by the Rev. James Derkits
“Theologians, they don’t know nothin’ about my soul . . . “ So echoed the chorus from one of my favorite songs from the band Wilco. Fans chanted along, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they meant the same thing the songwriter intended. With what felt like vehemence, the cheering crowd seemed to be speaking against the theologians, the religious professionals, and by association, perhaps, the church; they seemed to sing out against any efforts we who identify with the church might make at speaking truth regarding the human soul. A crowd of people disillusioned by organized religion thought they had their opportunity to sing against it.
Knowing the rest of the song, I believe there is a very different feeling and intention to that line from the chorus. I believe it is actually invoking a thread of our theological tradition known as apophatic theology that is more popular in Eastern branches of our church; apophatic theology begins by acknowledging that we cannot know God. It acknowledges that God is beyond us, much greater than the creation, and that remembering that is the best starting point from which to move into reflecting on our relationship with God. A more western theologian in the apophatic thread is St. John of the Cross who lovingly referred to God in Spanish as “Nada” or “No-Thing” in Dark Night of the Soul. It is a theology that has helped me begin to move through the images of God I’ve created, and to trust God to be God as the ineffable mystery. That particular song adds, “I’m an ocean, an abyss in motion.” It is one of the songs I return to again and again for inspiration and reflection. Instead of singing against the church, it is recalling an important, if not the most popular, aspect of our theology.
Another musician who has recently inspired my theological thinking is Kendrick Lamar. His most recent album “DAMN” includes songs that parallel the Psalmist’s struggle to understand how God could let us suffer, as wrestles with his relationship not only with God but with those who seemed to support him. “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he laments. I don’t anticipate that any of our churches will be using Mr. Lamar’s lyrics in our church services, but I would love to be proven wrong.
These two examples are the low-hanging fruit in beginning to look at non-church music as spiritual. They are explicitly engaged in using the language the church has taught us, even if it may take some careful listening and understanding the larger context to relate to the spiritual message of these poets. I would like to push further, though, and propose that all music is spiritual, even if it is not using the language we use to speak of the spiritual dimensions of life.
The act of being creative is allowing the imago dei (image of God) to shine through us. T.S. Elliot wrote in his poem “Rock,” “The Lord who created must wish us to create.” The act of being creative in any arena is engaging in the life of God. There is plenty of music that I don’t enjoy listening to, and plenty I think would be contrary to the purpose of the worship life of the church. Our process of selecting music for congregational music seeks to provide common language about our relationship with God in a sing-able format so that the teachings might sink into our soul and provide us with guidance along our own journey.
Much secular music out there is without such vetting. It is often without guide rails and delves into the deep desires we experience as humans. The longing for temporal satisfaction found in much pop music today is honest and raw; it is often a spiritual hunger that lyrics seek to satisfy by non-spiritual means. In that way, it can be the beginning of a spiritual journey. The desire for a lover might reflect our deep desire for connection with God. The desire for freedom might only, ultimately, be found in the liberating relationship with Christ. Even the quest to get high is about a longing for an elevated state we experience when in God’s close presence.
I don’t know how many of the musicians writing about those temporal satisfactions are conscious of the spiritual roots of their longing, but we have the ability to hear and understand. It may even lead to a deeper understanding of our own desires and those of others. It may help us to lovingly walk with those who are spiritually lost, like those Wilco fans chanting “You don’t know nothing about my soul.” No, but I know my own soul’s longing to connect with the mystery of God. I know that God is at work in unimaginable ways through unsuspecting musicians. I know God’s ineffable presence when I begin to create and through the creativity of others. I believe God is still at work and is the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.
The Rev. J. James Derkits
is rector of Trinity by the Sea Episcopal Church in Port Aransas TX. Reach him at