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Without curling up in a ball

Looking for truth in popular music

by Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas

I’m willing to admit that, when I was younger, my favorite band was Audio Adrenaline. For me at that time, the band offered the perfect blend of “rebellious” rock music and overtly evangelical lyricism. Eventually, though, I started craving something deeper, something with less explicit proselytizing and subtler poetry. A song that declares “Everywhere I go I can see / I’m not the only one / Moving, moving to Jesus” just doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

So I set out to discover music that I could sink my teeth into: meaningful lyrics with instrumental virtuosity to match. I came across a range of artists whose music, though not marketed as “Christian,” still probed matters of spiritual significance. There was Johnny Cash, who asked questions about repentance and redemption; Bob Dylan, whose work explored salvation and struggles with faith; Sufjan Stevens, who contemplated ideas ranging from the Incarnation to spiritual emptiness. And these guys know a little something about being both profound and truthful. Consider Stevens’s song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” an uncompromising portrait of the infamous serial killer that concludes with Stevens’ humble confession that “In my best behavior / I am really just like him.” For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

As I delved further into the realm of pop culture, advice on how to thoughtfully and faithfully do so came from a number of sources: books by respected Christian writers, seminars and lectures by educated professors, insightful conversations with friends and spiritual mentors.

Now I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’ve hardly reconciled faith and pop culture. But I think I’ve found a way to follow the Biblical mandate of being “in the world but not of the world” without curling up in a ball and hiding in the corner. I’ve learned to look through spiritual eyes at the abundance of art in our world, seeking out messages of truth and faith in works that may or may not be expressly Christian.

Recently, I attended a conference on faith and music at Calvin College during which award-winning Christian writer Lauren Winner spoke about the relationship between art and spirituality: “We cannot fully represent the light without showing the darkness first.” We’re all sinners and, as such, we must learn to acknowledge the fallen-ness of humanity—even in art. When we do that, God speaks into our brokenness, revealing His truth and wholeness.

If nothing else, my journey into popular music has taught me to always ask myself this question: unless I can be honest about my own struggles with sin, do my faith and my salvation have any power at all? I try to remind myself that we all fall short of the glory of God—and we all have something to learn from one another.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2007 issue of In Part magazine.

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