If I learned one thing while considering this topic, it’s that I must never take for granted the privilege of singing praises to the Lord in my own language with my brothers and sisters in Christ. We can sing at an open-air service in public; we can sing at work.
Not only do we understand the words, but so do others who happen to hear us. And in North America, we will not face legalized persecution for doing so. But could I sing in a prison? Could I resist my spiritual enemy while my physical foe was torturing me?
Christians and Musical Martyrdom
Alec Loganbill explained that writing hymns and singing them out loud was not only a way to express faith but even an act of rebellion against oppressors.
Anabaptist music “could be heard everywhere from worship spaces to prison cells to the burning stake. They wrote and sang hymns to declare their faith, memorialize their martyrs, and connect to other believers.”
The Anabaptists are Christians who believe in adult baptism, and they include groups such as the Mennonites, who are known for their choirs.
Today’s Mennonite choral singers consider it a privilege to sing for the Lord, knowing as they do what it has cost previous generations of Christians to sing of their faith in public.
They know what it cost them not to sing during times when they had to pray and worship quietly, secretly, in order to avoid detection by Roman authorities.
Christians and Latin Lyrics
I’m not talking about Ricky Martin or Enrique Iglesias. After Augustine declared Christianity as the official religion of Rome, “Christians spent about 13 centuries unable to have a full voice in their churches. Instead of participating in congregational singing, they were expected to listen to trained choirs singing in a language they didn’t understand (Latin) and to obey clergy chosen without their consent.”
Bonnie Price Lofton wrote that this inspired church participants to devise songs sung directly to the Lord “with no intermediaries. Singing hymns themselves — with understandable words that came from their hearts or directly from the Bible — was one of the worship choices they wished to make.”
As a group, which rejected certain Catholic and Protestant practices, Mennonites were often persecuted. “When imprisoned, many early Mennonites wrote new devotional words for the popular tunes of the day. They sang these songs in their final hours and moments before being executed in torturous ways,” Lofton adds.
Again, music and praise, and suffering were all connected. Somehow, martyrs could find the strength to praise the name of Jesus by singing even as they experienced indescribably torture for his name and glory.
Survival and the Spiritual
As they crossed the sea from Africa to serve “owners” in the United States, slaves developed ways of surviving the atrocity of their situation.
“For the slaves, the spiritual proved to be an ingenious tool used to counter senseless brutality and the denial of personhood.” Music gave them “resilience [...] In the spirituals, slaves sang out their struggle, weariness, loneliness, sorrow, hope and determination for a new and better life.”
Dr. Donna M. Cox described the rhythms and patterns of spirituals, and songs, which explore oppression and resistance, hope and despair.
Her description of these songs makes me think of the Psalms, which are despairing one minute and full of praise and hope the next: “‘glory, hallelujah’ interjected after the text, ‘nobody knows the trouble I see.’”
These songs also expressed the equality which white men and women in America had failed to recognize between themselves and their newly purchased slaves. “I’ve got shoes. You’ve got shoes. All God’s children got shoes. When I get to heaven, I'm gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God’s heaven.”
Dr. Cox insists that, instead of anger, these songs “voice an unwavering belief in their own humanity and attest to an abiding faith in the ultimate triumph of good over systemic evil.”
Finally, these songs (for all oppressed groups) were a signal to one another. They lifted one another up by expressing hope and reminding one another of where that hope comes from. Singing was a selfless act of rebellion and support for fellow sufferers.
I have certainly sung hymns in order to be lifted up and to join with others who also need to be lifted up. I worship unselfconsciously when I simply start singing, “Holy Spirit, You Are Welcome Here.”
But this is not an act of rebellion against the kind of evils faced by men and women who were transported by force from their homes and sold into slavery.
I have taken the safety of singing to the Lord for granted, not considering how easy it is to praise him when I’m not chained to a ship or imprisoned for my race, religion, or political beliefs.
Listening to David Bowie?
Confused to find a reference to David Bowie in this article? I am a little bit shocked myself, but I just read an article by William Doino Jr. in which he explores Christian themes in Bowie’s music.
I almost think that Bowie was rebelling against the secular world’s extreme approach to all things religious in their taste for music.
It’s as though a musician must be a declared Christian, singing “Jesus” songs in order to wrestle with the gospel. Who thinks like that? Certainly not audiences, for whom the questions Bowie (and other songwriters) address are critical and pervasive.
What if someone, like David Bowie, doesn’t know what he believes? Can he talk about his search, even if he doesn’t conform to the Christian image and sing lyrics taken from Scripture?
He employed a creative way to connect with his listeners and to work out his own thoughts on the issue. “That Bowie’s songs often conveyed an implicit, if not overt, spirituality is a fact mentioned by many who remembered him” (Ibid.).
His message was used by God to save lives, sharing with listeners a kinship in confusion. “Many people are hurting, don’t have the luxury of growing up in stable families, and often find music their only outlet to survive” (Ibid.).
In a sense, Bowie might have been the secular, musical rebel whose work even brought some individuals to Christ. Maybe, through music, the singer himself met with Jesus — we won’t know until we make it to the other side.
There is so much value to discovering these topics embedded in popular music. Many atheists will eschew Christian music, but in mainstream pop culture, they are faced with unexpected questions about the meaning of life.
Some people are uncomfortable asking out loud: “Why are we here? Is there more to life than this? Is there a God? And if so, does he love me?” Whether a deliberate invitation or not, Christ will use our artistic endeavors for his purposes. “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36).
The Music in Me
When I don’t have an opportunity to sing in church for any period of time, I really miss the joy of singing.
We are called to worship in song. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).
This exhortation isn’t just in the New Testament; God always wanted us to sing our praises to him.
The Psalmist wrote, “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!” (95:1-2).
When I sing, even if I’m not rebelling against injustice, I can still be a rebel. Satan wants to redirect my heart towards the world, towards his ugly distractions and poisonous interruptions. He wants my focus to stray from Jesus, and he has his way more often than I would care to admit.
Turn to the Light
But when I sing, I reject Satan; I turn to the light. Do you know what I mean, Christian? Do you ever sing and feel darkness flee from you?
Do you ever discover joy hidden in a tearful surprise, a vibration in your chest as you hold a note: a reminder of the power Christ has to move you when you thought you were too switched off to believe anything you heard from the pastor that day?
Singing and playing music might not be a mighty act of protest and resilience against persecution for most people, but you are telling Satan and the world where your allegiance lies when you sing about your hope in Jesus.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
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