Room for reality in religious music?

In this post, our favourite long-distance saint ben’s member Byron O’Donnell muses on the failure of much contemporary faith-based music to deal with the pains and challenges of life in the real world. A veteran musician and songwriter, Byron currently lives in Dryden, Ontario, and maintains his connection to our community through his faithful commenting on our website.


n my experience in the church over the last few years, one of the things that I have found almost troubling is much of the music offered up by many ‘worship teams’ I have played with or listened to. I will generously point out that St. Ben’s offers exceptional, even daring worship music, and I am not speaking even indirectly about my beloved home congregation. Love you, Larry! But I have had a course in what passes for meaningful messages with several evangelical congregations, and one rather staid one. The latter tends not to drift far from the ancient hymnal, and the former stayed focused on the arm raising anthems tailored to a more youthful gathering of listeners. The general theme is well established now. Straight praise is the order of the day, one song sounding much like the other and all guaranteed to strike a responsive chord of emotion and create a communal sense that really, all is well and will remain well with our lives if we just keep singing these on Sunday, play them in the car, and replay them at our private get togethers. Hands up anyone who wants to hear from young and enthusiastic Australian Christians! God keeps us young with this exuberant praise!

So what is the problem with this music?

To me it is pop pablum served up in a formula designed to sell product and infiltrate ‘we wanna be hip’ congregations desperately trying to reestablish a youth base due to an aging demographic.

Give ’em a beat boys, and free their souls. This mentality does not address any of the struggles of life, or offer any sort of honest reflection of a much changed society. It seems no one dares confront addiction, divorce, abuse, infidelity, or the dozens of ‘real’ issues of the human condition in stark musical terms.

I think the music should offer at least a component of this. A component that makes people think for the whole week, perhaps their whole lives. When confronted with the daily realities of poor lifestyle choices, bad work situations and crumbling relationships “My God is an Awesome God’ offers no real truth or solution beyond it’s worship content. During a fight with a partner or a boss or an addiction does it give a person any specific idea of how to deal with it? Is there some example of confessional truth one can lean on? Did I hear anything at the service today that will resonate with me beyond this hour and a half? People know how to worship and there is much good worship music available, but it is lessons in dealing with conflicted lives that is absent in the offerings. Which offers more impact? A generic “I was lost in darkness” or a specific “I was a drunk?” Are you? Can you face it and deal with it? If you can just recognize something of yourself in a song, a solution may well be under way.

It is my position that formulaic Christian pop anthems do not begin to approach this. Is direct confrontation with the trials of life too accusatory or unfairly isolating and singular to people in the pews? Is cold hard musical truth in anyway acceptable in a church forum? It is not worship for sure, but it seems to me an occasional testimonial of redemption at least can at least clearly point out that self-examination with guidance of God and community can restore and replenish faith, provide wisdom by example, and offer each of us the opportunity to say “Yes, I am in that reality right now, and it’s time to deal with it.”

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Byron admits that in the case of the following song “Perhaps the Sunday evening service is not the appropriate time, but I have a faith that in a community setting it may be easier for a person to reach out to or be reached by loving hands.” Titled “The Breast against the Bottle” Byron says that the song, “concerns a couple fighting over alcohol and drug addiction wherein the woman finally beat the problem and has drawn a line in the sand to her partner.” To this he adds, “True story by the way.” This is a home-recorded demo version of the song.

To listen to “The Breast against the Bottle,” simply click on the arrow:

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On many a day, they’re just this side of heaven
In the place where even angels sometimes fall
And the questions raised ain’t got no easy answer.
And the right direction just ain’t clear at all.
When it’s the breast against the bottle,
It’s gonna be a hell of a mess.
When it’s the breast against the bottle,
It goes to show that ‘ol Devil don’t ever rest…
He don’t ever rest.
How do you know when the party’s finally over.
How do you learn to tame these restless hearts.
When do you punch up a slow dance on the jukebox.
And hold each other close til the music stops.
When it’s the breast against the bottle,
It’s never a fair contest.
When it’s the breast against the bottle,
It goes to show that ‘ol Devil don’t ever rest…
He don’t ever rest
I wonder how long they can handle all this confusion
How long can a house be a home with a revolving door
One of these days one of them’s gonna reach the conclusion
That sorry just don’t cut it anymore.

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