The Music of a Faith Journey

As I finished reading through Exponent II’s latest issue, I was moved by many of the articles, particularly those that took me out of my own cultural context and gave me a glimpse of the struggles and triumphs of people I don’t encounter in everyday life.

For example, Laura Strickling’s interview with Camille Hughes, who has struggled with and overcome substance addiction, ended with Camille asserting that the LDS life “is a happy life. It’s real. Because I don’t have to fake the funk anymore, you know.”  (Best. Phrase. Ever.)

But Crystel Bever’s article called, “Telling the Truth: Culture Shock, Hip Hop, and the Power of Authentic Self-Expression” particularly stayed with me. In this article the author speaks of her strict Mormon upbringing and family rules that were enforced with violence. In the face of this painful abusive upbringing, Bever escaped into hip hop music, the music of her poor bordertown, which inspired her with its originality and authenticity. She writes:

“But in the afternoons and late at night, after the intruding fingers had left me in confused and shamed isolation, I would sit with my ear next to my radio, the sound barely audible, listening and memorizing the music of originality, of power, , of aggression and resistance. Run-D.M.C., Salt-n-Pepa, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy made me feel alive inside my husk of skin. My siblings and I lived in a culture of silence and isolation. We didn’t discuss with each other what happened in our house. So when Public Enemy rhymed in the summer of 1989…”Our freedom of speech is freedom or death/ We got to fight the powers that be,” I felt a craving grow inside me for that freedom, the freedom to tell the truth, to live authentically, to resist what was twisted and evil.”

She ends the article reflecting on the importance of Hip Hop music in her development as a person, saying, “As a child standing on the edge of the break dancing cipher, what moved me was not simply an art form. What changed my life was bearing witness to the human spirit’s struggle to find meaning and expression in the face of abuse and ritual silencing. I often return to that image as I continue to search for my own voice and my own truths… My challenge is to instill in [my biracial son] that same spirit of individuality and strength, forged not just by white intellectuals… but by philospher-warriors of the hood… who forge strenth from weakness, creativity from desperate need, beauty from ashes, and who always, always, question those voices that seek to demean and disempower.”

What gorgeous writing. And it has left me wondering  if music has had anwhere near the same impact on my life as it has on Bever’s. Has any of it been truly formative in some way?

A few episodes come to mind.

  • being really into Christian rock as a pre-teen. Kind of embarrassing, I know, but there was something there that inspired me.
  • finding Tracy Chapman and being moved by the social conciousness in her songs
  • being exposed to inclusive hymns at Sunstone and our local UCC. I was nearly in tears the first time I heard and sang “I Will Never Turn Away” which ends with “To the fragile, fateful beauty of this fractious human race, comes a church whose joyful duty is to wield this word of grace: male and female, poor and wealthy, every color, straight and gay, all who seek to find the kingdom, I will never turn away.”

Please share songs/artists which have moved you, which have shaped you, which have been deeply meaningful in your own personal journey.  I think a lot of us reading this blog would just love some great suggestions for new music to explore.


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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25 Responses

  1. CatherineWO says:

    Yes, Caroline, music has such power, doesn’t it? For me, it cuts to the core of feeling. We are all particularly influenced by the popular music of whatever time we were teenagers. For me that was Simon and Gardunkal and Peter, Paul and Mary. But also as a teenager, I was a music nerd, and the late 19th and early 20th century composers really spoke to me (and still do)–Sebelius (Finlandia), Barber (Adagio for Strings), Stravinsky (Rite of Spring). When I was eleven years old (about 1963), I sang Sebelius’ “Onward Ye People” with an all-city choir in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. The passion of that piece was like nothing I had every felt before.
    And I too loved the articles in the Exponent II. Thank you to all the authors.

  2. Aimee says:

    I LOVE this post, Caroline! Crystal’s essay in Exponent II just blew me away. As I commented on Linda’s post about gospel music last week, music and spiritual experiences almost always go hand-in-hand for me.

    Bob Marley is one of our family favorites when we’re getting ready for church. “One Love” speaks to the kind of religious community I pine for and the phrase “let’s get together to fight this holy Armageddon so when the Man comes there will be no new doom” moves me to tears EVERY time.

    One of the more unexpected spiritual experiences I’ve had with music happened several years ago when I first heard Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.” Like Crystal, I am really moved by music that speaks to the powerless, that rises up out of oppression. I have never made it through “Jesus Walks” without tearing up- when Kanye belts “To the victims of welfare who’ll be living in Hell here, hell yeah, Jesus walks with them” I always lose it. Almost nothing else expresses my hope for the atoning, loving, saving power of Jesus like the core message of this song, in all its hard grittiness, does.

    I could go on and on (seriously–I was raised on gospel, bluegrass, folk and rock to believe they were fundamental to spiritual life) but these were the first two that came to mind. I think you’ve inspired me to make a list of *my* spiritual soundtrack now.

  3. CatherineWO says:

    Aimee, I am definitely going to look up “Jesus Walks.” Sounds awesome, and I need to expand my listening. My kids bought me an ipod last year and I have a very limited song list on it. Music is definitely my preferred method of worship, and there are so many forms of music, one would need a lifetime to explore them all. Wait. I have a lifetime to do just that.

    • Aimee says:

      Well I’m sure it will “expand” your listening variety, Catherine. Just so you know what it is ahead of time, it’s a rap song. I know there is an edited version of the song that leaves out some of the offensive language (it’s the version I let my kids listen to) so you might want to look for that one for your first hearing. Like I said, it’s gritty, but the message is really powerful.

      • CatherineWO says:

        Aimee, I found two different YouTube videos (2007 & 2009) of Jesus Walks. A very powerful piece, with powerful images on the videos. Thank you for suggesting it.

  4. Margaret says:

    Great post, Caroline. I have a friend who lives his life around music. He organizes gatherings of friends where everyone brings a piece of music and takes turns playing it and explaining to the group how that piece has affected their lives or created some kind of spiritual experience. Often no one in the group knows anyone else beforehand so there’s a great variety of music and opening of souls. It’s been a real statement to me of how music– in just about any form– speaks to people in differently beautiful ways.

    I have two music experiences to share. I like music, but I love dancing to music. While I was at BYU I went to a celebration at the Hindu temple in Spanish Fork. There was a large crowd of sweaty, exuberant people dancing and singing along. The lyrics were repetitive and I soon learned them, singing and dancing for hours. I felt liberated and cleansed afterwards.

    Years later, I sat quietly in Baltimore, listening to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The BSO’s conductor, Marin Also, is extraordinary. Tears streamed down my face as I was entranced by a piece of music I barely knew before attending the concert. I have listened to it many times since, and I still love it, but it has never spoken to me of endless love and the power of the human soul like it did that night.

    • Caroline says:

      Margaret, thank you for sharing those experiences. I am particularly envious of your time in the Hindu temple, dancing and singing. It sounds so wonderful and unlike anything I’ve ever done.

  5. Deborah says:

    Here’s my list:

    Ave Maria — I have 19 different versions (different composers and artists) on my iPod, and love them all — especially this one:

    Dar Williams, “After All.” As I’ve listened to it over the years, I can gauge how much I’ve grown, open, healed by my reaction to it. Now it makes me teary in gratitude.

    A certain group of amazing women singing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

    • CatherineWO says:

      Deborah, thank you for sharing your list. I love the Joshua Bell Ave Maria. As a young musician I was acquainted with a couple of different musical settings of Ave Maria, but it was in a BYU Latin class that I learned the words and the music took on an entirely new meaning.
      I have to thank you most of all for your suggestion of Dar Williams’ “After All.” I had never heard this before, but I have been sitting here listening to it over and over, and I am overwhelmed (not to mention in tears). This song speaks to me in so many ways. Music is truly my medium to the Divine.

    • Caroline says:

      Gorgeous, Deborah. Thanks for the link. And now I’m going to look up Dar Williams on itunes and check her out as well.

  6. Corktree says:

    Love this post!

    I am also one that finds spiritual expression in music primarily. But I never thought about how the music I’ve listened to that impacts me emotionally has contributed to spiritual journey. I’ll have to give some more thought to what pieces have played a role.

    My sister and I were just recently talking about the impact that lyrics verses music has on how we relate to a song or how strongly it affects us. I find it interesting that the music I am most drawn to has poetic words that I can often take out of the music and apply to my own life and experiences, almost as though I am expressing the unspoken by singing along. But it’s the magical combination of the words with tune that give it a new dimension and actually take me places I haven’t been yet. The music itself helps me to see more clearly and to find new meaning.

    I think I’m going to make my own “journey list”. 🙂

  7. Aimee says:

    I love reading your lists. Deborah, I love that you have 19 different versions of Ave Maria, and Margaret, when are we going to have one of those parties? That sounds wonderful!

  8. EM says:

    At a very young age I started to lose my hearing, unbeknownst to me and my parents; so by the time I reached grade 4 I was failing classes miserably -because I couldn’t hear very well. Add to that, I stuttered terribly, so was teased mercilessly by “friends” and family. Because of my hearing loss and speech impediment I turned into myself. In my world there was one thing I loved to do and that was to sing. I couldn’t sing to save myself – I was tone deaf, but I loved to sing hymns even though I sounded flat and/or screechy. Also, I used to put my hand on the radio to hear the beat – loved it. As a consequence of being teased about my singing, I stopped singing especially at church, particularly when I was sitting close to someone who would literally tell me to be quiet. I found solace though late at night when everyone was asleep, I would take my hymn book and go sit in the bathroom and sing to my hearts content and as loud as possible, until my father would tell me to “get to bed and stop making a racket”. It was at these times though that I felt the spirit and at peace with myself, and today I know just about every hymn in the LDS hymn book! I especially love listening to the Tabernacle Choir; it brings forth tender memories (of those nights in the bathroom), and a feeling of peace. I don’t appreciate loud and obnoxious music of any genre – I find it an intrusion and it interferes with other sounds. It’s not to say that I haven’t listened to other types of music, I have and I don’t mind it, but the music I like best is the kind that can touch my heart and soul.

    • Aimee says:

      What an interesting way to experience music, EM. I love how personal those hymns have become to you and the image of singing them to yourself alone in the night. Just lovely!

      While my musical tastes are admittedly broad, it also leaves room for those traditional Mormon hymns. There’s nothing like a rousing MoTab rendition of “Come Come Ye Saints” to reconnect me to my Mormon roots. And though I’m uncertain about much of what happens after we die, I have given clear instruction that “If You Could Hie to Kolob” must be sung at my funeral as it is the hymn that best expresses what I hope and understand about the world to come. So much wonderful music, so little time!

  9. Kmillecam says:

    One of the most moving musical experiences of my life was during the CARE broadcast of Half the Sky on March 4 earlier this year. I was embarrassingly weeping in the movie theater as I watched India.Arie sing her song “Lion and Butterfly”. I found this link: that has some of the lyrics in the article, but from what I can tell you can’t get a hold of this song yet. It’s on the album she is currently working on.

    I will never forget some of the words she said, like that women must “be everything”, and that she is both a lion and a butterfly, and women are supposed to be pleasing, but that she (and we) are “gracious and tenacious”. It’s absolutely stunning.

  10. Emily U says:

    I couldn’t live without music! I don’t have examples of how it’s specifically been formative for me, but I know it has been in small ways.

    My favorite general category is probably sacred choral music. I never get tired of it, and love participating in it. One example of music I like to return to again and again is musical settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (affectionately called the Mag and the Nunc in the Anglican world). I like the Bach and Rutter Magnificats, but my fav is probably the Stanford. I wrote about it and gave a link to it here:

    The Rutter Nunc Dimittis is also gorgeous.

    For popular music, I recently discovered the band Vampire Weekend, and love it. They use a lot of different instruments in their music, making it pretty interesting.

    • Caroline says:

      Emily U,
      Last year I went to a concert by a women’s choral group and the whole show was devoted to various Magnificats. It was glorious. And in a couple of weeks I get to teach the gospel doctrine lesson that features this scripture passage. Exciting! Thanks for the link to your Patheos article. Very cool.

  11. DefyGravity says:

    The one song that has defined who I am for the past 8 years is “Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked (hence my screen name.) It’s slightly cliche, but there is such a sense of power and individuality in that song. When I saw the show in NYC, I cried my way through that song. I gave it to a firend of mine, and he determined that we were both “green-skinned Mormons,” at least in Utah Valley. Often that song has given me permission to do what I think is right or believe differently from others.

    Other favorites for similar reasons are “Spark of Creation” from Children of Eden (by Stephen Schwartz who wrote Wicked) and “King of the World” from Songs for a New World. Both shows have fantastic music if you’re looking for something new. As a theatre person, listening to musicals is an occupational hazard.

    My newest discovery is “Light One Candle” by Peter, Paul and Mary. A friend sang it at a get-together and it was incredible. It’s very much a “the world needs people to do the right thing, to keep the light burning” song with some great Jewish connections.

  12. Caroline says:

    ok, here’s a link to the kind of inclusive hymns/religious songs that move me. It’s called One Bread, One Body

    This is the song my local UCC sings during their sacrament. I absolutely love it. It’s transcendent – makes me appreciate the sacrament on a whole new level. When it says, “Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man, no more” it rings truth to me.

  13. EmilyCC says:

    I think we need to make an iTunes EXII playlist!

    I remember being in a hymnody class and first hearing the music of Hildegard von Bingen (a German mystic from the 11th century). Though I didn’t know the words were, the tune felt like angels speaking, simple, pure and ethereal.

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