Seeking the Full Spectrum

Before I tell you why you should like the band Sons of Korah and their work, some background: I’m an amateur musician. I led a string quartet for profit doing weddings as a violinist in college. Once upon a time I assisted with vocals and violin for the modern mass at my local Novus-Ordo-only Catholic Church at a service complete with drums, guitars, mandolin, and frequently a jazz-style black dreadlocks-wearing pianist named Yeshua (Don’t shoot me, my traddy Catholic brothers; I wouldn’t do so today). I played fiddle for a country band that played in bars and other similar venues in Texas also in college (Our signature song was “Silver Tambourine”) before I put the quartet together. Probably due to my experiences, I have eclectic taste in music.

One critique I have of most modern Christian music such as you hear on Orlando’s “Positive Hits Z88.3” for example is that the music is too focused upon the emotional experience of the worshipper, or describes God with the term “Holy” or “Awesome” without ever really unpacking what that means–likely because doing so would ruin the7c26711d1d94626fac58a9ed392c3ecbir market segmentation, to analyze the motivations at work cynically. Emotionalism and abstraction tend to have the net effect of turning music intended for worship or spiritual catechesis into mere entertainment, intended not for God’s ears but just for the congregation or audience’s. Not only is this a disservice to the Faithful, but it plays into the hands of the critics of religion, because indeed it makes religion into nothing more than Marx’s “opiate of the Masses” rather than the honest communion between Man and his Maker.

This is analogous to the Prayers of the Faithful you often hear in churches where the representative prays for God to “open our hearts to [insert behavior that the Church wishes the congregation to do more of].” Whether it’s giving money for a program, being more friendly to gays, or being okay with illegal immigrants stealing from and further overburdening a welfare system they didn’t pay into, the “prayer” wasn’t really to God, but to the people listening. It’s a subtle attempt to coerce the congregation under the guise of God’s sovereign Will. Like entertainment-oriented “worship” music about “God”, it’s a perversion of what it purports to be. But I digress.

Really, should I perpetually be uplifted specifically with clappy-happy “positive Christian hits”? What modern Christian music do we play in Lent to access that season’s emotions, if such a season is even appropriate according to the worldview of the station’s DJ? There are exceptions:

But you won’t hear them often on the radio.

Maybe I would like to weep at times, or simply be shocked and in awe over something that transcends my capability to fully appreciate.

And sometimes I do come across modern music that causes me to inwardly rejoice this way.

On the other hand, maybe I should be warned by stories of calamity and misplaced priorities. (No, “Jesus Take the Wheel” does not quite do it for me, although it is at least different.) We get enough of that in everyday reality, you say? Perhaps, but should not music reflect the highs and the lows of spiritual life and suffuse them with tonal beauty, redeem them, validate them?

And, what about when that backstabbing jerk at work just got another promotion and God appears not to see? What about when that political candidate just got another pass when he or she should be wearing a striped jumpsuit? Aren’t there times when righteous anger is appropriate?

No, the positive hits radio station is not going to provide musical expression to these yearnings of the soul for Justice and terrible Vengeance, or enter into the sadness and hopelessness of poverty, or frankly give listeners access to many of the other righteous emotions on the spectrum of the human heart. (You might even start believing these emotions are inherently sinful, and I’m sure many modern pastors might tell you that you need to turn that frown upside down or risk God’s displeasure.) While I agree that brooding over and feeding these emotions until they consume happiness is unhealthy–we are after all “more than conquerors,” according to St. Paul–yet they have their correct place. God gave them to us to spur us to the correct action, whether it is casting the merchants and money-changers out of the temple, or falling down to beg God’s intercession, and they should be expressed in our music, whether in the Church or outside the Church.

The Solution? Radical return to the Scriptures as the lyrical source of our popular Christian music.

Enter The Sons of Korah

Sons of Korah is an Australian-based band that has been around since the 90s, but I only discovered this past year. They have interpreted over 50 of the 150 Psalms into modern music usually using fairly close translations to the original text. In so doing, they eliminate much of the tendency to shy away from certain spiritual topics, like God’s vengeance, or the blessing of having a large family, or the lie that is the prosperity “Gospel”. I was especially impressed with what they did with Psalm 95:

I might have expected them to hold off on the conclusion, and admittedly they do conclude on a more positive note by returning to the original theme of the song, but they faithfully communicated the warning at the conclusion of the original Psalm, which is kind of a “downer”: “Don’t be like Moses’ Israelites, because I wiped them out to a man in the Sinai Desert when they doubted me, and they never saw the Promised Land.”

Sons of Korah is not your average Christian band. They aren’t afraid to hit the impreccatory Psalms either:

I appreciate the completeness of most of SoK’s renderings of the Psalms because textual faithfulness helps us better connect with God through His written word and protects us from the filters we often unconsciously place on God and our understanding of Him because of the prejudices of our flawed secular culture that condition our selections and interpretation. They’re not always perfect, but I can forgive a bit of musical license usually taken for the sake of phrasing according to the melodic frame they’ve chosen rather than obvious unwillingness to speak aloud some politically incorrect infallible text (which is better than the modern Catholic Lectionary can boast, I am sorry to tell those of you who use it and are not aware of its strategic omissions).

The music of Sons of Korah is one of those song-forms we were discussing in the comments of Benedict Augustine’s excellent article “The Plague of Bad Church Music“. Namely, the music of Sons of Korah is inappropriate for use in a traditional liturgical worship service, but fantastic for non-liturgical Christian music, would be great for Youth Gatherings outside the Sanctuary, and useful for personal meditation and catechesis, which is how I listen to it, usually during my morning and evening commutes.

A Bonus You Can Give Yourself

For those with modest sound editing ability, I might suggest you follow my lead by modifying the mp3s or CD tracks slightly. Using the GarageBand application on my MacBook, I did a simple but powerful thing. I spoke the number and opening line of the Psalm at the beginning and end of the audio track: “Psalm 94: O God Who Avenges”. By doing this I created what is known as a memory hook. As you probably know, once you’ve listened to a CD numerous times, you automatically know what track comes next. Likewise, by creating these modified tracks I’ve been able to substantially increase my ability to cite and recognize the precise source of many pieces of scripture.

For example when Father Holiday interjected “He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust,” into his homily a few weeks ago, I instantly knew he was referencing Psalm 103 because I had a song-version of 103 rolling around somewhere in or interacting with my temporal lobe that I had listened to with the Psalm number included before and after the music. And this is the level of scriptural understanding and better that educated people once reliably possessed of the entire Bible even within living memory, because they were so thoroughly formed by the scriptures. (Follow that link for a great story.)

This kind of mastery is not only didactically useful, but rhetorically powerful and will cause someone with whom you are discussing Scripture to realize your seriousness and level of devotion which will (let’s hope) make them more likely to give you a fair hearing: this is the classical appeal to Ethos. Chapter-and-verse memorization is less and less common even in conservative Protestant circles, and has been sadly lacking in young and old Catholics alike and even in the priesthood. It is time for a return. There are many musical sources you can use besides SoK. For example, I’ve annotated all of Handel’s Messiah this way, as well as other scriptural works. The results after a few months will probably amaze you once you get twenty or thirty songs into your rotation: make sure they’re catchy, though. If they’re boring or poorly executed, it won’t work. Your brain knows what it likes and selectively remembers that.

Eventually you can start testing yourself with a pen and paper to see what you can write down, and correct inevitable signal degradation as your brain garbles the memories of the Scripture if you haven’t heard it in awhile. This can be particularly satisfying, as it is taking stock of your human limitations and combatting them. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” and all that.

Creating a Culture

While I disagree with some of Tony Juarez’ recent 2-part article, in that I think it does matter who you vote for in the upcoming Presidential election, and I think Trump is clearly less problematic than Clinton so I urge American readers to vote for him, I have to agree with Juarez that Christians have lost and are losing cultural ground. We are no longer mainstream. Neither of the candidates is a good representative of Christianity or of strictly limited government that functions on the smallest, most local and least-centralized level possible, which represent the character and the governmental style we actually want, respectively. Both candidates will send us further in the wrong direction, though one clearly further than the other, as even if Trump were to completely betray his right-leaning promises that Cruz finds so crucial, he will make clear in victory that such a message and platform are electable (indeed, elected). But virtually all of Clinton’s objectives are poison to the Republic.

If the American culture is totally poison and toxic to Christian spiritual formation, and it is, this indeed necessitates a certain amount of retreat from the culture, turning off the TV as I have advised before, and the development of new Christian media for the catechesis and benefit of God’s people. Sons of Korah can be part of that Renaissance, and I thank God for the work they’ve done over the last few decades that I’m only just learning of and from. Check them out, and support their work!

I would enjoy and profit from hearing of other groups you are familiar with that appear to be moving Christian music away from entertainment and towards worship, scripture, and catechesis in the comments.