The Common Good
August 2005

Holy Listening

by Rose Marie Berger, Molly Marsh, Lisa Yebuah | August 2005

An Indigo Girl - and dad - talk about music as the mediator between God and our souls.

Music is a powerful source of transformation that can connect us with the deepest parts of ourselves -

Music is a powerful source of transformation that can connect us with the deepest parts of ourselves - and each other. Two musicians who know a lot about this are Don Saliers, a professor of theology and worship at Emory University, and his daughter, Emily Saliers, half of the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls. The two, who met with Sojourners in Washington, D.C., this spring, are co-authors of A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice. They have a lot to say about the spiritual dimensions of music, and about how music offers both hope and healing.

The word "crossover" peppers their conversation and work, both as musicians and writers. The music Emily and her Indigo Girls partner Amy Ray play in smoke-filled bars on Saturday nights has a lot in common with the hymns and choral tunes Don plays during Sunday morning worship services. The effect on listeners is also similar.

"I see it in the motley crew of people who come to the pub, some with torn lives, some on the verge of great things, and from all different musical genres," Emily says. "We have a cross-cultural gathering on stage, the same thing that happens in a mixed worship community where music is the force that brings us all together, that gives us hope, and that speaks to our sorrows and our pains."

Don agrees. "I think we’ve grown up with a kind of distinction between sacred sounds and secular sounds that just simply isn’t adequate anymore. A lot of church music has been influenced by things that have normally been associated with Saturday night. Some of this is on a classical basis - for example, composer Heinz Vernard Zimmerman created a psalm concert that was really based on jazz," he says. "For a while I actually did jazz morning prayer or jazz evening prayer in a little church in New Haven. There’s a lot more crossover than we think."

Over her 20-year career, Emily has seen how music brings healing to people - those who, as she writes in the book, are alienated and broken by attitudes toward sexuality, by political struggles, and by crushing abuses of power.

"There’s a lot of mystery to music that I couldn’t even begin to articulate," she says. "It is something that takes us, that connects us through time. There is no music in a vacuum. It’s begun somewhere but we don’t know where; we don’t necessarily know what countries it’s traveled through, what stories - human stories - it has told. I see it as this continuum that draws human beings together, and their past, and toward their future."

"Music touches the emotions in a way that very little else in the world does," adds Don. "It has access to those places where we’re hurt, or where we feel joy, or pain, or suffering, and it can touch that and bring it forward. In some ways people can be named in music and can be found in music. As we say, ‘you’re their voice.’ That in itself for many people is a healing process. As an ‘Indigo dad,’ I hear a lot about how Emily and Amy Ray’s songs have helped people overcome a lot of stuff - not just helping through the night, but actually ‘changed my attitudes toward myself and my life.’"

THE INDIGO GIRLS’ longevity - Emily and Amy joined forces as a duo in 1984 - Grammy Awards, and album sales certainly bear that out. Fans of all ages, backgrounds, and with all manner of piercings and tattoos have found a home in the group’s music, and the often Spirit-drenched imagery in their lyrics regularly violates the artificial line - often constructed by the church - between "secular" and "sacred" music. Emily doesn’t currently identify with a faith, but a childhood spent in the church and absorbing its music directly influenced her folk music arrangements later on.

"It’s easy to reduce things to ‘blue state’ and ‘red state,’ and this is secular and this is sacred," says Emily. "It’s a lazy approach to delving into what a genre can hold and surprise for someone who’s not been introduced to it. I have to ask, what’s the bottom line? What is a faith intended to do? How is it intended to encourage our spiritual growth? Is there just a plain and simple message of love and caring for each other and the world? There are some so-called secular texts that speak to that with more passion and power than some of the most well-known sacred texts."

"There are prophetic voices along with the cries and the whispers that are coming out of music that the church would be amazed to hear," continues Don. "When you put it side by side with prophetic voices in scripture, it turns out they’re very congruent. That’s what the church misses when it shuts down too soon and says young people’s music is awful. Some of the best music generated in the church over the years has often come from the juxtaposition of styles."

Don has spent decades mingling those genres, traditions, and practices. He worked his way through college playing dances on Saturday nights and then playing in church on Sunday mornings. He’s a jazz musician (as was his father), and as a professor of theology and worship, much of his work - and his nine books - focuses on liturgy and culture. For him, music is clearly a form of spiritual practice.

"Music and singing are crucial to faith for three reasons," he says. "One is in scripture - scripture is simply the library of stuff that’s been written out of a community of faith’s struggling. Every time there’s something extraordinary in scripture - whether it’s lamentable or praiseworthy - it breaks into song. It’s no accident that two-thirds of scripture is heightened speech, is poetic.

"Secondly," he continues, "tell me what you hear, what you hope for, what you enjoy most, what you’re most righteously indignant over, what you love fearlessly, and I know more about you than if you just tell me what you believe. It’s that encoding of the belief in the emotional power of song that really carries things. The third reason is that it’s a way of transmitting from generation to generation the memory of suffering and hope and joy. A hymnal is a collection of the history of the people."

STORIES OF people and their passions and heartbreaks fill Emily and Amy’s songs, often carried forward on scriptural images or themes. There’s a line in "Come on Home," a track on their recent album All That We Let In, that says, "There’s a bag of silver for a box of nails." The imagery is simple, sharp, and cutting, full of power. For Emily, the Bible’s imagery is a great source of inspiration. "As a songwriter, when you’re thinking about the craft, you want to make things tactile. You want to evoke the senses, as much of them as possible. I couldn’t think of a better way to illustrate how important love is in the way we treat each other than to think of the betrayal of Jesus. The act was simple but it affected the rest of history."

"Those biblical images," adds Don, "are ways of reading the world and our experiences in a way that connects the personal and the intimate with the deepest mysteries of being. We forget a lot of the stories, but take one really good image, either a prophetic image that’s sharp and strong, or an image about human suffering, or images about what we are yet to be - I think we’re always looking for the concrete universal, the specific image that carries with it this larger sense of mystery and hope and God."

Sojourners staff members Rose Marie Berger, Molly Marsh, and Lisa Yebuah contributed to this article.

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