A faith and doubt playlist, part 1

Can a song change you? Can it get inside your mind and, like Rilke’s archaic torso, demand in no uncertain terms “You must change your life”? In my own experience, I think it is possible. As Balthasar notes, music is a much more internal medium than sight or even touch… it “oscillates” between inner and outer, operating on us on a preconscious, prereflective level. When it comes to pop music, you have the added phenomenon of lyrics, which when wedded to music take on a mysteriously persuasive power. Apparently (and this is not from Balthasar, but from an interview I read with Feist) the German word for a hit pop song is an “ear-worm,” a tune that crawls into your brain and inhabits your skull. A little disturbing, but fitting.

Looking back on my own life, there are a couple of pop songs that I think have changed my mind… and possibly my life… with their beauty, poignancy and catchy hooks. This is especially true when it comes to my own appropriation of religion, ie. my personal ‘religious experience’ – which is to say my constant back-and-forth (can I say “oscillation” again?) between faith and doubt. I’m going to highlight several such songs over the course of the next few posts. Here’s the first instalment (sorry about the sound quality):

Life-Changing Song #1: Burton Cummings, “I’m Scared”

Sure, one might argue that this song from the former Guess Who frontman crosses over into schmaltz. The soaring strings, the epic guitar solo; it appealed to me when I first heard it on vinyl in Grade Seven, which was not my time of greatest musical discernment. Still, I always find myself humming it when I’m outside on a cold and bright “winter afternoon”:

Something in the air
Was oh-so-rare
I’m not really sure what it was
But I know that it’s still right there

It’s a song about the experience of the numinous, the existential fear of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which leads right into Schleiermacher’s “feeling of absolute dependence.” The cold air, the city streets, and finally the sacred space of St. Thomas’ cathedral… they seem to hint at a deeper reality, though what it really is remains permanently veiled. Unlike most Guess Who songs, there are no caribou in the song, and the setting is New York not Saskatoon, but to me this song entails an authentically Canadian religious experience. Cold weather as an occasion for epiphany.

“I’m Scared” taught me that Christianity doesn’t corner the market on religious experience. To sense there is something, or someone “more” out there… it’s a human, not just a “Christian,” intuition; we’re all on a journey to God, inside and outside of the cathedral walls. This, though it may seem obvious, has been a very important lesson for me ever since Grade Seven, and has saved me from fundamentalism many times over. We are all offered glimpses of divine presence, bowled over by beauty: “Never been much on religion / But I should have just fell down on my knees.” Thanks, Burton.


3 thoughts on “A faith and doubt playlist, part 1

  1. Hi Brett,

    Well, people can indeed have ‘spiritual experiences’ and they can be very real. But honestly where do they lead? If it is to Jesus Christ then we say ‘amen’.

    But there will be many people in hell who had similar spiritual experiences. I may be a fundy, but we need to ‘repent for the Kingdom of God is near’ not indulge such numinous moments.

    BTW I am that oddity – a fundy who paints thoughtful theological abstract art; I’m a kind of L’Abri pilgrim.

    Much respect to you for this blog, the time, the talent and the serious intent of intellect.

    We may disagree on much but I hope we hold much in common.

    Warmest regards,


  2. Thanks Philip for your very thoughtful comments – I appreciate both your candour and the spirit of your critique. Would love to see some of your art!

    I would agree that Otto’s language of the “numinous” can be a bit vague. But I would also (and here is probably where we diverge) want to legitimate the “spiritual” experiences people have in art galleries and concert halls as not leading away from the revelation of God in Christ, but (perhaps in a veiled way) toward it.

    I’m sure you’re right that there’s much we have in common despite differences. I am certainly indebted to L’Abri thinkers like Schaeffer and Rookmaaker who paved the way for evangelical engagement with the arts, though I tend more to a (for lack of a better word) “catholic” theology of art and culture.

    All the best to you in art and life.

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