Paula Cole, Amen (1999)

Seven-time Grammy nominee and 1998 Best New Artist, Paula Cole has released her latest album, Amen, which has met with a strongly mixed reaction from her predominantly female fans. A regular member of the Lilith Fair troupe, Cole’s music has been marked by the strident tones of feminist anger. Her 1996 breakthrough single, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” dripped with ironic disgust at the chauvinistic patterns of traditional relationships. But now in her fourth album, Cole turns to matters of the spirit.

Spirituality has been a favorite theme in recent pop music offerings from Lauryn Hill to Madonna. And music has a unique place within youth culture. Even more than fashion or entertainment, music represents the identity trademark of adolescence. Thus thematic popularity of spirituality in music points to a deeper longing in contemporary society. It is largely a reaction to the scorched-earth rationalism of modern education that explains everything by reason and limits reality to what can be seen. Thus that pop musicians are recognizing that the meaning of life is more than meets the eye is a refreshing turn of events.

Cole explained to USA Today’s Elysa Gardner, “As a child, I felt what we call ‘God,’ that spirit, that energy. Then you get schooled by society, and I rationalized that it didn’t exist. It made me profoundly unhappy that there was no meaning, no logic, no unity of all life. Now I feel God inside me. If cynical and atheistic people want to judge me, that’s their problem.” In her song, “Rhythm Of Life,” she raps a religious apologetic to her skeptical fans:

To the critics and the cynics who don’t understand the lyrics
To the atheists and the pessimists
Wanting company in their darkness
You may see me as a fool, yes, a charlatan, an egoist,
But I’d rather be this in your eyes,
Than a coward in His.

“It is important,” she continued to Gardner, “for me to stand up for what I believe in.” Such earnest conviction and honest searching is to be highly esteemed in a culture of mind-numbing and soul-squandering diversion.

Cole, 31, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, is a professionally trained jazz singer and pianist. In Amen, she blends a musical sensitivity to Black gospel with her own Buddhist religious sensibilities. It is this religious eclecticism—characteristic of all contemporary forms of pop spirituality from the AA’s Higher Power to Jewel’s Spirit —which requires Christian discernment. Absent in pop spirituality is the offense of particularity. Religious words waft on the airwaves or fill self-help rhetoric without content or definition.

I believe in love
To be the center of all things
And I believe in love to be the way
To find our inner light

Pop spirituality is infused with a pantheistic symbolic system that unites divinity with nature. And so the half-truths of Cole’s lyrics are especially troubling. Love is the center of reality, which is why the search for meaning is always relational. But Love is embodied not in Nature but in the Person of Jesus who entered the natural world to establish The Ultimate Relationship. All longing for love is itself a signal of transcendence.

A Christian’s first responsibility is to identify with this longing. Augustine, reflecting on his youth, admits in his Confessions that “The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and to be loved.” Yet the heart is not the satisfaction of the heart’s longings.

A Christian’s second responsibility in understanding pop spirituality is to maintain discernment. Half-truths are always more dangerous than lies. CBS’s Touched by an Angel may in fact be more spiritually dangerous than Paul Schrader’s R-rated film, Hardcore. In the first case, therapeutic angel spirituality (what cultural critic Ruth Shalit calls “a civic religion of self-regard”) replaces Trinitarian incarnational theology. In the second case, the seduction of pornography is portrayed clearly as moral evil. Sometimes that which is most palatable is most poisonous and that which is most pernicious is most palliative. The devil’s disguise is not darkness, but light.

Words like “god,” “spirituality,” “gospel,” “grace,” and “love” are empty apart from biblical content. Take for example, Judy Collins’s explanation of John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace.” “‘Amazing Grace’ is a song about letting go, bottoming out, seeing the light, turning it over, trusting the universe, breathing in, breathing out, going with the flow, timing is everything, trust your instincts, don’t push the river, ease on down the road, get on your knees, let your guard down, drop your defenses, lighten up, like angels they know how to fly, don’t be afraid, when all else fails, pray. There are a million ways to say it. If we don’t, we crack up, break our heart.”

Such is the nature of pop spirituality. God-words do not necessarily point God-ward. And so, even with a catchy tune and religious lyrics, discernment is required.

Can somebody say Amen?