Music Meets George MacDonald

In his essay “The Fantastic Imagination,” George MacDonald responds to the concern that some may read his work and come away with whatever meaning they please. MacDonald writes:

“Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be not a true man, he will draw evil out of the best; we need not mind how he treats any work of art! If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter whether I meant them or not? They are there none the less that I cannot claim putting them there! One difference between God’s work and man’s is, that, while God’s work cannot mean more than he meant, man’s must mean more than he meant.”

MacDonald’s response not only conveys a strong trust in the sovereignty of God, it serves as a reminder that as integrated beings we possess both imagination and reason. These faculties function together, creating narratives that make sense of the material.

George MacDonald.

MacDonald’s assessment is not just true of literature, but of other disciplines and art forms. A crucial part of communicating the scandal of the gospel lies in our ability to articulate it to others. At times, our explanations are technical, a demonstration of our own training; when referencing our most trusted authors, we rest on their authority to make the point for us. However, the intersection between theology and praxis goes unconnected. Religious language, necessary as it is at times, can initially be a barrier to effective communication. How can we infuse everyday conversation with imagination and reason in order to make sense of God’s truth? One way to connect the dots of theology and praxis, a way that involves both the imagination and reason, is through music.

I’m not a musician, but I often wish I were. I’m often amazed by the apparent ease in which the musician uses language to articulate what I have been previously been incapable of saying. It can be liberating to hear something expressed that you’ve always thought to be true, but never had the language to convey it yourself. More than that, meaning arises as new thoughts are connected. Done right, it brings clarity and opens the individual to the possibilities of what could be. To borrow from N.T. Wright, the misuse of something (or neglect for that matter) never negates its proper use.

If MacDonald is right, it does not matter whether or not the musician’s motivation is to explicitly convey spiritual realities. The musician can freely sing of sin, love, death, life, salvation, despair and hope (to name a few), albeit unknowingly at times. The apologist  must then begin the creative work of connecting his own theological language with culturally familiar illustrations (like music), allowing religious truths to be communicated with clarity. This is the work of McDonald’s “true man.”

Mumford and Sons’ album Sigh No More provides a number of examples of what I am suggesting. In the song that bears the album’s name, they sing:

Love it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you

It will set you free,

Be more like the man, you were made to be.

There is a design, an alignment a cry

Of my heart to see,

The beauty of love as it was made to be.

 Listen carefully; you can hear the Apostle Paul writing to the church in Corinth expressing similar sentiments about the present condition of seeing dimly in a mirror, yet being fully known, trusting that one day, we too will see things as they really are. In addition, Paul’s inspired text on how love expresses itself can be heard in song’s lyrics about the same subject.

Love is patient and kind; it does envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.

It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not

rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Loves bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.

That Mumford and Sons may not have had Paul’s letter in mind does not prohibit us from drawing on the many theological themes of the biblical narrative that are waiting to be fleshed out in this song.

Roll Away Your Stone” draws on the emptiness that the human condition finds itself in trapped by sin. They sing:

 You told me that I would find a home

Within the fragile substance of my soul

And I have filled this void with things unreal,

And all the while my character it steals.

Darkness is harsh term don’t you think?

And yet it dominates the things I see.

 What a clear illustration of the reality of how sin frustrates authentic human flourishing. To believe the seductive lie that we can become self-sufficient, like God himself, was (and still is) part of the serpent’s temptation that orients humanity away from God. The end result is that we end up becoming less human; it is nihilism in its truest form. Mumford and Sons sums it up quite nicely. However, this song doesn’t end there and neither does our hope within God’s larger story. They continue:

 It seems that all my bridges have been burned.

You say that’s exactly how this grace thing works.

It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,

But the welcome I receive with a restart.

Mumford and Sons.

The intersection between culture and Christianity can be tended to with greater ease when the larger Christian community already uses the language chosen by the artist. The usage of the word grace provides access for the apologist to explicitly share the scandalous love of the Father, expressed incarnationally in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, how many stories throughout the generations have been told of individuals being born into the faith after exhausting all self-referential possibilities? One can only imagine the lost son in Jesus’ parable found in Luke’s gospel, returning home after a season of wild living, worried about his father’s reaction only to experience a “restart” upon hearing his father’s joy, and experiencing his lavish love as he welcomed him home.

The artist’s honesty can often provide the platform for a more meaningful conversation about why God’s Kingdom still matters today. When Paul was in Athens, he drew on the language, art and poetry that was familiar with the culture in order to make his larger point. If mattered not that the Athenians had a vague notion of an “unknown God” or that they had someone else in mind when one of their poets wrote, “For we are indeed his offspring.” Paul was able to take those ideas, expressed in their language and articulate the truthfulness of the gospel. Listen to the songs sang by saints and sinners alike, and where you find an honest lyric, you will find a truth that goes beyond the artist themselves, which will enable us to connect Coldplay to Willard, Mumford and Sons to Nouwen, Malcolm Guite to Bob Dylan, U2 to N.T. Wright and all of them, back to main character in all of this, God himself.

A final thought from the same essay by George MacDonald. He tells us,

“The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is–not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.”

Using music as a way to connect our culture to Christianity enables us to awake the things already inside many of us. It’s why music has a profound influence on so many and why, in some ways, those who love music do so for another reason. It points towards something outside of ourselves that is also felt from within. It is simultaneously subjective and transcendent. Music is one way of showing that our deepest spiritual longings are in need of being met by something more. Better yet, by someone else.