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Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Fear, fallibility and faith in Mumford and Sons

I’ve been reading ‘The Incredible Rise of Mumford & Sons’ by Chloé Govan which is interesting primarily because of the perspective from which she writes about the influence of Christian faith and upbringing on the band.
I’ve posted before about the way in which Biblical references in song lyrics are often either overlooked or misinterpreted because of misunderstandings about Christianity itself (see, for example, here and here). Govan does not fall into the first trap in that she correctly identifies many of the Biblical/Christian references in the songs of Mumford & Sons but she does use commonly held misconceptions of the Christian faith which then affect her interpretations of the faith as it explored or expressed in these songs.
In addition, she also makes the commonly held but naive assumption that first person lyrics are directly autobiographical and confessional. It was this assumption that rightly annoyed Bob Dylan when journalists wrote as though they knew him by means of his songs and I can easily imagine Marcus Mumford, if he had read this biography (which he probably has not), feeling similar annoyance at someone presuming to know his personal spiritual journey through her interpretation of his lyrics.
The key misconception of Christianity as explored and expressed in these songs which Govan holds is that following God involves the surrender of free will and individuality while true freedom involves the full expression of personal choice. She therefore equates belief with submission and non-belief with freedom and, as a result, interprets all references to freedom within these lyrics in terms of this framework. Religion is a set of rules providing a comfort blanket for the immature, while maturity is seen in the assertion of an independent self.
Govan’s use of this equation is particularly evident in her analysis of ‘Roll Away Your Stone’ which she reads as a dialogue between Mumford and God in which Marcus expresses his frustration at God’s control over him. While clearly structured as a conversation, ‘Roll Away Your Stone’ does not actually identify who is being addressed as ‘you’ within the song, so Govan’s suggestion that the ‘you’ being addressed is God is an assumption rather than a statement. The song begins with the protagonist suggesting that both he and his conversation partner lift the lid on their souls, although the protagonist is wary of doing so fearing the demons within. The conversation develops by means of the response that grace is not about the efforts we make but the welcome we receive when we turn to God. On this basis, the protagonist then says that he will give up his desires and mark this moment at which his soul has become passionate for God. Having arrived at this confident assertion of faith backed by the intensity of the musical arrangement, the song then ends on a note of ambiguous prevarication.
There certainly are tensions explored in these songs in relation to the demands and challenges of faith but the polarity around which these revolve is not submission versus freedom so much as fear versus faith. The protagonist in ‘Roll Away Your Stone’ is afraid firstly of the demons within and secondly of the demands which faith may bring. This is the debate that the protagonist seems that have within himself in ‘Little Lion Man’ i.e. the extent to which he does or does not have the courage of his convictions.
All this is set out in the title track and opening song of the first album, which thereby sets both the ground that the album explores and the tone in which it does so. ‘Sigh No More’ begins with confident assertions of faith then moves into acknowledgement of human fallibility and prevarication summed up in the phrase that “Man is giddy thing” before asserting that love (i.e. God’s love) does not enslave but is freeing, enabling those who know it to become the people they were meant to be. The song ends with a prayer to see the beauty which will come when the protagonist’s heart is truly aligned with God’s love. Throughout the album the overriding concern is that personal fallibilities and fears – the darkness within – will prevent grace from having its full effect and the beauty of alignment with love from being fully realised.

Govan's discussion of the Christian faith of Mumford's parents is primarily drawn from press cuttings and her understanding of their story and beliefs is undercut by factual inaccuracies which include Sandy Millar as a female minister and the muddling of the Exodus with Herod's killing of the firstborn at Bethlehem, so that Moses is described as leading people out of the grip of evil people like Herod into glory. 

Among the undeniable flaws of the evangelical sect to which Mumford's parents belong (i.e. the Vineyard Churches) which Govan cites are the response of the Roman Catholic Church to Galileo in the 1600s and Archbishop Ussher's 17th century chronology of the history of the world. While the Vineyard Churches can, no doubt, be criticised on all kinds of levels they had nothing to do with either of these episodes in Church history which have been brought into the picture because they are supposedly conclusive proof that Christianity as a whole is opposed to science. 

Govan's discussion is, therefore, typical of the misunderstandings and misconceptions which plague contemporary discussion of Christianity and which lead many to dismiss the faith without ever actually engaging with its beliefs and practices. Govan's discussion of Christianity has significance as it flags up the size of the task (in part, self-induced) which faces the Church today, while those looking for an accessible and more nuanced review of the actual historical record in relation to the historical incidents cited by Govan could perhaps read 6 Modern Myths about Christianity & Western Civilisation by Philip Sampson.


Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More.

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