Songs for Nones

What music about unbelief can teach us about evangelism.

Last year, the Pew Research Center produced a widely cited study that showed that “nones” that is, nonreligious people, are a rapidly growing demographic.

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

If I could score the soundtrack to this study it would be Vampire Weekend’s newest album Modern Vampires of the City and Fleet Foxes’ 2011 album Helplessness Blues.   (The Mountain Goats’ Life of the World to Come is a close runner up, but ultimately needs to be cut due to lyrical obscurity)  Both albums are catchy and even eloquent odes to unbelief.

If there is anything that Christians could learn from these songs, it’s that nones are perfectly capable of self reflection. Modern Christians often suppose that unbelief stems from an incapacity to take stock of oneself and admit of spiritual emptiness. They suppose that making a good case for faith is to convince unbelievers of their existential deficiencies and the Roman Road is the next logical stop. But Ezra Koenig and Robin Pecknold are perfectly keen to their own spiritual condition.

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

Koenig too admits to his own unbelief as well as the insecurity of that position:

We know the fire awaits unbelievers, all of the sinners the same.
But Girl you and I will die unbelievers, bound to the tracks of the train.

I’m not excited, but should I be?
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?

I don’t want to suggest that Koenig and Pecknold or anyone else are beyond conversion, but it probably won’t come from suggesting they read The Brothers Karamazov. Their music proves that they are not dead to reflection or hooked into the modern secular “Matrix,” and therefore, any attempts to shake them out of their stupor are likely superfluous. Philosophy and art may not be the best soil on which to cast our seed as these realms thrive on exactly the sort of insecurity and existential dread that Christians suppose unbelievers do not feel.  The sort of catharsis brought about by writing a really good song about spiritual insecurity does not necessarily translate into the sort of dark night of the soul that caused Pascal to sew “Fire” into his lapel. Instead, simple but direct charity, long-suffering, and unflinching confessions to the power of Christ will likely do more to win converts, in short: faith lived out in love.

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