Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen.
That’s been my favourite song for years. Bruce calls it a rock and roll lullaby, and that’s a nice way of describing the song’s dreamlike, iconic landscape. It’s true and quietly mythic at the same time.
Now, religious songs, that’s something else. My favourite is Be Thou My Vision, and while it’s a great hymn in and of itself, it really became a favourite when I heard the Van Morrison version. Because sometimes, no matter how good your church choir might be, sometimes you really need to hear hymns sung in the original Irish.
It’s World Music Day, and while I’m tone deaf and have an ambivalent reaction to the Beatles, I’m fascinated by the use of music in the Bible. We’ve probably done it a disservice by turning it into prose, but that robs it of a power that only music has.
For instance, it’s in the music of the Bible that we often hear the voices of the marginalised; the Magnificat falls into a tradition of women singing about liberation, while elsewhere a Shulammite woman is unapologetic in her celebration of her beauty and sexuality.
Songs seem to give voice to emotions and frustrations and ecstasies that we don’t always associate with the Bible. We’ve lost some of these traditions – we don’t know how to lament in the church (I’m struggling to think of an overtly Christian song as raw as, say, Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’), and some of the songs already mentioned are saturated with radicalism and outspokenness. The Psalms aren’t just the ancient version of a CCM download, they cover a breadth of human experience that can leave us feeling uplifted then battered within the space of a few verses. More importantly, they give us permission, give us the words we need to express some of our deepest hopes and sorrows; the Psalms tell us that we’re not alone.
That connection isn’t just between individuals separated across centuries. Most of the Psalms should be considered corporate worship, hundreds of voices harmonising and praising and crying out. We continue with that tradition today – in some ways it’s bigger than ever – and that’s both a privilege and a danger for worship leaders. At best, leading a corporate act of praise can guide people towards a new encounter with God, or a renewed freedom in worship; at worse it can become performance idolatry. It’s a fine line to walk, a faith saturated in song but with a tendency to worship the music rather than the God it points to. And yet that shouldn’t stop us rediscovering and reinventing some of the great biblical songs.
But worship music can transcend the confines of services. Why else would Amazing Grace be sung by displaced Cherokees walking the Trail of Tears? A Salvation Army brass band in a town centre somewhere can turn a cold, miserable winter’s day into Christmas. Music has power, and so the song of God could change everything:
In his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.
That’s a powerful image of grace. There’s a joy in it, an abandonment, an excitement that can only be expressed with music. The idea of God singing about us is glorious; maybe the use of music here is the only way to convey the enormity of divine grace and love.
Because there are times when only a song will do.