I have found that significant changes in my life are often preceded by the presence of music. After years of cynicism about the arts, my heart was broken open again while listening to an alternative band’s modern take on hymns. To this day, I don’t understand why, but for almost three months I would play the album daily to find myself not just weeping, but wailing as my soul turned in its grave.
Some of the greatest transformations in my life have come from collisions with music. I decided as an 8 year old kid that I would dedicate my life to music after listening to Michael Jacksons “History” for the first time on Compact Disc, hearing Feist’s “Reminder” and Ryan Adam’s “Heartbreaker” threw me into new explorations of alternative ways of writing, and Ascend The Hills “Hymns” album made me wail and cry almost uncontrollably for three months over the summer of 2010 while I re-met God.
The result of the last of those experiences being my ending a seven year cynicism about the mystical power and importance of music and recording my first EP, ‘Water & Fire’.
After which I’ve never turned back.
Art feels. When it’s done right, it can wrap around the soul with such a welcome embrace that it changes the very fabric of our situations. Maybe not physically, or in space-time, but certainly in the way we move through them. In a world wildly distracted by information and its proliferation, art allows us to remember that we’re human.
At the end of those three months, something deep had moved within me and I decided to record my first EP. A new sound was born in me then, and my life has never been the same.
St. Paul the Apostle, an early incarnator of truth, wrote that we are all God’s ‘masterpiece’ (Ephesians 2:10). This word in Greek is Poiema, the same word we derive our present day ‘poetry’ from. Here, in one short sentence, Paul embraces the arts as a way of explaining the immanent nowness of God—not just in the work of our hands but within and amidst the lot of us. He describes the church and humanity as a living song, an intangible work that oozes and expresses the kingdom of heaven to a broken world in a way that moves beyond just prose alone.
We are, each one of us, that hymn album, living and breathing, reaching deep into every living thing around us.
Songs carry an intangible “thing” about them; it’s what makes them so magnetic. In the same way, as the people of God, we are made to emanate that same intangibility, that same divine attraction and disorienting beauty.
Sadly for us we lost a great recently, but the late Pastor Eugene Peterson was a champion for this way of seeing the kingdom of heaven and said once that poetry has a way of grabbing “for the jugular”, that it “doesn’t so much as tell us something we never knew as bring into recognition what is latent, forgotten, overlooked, or suppressed.” Well, if what St. Paul is saying to the Ephesians is to be taken seriously, then this statement by Peterson could be a helpful way of talking about the church in today’s post-modern, post-Christian, post-church West.
A good song shows rather than tells, that’s what all the greats say, but we’ve spent the better part of a few centuries focusing on the telling. Maybe that’s what we needed in the Modern age, but if the Kingdom of Heaven is to flourish in a world disarmed by post-truths, then maybe we need to help humanity feel again. I’m not just talking about emotions; I’m talking about hope, the imagination, the beauty and the mystery of God, His untellable God-ness.
This isn’t about the arts per se, nor is it about minimizing the important role prose plays in our faith. This is about reminding the church that she is more than what she knows, that she is both prose and poetry, a song that is meant to feel like the kingdom of heaven, to taste and to sound like it.
It may not be a conversation about the arts, but the arts can sure help us remember what it means to be this kind of people.
A song isn’t neat and tidy, it doesn’t always resolve nor offer all the answers, but reaches into the human condition nonetheless, acknowledging pain and sowing hope. Neither Descartes nor Modernism can help us in this journey, only the incarnate God in Christ, who ate with the wrong people and lived the letter so closely he redefined it for eternity.
So, if the church is to regain some sense of beauty and mystery in our present day, if she is to grasp wholeheartedly what it means to live as the poetry of God, then maybe we’re going to need the artists to stand up and lead the way.
And even more importantly, maybe we’re going to need to let them.
By Strahan Coleman
Musician, Poet, Founder of Commoners Communion
Photograph by Joey Samante