Religious songs for the non Religious

I would not consider myself a religious person. I am certainly not an atheist or agnostic or any kind of Satanist, I just sort of meandered through my Lutheran upbringing. I ambled through years of Sunday school and somehow also got confirmed, much to the happiness of my elderly mid-western Lutheran grandmother, although I always felt like I was just going through the motions. It’s not that I didn’t believe in what I was doing, I just never felt strongly about any of it and my main goal was to appease my grandmother and parents. This is not a good basis for strong faith.

Recently, I was walking my dog on a freezing cold Sunday morning when I heard the Avett Brother ‘s song “Me and God” on a gospel station I had flipped to because I was rocking my old FM radio since my iPod has no juice in it. I was having a rough morning, contemplating my love life, my hangover, and my general grip on existence in this long cold winter.  It was sunny despite the cold and the rays of light picked up the billions of tiny ice crystals on the grass of the field and I just thought “there has gotta be  a God”.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.  I came to this conclusion a few years before when some strange shit occurred the day my father passed away, but this was one of those powerful moments you have a few times in your life. So, here are my religious songs for the non-religious…basically songs I really like that have to do with God but are not necessarily the traditional gospel type of song. I look forward to seeing my brother”s comments, since he is a pretty adamant atheist. I don’t think you need to be religious to enjoy religious songs and vice versa. Also, faith is whats’s important, now how you practice it or arrive there.

1. “Me and God”- The Avett Brothers

I left an Avett Brothers show at Mountain Jam 2o1o to go cook chicken and I kick myself every time I hear the band. I went through a long period of not liking them due mostly to two close friends who know as much I do about music who hated them, calling them “hipster grass”. Honestly, who cares if they have designer haircuts, some of their lyrics and harmonies are unbelievable  Their newest album was produced by Rick Rubin of Slayer and Beastie Boy’s fame and is pretty awesome.

This song is from a while back and has struck me particularly because it seems to be the exact description of how I feel about God. I don’t need a middle man and I don’t need to go to church every week to be spiritual , although Grandma sure would like it.  The lines about seeing God in a soft woman’s hand, in a hard day of work and a good sitting chair  and so on really do sum up my thoughts on God and faith. I think if you really believe it, it doesn’t matter where or how you show it.

Perhaps the best line in the whole song and what best exemplifies how I feel is “Sometimes I use curse words when I pray”. I laughed out loud when I heard this lyric walking the dog in the nearly below zero temperatures and it felt like a lyric was about me and my father at the same time. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase “Jesus Fucking Christ” from my father and I always thought it would offend some higher power. Now I’m not so sure. Was he just praying or was it a curse sent out whoever just cut him off in traffic?

2. “I saw the light”- Hank Williams Sr.

I’ve loved this song for a long time because it’s probably the best example from the honky-tonk genre of gospel music. I always found it amusing in a gallows humor type of way that this song was about a guy who never “saw the light” in the sense that he died in the back of a limo on  New Years due to a potent mixture of morphine and whiskey but I don’t know if I do anymore after writing this and taking a minute to think on it.

I mean I am sure Hank did not take this concoction on purpose because he was doing really well, beyond his addiction to pain killers, issues with his multiple wives, and the booze. He did have spinal bifida, a very painful condition that various doctors attempted to correct to horrible results throughout his life. Maybe he did find the light but just couldn’t deal with the pain in life. My point? I guess faith means something different to everyone….and that’s alright.

3. “Jesus is Just all right” – Doobie Brothers

I’ve always loved this song because it is a positive and uplifting song even if you aren’t down with Jesus. It was written originally as a modern gospel song (is 1966 modern for me?)  by a man named Arthur Reid Reynolds. The term “all right” was just coming into the lexicon as meaning “cool” so the author probably though he’d pull some kids in with this hip message. The Byrds, Alexis Korner, and the Ventures among many others have recorded versions of this song but this Doobie Brother’s version is my favorite.

I like the repetition of the phrase “I don’t care what people do, I don’t care what people say”. For me, religion and faith has always been a really private thing this phrase for me means that whatever you want to practice  is your choice. This song has an underlying message of religious tolerance and besides the rocking beat, this is the reason I like this song so much. Oh yeah, it was also a really funny scene in Freaks and Geeks.

4. “Sprit in the sky” Norman Greenbaum

There isn’t much to be said for this song except that it was one of my Dad’s  favorites and is clearly a rocking tune. I do wish it was non-denominational so all my songs here were not Christian based but don’t worry, the last cut is a doozey. I actually have a friend who wont say “God bless you” after sneezing because he wants nothing to do with organized religion and goes on a rant about being an atheist every time you bring up God. I can feel how someone could see all of the bad things  organized religion has causes over the years, but what about all of the positive things that have occured, charitable endeavors and the wide access to faith for anyone who wants to embrace it.

Who knows, just don’t become a militant atheist Brother J. I think we can all agree it’s good not to be militant about anything unless one hundred percent necessary.For such a Christian sounding song, Norman was and still is a practicing Jew. He wrote the song after seeing Dolly Parton sing something religious on the TV with Porter Wagoner. He actually said it wasn’t about Jesus, he just used that to gain mass appeal and that the song is more about the general spirit in the sky, the ubiquitous spirit I guess. He also said the song was about “dying with your boots on”  which I think is a great concept. More than the literal sense, I take that as never giving up on life and living it right until the end. As the two year anniversary of my father’s death quickly approaches, I enjoy learning this about this song because I think he did live and die with his boots on.

5. “Sahib Teri Bandi”- Derek Trucks Band

The title of this song is Punjabi and from what I researched, means “Sir/Master I am your devotee”. I assume it’s a Islamic prayer  song because there is a version with a famous Pakistani singer named Nusrat Ali Khan which must be the one Derek used as a foundation. I’ve always felt something incredibly strong when I hear this song from the very first time I heard the Derek Trucks Band play it live before opening for Santana in 2008. I didn’t know it was a religious song then but it doesn’t surprise me, the song inspires everyone I know who hears it so it must be a powerful jam. He will sometimes extend this jam towards twenty minutes and I can say truthfully that it never gets old for me. Do me a favor Brother, drink your coffee some morning and rock this with your kids, see if anyone gets anything out of it.

I guess maybe I am a little religious but I hope it’s not in an annoying way. I’ve always gone against the grain of Christianity in many ways but the biggest seems to be my disdain for spreading the religion. I am all about faith and looking at the higher power which I hope this post conveys but I don;t want to push my shit on anyone else. My faith is really for me and if I can share how I feel with someone else and they gain some faith, well that awesome. I do think being spiritual and having faith has improved my life and can help anyone. I don’t think it’s the religion you follow or the way you follow it that matters, rather just having faith. So Brother, if all you can find faith in is the Boston Red Sox, so be it.

16 comments on “Religious songs for the non Religious

  1. theelderj says:

    I think there is something not just annoying but downright disingenuous about ‘militant’ atheists (or, as they are more widely known, ‘new atheists’) like Richard Dawkins for whom atheism connotes a war on all religions–an eerily similar outlook to the very traditions new atheists often point out as fascist and violent and oppressive.

    So, you point to an important difference between faith and religion that too few (pseudo)-intellectual atheists acknowledge. Often overlooked as well, when we point out the ills of organized religion, are the many goods that religions have given mankind. When it comes down to it, religions are flawed because humanity is. This has nothing to do with the divine.

    There is an ambiguous character to the Greek origin of the word a-theist that deserves to be pointed out. To be an atheist can either mean to “not believe (in a customary way) in god(s)” (which is closer to the original sense) or, in the more modern sense “to believe that there are no gods” positively. The latter definition is too radical for me because I am, at some level, an empiricist. I need to see or experience something to believe in it at all. Yet, to prove that something does not exist is a much harsher proposition.

    The thing I have always said is that there are smarter people than me who believe in standard religious observations and there are dumber people than me who are avid atheists. This tells me that intelligence offers no specific access to this kind of truth. Yet, when I tune out all of the noise and really listen to myself (and the universe) I get strong suspicions (contrary to your own).

    Again, this is suspicion rather than conviction and never enough to act on. I accept the older interpretation of the term ‘a-theist’, yet admit that this still indicates a level of belief based on experience, education and suspicion that is, currently, not qualitatively different from belief in a higher power. (Although, let’s not mix this up with belief in religions; man-made things are messy.)

    The only thing that has ever made me doubt my doubt? Music. I, like you my brother, love gospel music. I tend to love the intoxicating and enlightening grip that religious music can exert on you. Music works like this, I think, because the sounds and the participation in the hymns allow us for extended moments to participate in experiences that take us beyond ourselves and allow us to exist collectively, to feel together, to be more than we are. Music works so well with religion because it helps us–even makes us–feel part of something greater.

    I once was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City for a candle-lit communion past midnight. During the service a few guitarists struck up a choral version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I am Looking For” (U2). For that moment, as I listened to the 7 second echo of the stone building, the voices working in harmony (including my own) I believed in something greater. But the power is that that feeling was facilitated by man.

    I guess my abiding suspicion and worry about too many religions is that they ask us to forestall our hopes and expectations for a better life until the next one. Our capacity to create music and art makes me think that we should be aiming for the best life in this one.

    (And don’t you remember our father quoting Marx on religion?)

    What it comes down to, then, I guess, is what you see in the world that I don’t. This is the same conversation I have with my wife. She knows all of the historical problems with religion and the challenges to any single claim to the truth. She knows the alternatives offered by science far better than I do. Yet, when she closes her eyes, breathes deeply, and listens, she says she is sure that god is there. When I do? I hear only my own breathing and a deafening silence beyond.

    Certainty is dangerous but enviable.

    • theelderj says:

      By the way, an honest, soul-baring post. can’t get much better.

      • theyoungerj says:

        Thank you brother, I know it took me a bit longer than I said and there is still stuff I wish I had changed. I don’t think anything is certain but I think faith is really just a mindset regardless of the details. We will have many times to discuss this for the rest of our lives so I am sure we will get somewhere.

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