Broken Hallelujahs: the Creative Character of Surrender
If you had peeked inside my bedroom any day after school when I was a young teenager you would have seen me playing one of these (hold up Beatles album)…and again after dinner and before bedtime. Music was such a big part of my life as I grew up. I was an only child in a troubled home, and to get away from it I retreated to my room to listen to music. It gave me solace and took me away into a different place. A place that even now, I can remember, because of how I felt when I heard the music playing. I knew more than the lyrics and every chord - I was a Beatlemaniac who knew that George Harrison was into Indian mysticism when he recorded “Within You, Without You” (although I didn’t have the slightest idea what that mysticism was). I knew that Paul McCartney had written “Martha My Dear” and had named it after his old English sheepdog. And when “Hey Jude” was first played on a radio station – almost certainly WBBQ - in Augusta, I made sure to be in my room to hear it, with the stereo speakers pressed up against my ears as tight as I could hold them.
I also loved Motown, and my cousin Donna and I used to mime and dance to all the Supremes songs, and dance the watusi, the jerk, the mashed potato. At the same time we would sing gospel music in the local Pentecostal and holiness churches as a trio – she sang soprano, I harmonized, and my cousin Harold tearing up the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis – who after all was the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart’s cousin! The sacred and profane never clashed for me, and so today I want to talk about how for many musicians ‘feel the spirit’ as they compose and perform their music.
The title ‘Broken Hallelujahs’ is taken from the book published in 2011 by Christian Scharen, subtitled ‘Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God’. I feel honored to follow the theme of music that Leon Spencer introduced to us two weeks ago. Over the past year and a half of serving this congregation, there may have been sermons that I felt were necessary to preach; some that I thought the congregation may have felt they wanted to hear; but today this is one sermon that I am excited to preach because I want to challenge all of us to listen with our hearts and not our minds!
History of popular music
In 1958,a Catholic youth center newsletter urged kids to ‘smash the records you possess which present a pagan culture and a pagan way of life.’ (Detweiler,126) More and more white teenagers of that time were listening to black music, blues that came from musicians like John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters.
There were plenty of white Christian people in our part of the world who thought that rock and roll was the music of the devil, and there were other people in the music business who made it more palatable when it was sung by white artists like Elvis Presley!
But music is at it most powerful when it has no racial boundaries; According to Brian Ward in his book Just my Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations (U of California 1998), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a gathering of black DJs in Atlanta in 1967, saying : "In a real sense you have paved the way for social and political change by creating a powerful, cultural bridge between black and white.... You introduced youth to that music and created a language of soul and promoted the dances which now sweep across race, class and nation."
Artists as spiritual seekers
Music contains a multitude of spiritual expressions – many artists inhabiting the black music genres, for instance, grew up singing in gospel choirs. While their church attendance may no longer be as steady, their spiritual roots go deep. (Detweiler 130)
The folk music of Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul, and Mary had lyrics that cried out for justice and peace, and their music was performed passionately.
That passion carried over into the message of love expressed in the Flower Power music of the later 60s, and is still going strong in the music of the decades since then. Many musicians find their music is a powerful way to express their beliefs, convictions and search for meaning.
You may know who the Beastie Boys are, and you may not appreciate their music, so it may surprise you to know that Adam Yauch organized the Tibetan Freedom Concerts to raise support and awareness of the plight of Tibetan Buddhists. As a practicing Buddhist he manages to slip dharmic slogans into Beastie Boy songs about parties, rebellion, and not growing up: “every thought in the mind is a planted seed” (Detweiler). Adam Yauch died from cancer last May at the age of 47.
My husband Wil is a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, who has written songs with the themes of alienation, unemployment and despair found in the white working-class urban experience. His song ‘Born in the USA’ was not the big celebratory anthem that Ronald Reagan tried to say it was – in 1984 it was actually a song that told the story of a Vietnam vet who can’t find the American dream in his hometown.
What makes Bruce so revered as a singer-songwriter is that he has never forgotten his roots in New Jersey, and that was brought home to him in the fall of 2001. Springsteen told Rolling Stone magazine that he hadn't thought about the possibility of doing an album about the tragedy of 9/11 until a car stopped next to him a few days after the attacks, and the driver (a fan, someone he didn't know) said simply, "We need you now."
He produced ‘The Rising’ by the next August, and the album’s songs give a patchwork impression of how the attacks affected a variety of people. The title of one song, ‘Empty Sky’, “taps the many emotions triggered by the view of the Manhattan skyline after the Twin Towers fell. Its lyrics describe those who lost relatives and friends on 9/11.”
I woke up this morning I could barely breathe
Just an empty impression In the bed where you used to be
I want a kiss from your lips I want an eye for an eye
I woke up this morning to the empty sky
Many music artists today are spiritual seekers. Sometimes the music that resonates most with us has conflicted song lyrics that mirror competing beliefs within a musician (Detweiler, 130).
Leonard Cohen is a good example of this; he’s a deep thinker who writes and sings about the human condition of brokenness – he does it so well because he’s been there and can still find value in the experience. One of his lyrics (“Anthem”) says, “there are cracks in everything – that’s how the light gets in”.
Cohen felt pulled much of his life by the “ritual and roots of Judaism” (Scharen). His early success faded and personal relationships failed, and by the end of the 1970s Cohen was suffering from depression when he “re-engaged” with his Jewish roots. He said that he felt silenced in all areas of his life, and the only thing that helped was to write down his prayers “to apply to the source of mercy”. So he wrote a book called Book of Mercy, which contained one prayer for each of his 50 years of life.
His next project was an album called Various Positions. He tells a story about what he was like while working out the lyrics for ‘Hallelujah’; he describes himself as being in his underwear, crawling along the carpet in a shabby hotel room, unable to get a verse just right.
Once he had gone through the agony and triumph of creating his songs, he realized that the fading of his initial popularity actually gave him freedom from the ego’s expectation – but he had a hard time getting the record label to trust his commercial viability. The president of Columbia Records said, “Look Leonard, we know you’re great but we just don’t know if you’re any good” (Scharen). The album was released in the US 6 years after its European release, and has some of his best-known songs including ‘Hallelujah’, which is Hebrew for Praise God. Two cover versions of the song were Top 10 hits, one by a contestant on ‘American Idol’.
The song draws upon a variety of Biblical images and figures – King David, Samson, the Creator, the Book of Exodus. Its message is that ‘we’re able to raise a broken Hallelujah – Praise God! - because of what God has done for us’ and not what we can do ourselves, because there is no perfection in this world. We all have broken hearts and broken lives, but that is no excuse for anyone; on the contrary, we need to stand up and say Hallelujah under those circumstances (Scharen).
Another Cohen song, ‘If It Be Your Will’, captures this mood and brokenness becomes part of a prayer: “If it be your will that I speak no more, and my voice be still as it was before, I will speak no more, I shall abide until I am spoken for, if it be your will.” (Scharen) The lyrics borrow from the Kol Nidre, which is a prayer recited for the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur: “May it therefore be your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, to forgive us all our sins, to pardon all our iniquities, to grant us atonement for all our transgressions.” (Scharen) For the documentary about Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man, the narrative flows through a concert featuring not only Cohen but musicians like Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave and U2. But a little-known transgender artist named Antony stole the show with his rendition of ‘If It Be Your Will’. [VIDEO]
The music of the Icelandic group Sigur Rós has been called ‘postrock’ and described as ‘the soundtrack of heaven or music from God’. Yet the group members are not professing religious believers; but they use historically religious forms, such as a sung mass performed in a church with Latin words, in songs like ‘Credo’. And in a 2005 interview, they said, “We are not trying to be spiritual or anything. We are making music that moves people. Trying, you know, we want to do that. You know, that people get something out of it. Maybe that is spiritual!”(Scharen) They also invented their own language, which they call ‘Hopelandic’ to convey ideas about life…listeners cannot understand but they interpret beginning with feeling, not thinking. The song you heard if you came in during the prelude is called Ára Bátur (‘Row Boat’), and some of the lyrics are:
“You tried everything. Yes, a thousand times, experienced enough, been through enough, but you it was who let everything into my heart, and you it was who once again, awoke my spirit.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rcvFWFOsIE )
The music of Sigur Rós can create a mood that is ethereal, angelic. And it has been used in movies such as 127 Hours and Vanilla Sky. There is nothing else like it; it has a fragile majesty (to use a phrase Jonsi from Sigur Rós used for the music of Washington Phillps). It soars and if we surrender to it we can be lifted up, we can soar with it. Their fans on Facebook have one site called ‘Sigur Ros is my religion’ with the rationale “because everyone knows that listening to any album of theirs is, in fact, a spiritual experience.” (Scharen)
Like the language of Hopelandic invented by Sigur Rós, many artists try new things. The imaginative and adventurous nature of exploration, of playing the notes in a way that has never been done before, makes music new. In that way, creativity emerges, because with every new piece, a musician can return to being a beginner. Leonard Cohen once said, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often!” “To let go of all preconceptions and fear of failure, that's the key to creativity” (Jonah Lehrer). Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a veteran performer, says that he strives for that “state of the beginner”: "One needs to constantly remind oneself to play with the abandon of the child who is just learning the cello," Mr. Ma says. "Because why is that kid playing? He is playing for pleasure." (Lehrer)
And when we hear music that pleases us, we want to join in, beat the rhythm, we have an instinctive, emotional reaction to it. It “sets off our imagination and takes us to a different place” – we surrender to it.
C.S. Lewis once said that “we must in some form surrender to a work of art if we are to understand whether it’s any good” (Detweiler) What did he mean by that? I think surrender is when we lay aside all our preconceptions and judgments. We sometimes use the criterion of taste, is it to our taste, is it in good or bad taste. We can be what Christian Scharen calls ‘cultural Puritans’ who have constricted imaginations. Scharen says that God gets terribly small when we use a checklist as a way to make judgments instead of seeking to understand another. When we surrender we let the artist’s point of view take center stage. We surrender what limits us, whether it be our age, class, gender, our likes or prejudices – surrendering makes us vulnerable, in just the way as we give over our hearts to those we love.
And so I come to the last and maybe most challenging example of music and the creative character of surrender: the song ‘Jesus Walks’ by Kanye West. The music video shows us people who are swept up into drug deals, poverty, violence, incarceration – all issues of race and class that plague this country.
Kanye West claims that Jesus walks with all these people. That is the heart of the Gospel, the good news that Jesus preached and lived. [VIDEO]
The sample music behind Kanye’s rap is “Walk with me” from the ARC Gospel Choir, whose members are recovering from addictions. Kanye has the presence of mind to criticize the media, because the powers that be of the music industry welcome songs about guns and sex, but if he sings about God they won’t play his music. “Dangerous topics fraught with tensions and challenges…are where people live” (Scharen)…people who have lost all hope but still want God to show them the way, are all around us. Kanye West was able to step inside their shoes and express their brokenness: this ability to sing for the outcasts of our society could be what the Apostle Paul was writing about in his Letter to the Romans (8:26): “God does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.” (Scharen)
The author Christian Scharen looks to the Second Book of Corinthians in valuing the spiritual aspect of what these songs are telling us: “God has opened our ears so that we can listen to what God is listening to – bending an ear to the cries of love and loss, sorrow and suffering, and moving in the midst of them to witness and join God’s work of new creation” (2 Cor 5).
This coming week is one when surrender is very much on the minds of Christians. Today is Palm Sunday, marking the triumphant entry of Jesus and his followers into Jerusalem. By the end of Holy Week Good Friday recalls the surrender of Jesus to his fate and the bewilderment of his followers when he is crucified. By this time next Sunday the joy of Easter morning marks a new beginning, new possibilities. Out of the depth of surrender and death comes hope and new life…an age-old motif.
But no matter what your religious perspective, music can help in the work of new creation, when we truly listen and surrender to its fragile majesty, when we create a space for our hearts to respond in love to the world and to the possibilities all around us. Music still makes me feel like that young teenage girl in her room, finding solace in a song that was written not for me, but for and by someone who found powerful expression in surrendering to the creative process. Some of the music we’ve explored today is transcendent in its beauty, some of it is eye-opening and challenging. All of it requires us to surrender to our feelings, something not usually asked of us in our UU worship services! But if we don’t acknowledge the emotion behind the music, how can we possibly hope to understand the “contemporary spiritual search for meaning and purpose” (Scharen)?
May it be so, Blessed Be, AMEN.
The Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6tV11acSRk
Cohen, Leonard. “Poem 50” from Book of Mercy (1984).
Detweiler, Craig and Taylor, Barry. A Matrix of Meanings (2003).
Lehrer, Jonah. “How To Be Creative.” The Saturday Essay. The Wall Street Journal http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203370604577265632205015846.html
Scharen, Christian. Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God (2011).
Sigur Rós. “Ára Bátur” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rcvFWFOsIE
Springsteen, Bruce. “The Rising” lyrics, http://classicrock.about.com/od/artistsnz/tp/The-Rising.htm
Ward, Brian. Just my Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations (1998).
West, Kanye. “Jesus Walks” •http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYF7H_fpc-g