Heavenly tones: Music and religion

A sociologist argues that music has kept the sound of organized religion from fading

From the 1960s to the closing years of the 20th century, various cultural observers predicted that religion would experience an enormous decline in America. Factors such as the increasing secularization of society, the flourishing of alternative religious movements, the increasing anonymity of modern culture, and the turn toward a self-centered individualism and away from other-centered community would contribute, sociologists argued, to a decline in participation in churches and to a diminution of religious life in general.

As Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow eloquently points out in his helpful new book, "All in Sync," those who had predicted this decline were surprised by the stability and vitality of American religion in the last three decades of the 20th century. At the opening of a new millennium, American religion appears to be more vital even than in the 1950s cold-war era.

Drawing on more than 400 interviews with clergy, church members, and directors of cultural organizations, Wuthnow argues that this vitality might in large part be traced to music and the arts. "One of the most important reasons that spirituality seems so pervasive in American culture," he writes, "is the publicity it receives because of its presence in the arts."

Consider, for instance, how the search for spirituality in America pervades even popular songs such as Bette Midler's "The Rose" and Madonna's "Like a Prayer," television shows such as "Highway to Heaven" and "Touched by an Angel," and the thinly veiled religious messages of box-office hits "Star Wars" and "The Lion King."

High culture isn't acting above this trend either. A number of periodicals are also exploring the relationship between spirituality and the visual arts. Observers in the art world remark that "a quiet renaissance is occurring in pockets of the art world," Wuthnow writes. "Voices are rising that speak of art and music as expressions of ... spirituality."

Wuthnow shows ways that both individuals and churches use art and music to shape the vitality of their spiritual lives. For example, music and the arts play a central role in worship services at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, one of the nation's largest churches. The contemporary worship services at Willow Creek include orchestral, jazz, rock, and pop music, skits and plays, video clips, and Bible verses flashed on screens from overhead projectors.

These expressions aren't merely for entertainment; they act as a central way of revealing God's truth at Willow Creek. As one member remarked to Wuthnow, "I very much believe that all truth is God's truth.... I don't think a painting has to be about something biblical to be sacred."

Wuthnow's portrait of minister and singer Yvette Flunder suggests how a focus on the arts and music can foster individual spiritual growth, too. Feeling called by God through her prayer to enter the ministry, Flunder entered seminary and began preaching at a small Pentecostal church. Wuthnow describes a woman whose religious activism to a large extent grows out of her dedication to her art. Knowing her vocation was to help people with AIDS, Flunder raised enough money through benefit concerts and the sale of her album to open an AIDS shelter, which became the most active in San Francisco.

Although the overall tone of "All in Sync" is academic, Wuthnow's use of real individuals to tell stories of spiritual growth through the use of the arts and music makes his thesis come alive, demonstrating that the state of American religion is as dependent on cultural elements as on religious feeling.

Henry L. Carrigan Jr. is a freelance writer living in Lancaster, Pa.

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