“Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories. And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.” —Stevie Wonder
Music is difficult to define, but it is undeniable that it is significantly intertwined in our lives: it is wrapped up in our culture, our ideals and values, and even our faith. Music is everywhere. It reminds us of the past and connects us with those who performed or listened to it before us.
Musical themes can be like this too. Musicians are shaped by the culture of their lives—the music they enjoy, the experiences they have had, and the ideas that have challenged and encouraged them. This all can be seen in their lyrics, creating a lineage of creativity and ideas.
One curiosity, then, is how biblical themes have been represented over the history of music. These themes show up not only in our traditional church music, but in modern music as well, in songs written for inside the church and outside it.
To explore this, let’s look at the way one ancient theme, water, has flowed through the popular music of the church and into the ever-expanding musical genres of our society. Water has assorted reputations in the Bible. At times it is used to represent life and renewal—it’s found pouring out of rocks and peacefully raining out of heaven, sustaining and renewing. At other times water is something to be feared—roaring and storming, flooding and chaotic. Almost always it is powerful, as is most pointedly represented in the sacrament of baptism.
This symbolism of water found its way into the songs and psalms and soundtrack of the North American church. Old hymns such as “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” or “It Is Well With My Soul” remind us of some of the biblical connotations of water: peace, sadness, blessing. “Come Thou Fount” especially speaks to water’s connection with baptism, expressing visions of a fountain of goodness pouring out, unbounded and undeserved.
The African American spiritual “Take Me to the Water” gets more to the point of it all, reminding the listener what this all means: that we are reconciled to Jesus through the grace of God. The river in this case represents blessing, but even more so, it is a bridge spanning the divide between God and humanity.
Not surprisingly, some songs of the past few decades also uses the biblical theme of water, though they seem to extend the theme more than their traditional counterparts.
In the mid-1990s, “Flood” by Christian band Jars of Clay received much attention, getting solid play on both Christian and Top 40 radio stations. The popularity of “Flood” partly had to do with how it referenced biblical stories of water and related them with everyday personal struggles. The song references the story of Noah:
My world is a flood
Slowly I become
One with the mud
But if I can't swim after 40 days
And my mind is crushed
By the crashing waves
Lift me up
It alludes to Jesus calming the storm:
Calm the storms that drench my eyes
And dry the streams still flowing
Casting down all waves of sin
And guilt that overthrow me
It weaves in a personal narrative of being lost in the storms of life—so lost that the only hope of survival is Jesus. Even as a teenager I recognized the uniqueness of the song, in part because of its honest lyrical themes. Most of the Christian music I knew up to that point dealt only with the positive. Then along came “Flood,” which states clearly that life is full of challenges and gives permission to bring the very depths of our lives to God, our only hope.
Another water-themed 1995 release is “Waterfalls,” the iconic hit from the rhythm and blues group TLC. This song tackles heavy challenges such as drug use and the HIV epidemic. Like “Flood,” “Waterfalls”uses water as a metaphor for potential danger, but also for blessing. This most pointedly happens in Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez’s mid-song rap, which begins:
I seen rainbow yesterday
But too many storms have come and gone
Leavin’ a trace of not one God-given ray
Storms and challenges, promises and blessings—“Waterfalls”explores the complexity of life through these biblical themes.
Decades later, popular music is still exploring these themes.
Take, for instance, a song like “Oceans,” from Jay-Z’s 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Water is a blessing for some but a horror for others in the heartbreaking stories of the African slave trade Jay-Z describes. Water and storms are a metaphor for individual and collective pain.
The Christian megagroup Hillsong United also has a song titled “Oceans.” Using the story of Peter walking on water but eventually sinking, it speaks to the personal storms that can challenge our faith.
Surprisingly, few modern Christian songs use the theme of baptism, though many songs outside traditionally Christian genres do. One example is country singer Carrie Underwood’s 2015 hit “Something in the Water.” Underwood understands the power of baptism in the life of a new believer.
Couldn’t fight back the tears so I fell on my knees
Saying, “God, if you're there, come and rescue me.”
Felt love pouring down from above
Got washed in the water, washed in the blood
Another modern song using the ancient themes of water and baptism is Leon Bridges’ 2015 song “River.” Its music and lyrics sound as if they come from an earlier era:
Tip me in your smooth waters
I go in
As a man with many crimes
Come up for air
As my sins flow down the Jordan
Here is a song about sin and repentance, pain and hope, faith and salvation. It builds upon the past while remaining modern and distinct.
Whether it’s rain and floods, storms and waves, the joy of an overflowing fountain or the promises of baptism, water imagery in the Christian faith gives us a picture of our uncertain lives within God’s sweet grace. Our music reflects this, not just the songs heard in our churches for decades, but also in the music in the playlists of our kids and neighbors. While our culture continues to shift and evolve, it’s delightful to see new takes on old reflections, with both “sorrows like sea billows” and “smooth waters” still bubbling up.
About the Author
Matthew Cooke, director of communications at Calvin Theological Seminary