By Mark Rodgers
It wasn’t just Christmas music that pumped spiritual sentiments through your speakers in December. Four of the biggest songs on the airways were drenched with religious language, but reflecting and possibly furthering the growing sacred/secular split in our country.
Millennials are taking a different spiritual path than any previous generation at their age, and their songs will inevitably reflect this new direction. According to a recent Pew study more are identifying themselves as atheists and fewer are affiliating with religion although still maintain a belief in God. Among those who are affiliated with organized religion, they are more progressive in their views than other generations at their age, although a majority deeply committed in their faith in terms of practice and conviction.
Take Me to Church by Hozier, Sanctified by Rick Ross, Ghost by Ella Henderson and Something in the Water by Carrie Underwood speak of church, prayer, sin, baptism and God. But what they mean, and how their music videos in particular interpret their meanings, reflect the growing diversity of views within the culture at large to institutionalized religion and fervent faith.
Rejection Of Religion. Take Me To Church’s cynicism toward religion is the easiest to decipher, proclaiming that “EverySunday’s getting more bleak; A fresh poison each week; ‘We were born sick,’ you heard them say it.” In contrast, Hozier offers his listeners a different religion: “My church offers no absolutes, She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom’, The only heaven I’ll be sent to, is when I’m alone with you. I was born sick, but I love it.” The music video (with over 78 million views) puts the lyrics in a different context, and focuses on the Russian persecution, presumably with the support of Russian Orthodox Church, of members of the LGBT community. There is a growing segment of Millennials who reject religion of any kind as inherently oppressive, and are explicitly or implicitly embracing atheism.
Tension With Religion. The refrain for Rick Ross’ Sanctified is all Gospel: “There’s a few million angels movin’ around me I just worship thee, for all he’s done for me It’s a new day, I have been born again I’ve been born again, I’ve been born again; In His spirit, and His name; I’m sanctified! Lord I testify; He’s right by my side I believe it be; His word is so clear to me. Yeah, yeah.” But in stark, jarring contrast, Ross is joined by Big Sean and Kanye West to celebrate hedonism through misogynistic profanity-laced verses. It is not clear what Ross is trying to communicate with this approach, other than to possibly affirm faith, while contrasting it with the total depravity of human nature. But I am not convinced … he may be simply be exposing what he sees as religious hypocrisy or religious impotency. Regardless, the song’s tension, it’s dual and conflicting celebrations, reflects that of Millennials and the culture at large.
Ambiguity Toward Religion. In Ghost, Ella Henderson sings “I keep going to the river to pray, ‘Cause I need something that can wash out the pain.” The refrain acknowledges that the deep brokenness she has experienced can be remedied only through a spiritual salve, although without definition and, as the music video (that has 41 million views) shows, not without tension with the religious devotion and possible motivation of her “ghost”/abuser. Religion as a tool for manipulation and abuse, in contrast to faith and prayer as a salve. There is a growing segment of Millennials who affirm faith in God but reject institutional religion and doctrinal certainty. According to the Barna Group, 48% of people ages 18-28 can be considered “post-Christian”. They are spiritual seekers, fluid in their beliefs and affiliations, postmodern in their ability to hold conflicting beliefs.
Embracing God. There is no tension, no ambiguity in Carrie Underwood’s Something in the Water (7.2 mm youtube views), which could easily have been released as a Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) song had there been specific references to Jesus: “I fell on my knees Saying God if you’re there come and rescue me; Felt love pouring down from above; Got washed in the water, washed in the blood and now I’m changed” Underwood’s personal faith has been noted in the past, but songs this explicit are rarely written and recorded by mainstream singers for the mainstream market. Could this portend a growing comfort that faith-affirming content released in the mainstream could have an audience larger than those who narrow their content consumption to faith-only artists and channels?
Songs reflect and shape the society in which we live, and something as foundational an artist’s view of God will certainly be expressed their work. I am encouraged to hear these inner conversations and questions being expressed on the airways rather than restricting them to sacred spaces. Rather than condemn them out of hand, I pray that even the most critical expressions will create the opportunity for those of us who have embraced belief, like Carrie Underwood, to be in conversation with the culture around in response. When society’s views of faith are in flux, honest questions are always good questions to ask.