Archives For Mumford & Sons

Small Theology

Mark Beuving —  May 7, 2015 — Leave a comment

The Beuving Family (Web) _0095I can remember looking forward to the day when I would have kids with whom I could have theological conversations. Not that this was the reason I wanted kids, I just thought it would be exciting to teach my heirs some amazing theology.

My daughters are now three and five years old. I have not begun reading them theology textbooks at bedtime, nor have they heard me speak the words “justification,” “pneumatology,” or “hypostatic union.” But we have certainly had plenty of theological conversations.

These conversations always arise unexpectedly. I don’t plan theology lessons for my girls; the theology invites itself into our regular conversations. Often, a character or plot development in a movie or TV show will lob me a doctrinal softball, and I’ll take a swing. (I’ll ask my girls questions like “Will Hiccup ever see his daddy again, even though he died?” or “Why do you think Rainbow Dash is so sad?” or “Who else do we know who died and came back to life again?”) Sometimes these turn into great conversations, sometimes they don’t. We never go very deep, but sometimes we have meaningful (if not complex) conversations about important theological truths.

We have talked about God’s constant provision and the importance of valuing God’s gifts when my daughters have complained about the dinner menu. We’ve talked about having compassion for the poor when both of my girls threw fits about the kind of sheets mommy put on their beds. We’ve had several chances to talk about human depravity and the importance of forgiveness when kids at church or at preschool have been mean.

My favorite theological conversations lately have come when we sing to our girls at bedtime. I’ve been singing part of Mumford and Sons’ “After the Storm”—the girls love it. I’ll sing, “There will come a time, you’ll see / with no more tears / and love will not break your heart / but dismiss your fears.” Then I’ll stop and ask them, “Did you know that someday we won’t cry or be sad anymore? Do you know when that will be?” It’s a perfect chance to talk about the return of Christ and the reality of heaven.

I also cycle through the verses to “This Is My Father’s World.” Every night I’ll sing a couple of verses, and every now and then we’ll talk about what the song means. Just last night my five year old asked me what it means that God “shines in all that’s fair.” So we talked about God’s omnipresence, his power in creation, and the goodness of God’s world. We did this without using any big terms, which was a great exercise for me.

As I looked ahead to the time I would talk theology with my kids, I also pictured them much older than preschool age. But I’ve been surprised at how often I get to talk theology with my girls. I shouldn’t be surprised—I know that theology is practical. I know that everything in this world relates to God. But somehow, I didn’t expect theology to be so readily applicable to so many of the things my daughters experience so early in life. For me, it has been a great reminder that everything is theological, and that God cares about—and is active in—every detail of our lives, no matter how small our lives may be.

Mumford & Sons 3Mumford & Sons is attracting huge crowds and selling a lot of records. They are thoroughly compelling, and I think this stems from their passionate exploration of life, love, loss, disappointment, and a number of other concepts fundamental to the human experience.

And here’s the thing. They are framing these explorations with tons of biblical imagery and Christian insight. Many concert-goers describe Mumford’s shows as religious experiences. Comparisons have even been made to church services, only a lot more exciting. Naturally, there is a lot of speculation about whether or not the members of Mumford & Sons are Christians.

Could the band really be engaging with Christian truths so passionately and profoundly if they weren’t, in fact, Christians? The short answer is yes.

Lead singer and songwriter Marcus Mumford has explained that the band has differing views on religion, and he prefers not to call himself a Christian.[1] So that settles it, right? Not exactly.

Marcus Mumford’s parents are church leaders in the UK. He and banjoist Winston Marshall reportedly spent some of their younger years playing in a church worship band.[2] At the very least, we would have to say that Mumford’s fascination with Christian concepts is deeply rooted in his upbringing. Biblical truths may be rejected or set aside, but they are not easily forgotten, and they often resurface with or without an invitation.

I’m not convinced that Marcus Mumford’s reticence to self-identify as a Christian means that he is not in some sense—in the only important sense, really—Christian. Here’s the quote:

“I don’t even call myself a Christian. Spirituality is the word we engage with more. We’re fans of faith, not religion.”[3]

Now, I’m not excited about the recent trend toward disassociating with the Christian name in favor of simply being a follower of Jesus, much less simply being spiritual. But I understand where this tendency is coming from. You see people using the name “Christian” without any authenticity whatsoever, so you want to distance yourself from that crowd and identify yourself more directly with something more sincere.

It’s entirely possible that that’s what Mumford is getting at here.

“I think faith is something beautiful, and something real, and something universal, or it can be…I think faith is something to be celebrated. I have my own personal views, they’re still real to me, and I want to write about them.”[4]

What he is referring to vaguely as “spirituality” and “faith” has a lot of overlap with Christian spirituality and Christian faith. So don’t rule him out.

Mumford & Sons 4But it also seems clear that the band is not uniform in matters of faith. So let’s imagine for a moment that Mumford & Sons is really and truly non-Christian in every sense of the term. Would we still be right to get excited about their music?

Absolutely! They are sincerely wrestling with some important questions. Marcus Mumford explains their approach:

“We’re just writing songs that ask questions. Sometimes the best way to go about exploring a question, things we wouldn’t necessarily talk about in conversation, is by writing a song. That’s why it’s quite hard…unpacking your songs. You write them in moments of privacy and…inadequacy. Inarticulation. When you can’t really express how you’re feeling, so you write it down with poetic license and vent as much as you want.”[5]

Band member Ben Lovett explains why it is difficult to dissect a song and pinpoint the one and only one thing it means:

“There’s a reason why people write songs sometimes, because they can’t talk about something. So talking about the song you wrote, it f***s the point of the song that was written to avoid talking about it.”[6]

Songs are indeed very meaningful, but much of that meaningfulness comes through the exploration itself, even when answers are not fully in view, much less neatly packaged.

I love Mumford & Sons for the issues they explore and the way in which they explore them. I get excited about the questions Mumford poses, and I affirm many of the answers, half-answers, and ambiguities that they arrive at long the way. Christian truth is fully in play here, even if it doesn’t come in the form of a pastoral Q&A or a systematic theology textbook.

 

 


[1] Kevin P. Emmert, “Mumford & the Son: Exploring the Christ-haunted lyrics of Marcus Mumford and his popular band,” Christianity Today, September 25, 2012: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/september-web-only/mumford-and-the-son.html, accessed 10/02/12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Marcus Mumford, quoted in Sylvia Patterson, “Mumford & Sons: ‘We’re Fans of Faith, Not Religion,’” The Big Issue, September 25, 2012: http://www.bigissue.com/features/1488/mumford-sons-we-re-fans-faith-not-religion, accessed 10/02/12.

[4] Marcus Mumford, quoted by Kevin P. Emmert.

[5] Macus Mumford, quoted by Sylvia Patterson.

[6] Ben Lovett, quoted by Sylvia Patterson.

Mumford & Sons 1Mumford & Sons is kind of a big deal. I suspected that their upcoming concert at the Hollywood Bowl would fill up fast, so I cleared my schedule to buy tickets the moment they went on sale—only to find that the 18,000-seat venue had sold out instantly.

Mumford’s first album, Sigh No More, went multi-platinum and was nominated for six Grammys. When they released their second album, Babel, last week, sales reached 160,000 or so in the UK and 600,000 or so in the U.S.—in one week!

Why? Why is it that we can’t get enough of this band? Anyone who has listened to Mumford would have to agree that there is something compelling in what they are doing. But what is it?

Without a doubt, Mumford has a cool sound. Their instrumentation consists of everything nostalgic and folky—banjos, acoustic guitars, upright bases, horns, accordions, etc. And they use this instrumentation to great effect. The music would be impressive without lyrical accompaniment. Their songs gallop, swell, stomp, shout, and whisper (and I’m not referring to the vocals yet). Something in their song structure conveys a powerful attunement to human emotion. When you add Marcus Mumford’s vocals—lyrics aside—the mix is even more powerful. He ranges from quiet melodies to growling roars. And then his vocals are layered with those of his bandmates, sometimes softly harmonizing, sometimes whooping and shouting along.

But the instrumentation by itself cannot account for Mumford’s success.

I’ll never forget driving to comfort a family who had just lost their precious daughter/sister to a sudden accident. What answers can you give in such a situation? As I drove I heard—for the first time—Mumford & Sons sing:

“There will come a time, you’ll see
with no more tears
And love will not break your heart,
but dismiss your fears.”

The song is called “After the Storm,” and it’s absolutely breathtaking. What could be more powerful than singing about the uncertainty of death? Beyond that, what could be more powerful than exploring the Bible’s answer to this uncertainty: a time when healing will reign, when every tear will be wiped away, with no more pain or sorrow or sin or death?

This type of lyric is not unusual for Mumford. Their first album opened with the refrain:

“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.”

Mumford & Sons 2They sing about kneeling before the King (“White Blank Page”), hoping in darkness to see the light (“Ghosts That We Knew”), forgiveness of sin (“Lovers’ Eyes”), weakness and the pull of the flesh (“Broken Crown”), eschatological healing and the banishment of sadness (“Not With Haste”), and on and on. They also seem to reference Jesus’ warning about putting your light under a basket (“Don’t hold a glass over the flame, don’t let your heart grow cold”) and sing about the tendency to wander in lyrics reminiscent of the hymn “Come Thou Fount” (both of these references come in the song “Hopeless Wanderer”).

Ultimately, I think Mumford’s appeal comes from their passion. It’s a combination of the passion in their music and the draw inherent in the themes they explore lyrically. Human beings wrestle with things like love, hope, death, life, and the like. And the Christian answers to these things are both profound and compelling. Mumford & Sons are not claiming to preach on these matters, but they are exploring them with passion and offering insights that often align with biblical truth. Just like The Welcome Wagon, their exploration of these issues and the biblical imagery in which they frame the questions and discover a few of the answers makes them appealing to a broad audience.

But here’s an important question: is Mumford & Sons a Christian band? Most Christians I know love them. Many Christians freak out (in a positive way) about their lyrics and make a big deal about the band’s faith.

“They have to be Christians! Listen to their lyrics!” That’s a statement I’ve heard a lot. But is it true? And would it matter if it wasn’t?

I’ll tackle those questions in tomorrow’s post.

 

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