Catholicism: Making Rockstars Since 36 A.D.

“When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.”
The Colbert ReportMon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Exclusive – 2011: A Rock Odyssey Featuring Jack White – Catholic Throwdown
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

So said our dear Flannery O’Connor, and I – for my part – agree. What exactly did the woman mean? That Catholicism makes artists out of us all? Yes, and profoundly. For if the role of an artist is to use material things – the paint, the marble, the sound, the words – to reveal spiritual, human or even emotional truths – as does The Pieta, Mozart’s Requiem Mass, and (insert your current favorite book here) – then every Catholic who involves himself in the liturgy, or to be fair, any Christian who truly involves himself in the saving work of Christ, is an artist, and a damn good one. Yes, even you – grumpy, old man who attended business school for eight years and has never looked up from an accounting sheet except to growl about how Obama is intentionally and spitefully ruining the economy – even you – when you dip your hands into holy water and kneel with the rest of us – are an artist; as self-expressive and creative as any any apartment-dwelling Manhattan hipster with a photography studio, whining about Obama’s inability to solve every problem he’s ever had. You use the material to express the spiritual, the mundane to express the profound, and – wonder of wonders – you join us at the altar, where the mundane is the profound, and art is not merely an expression, but art is transcended. The bread is God, and there’s not much more we humans can do.

But I want to turn your eyes from such holy things and to have you look at an alternative translation of O’Connor’s quote (are two apostrophes allowed in one word?), to have you glance up from your pious orthodoxy to the wonderful world of fallen-away Catholics, resentful Catholics, benevolent am-I-Catholic? Catholics, non-believers who hang out with Catholics (the best kind) and people who think some parts of Catholicism are cool, but others are a little too controversial, believe the former and ignore the latter. I believe that it is fair and apparent enough to say that an encounter with Catholicism – of any sort – digs roots into the human soul, and the artist cannot help but express it.

Now this can be accounted for, and evidenced, in modern music. Take Coldplay’s Viva la Vida. Not my favorite song, but a good example. The songwriter is a “secular humanist” who had a brush with Catholicism and traditional Anglicanism at an early age.

I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman Catholic choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
I know Saint Peter won’t call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world

For the love of God, how I wish the songs in the Gather Hymnal could be as Catholic as the first half of that chorus! I mean, really. It gave me heart to hear this song as the number one hit on pop radio, because – while I wouldn’t be so naive as to believe it expresses some true form of Catholicism to the world – it expresses the richness of our faith. We have saints and sacraments, blood and thorns, pilgrims and priests, armies and bishops and martyrs and relics and frankly, that’s the sort of stuff that sticks in the human heart, that finds a place in our souls – if a merely place of nostalgia – and lingers there. It’d be safe to say that the lead singer of Coldplay also had a run in with atheism, fundamentalism, some evangelicalism, with fast-food restaurants and with Zen Buddhism, but what does he sing about? That’s right. St. Peter.

Then, in what seemed a phenomenon almost too good to be true, we had the success of Mumford and Sons’ album – Sigh No More – this past year. It was brilliant, firstly because it restored my faith in the inherent goodness of humanity to see an actual band, and a good one at that, sit on top of Miley Cyrus, P. Diddy and a few others for Bestselling Album, and secondly because – like Coldplay – their lyrics are soaked in Catholicism. Mumford says the album was meant to be spiritual, certainly not religious, but just look!

It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works.
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with every start.

And as if that weren’t enough:

Love that will not betray you,
dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man
you were made to be.
There is a design,
An alignment, a cry,
of my heart to see,
The beauty of love
as it was made to be.

What? That coming from a band avoiding religion? How intoxicating Christianity must be, how deep within man it must stir for the rockstar to be able to write a hymn, and a hymn worthy of the Holy Mass, while trying to avoid religion. This is what I’m getting at. Catholicism is too large to be contained, to rich not to be shared; its grace, its poetry and its depth is simply too great to be limited to those who practice it. It is blood in water; by its thickness alone it slowly diffuses and melts into the space around it. But even then the metaphor fails; for how often is the water around it thicker than the blood itself? We live in strange times indeed, when it is the non-religious who remind us of the beauty of our faith and, unfortunately, more often than our church architecture, our choirs or our preachers.

So we have The Avett Brothers with lines about Mother Mary and singing about crucifixes, Death Cab For Cutie spending at least two songs an album trying to get over Catholicism, Jack White of The White Stripes fame making sweet references from his Catholic school days, U2′s Irish-Catholic roots really ushering in an era of Christian music, and the best thing about it is it tends to be – for the most part – great music and great art. Somehow – as Sign No More proved – Catholic-laced songs mean more to the world then sex-laced Pop. Obviously this applies to movies, to paintings and, to an almost ridiculous extent, to novels, but I know my modern music, darnit, so feel to provide any examples of the afore-mentioned arts in the almighty comment box below. The moral? Be proud of your faith, Catholics. It’s no proof of its reality, but certainly its a point in our direction to be so able at affecting the world around us, to make artists out of Catholics and, as I’ve shown, Catholics out of artists.

And this diffusion is frowned upon by our new atheist buddies, so you know it’s good. Check out this barely restrained “review” of Mumford and Son’s album Sigh No More.

Or, if you’re really bored, check out this article at Catholic Online I was interviewed for.

An Attempt to Explain Christianity to Atheists In a Manner That Might Not Freak Them Out
Fury and Catholicity
The Difference Between a Renaming and a Baptism
The Blessings of Secularism
  • eknight56

    Absolutely correct, all attempts at explaining the encounter with the divine whether in words, pictures, movies, sculpture, or any other form including thought turns into art because we are attempting to capture or portray something beyond our ability to convey and so everything becomes art, sign, and sacramental.

  • Ashley Siferd

    I really enjoyed this, thanks! I love Mumford & Sons for a multitude of reasons, but most especially, I love their many songs filled with faith and Catholicism.

  • Anonymous

    The Mumford of Mumford and Sons, Marcus Mumford, is the son of John Mumford who is the national director of the Vineyard Church movement in the UK.

  • Marc

    Ah, really?All I could get from their interviews was that there band aimed to be spiritual, but not religious. I shall have to revise, for surely Marcus' lyrics aren't coming from a vague osmosis of religion, but a faith in Jesus Christ. Excellent, really.

  • Marc

    done. oh modern publishing…

  • kbrill

    I love this post, and I think you're absolutely right about the effect that interactions with the Church, no matter how tiny, have on the artist.But my love of Flannery O'Connor and of accuracy in literary quotation compels me to inform you that unfortunately, the quote you provide is actually not related to the insights you draw from it. It comes from a talk she gave entitled "The Church and the Fiction Writer". Here's what directly precedes the quote you cited: "The Catholic who does not write for a limited circle of fellow Catholics will in all probability consider that, since this [Christian truth and doctrine] is his vision, he is writing for a hostile audience, and he will be more than ever concerned to have his work stand on its own feet and be complete and self-sufficient and impregnable in its own right." She's not talking about the tendency of the Church to make artists, but about the necessity to be really good at what you do if you're a Catholic artist even hinting at doctrine or truth. Which I think you've touched on somewhere before, but isn't really a part of this particular post.However, that being said, I still think this post is awesome.

  • Matthew

    Amen, Amen! I couldn't have said it better myself. Between encountering Benedict XVI's "Via Pulchritudinis" and seeing Terrence Malick's metaphysical feast "Tree of Life" (a perfect example of a work absolutely infused with Catholic inspiration) I decided to create a blog devoted to this very topic – seeking out the good soil in contemporary music, movies, and literature, soil ready for the seed of truth. Please visit it and help me fight this most important battle ( and art is a battleground Catholics have senselessly left off, because as you said, our faith digs roots deep into the soul and, if taken care of, sprout beautiful works of art. Walker Percy said that it was being Catholic that truly gave him something to write about – gave him a theory of man, homo viator, man in a predicament, stranded, on a journey. The stuff of great novels, of Lord of the Rings. But one, as you noted, need not be a Catholic to undertake this most important search, or ask the requisite questions that so often lead souls to faith – one need only be open to, and considerate of, the ties that bind. Thanks so much for this post!

  • Anonymous

    Just a quick correction to your Viva la Vida lyrics: The second line should be "Roman Cavalry choirs are singing…"Excellent piece though–it's refreshing to read good writing.

  • Sonia

    My favourite Mumford and Sons lines, as well as this one: “Can you lie next to her, and give her your heart? Your heart as well as your body. And can you lie next to her, and confess your love, your love as well as your folly? And can you kneel before the King, and say I’m clean, I’m clean.” Listening to them, you’d think they were Christians struggling to follow God, not trying to detach themselves from Him. Excellent post!

  • Annalisa

    Thank you. A million times thank you for this post.

    (Did Colbert say mother or cousin of Mary? Because her cousin is Elizabeth. Her mother is Saint Ann, no?)

    • Annalisa

      Annnnnddd… then I watched the rest of the showdown. And he corrected himself. So. I realized that I need to chill out and stop thinking, “Those men. Those foul men swearing while speaking of holy things. How foul. They are also incorrect on points of simple faith. Bless them, Father, and make them more like me. Knowledgeable… on simple points of faith.”