Thinking Music: Spirituality Edition

Some people like music that makes them dance. Some people like music that makes them cry. I like music that makes me think. 

For as long as I’ve been old enough to know my own musical tastes, I’ve gravitated toward artists and musicians who approach the songwriting craft with a philosophical bent. It’s not that I can’t enjoy a mindless jam or a weepy break-up song every now and then. But what truly moves me on a consistent basis – what makes me go deep into the pensive emotions of my Enneagram 4 self – is the kind of music that makes me confront the big questions of life.

Over the next few months, I’m going to be sharing some annotated playlists of songs that have been particularly meaningful to me at an intellectual level. I’ll hit all the important topics: love, death, beauty, and justice. In other words, everything you could want in a series of “Thinking Music” playlists. But this time we’re starting out in the deep end of the pool with thoughtful songs that confront the subject of spirituality.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been around this website for more than five minutes that spirituality is always on my mind. Although my specific religious beliefs have shifted over time, my interest in transcendent questions of meaning, purpose, and the nature of the divine has never waned. That’s why I continue to find the following songs to be enriching additions to my life. There are lots of other songs out there that deal with spiritual themes, but these are some of the ones that have been nearest and dearest to me personally.

Listen to them below (or look them up on your streaming service of choice) and see what new spiritual questions or ideas they bring to light.

Brandi Carlile, “Sinners, Saints and Fools”

One of Jesus’ favorite ways of engaging the masses was to tell them parables – detailed and imaginative stories with disruptive spiritual implications. They confused some and angered others. But that was the point. Apparently Brandi Carlile has been reading her New Testament, because this song feels like a modern-day parable if ever there was one.

Brett Dennen, “Heaven”

This song haunted me for many years when I was an evangelical. I knew that theologically I was supposed to disagree with it. But existentially, it has always struck a chord with me. In it, Brett asks some deliciously provocative questions about the afterlife: “Heaven, heaven, what the hell is heaven? / Is there a home for the homeless? / Is there hope for the hopeless?” 

Death Cab for Cutie, “St. Peter’s Cathedral.”

Religion: “It’s either quite the master plan / Or just chemicals that help us understand / That when our hearts stop ticking / This is the end, there’s nothing past this.” I refuse to believe that there’s a single religious human being who hasn’t asked at least once in the privacy of their own head, “Is any of this stuff real?” I know I have. Lots of times. And regardless of how each of us answers that question, I think we’re better off for asking it.

Julien Baker, “Happy to Be Here”

Why am I so dysfunctional? Did God make me this way? And if so, is it possible that God might have messed up? Those are the explosive questions Julien Baker explores with her searching voice and heart-wrenching electric guitar. This song contains some of my all-time favorite lyrical lines about spirituality: “Grit my teeth and try to act deserving / When I know there is nowhere I can hide / From your humiliating grace.”

Josh Ritter, “Getting Ready to Get Down”

Most of the songs on this list are laid-back and mellow; thoughtful songs about spirituality naturally veer in that direction. But this song is an exception. Loaded with biblical references and sly suggestions about the shortcomings of moralistic religion, this song is as fun as it is profound. Plus, how can you not love the line, “Jesus hates your high school dances”?

Joe Pug, “Hymn #101”

Like a beautifully ambiguous poem, this song leaves lots to the interpretation of the listener. But at the same time, it offers an inescapable invitation to reflect on humanity’s quest for transcendent meaning: “And I have come to be untroubled in my seeking / And I have come to see that nothing is for naught / I’ve come to reach out blind, to reach forward and behind / For the more I seek, the more I’m sought.”

Courtney Marie Andrews, “Honest Life”

In many ways, the process of spiritual discovery is a process of coming to terms with who we truly are. That’s not always easy. And sometimes it leads us to leave behind what we thought was certain only to find ourselves swimming in a sea of doubts. But as this song reminds us, authenticity is worth the price of uncertainty.

Noah Gundersen, “Jesus, Jesus”

There’s not really much to say here; this song speaks for itself. It’s marked by a youthful earnestness, a brutal honesty, and an unsettling inquisitiveness. And yet somehow, in the midst of it all, it manages to be strangely and inexplicably hopeful. I’ve been thinking about this one for a decade, and it still gives me the chills every time I hear it.


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