God, Music, and the Sabbath

Arthur Mormon, music, testimony 12 Comments

2 Nephi 31:3 (emphasis added)

For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.

When I was a teenager, I had an angry, liberal, bisexual friend whom I loved. Not in a romantic sense, but in a sense that I truly understood her. She was incredibly creative and I wanted her to be successful in her musical and artistic endeavors. We once had a conversation that completely surprised me. She had seemed so anti-religion for as long as I had known her, so when she told me the following, I was completely shocked: “When I saw Tori Amos in concert for the first time, Arthur, I swear I felt something that I never have before. I think I believe in God now… when I saw Tori Amos I somehow knew that there must be a God out there somewhere.”

I told this to my cousin, who is a complete musical snob, and he just made a face as if he had just bitten into a rotten piece of fruit. “Tori Amos? Blechhh.”

And yet, I identify so closely with what my friend had said, and I knew that she had stumbled upon revelation through what seemed like an unlikely source. The ardent atheist had a complete turnaround based on what she’d heard that night. I had a similar experience growing up. It seemed that music taught me that we are somehow divine, because natural selection can’t really explain art to me. Music can make me weep, and I have a hard time getting a strict anti-God Darwinist to explain that one to me satisfactorily.

And so a week ago I sent out a invitation on Facebook, inviting everyone I know to a show I’d be attending: King’s X in Cincinnati. I’d been waiting almost 10 years to see them live. They are one of my favorite living bands and I knew that the experience would be beautiful and blessed, and I wanted to share it with my friends. I got some “maybes” and some excuses, but one response really threw me for a loop. “I’d love to go, Arthur, but I just can’t rationalize these things anymore.” Whaa? My heart caught in my chest and I realized through context that because the show was on Sunday, I was encouraging my LDS friends to do something that they would probably consider to be breaking the Sabbath.

So I sheepishly withdrew my invitation. I was embarrassed. I kind of live my own life and I don’t worry if other people think my lifestyle doesn’t click with theirs, but the idea that I’m “leading others astray” does make me feel bad, I admit.

I went through the week wondering what people thought of me. Do they think I’m some sort of heathen? I asked myself. Am I never going to get a date again in this little branch?

I got to the concert last night and weaseled my way to the front of the stage (this is a fine art if you ask me). My heart pounded in my chest and you could have seen my smile a half mile away. I had been waiting so long to see these guys, they had been my inspiration for so long. Doug Pinnick, the bassist and lead singer (along with Ty Tabor, the other guitarist) had been a poster child for the Christian rock movements of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but Doug came out of the closet in the mid-’90s and was promptly shunned by his Christian constituency. Some of the bitterness of that experience comes out in his music. I wonder about his spirituality nowadays. His lyrics from their latest album seem somewhat telling: “And if you feel what you think is true/if you found peace deep inside of you/if your faith made a mountain move for you/then don’t forget to pray for me.” But this day he smiled and looked out at the crowd, told them how happy he was to see us all on the front row, singing along with his songs.

Then, during his song “Over My Head,” the music quieted down and Doug spoke to the crowd. To paraphrase him, he said this:

This song was written about my grandmother. She was a religious woman. When I was young sometimes I would hear her praying down the hall. She would speak to the Lord, and I’d hear her say: “Thank you Lord. I hear music. Lord, I hear music over my head. What are you trying to tell me, Lord?” Do you feel it deep down in your soul?

At that moment I had the most undeniable feeling in my chest. A feeling that what Doug was saying meant something. He spoke to me. I knew there was a God. I knew He loved me. I knew that this was all a gift from Him, and He spoke to me through what I was hearing. I understood again what my friend was talking about years ago. My testimony of God’s love grew so much that day, and I even prayed at that moment to thank God. To thank Him for the Book of Mormon, for a family that seems to be on the right track. I thanked Him for Joseph Smith and his courage. I thanked Him for sending me the Gospel. And I prayed for Doug.

After the show, the guys in the band went down to the merch booth to sign autographs and I got them to sign my guitar. Right after Doug signed it, he just looked at me and gave me the biggest smile, eyes bright with understanding. And he stuck out his hand to me and I shook it.

I’ll never forget that moment.

Comments

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Comments 12

  1. And thus we see that Latter Day Saints are coming out of insularity, out of obscurity…and half of the process is recognizing that if we wait for a “church-approved” label on things, then we will miss out on a lot of good (see Elder Hafen’s “Love is Not Blind” talk at BYU for more on this).

    A colleague at my graduate school once mentioned, upon me explaining how I view my faith, that Mormonism seemed more like general spiritualism (in the ecumentical sense…not in the seance sense). And perhaps it is.

    There are reasons why LDS missionaries don’t listen to certain music, but they aren’t because “heathen” music has any less revelatory potential.

  2. Great insights Arthur. If you haven’t listened to King’s X, you might want to start with ‘Pleadies’. Talk about a testimony of a living God…

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  4. I’ve seen plenty of Sunday concerts, although I’m not so sure how holy they were. But I agree the spirit can bear witness anywhere, and can teach us even when the music’s loud. I find it interesting that your spiritual confirmation came for you during a song written about Doug’s frustrations growing up feeling no love from his great-grandmother (who raised him) because she was too busy professing her love for God. I guess that the spirit sometimes confirms to us what we think or interpret, not necessarily what the author intends. I’ve seen King’s X 5 or 6 times, although not for a few years now, and I also got a memorable post-concert handshake from Doug once!

    I ran into Ty Tabor while tracting on my mission. We talked for about half an hour about various things… building on a common belief in the infallibility of Alex Lifeson. Anyway, he was a bit bemused that I declined to listen to some new songs he’d been working on because of some mission “rules”… and then he went off about “organized religion” a bit. Someone gave him a Book of Mormon when he was on tour through Salt Lake City, and he said he’d read part of it and thought it was interesting. Anyway, he agreed to have us come back and participate in the discussions, but I don’t think it ever happened. (I was on splits, it wasn’t my area…) Super nice guy. After my mission I became a big King’s X fan for a while, their sound was right up my alley until my tastes changed… I don’t think they’ve done anything too compelling in quite a while, but I still like to listen to Gretchen or Dogman every once now and then.

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    Yeah, I’m aware of the original meaning of the song. If you look back at videos of their Woodstock performance of the song, he wasn’t as kind to his grandmother in his monologue. However, I suppose the point is the ability to gain revelation from even a source like that.

  6. The ancients viewed music as the most direct manifestation of the spiritual. Making music, experiencing music, it was connecting to the gods. Music is symbolic of the spiritual because music is invisible and intangible, but somehow it becomes real within us. We talk about it being real, even though physics tells us it is only patterned variations in air pressure.

    I am even more restrictive in my music consumption than the most prudish, orthodox Mormons. I generally only listen to western music composed before 1800. That being said, i’ve also experienced great spirit at times while listening to loud, modern, seemingly decadent music. Sometimes the insight is in the contrast.

  7. Arthur,

    I love listening to U2’s music, especially OCTOBER, for the same reason. Live’s music is also drenched in spirituality, although more of an Eastern vibe.

  8. “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.”
    Doctrine and Covenants 25:12

    That was the scripture we referenced on the pinto bean filled styrophome plates we colored and stapled together last week in my Sunbeam class.

    Being able to teach the 3 and 4 yr-old “Sunbeams” and being the music leader for all the children is the best double-calling that I’ve ever had!
    In our Sunbeam class last Sunday, (besides making our own musical instruments) we talked about how music is the most powerful language of all, since it can dramatically change the way we feel.

    It is a gift to us, but the joy of it is that it is also a gift we give back over and over again to everyone who will listen. This scripture tells us that when we give it back to God he promises us more blessings! I think the blessings we receive when we give it to others is the mystery of how it affects them. Hopefully it teaches, inspires and opens a door to the Spirit manifesting truth.

    This line is from the hymn “There is Sunshine In My Soul Today”.
    ~And Jesus listening can hear the song I cannot sing!~
    To all the children with special needs, particularly Autism, I dedicate that song.

  9. I was raised in a Catholic family that was very musical but not very religious. We did go to church when I was young, but I never felt the spirit there. When I was 12 I happened to go to a summer camp that was Methodist. I remember at camp in the evenings we would sometimes go to this place called Hillside, where we sat on stone benches overlooking a beautiful waterfall, and sang those great old Protestant hymns. “The Old Rugged Cross” is still a favorite of mine from that time. I loved Hillside. Looking back over my mostly atheist life, I realize those musical evenings on Hillside were the first manifestations of the spirit to me.

    Fast forward to me age 35, a lifelong atheist who felt something wasn’t right somehow, who knew something was very wrong with her life. I had a dear friend who played guitar for her church, and who was saving up to buy my guitar from me, a Fender Telecaster which I didn’t play often anymore. She had almost saved up the price to which we’d agreed, then her alcoholic mom stole all the money from her account, so she explained to me that it would be longer than we’d thought. She’d have to start over saving.

    That just seemed wrong to me, so I made her a gift of the guitar, and she was so happy and grateful that she invited me to come hear her play. She went to a small Pentacostal church with a mostly African American congregation. I began attending that church and felt the spirit powerfully through the humble testimonies the people gave, but mostly through the amazing music they sang and played. The choir sounded like 20 Aretha Franklins. They raised the roof on that little church each week and the spirit of the Lord was made manifest. I continued to attend, and I was eventually even baptized in that little church.

    Following the promptings of the spirit, I was drawn to the Latter-day Saints. Our musical experience has thus far been far less powerful at the wards that I’ve attended. Sometimes it seems like we sing hymns verse by verse as though we’re sawing through a log, yet still hymns are some of the most powerful manifestations of the spirit that I feel in our worship services. I love “Love at Home”, especially as sung so reverently by the Tabernacle choir, and “Love one Another” which I always wish had 17 verses instead of just one. =) I love “How Gentle God’s Commands” and “The Spirit of God” and “Come, Come, Ye Saints”. “All Creatures of our God and King” gives me thrills, celebrating nature as it does, hearkening back to that hillside over the waterfall at dusk. So music has always spoken very directly to me of the spirit. It’s a huge part of my spiritual life.

    But I also feel the spirit very powerfully in a lot of music that would be off limits for missionaries, like Tool, Radiohead, or Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins, etc. Sometimes it might be a tortured soul calling out for some saving grace, or perhaps an angry voice crying repentance unto the world. There is agony and desperation in the music sometimes, as well as beaty, hope, and transcendance. I feel no reluctance to “bathe in the fountain” of this sort of music, though, be it any day of the week. We seek after truth and beauty wherever it may be found.

    I don’t think you need worry about leading folks astray. It’s just as much a mistake (or sin) to judge something good to be evil as it is to judge evil to be good. We have to walk the razor’s edge, the strait and narrow path, using our judgement and discernment, with the spirit to guide us, all the way.

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  11. Wow, I just googled “King’s X” for the fun of it, and I found this great article! I’m the only LDS King’s X fan that I know of, so it’s great to find that there are others. The story that GregN shared is great too. How cool it would be to talk to Ty as a missionary. I wonder if his house is nice…

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