On non-religious religious music

My high school political science teacher posted this, from Ray Ortlund:

Now and then a commenter asks why I post music videos that are not devoted to God. Most inquiries are courteous. A few are not. In any case, here is my answer.

I  believe in common grace. John Calvin taught me that it is God who lavishes giftedness on his human race. We may therefore enjoy it wherever we encounter it, with gratitude to God (Institutes 2.2.15).

That gives me three categories of music — since music is what we’re talking about here. First, music devoted to God.  Hopefully, this is great music everyone will fall in love with. Second, music opposing God. Hopefully, this will be rotten music people cannot stand. Third, music neither devoted to God nor opposing God. If it happens to be good music, by God’s common grace, I for one will enjoy it. Good music does not have to be devoted to God for me to be okay with it — though, if it were devoted to God, I’d be thrilled.

One thing I love about the gospel is its promise of the new heaven and new earth. In eternity, God will not delete all the culture-creating we’ve done throughout human history; he will redeem it. The Bible says that, in the New Jerusalem above, “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into [the holy city]. … They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  But nothing unclean will ever enter it” (Revelation 21:24-27).

The glory and honor of human cultures — the music, the clothing, the literature, the dance, the languages, the customs, the humor, the traditions, and so forth — it will be cleansed and brought in forever. So Eric Clapton’s blues guitar, for example, is a preview of coming attractions. The blues will be brought into heaven. But there it will be even better, and fully devoted to God. It will finally be perfect.

I hope and pray Eric himself will be there too.

The aforementioned Clapton writes in his excellent autobiography that when “Clapton Is God” signs started appearing in Britain it made him feel very uncomfortable. For being on the short list of greatest rock guitarists of all time, Clapton doesn’t appear to have been overwhelmed by his own ego.

But don’t believe me, read Teilhard de Chardin:

I knew a little bit about his professional career but I knew nothing about his personal life. However, when I started researching for the readings for this week I came across a fascinating homily by Fr. Ron Rolheiser that is available from St. Louis University.  The homily is a summary of Eric Clapton’s autobiography (Eric Clapton, The Autobiography, N.Y., Random House, 2007) and his journey from fame, self-destructive behavior using drugs, alcohol and casual sex to hide inner pain and then a surrender of the ego to have a relationship with God.  I encourage you to read the entire homily here, but set forth below is an extended summary:

“Clapton tells his story with a wonderful intelligence and disarming self-effacement. This isn’t a cheap celebrity, ego-trumpeting book, but a story of art, youth, restlessness, search, falling, near-disaster, and life-saving conversion. And its real interest lies exactly in that latter element since, as Heather King puts it, sin isn’t interesting but conversion is.

Clapton fans won’t be disappointed either at how seriously he takes his art. Throughout his whole career, however fuzzy his head may have been about other things, he was always clear and single-minded about his art, the blues, willingly sacrificing popularity and money for the sake of his craft. For him, art is pure, something near to God, and is meant always to remain pure. His words: “For me, the most trustworthy vehicle for spirituality had always proven to be music. It cannot be manipulated, or politicized, and when it is, that becomes immediately obvious.”

Those are the words of a good artist, but his real struggle was never with art but with his obsessions, addictions, ego, and sobriety.

Success came to him early and the world of rock-and-roll bathed him in a culture of alcohol, drugs, and irresponsibility. He was soon an addict, with everything in his life other than his music spinning out of control. Eventually grace intervened and, during a second trip to an alcoholic clinic, he found grace and sobriety. Here are his own words:

Nevertheless, I stumbled through my month in treatment much as I had done the first time, just ticking off the days, hoping that something would change in me without me having to do much about it. Then one day, as my visit was drawing to an end, a panic hit me, and I realized that in fact nothing had changed in me, and that I was going back out into the world again completely unprotected. The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time. It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair.

At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room, I begged for help. I had no idea who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with. Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and getting down on my knees, I surrendered.

Within a few days I realized that something had happened for me. An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that’s true, but there was much more to it than that. I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in. From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night to express my gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray and with my ego, this is the most I can do.

If you are asking me why I do all of this, I will tell you … because it works, as simple as that. In all this time that I have been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. …. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.

It is interesting to note how popular artists have managed over the years to insert religious messages into their music in varying degrees of subtlety. The most common current example is U2, but there are others. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash are two artists who managed to chart on pop, country and religious music charts.



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