By Mark Naida
I closed the hymnal. While the parishioners around me sang an unobjectionable hymn after communion, I tried to pray. The words came quietly as they slipped through the interlaced fingers that held my bowed head—“Been traveling these wide roads for so long / my heart’s been far from you.” I could feel my heart beating. I could feel the baptismal font pulsing blessed tap water, the musculature of the Church—the timbers, plaster, and gold foil—exhaling through the pipes of the organ. Amid the smells of incense and cheap Sunday perfume, I felt guitar strings plucking at my heart, the smoky tremolo of a voice in my head beckoning to me.
I heard a voice singing “Surrender to the good Lord / and he’ll wipe your slate clean.” I heard a prayer. It was a prayer written last year by a dishwasher from Fort Worth, Texas, Leon Bridges; it is a prayer I heard last year on MTV, in a music video, shot cheaply on an iPhone, of an old-fashioned young man strutting about Fort Worth. It is a prayer set to music from a boy whose eyes are lifted both to the heavens and to the past.
Leon Bridges has fertilized the fallow musical landscape with his heartbreaking vocal richness. His voice is like a bear’s growl echoing from the back of a cave, like bourbon mixed with sweet tea. He is the epitome of millennial aesthetic conservatism with his high-waisted slacks, suit jackets, and tight-trimmed moustache. His style coincides with his subject matter: he sings of his mother, of fifties malt-shop love, and of God. Yet, despite all his retro novelty, he was nominated for the Grammy for best R&B album this year.
The music video for his song “River” shows Bridges’ intense humanistic understanding of baptism, capturing the tender moments where God’s love blinks through. The video contains stirring images: a tender embrace between a mother and son, people gathered under a bare-branched tree softly sprayed by a fire hose, and a father holding his baby to his chest after being bloodied in a fight, the child’s skin glistening with the blood of his father. Leon Bridges offers us the reality of Christian life—of love and baptism translated into the commonplace. His song begins with nods to family, contrition, and tradition when he prays:
Oh, I wanna come near and give ya
Every part of me
But there’s blood on my hands
And my lips aren’t clean
In my darkness I remember
Momma’s words reoccur to me
“Surrender to the good Lord
And he’ll wipe your slate clean.”
The popularity of Leon Bridges’ throwback traditionalism is undeniable, but what is more shocking is the lack of discussion concerning the overt Christian themes of his music. Music critics and listeners alike would rather compare him to Sam Cooke or speak about his “vintage” recording style and sound. This criticism cheapens an album that bridges the gap between secular and sacred music with a traditional, meditative tenderness. Defined by these voices, the album becomes an oddity, a brief nostalgic snack to be served on the same tarnished platter as kitschy western towns and teased hair. The only mention of Christianity in reviews of his music was in an NPR review that called his lyrics “deeply personal and connected to Golden Era gospel in a way that goes beyond mere posturing.” That is all NPR and other critics have to say about the Christian roots of a man who tweeted a picture of a Bible open to the Gospel of John with the caption, “We eatin’ but our plates are empty.” That is all they have to say of the man who wrote “My Love Stays,” a song whose text is a conversation between the sinner and his merciful God. Bridges’ lyrics are poetry centered on God’s forgiveness and mercy, possessing the timeless weight found in the poems of Richard Rolle or John Lydgate, sung along with a steel guitar in a living room in Fort Worth, Texas.
Father, Father look at these works that I’ve done
I send them to you in hopes of getting your attention
Father, Father look at the mess that I’ve made
Just a man with unclean hands from You I hide my face
My son, my love always here for you
You don’t have to climb a ladder, bend over backwards
To gain my love for you
Cause, have you forgot, I love from the bottom to the top
My love is steadfast, it never stops to you all and it never slows down
I know, I know the weight of your sin is heavier than a thousand tons.
The man who wrote these lyrics sells out stadiums, not megachurches. He has performed at the White House and on Saturday Night Live unhampered by a Christian label which would tarnish him for many “non-religious” listeners. Leon Bridges’ success in providing Christian music without cheapening it through simplicity or sentimentality in his debut album “Coming Home” is astonishing, though not easily seen. But why? Why are critics unwilling to confront the Christian element in his work, to either laud or belittle his work because of its rarefied cultural conversation?
Hillsdale alumnus Gregory Wolfe, in his book Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, states:
Great art sneaks past our shallow prejudices and brittle opinions to remind us of the complexity and mystery of human existence. The imagination calls us to leave our personalities behind and temporarily to inhabit another’s experience, looking at the world with new eyes. Art invites us to meet the Other—whether that be our neighbor or the infinite otherness of God—and to achieve a new wholeness of spirit.
This cultural confrontation with “the Other” illuminates Bridges’ work as he works to reintegrate the sacred into modern culture. He channels the current fascination with the style of the fifties and sixties through his persona with the historical truth that religion was a prominent cultural element of the era. He has quietly reinvigorated a musical tradition that speaks about traditional modes of morality and introspection. It can be a testament to itself and to something greater. The lyrical and technical richness allows the Christian elements to be delivered with coercive integrity; critics simply can’t resist such mastery. He is doing for R&B music what Kendrick Lamar has done for rap music: making music so good, its message must be heard. They are Christian Sirens, calling to hearts and souls from across a deep, dark sea of metaphysical malaise.
Leon Bridges reintroduces a Christian aesthetic into a metaphysically impoverished culture. Critics like to focus on anything other than the prayerful nature of his music; however, that may be the point. Maybe Leon Bridges can connect to more people though his lyrics if he remains unlabeled, an alluring aesthetic remnant. Maybe as they listen to “Coming Home,” people will be able to hear themselves in the music, to feel themselves beloved, to hear a call to contrition. Whether they hear the message or not, it is there. It paws at them, snarling, not as an antiquated solecism, but as a living truth whose golden thread laces society and history together. It could be that “Coming Home” can do nothing more than force popular culture to acknowledge Christianity as a recognition of an immense heritage. That would be enough. That would still be heartening.
Mark Naida is a sophomore studying French English.