Sunday, July 14, 2013

How to sing religious songs if you’re not religious (or it’s not your religion)

I sing and teach sacred songs from a wide range of religious traditions. But I don’t have a religious bone in my body.

religious singing

I have no problems singing about ‘spirit’ or ‘God’, but I do hesitate when ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ or ‘Krishna’ or similar specific words come up. Should I be singing such songs? How can I sing religious songs if I’m not religious?

I love African-American gospel, sacred Russian orthodox songs, old Appalachian hymns, South African church singing, Jewish nigun songs, American shape note songs, old spirituals, West Gallery singing, songs from various Yoruba religious traditions, Sufi chants, Hindu devotional songs, Balkan sacred songs and much more.

I don’t usually have any problems singing such songs as much of the time they are not too specific, and any mention of ‘spirit’ or ‘God’ I can replace with whatever concept has meaning for me in my own spiritual life.

But when songs start being very specific and use words particular to a specific religion, I get uncomfortable.

I know many people feel the same. Lots of community choirs in the UK won’t sing gospel songs, for instance. Somebody once asked me to run a workshop called “Gospel singing for atheists”! I kind of knew what he meant.

The songs are great, the sentiments behind many of them I fully support (love your fellow human beings; don’t exploit anyone; celebrate life; find ways of living life to the full, etc.), and they are great energisers and fun to sing. But when they get too explicitly Christian, then it can put non-believers (or non-Christians off).

A great deal of choral repertoire IS religious, usually Christian (I’ve written about this in response to the question Is all choral music religious?). And usually the tunes are great!

Here is how you can sing religious songs if you’re not religious.

  • find new associations – if particular words bother you, then replace their meaning with an association that has relevance for you. For example, an atheist might think of ‘God’ as meaning ‘life spirit’ or ‘nature’; I know a Jewish singer who has come to understand the word ‘Jesus’ to mean ‘spirit’. We sing “I’m gonna sing ’til the spirit moves in my heart”. I changed the backing words from “Oh, my Jesus” to “Oh, my spirit”.
  • focus on the overall meaning – it’s easy to get hung up on individual words, but you might find it easier to focus on the overall meaning of the song and find a way for that to have meaning for you.
  • replace words – if you find some words difficult to sing because they are too specific, then simply replace them with something similar which still respects the intention of the song. For instance, we recently learnt a shape note song where we replaced ‘Christ’ with ‘God’.
  • don’t be scared – don’t worry, you won’t get converted by singing a religious song, and your friends won’t think you’ve changed your spots! Even people who are very religious each have a different understanding and internal response to any given religious song. Nobody knows what’s going on inside your head, just find a way to make it mean something to you.
  • they’re only words! – if, like me, you’re not a ‘lyric person’, then you can sing pretty much anything without the words getting in the way too much. I love a song called ‘Give me a clean heart’. I find myself singing things like “Lord fix my heart so that I may be used by thee” and “I’m not worthy of all these blessings”. The tune and harmonies are great, and I just let the words wash over me without taking too much notice. Not everyone is able to do this though, and people who think you have to really mean the words will be horrified!
  • you don’t have to sing ’em all – there is no compulsion to sing all religious songs that come your way, or even any at all. It’s your choice. Your choir leader will understand if you decide not to sing a particular song for whatever reason (and if they don’t: find a new choir!).
  • sing with respect – whatever strategy you use to sing a religious song, you need to have a deep respect for the religious tradition it comes from. You shouldn’t go around changing words which change the whole meaning of a song (I knew someone who used to change all occurrences of ‘God’ to ‘dog’!) – you may as well not sing the song at all. Remember, for some people, the song you’re singing has a deep and important relevance. Respect that.

I hope there are ideas here which can help you sing some of the amazing songs out there in the world which happen to be religious. I’m sure there are lots of other ways of singing such songs and I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to share.

Chris Rowbury’s website:

Chris Rowbury


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