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Worthily lamenting our sins

04 March 2016

Hannah Matis finds repentance in popular music


Live: Damien Rice performing in Italy

Live: Damien Rice performing in Italy

THE Irish musician Damien Rice has a long history of using the language of faith to inflect what seem initially like straightforward love songs. On his first album, O, now some 13 years old, it is difficult to know whether a song such as “Cold Water” is directed towards a lover, or towards a God he cannot let go of but is having difficulty finding.

On his latest album, released in 2014, Rice uses explicitly religious, and even liturgical, language to create an gorgeous eight-minute tsunami of a pop song, “Trusty and True”.

Given the content of the rest of the album, on a purely secular level the song can be read as an apology from one man (and, collectively, from the “fellas” he addresses) to the women they have wronged or failed, and their subsequent promise to “start from here”. But the song’s remit is larger than that. On an emotional level, the entire song works, and is structured to work, as a call to come to the table. “If all that you are is not all you desire, then come. . . Come, let yourself be wrong/Come however you are, just come.”

The rush of orchestration is deliberately overwhelming, trying to cajole its audience into a moment in which they can imagine surrender: “come with me, then let go.” But what, after all, can one musician do to fix the agonizing grief and guilt he invokes with such honesty? Having touched that nerve, now that he’s got us, where are we supposed to come to, and what are we supposed to receive once we’ve got there?

In a purely secular context, once the orchestration dies away, there is nothing to receive but the rather weary reaffirmation that we will, of course, try to do better next time.


THERE is always a tension in Christian theology when we talk about salvation, a difference in emphasis that plays itself out in Eastern and Western theology.

In the face of heavy-handed and manipulative use of divisive language that brands one group — for whatever fault — as the lost, and the rest as the elect, we in the West have become nervous about any talk of sin, original or otherwise. But the sick know they need a doctor when the healthy do not; it is broken sinners who respond to Christ’s call, and who find, not condemnation, but restoration and wholeness.

A song such as “Trusty and True” illustrates the power of repentance, even in a purely secular context; it is a case, to borrow a phrase from Francis Spufford, of Christianity making “surprising emotional sense”. “So let us start from here” — a true recognition of where we are, shaping our need of, and our response to Christ, whose ideas of who and what he wants us to be are so much greater than our own.


Dr Hannah Matis is Assistant Professor of Church History at Virginia Theological Seminary.

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