Where has all the dark Christian music gone? It doesn’t take much listening to notice how blithe and breezy popular Christian music has become. At the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight, Leah Libresco has run the numbers and found that the lyrics of recent Christian hits skew towards life, light, and grace (as opposed to darkness, death, and sin)—much more so than the older hymn tradition she chose for comparison, shape-note music in the Sacred Harp tradition.
Libresco interviewed theologian Richard Beck about this happy-clappy trend, and he said that contemporary Christian music can “come across as cotton candy and inauthentic,” by not giving darkness or sin the lyrical time of day. Beck thinks the Christians who reject this sort of music have a role in keeping the Church honest. After all, the Bible, though full of Good News, is often notably not perky. The all-joy-all-the-time model is not only insufficiently Biblical, it can leave entire groups of Christians out in the cold:
Beck …identifies one group of Christians who are particularly poorly served by uniformly upbeat themes in worship: “Winter Christians,” a group that Beck describes as having a relationship with God that is more touched by pain, distance or doubt. They can’t recognize themselves in the “Walt Disney-fication” of contemporary Christian music, Beck said, and when their experiences with Christianity aren’t reflected in hymns, they tend to assume that there’s something “wrong or diseased about who they are.” But Winter Christians aren’t alien to Christianity, Beck said: The Bible’s psalms of complaint reflect their struggles.
There is music being made these days that speaks to wintery Christian themes—Eve Tushnet, on our blog, recommended Harrison Lemke’s Fertile Crescent Blues as “a smoke break from the endless Christian pep rally, a lay-me-down instead of yet another pick-me-up.” But there is also a wealth of melancholy music in the pre-acoustic-guitar Christian tradition. A favorite hymn of mine is “O God Our Help In Ages Past” by Isaac Watts and William Croft. This famous tune expresses both an enduring hope in God and an awareness of the terrifying contingency of man in the face of time’s advance.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
The lines above are fairly famous, but other dark stanzas are often cut from the song, perhaps because the compilers of hymnals thought them simply too depressing. Here is one:
Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
Return, ye sons of men:
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.
The message, however, is not one of despair, though it paints a shadowy picture of earthly life. It’s an admonishment to remember the transience of all things save God. He and He alone is “our eternal home”—to everything else we say, this too shall pass. For the poor and poor in spirit, it’s actually a comforting message. We feel ill at ease in the world because the world is not where our hearts should rest. Psalm 90, the basis of the song, travels from fearful awe (“We are consumed by your anger/ and terrified by your indignation”) to a hopeful plea (“Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,/ for as many years as we have seen trouble./ May your deeds be shown to your servants,/ your splendor to their children”). It’s a psalm for all seasons, following a winter believer towards a dream of spring.
The best Christian songs are songs of this journey, songs that acknowledge the exilic nature of the Church in the world. Here we have no lasting home, so our hymns can have the timbre of exile—the grief, the anger, the wrestling with God, the joy that is fierce and defiant rather than safe and smiley. Since becoming Catholic, I have had a special affection for the prayer “Hail Holy Queen,” in which we say: “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” A touching summary of salvation history that shows us for what we are, children of Eve and soldiers of Christ, living as a people ahead of time in a world of entropy.
Shape-note music, highlighted in Libresco’s article as the antithesis of contemporary Jesus-pop, often makes this exilic theme very explicit. Some sample song titles: “Bound for Canaan,” “Panting for Heaven,” “Rocky Road,” “The Promised Land,” “On My Journey Home.” Further, it is not a tame sound. The music is sung at full voice by four blocks of singers facing inwards, so, if you stand at the center to conduct, the sound forms a wave—the wave of time, bearing all its sons away.
Or maybe what it forms is the walls of the dwelling-place God establishes for his people. Attend a shape-note sing sometime (there’s a vibrant community organizing events in many cities) and you might get the sense of human voices manifesting something beyond themselves. But you won’t just be listening: shape-note singing is fully participatory, so everyone present joins in the song. And you may well sing some songs in a minor key, often considered more melancholic or uneasy than songs in a major key. A story (from this book on the tradition) tells of a shape-note singer notorious for his preference for minor songs. A friend asks him if he thinks that there will be any minor music in Heaven, and he replies, “I guess not,” before adding, “but it’ll sure help you get there!”
Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.