Death, in Music and in Church

Lutheran Forum via the wise Pastor Andy

“It is a strange world where heavy metal bands are brave and truthful and churches are escapist and irrelevant. It hasn’t always been so. The liturgical and hymnic inheritance the church has bequeathed to us is full of forthright, strong expressions of what it means to live in the midst of death…

Dying people are hungry to live. This is the beauty and the secret of the church’s worship. While death is its ultimate subject, the church’s worship teaches victory over death quietly, subliminally, week after week after week so that a culture of eternity is inculcated in the hearts and minds and, yes, the bodies of those who attend. We are prepared incessantly to die while we live. And though we are dying, everyday in the church, we live in the presence of the eternal God.”

I have often maintained this line of thinking as a way to excuse my very dark musical and liturgical tastes: that we should be in the business not of hiding away death from our congregations and our own thoughts, but rather wrestling and grappling with the hurts and realities of loss, of time, and of death… our own finitude. That’s the only way the Christian message makes a whole bunch of sense to me, as a way to slowly make sense of the losses that we experience in the passage of time and each other. Our message cannot mean anything if we try to make faith about cheery ignorance of our real world experiences… Faith comes from a hope that stands in full recognition of pain, and in expectation of a place or state of being that may lay beyond it.

Rainer Maria – Make You Mine (Live)

The band that I miss the most on any given day. The video is authentic to the experience of seeing them: cramped quarters, bad sound, lots of teenagers (and Geoff) screaming along.
Something that I often ponder as listen to the sounds of a crowd almost overwhelming the band: in what ways is this “worship-like” if not worship? Now, it lacks intentionality of doctrine, or purpose, or what have you according to my “Christian Professional” categories, and I think it’s important to say that while Caithlin is wonderful, they’re not worshipping her… but to the lived experience of emotion, community, and connection of those kids in the crowd? It seems like they’re singing their guts out in the joy of song and singing, and not just because it sounds pretty. We do a lot of calling people “unchurched” in my business. We may have to start realizing that plenty of people do some form of “worship” quite often. The role of clergy folks is to learn to translate between our words and songs and rituals and those of the people around us. As a liturgy nerd, its important to occasionally put aside my own judgments about what liturgy is and isn’t, so I can look at what makes various communal actions compelling and engaging.

Starting up again, gender, guidance, and voice.

The semester is off at a great clip. I, of course, celebrated by going to New York for the weekend. And by having a lock-up over how behind I am, you know, in my life. I’ll get over it. Next action, check. Next action, check… and before I know it, I’ll have yet another degree and an imposing job hunt.

Merlin went off on a Pixies and Breeders kick today on his personal site… music that is just inside me, and has been since I was a kid. I think about this a lot: that for a male musician, all the music that I have written or just “heard in my head” had the voice of this under appreciated generation of women in rock and roll from the 80’s and 90’s. The Deals, Kim from Jawbox, Aimee Mann, etc.

While reading through a book about young adults and identity, I came across a whole bunch about the distinctive male-ness and female-ness of various identity development narratives. (Men: Journey/Independence, Women:Integration/Connectedness). It just didn’t ring true for me. Listening to “Gigantic” again, I remembered a teenage feeling that Kim Deal wasn’t a bad role-model at all, and that I wanted to make music like she did, much more than Frank Black.

I remember a professor in college saying something about how she loved a group of poems I had finished because it was like hearing someone figure out how to be a man using poetry. Maybe in my head alone the tone suggested: “it’s like hearing a squirrel invent jam using a graphing calculator.” Nonetheless, I found an authentic voice for myself, one that may please or not on any particular day… but one that was mine for the writing.

As I get to the end of school, I’m asked to again figure out a voice for myself, this time in ministry. Again, the role models are all these tough women who have found their way in the church, sometimes with resistance… just like the women of rock and roll I pay attention to. Again, my integrative task is find my voice in ministry that honors the guidance that they have given me, and that isn’t a clichéd version of what people expect of a “male minister,” (whatever that means.) I don’t know if this has been a process I’ve been highly attentive to, but today I just pondered on it as I smiled and was thankful for women that rock.


Well, so, 31 years ago, Charles Mingus died and I was born. This was:

  • A huge ripoff for the world’s supply of brilliant jazz bassists and composers. I tried, I really did. But… no.
  • A net zero sum for the world’s supply of people who are “eccentric” in their social skills.
  • A huge gain for the world’s supply of ministers AND people who don’t punch trumpet players… if they can help it.

Nonetheless, as I am reminded every birthday, I am reminded again that I should be about the business of making something meaningful from my life. Something passionate, something that is perhaps fleeting, something that is almost certainly imperfect, and yet… something of my world and of myself.

Haitian Fight Song. Because, well, I never knew how much art could do until I heard this song… maybe I was 14? Still amazing.

Indie-Pop God-Talk

I’ve been interviewing at various churches in preparation for my field-study work next year of late. In particular, one of the topics of conversation that I’ve been finding myself engaging has been youth and young adult ministry, and even more specifically, theology in contemporary music. Now, I play in a worship band pretty regularly myself, and often when I mention “theology in contemporary music” people assume that’s what I mean. Praise music has lots of value: it’s uplifting, it is easy to teach to congregations who have a strong tradition of singing and/or liturgical dance, and it’s relatively easy to assemble musicians of varying skill sets who can find a way to make these songs sound good. Yet praise music fails one significant test for me… it fails to value the full range both of human life and the powerful representations available in art. To put it more bluntly: praise music does just what it says… it explicitly praises God. What it fails to do is embrace all the ways in which God may operate in my daily life. It fails to represent my fears and doubts about myself and about God. It does put forth the expectation that the highest goal of art in the worship and praise of God, yet fails to see that the most convincing arguments both for and against faith come from the simple reflection upon moments that feel entirely HUMAN yet are still permeated by a sense of faith.

The best music I have in my life really engages my whole identity and asks theological questions of that identity. (If several of you are already thinking about Pedro the Lion / David Bazan, kudos.) These may not be intentional points of entry for the songwriter! Even though an artist may not have specifically set out with theological goals, they may lead to some intense discussions about theology. It’s going to be a goal of mine in the future to talk about some of those artists and why I think they matter to faith discussions and church.

Review-ish: Why I have not so very much to say.

I had a few topics to bring up soon, but I was distracted by a show hosted at The Space featuring our friend Shara. Her band, My Brightest Diamond, is currently blowing up in a huge way. I can say I once played a poorly amplified, even more poorly played (on my part) show in Brooklyn with some of the early sketches of her current songs, and the extent to which she has matured and come into the full glory of her voice is really incredible. (Not that she could ever hide the natural instrument she has, they don’t make people who can sing like this every day.) Also, Shara’s husband and manager and touring companion and…, James, remains one of the nicest human beings I’ve run into, as well as being kind of inspirational in terms of how to be a steward and supporter of the dreams of one’s spouse. For me, this has been one of the harder things to learn about, so he gets the “my hero” award for the week.

Regardless, the show was a brief encapsulation of why I continue to spend time working at The Space. There were about 70 people there, stunned into silence, and then uproarious applause. We don’t get many “natural” encores at The Space, but this was one for the books. So, my normal trepidation around what constitutes “fair use” of copyrighted material has to lean a little in the saddle while I link to one of the more joyful things ever: Shara reinterpreting Nina Simone. If anyone gets offended, let me know, but for now, I wanted to share this.

Feeling Good