim also writes of the idea of ‘collective effervescence’ where a person within a crowd (which again can be applied to a nightclub or concert) becomes part of the ‘other’, something bigger than the individual, and everyone feels ‘transfigured’[22]. This effervescence is similar to what occurs in assembled religious life.

New age philosophies are also reflected in dance music, with raves being held at Stonehenge (until the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill of 1994). The hippy ideals of the 1960’s found new expression in dance music and Ecstasy, psychedelia and mysticism combined to form a new spiritual awareness. Many authors refer to an ‘Archaic Revival’[23] where Neolithic ideas of exploring a drug induced state of consciousness are explored and Christianity is seen as negative and repressive.

One example of this is the British dance group The Shamen, who were interested in shamanism and achieving higher levels of consciousness through their music. Their song Boss Drum contained the words;

‘Healing rhythmic synergy,

Techno tribal and positively primal,

Shamanic anarchistic archaic revival’.

Another of their songs, Ebenezer Goode, became infamous as a thinly veiled celebration of Ecstasy. The underlying theory behind The Shamen (and other dance music) was Terence McKenna’s theory that repetitive beats and certain rhythms could change neurological states and could create telepathic bonds between those listening[24]. The Shamen were probably the most literate of the dance music generation, but they express the spiritual ideals behind a lot of modern dance music.

Dance music has often been associated with drug culture and the use of drugs to achieve transcendence;

‘The search for redemption in rock and roll has concentrated overwhelmingly in the area of altered consciousness brought about by a combination of loud music and psychedelic drugs’[25]

Spiritual experiences whilst under the influences of drugs are largely temporary, they don’t contain any kind of revelation from God, and they don’t answer any of the ‘big’ questions which established religions deal with (such as suffering, death and the mysteries of existence). Dance musician Moby, himself a Christian believes that spirituality in drug and dance culture is an attempt to legitimise the hedonism of the dance lifestyle[26].

Berger writes that secular theologies will always fail, for example in trying to understand suffering and death[27]. Perhaps because of this, the search for spiritual awareness and transcendence will always inevitable attempt to revert to religious ideas, whether intentionally or sub-consciously. It is only religion that can provide the comfort that people ultimately seek in times of trouble or close to death, and pop music reflects this search and the nature of society which tries to reject God but finds it still has that need.

In addition all the things that the church and religion has to offer are now available in a secular format, which is more appealing to modern society (the new and the modern is perceived to be better and of more value than the old and traditional). There are a myriad of ways to explore spirituality, the church no longer has exclusive rights, but spiritual experiences remain important in society, and mankind still has a ‘propensity for awe[28]’.

Western society has become ‘religiously pluralist[29]’; with the expressions of spirituality becoming entwined with public and private life. Hence spiritual ideas have permeated into popular music, expressing spiritual and religious awareness through words, and seeking transcendence through shared experiences and trying to move beyond the ‘natural’ world.

The painter Kandinsky wrote in 1910 about his concerns over materialism in culture, how a materialist society ‘turned life into an evil, senseless game[30]. The logical response to this is that to be truly human is to recognise and seek out the spiritual element of humanity, and one of the ways this happens is through music. The physical form of music is of course a stumbling block here, how do you express the inner workings of your soul in three minute pop song? But this is where the imagination and reflection come into play, music does not merely represent, it actively expresses[31].

Further to this idea is that because music, in the artistic world is not a physical object, like a painting or a book. It is not permanent, is physically insubstantial and therefore independent of the physical world, pointing more to the spiritual. In Christian terms this points to the spiritual body of 1 Corinthians, the body is liberated in the resurrection. Whilst there is bodily involvement in producing and listening to music, it can be said that music in itself is inherently ‘other’ and beyond the physical, pointing to the spiritual.

As spirituality and its expression moved outside the realms of the church, one of the mediums for its exploration became popular music. On a basic level we can see spiritual journeys reflected and explored in the music of various artists within popular music.

It was only in the 16th century that art was recognised to reflect the inner world of the artist, the physical elements of music came to represent the expression of inner emotions[32]. This can certainly be seen in popular music.

Obvious examples of this include The Beatles, as a group and individually, who were both hugely influential in popular culture. The Beatles were associated for a time with the hippy movement of the mid-sixties, for example John Lennon’s LSD inspired song Tomorrow Never Knows (1966) which was concerned with exploring his mental ‘inner space’. The hippy ideology grew out of the social revolution of the early 1960’s and had ideals of ‘free love’, however by 1968 the hippy movement had descended into heroin, and the hippy communes into isolated cults[33].

Whilst George Harrison became disillusioned with hippy ideology and John Lennon became a casualty of LSD drug culture, all of The Beatles became interested in Indian religion and spirituality. This period saw a disseminating of various alternative religious and spiritual ideas, such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, an ancient book from Tibetan Buddhism. Drug culture, the exploration of spirituality and pop music combined in society. The Beatles went on to explore Indian philosophy (for example the song Within You Without You, from Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) and spent time in India itself visiting the Maharishi Mahesh in Rishikesh exploring Hinduism[34].

Bob Dylan similarly explored his spirituality, earlier songs had reflected ideas of Zen Buddhism (such as Ballad of a Thin Man), and also contained elements of his Jewish upbringing alongside existentialist ideology (for example on the Highway 61 Revisited album). Later, his Slow Train Coming album came after Dylan was ‘born again’ and he had spent 3 months studying Christianity. Slow Train Coming and its follow up Saved were criticised for containing too much gospel element and not enough artistic elements of previous albums. Dylan stopped interpreting religious imagery in poetic language and began selling a ‘pre-packed doctrine’[35], an example of where the religious message becomes more important than the music itself, and in doing so the message loses its integrity.

Another example is the rock group U2, who emerged in the late 1970’s rebelling against their church upbringing. Yet they continued to explore their spiritual needs, often employing the strong religious imagery of their childhoods. U2’s lead singer, Bono, said in 1981,

‘I’d like to think that U2 is aggressive, loud and emotional. I think that’s good. I think that the people who I see parallels with are people like John the Baptist or Jeremiah. They were loud, quite aggressive, yet gloryful. And I believe they had an answer and a hope[36]’.

U2 question their faith, reflecting the questioning of society, trying to make sense of their individual spirituality whilst still using some of the ideas and images of established religion. U2’s 1987 song ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is about faith and doubt, and how God cannot be fully known in this lifetime. Their song ‘Fire’ reflects the idea of the Holy Spirit, with lyrics such as, ‘There’s a fire made, when I’m falling over, there’s a fire in me when I call out’. U2 are a good example of spiritual questioning and theological reflection within popular music.

Popular music can be a means by which the ideas of Christian theology can be expressed and explored. As illustrated with the lyrics of U2, music and the arts are a way in which people can relate to theological ideas. Through theological reflection, pop music can bring theology and spiritual ideas and expressions into everyday life.

Another example of this is the Bruce Springsteen album, ‘The Rising’, which was released not long after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. The album focuses on making sense of, and finding a response to the attack, and what emerges are questions of faith and belief tied up in current events and the zeitgeist feelings of a nation coming to terms with a tragedy.

On a more basic level, music itself can be seen to be an expression of God’s love. Begbie writes that music allows the listener to stop and realise that we live in a created world where music can exist and provide pleasure, that sound, rhythm and melody exist and that we have ears and minds to appreciate these things[37]. This doesn’t mean that every piece of music contains implicit religious and spiritual meaning, but it can have that possibility, and using imagination and reflection music can say much about theology and spirituality.

Music can point to above and beyond the material things, and if not towards God, at least in his general direction. Begbie writes, ‘musical sounds become a vehicle for the contemplation of eternal or ideal beauty[38]’. Theologians down the centuries have argued about this, for example Zwingli, the Swiss reformer, saw danger in looking at the spiritual aspect of music for fear of the music itself becoming idolised.

There is no doubt though that elements of spirituality such as basic ideas of love can be seen in popular music. The Song of Songs in the Old Testament is a love poem, but can equally be seen as a being directed to either another human being or towards God. Similarly, many pop songs contain ideas and expressions of love which could be directed at God. For example the Robbie Williams song ‘Let Love Be Your Energy’ reads like a well structured prayer complete with adoration for God, confession, praise and thanksgiving. The words of the chorus are:

‘If you’re willing to change the world,

Let love be your energy,

I’ve got more than I need,

When your love shines down on me’

The concept and reality of Christian love is alive in popular music, the themes of love, salvation and transcendence shining through.

Christian and spiritual ideas then can be seen in popular music, and the spiritual questioning and searching of the individual can be seen reflected in the spiritual journey of the popular musician. On a more explicit level this can be seen in the growth of successful Christian rock and pop artists. Bands such as Delirious? are crossing over into the mainstream pop market and culture.

Openly Christian bands are becoming more successful, for example the female group Mary Mary (named after Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene) had a hit in 2000 with a song called Shackles (Praise You), an open song of praise and adoration, with the lyrics;

‘Take the shackles off my feet so I can dance,

I just wanna praise you….

I once was lost,

But now am found,

I’ve got my feet on solid ground,

Thank you Lord’

Like many American pop stars, Mary Mary learnt to sing in church. But unlike those same stars whose music no longer reflects their upbringing, Mary Mary make no apologies for their faith. Joseph calls this a new type of music, which expresses faith, but is not religious, church related music, ‘It was the Gospel in music, instead of gospel music’[39].

There are also a number of American rock bands who are openly Christian and this is reflected in their lyrics. For example the group Evanesance had a number 1 hit with ‘Bring Me to Life’, about salvation and being called by God, with strong references to John the Baptist.

Within the church itself, church music has evolved to include pop music. During the Reformation the church tried to meet people where they were and use the music of the people. Calvin, Luther and others introduced liturgical transformation where the whole church congregation could sing, rather than just a trained choir. The Reformers adapted popular folk tunes, because this is what the congregations knew how to sing[40].

More recently, in response to the social revolution of the 1950’s and 60’s the church has had to evolve from an inflexible theology to meeting people on their own terms, in their own time and allowing them to come to faith through their own searching and spiritual exploration. As we have seen, the church is perceived as irrelevant because people express their spirituality in differing ways as society has changed. The Alpha course is one example of this, with people meeting outside traditional church service times and being encouraged to think for themselves about their faith journey (there is however still a strong teaching element to Alpha).

Berger writes, ‘In the religious view of reality all phenomena point to that which transcends them, and this transcendence actively impinges from all sides on the empirical sphere of human existence[41]’.

Pete Townsend, guitarist in rock group The Who, said;

‘Why does a certain chord give me a buzz? As soon as you ask the question, you’re on a path’[42].

Joseph writes that pop and rock has, ‘power to transform, engage and illuminate for a generation hungering for spiritual renewal, enlightenment and ultimate meaning’[43].

The search for transcendence seems to be an ongoing theme in popular music, the need for something beyond ourselves. Whether that be the hero worship of the pop idol, or the drug-induced transcendental experience as endorsed by some elements of pop and rock music culture, spiritual and religious awareness will continue to be evident in popular music. The Church would argue that the human race is spiritual in its very nature and that spirituality will always be evident within the realms of human endeavour. The quest to fill the God-shaped hole within ourselves will always be played out in the public arena, with popular music as a source and expression of spirituality and religion.

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