Even during the years when I considered myself a practicing Catholic (which more or less lasted until college, because why not be a living cliche), I never really got the whole modern christian worship music thing. At the time (mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s) artists like MercyMe, Casting Crowns and Third Day were becoming more well-known and sounded increasingly like the pop rock music of the day.
And while I certainly have no reason to doubt their sincerity or that they earnestly wanted to spread their faith, something about the whole genre smacked of the same issue I was running up against with most organized religion – the feeling of being sold something by salespeople. Well-intentioned (more or less), but nevertheless something that was more than a little processed and packaged for mass consumption.
Which is I why I respond better (then and now) to songs that explore the idea of divinity from a more human and questioning perspective. And my favorite example of this kind of song is the unfortunately misnamed Dave Matthews song, “Christmas Song.” (Editor’s note – the best version of this song is the one on Matthews’ and Tim Reynolds’ concert recording, Live at Luther College.)
I always play this song around Easter since, if you actually listen to the thing, only the first verse is related to the Biblical Christmas story. The rest of the song is concerned with Jesus’ life and lead-up to the events of Easter weekend. I’d argue the song should be called the “Easter Song,” but seeing as I was 8 years old when it was first released on the band’s debut, Remember Two Things, my opinion was not sought.
What elevates the song above the familiar praise track is the focus on the humanity of the Biblical Jesus. Matthews’ main focus is to celebrate the simplest distillation of Jesus’ message – “love was all around” – which isn’t unusual. After all, that’s at the heart of so much of praise music. But Matthews also takes the time to note the violence and bloodshed that religious figures can cause, whether they mean to or not: “I came to shed a little light on this darkening scene/Instead I fear I spilled the blood of our children all around.”
I’m still figuring out this whole faith thing – I couldn’t say with total certainty if I’m a lapsed Catholic, a doubting Thomas, a hesitant agnostic or open-minded atheist – especially in a world where so-called “believers” have no qualms about selling out their morality in favor of racist, xenophobic, homophobic asshole leader(s) who demonstrate no actual adherence to religious tenets like loving your enemies or caring for the poor. But I do know a lot more people need to acknowledge the blood that is shed among all the calls for love by people of faith. Even better, we should do something about it.