waiting for mumford: theologically musing on a pop single

I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. — Isaiah 8.17 [ESV]

So, there is this sorta-folky musical group called Mumford & Sons (and, apparently, the ampersand is mandatory, like Mike + the Mechanics, or that inane symbol Prince uses as his moniker) that enjoyed some success a few years ago with their debut record, Sigh No More. They returned with their sophomore record, Babel, in the fourth quarter of 2012 and have a single, I Will Wait, that is in the Billboard HOT100 that has been nearly impossible to avoid in popular media.

First, I’m not sure of the last time a song prominently featuring a banjo was on heavy rotation on pop radio. In that unfortunate instance I had no choice but to listen to it in the car coming home from visiting relative, it was a welcome departure from the overwhelming number of auto-tuned, soul-rotting tracks from talentless recording artists on the charts and big box endcaps because they happen to have that providential ideal jaw line or bust for radio. I am not a fan either of Mumford or his sons (yes, I know they are not his progeny), but I Will Wait has my full attention, first, because the group’s performance of it on Saturday Night Live in the fall was nothing short of outstanding–even better than the studio version or the radio cut–and it’s the first time a psalm has pop culture paying attention.

LORD, in the morning you will hear me; in the morning I will present my case to you and then wait expectantly for an answer. — Psalm 5.3 [NET]

Contrary to the advice of many people who hate the fact that I nitpick and overanalyze the lyrics of many songs–especially those passed off as ‘worship choruses’–and the word choices people employ in general, I listen to the track and I do not hear a song longing for another person or waxing pathetic in self-loathing. This is a song ripped directly from the biblical poetry section: Marcus Mumford (and & sons) has managed to write a pop rendition worthy of the psalter.

When he sings ‘I will wait, I will wait for you,’ he is invoking the scriptures. Indeed, the song is rich with spiritual, scriptural and even theological weight. I will refrain from speculating on the man’s spiritual status because I couldn’t tell you, nor is it really of value for the sake of this post. I can say that the young Mumford’s parents are instrumental in leading the part of the Vineyard movement local to the United Kingdom and Ireland, which isn’t entirely substantially different from the Assemblies of God in which this writer was raised and a part of until a few years ago. That is to say, Mumford was steeped in evangelical and charismatic Christianity for his entire life–‘raise my hands, paint my spirit gold; bow my head, keep my heart slow’–and he has found a way to verbalize it in a way that is strikingly both artistic and passionate, without being preachy or coming off as being self-indulgent.

To be sure, the song has a drive to it: the recent rediscovery of the less-is-more percussive persuasion returning to music, both here in this single and beyond, is very much welcomed. The minimalist alternating bass drum and tambourine blends the traditionally acceptable tambourine of classical charismatic meetings with the traditionally suspicious employment of the drums. (EDITORIAL ASIDE: for decades, drum sets were verboten in many charismatic churches, particularly in the Assemblies until 30 years ago or so. Many theologically conservative and fundamentalist congregations still refuse to use drums or have them, but keep them behind shells and mixed low so that the beat doesn’t create sinful, physical (read, fleshly) responses. I should also mention that many of the early pioneers of rock and roll were raised in the Assemblies, some even were kicked out for their boogie-woogie interpretations of sacred songs. Wittingly or otherwise, Mumford’s work is a nod to that initial accidental rebellion. I digress.)

Why are you depressed, O my soul? Why are you upset? Wait for God! For I will again give thanks to my God for his saving intervention. — Psalm 42.5 [NET]

Then there’s all this nonsense about kneeling and waiting, notions completely foreign to a post-Christian American listener. It’s about trust and faith in God. David, both as shepherd of his flock and the people of Israel, wrote more than a few of the psalms in positions and conditions of complete desperation. When it comes down to it, what matters most to a person–ultimate concern–comes out in those moments of great highs and great lows. Mumford may be as regular a believer as there is, or he may be ‘searching’ or ‘wayward’, whatever those terms mean (and I, for the record, don’t think much of them.) What has launched him and his musical outfit into the fore of pop culture is a song that is, at its core, as much at home in the sanctuary as it is the studio of Saturday Night Live. Clearly, his experiences in the church has some meaning or value, translated into a song of religious faith and patience, two things that don’t tend to send artists up the charts or drive downloads.

Sometimes, the public needs to be exposed to a genuine expression of faith and, too often, the church and its adherents are all-too-willing to offer something that is anything but. What we tend to offer comes off as arrogant and second-rate, preachy and soulless. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Mumford is surfacing now, as he stands on the shoulders of those who have done something similar to far lesser success: Sixteen Horsepower, Jars of Clay, Danielson Famile, Damien Jurado and Sufjan Stevens all come to mind, while many Bob Dylan disciples–unfortunately and to their detriment–tend to disregard the ‘born again’ portion of his catalog.

Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint: in the absence of meaningful–lyrically and musically–music, we hear something with meaning and gravitate to it. In the pablum of [post-]modern America, four Brits armed with folk sensibilities can make millions stop and pay attention. And, unlike Pat Robertson, they do so for all the right reasons: a simple song of religious commitment has a captive audience. Whether intended or not, it is nonetheless a fascinating example of the power of the gospel.

Nicely done, boys. Nicely done.


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