Growing up I was only allowed to listen to Christian music or musical theater. I was in a children’s choir at the Baptist church, though we didn’t attend Sunday services there. I loved music in the forms I could get it. Loved hymns and Christmas carols and the Saturday morning kids music hour on the Christian radio station. I didn’t really care that I missing 80s synth pop and New Kids On The Block at the time.
My older brother smuggled me my first secular music, a cassette tape with Concrete Blonde’s single “Tomorrow Wendy” on it. It was unlike anything I’d heard before, not least because of the blasphemy.
I told the priest
Don’t count on any second coming.
God got his ass kicked the first time he came down where slumming.
He had the balls to come,
The gall to die and then forgive us
Though I don’t wonder why
I wonder what he thought it would get us.
Secular music became my hidden vice, listening to the radio on my Walk Man under the covers at night, then later watching MTV in a friend’s living room and having my mind absolutely blown by TLC’s music video for “Chasing Waterfalls”. By the mid 90s, I was openly listening to secular music and I loved every genre. R&B, hip hop, country, pop, alternative? Yes please.
I was still singing Christian music at church, and definitely had my favorite worship songs, but once I’d heard Dr. Dre, I couldn’t listen to DC Talk without painful secondhand embarrassment for the guys I’d treated like rock stars when they visited my Christian school in second grade.
Secular music was really important to me. It touched on darker themes and issues, and had a greater emotional range than ” isn’t that God fella swell?” It was also a way for me to be culturally aware. I’d started to regret the gaps in pop culture knowledge my strict upbringing had left me with, and wanted to know the 90s at least as well as everyone else seemed to know the 80s.
For all the years of my life when I had faith, two things made me feel close to God: warm sunlight on my skin felt like His touch, and music that stirred feeling inside me felt like His voice. Christian music mattered to me too, in a very different way.
When I became an atheist, I would become annoyed with myself each time I reflexively prayed for my misplaced keys or when a hymn would pop into my mind. I wanted to be free of the negative associations that music had for me, the guilt and shame and self hatred. I needed a break.
As I close my eyes and sing along with Alison Krause to “As I Went Down To The River To Pray”, I’m glad I can find the beauty in her singing. What’s more, the religious imagery and words can tap into the few good vestiges of my faith, a sense of awe, a meditative breathing, peace. I can remember the comfort I found imagining a celestial father held me, without needing it to be true or resenting that it isn’t.
I think this is what healing feels like.