This I Believe – or – Does the Spirit Dwell in my Heart or my Spine?

My this I believe essay didn’t make it onto NPR so I’m sharing it here…

I believe music is proof that God exists.

As an adolescent evangelical, I once attended a massive Christian music festival out in Pennsylvania. In a moment while 70,000 of us were holding hands and singing worship songs, I suddenly got this tingling sensation up and down my spine. This, I thought, must be the Holy Spirit moving.

But just a few weeks later, riding in a friend’s car, Billy Joel came on the radio singing “Piano Man.” It was loud and I was listening intently when… uh-oh… God? I was getting that exact same tingle! This evoked a minor faith crisis.

Perhaps you’ve had the same sensation. It feels like someone has rigged electrical wiring throughout your vertebrae. And when Billy Joel belts, “It’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man’s clothes,” it’s like he flips a switch that sends a current down the wire that alternately makes you want to weep or hurl with a profound, simultaneous sense of crippling grief and rapturous joy.

I feel it during “Amazing Grace”, in the last verse when the organist instinctively slows down and the congregation booms, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun.”

I also feel it during Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” a song my pastor commonly denounced in his Sunday sermons as typical, wayward attitude of popular culture (we should be doing things God’s way, not our way). Sorry, Pastor Dave, but it’s still a great song.

I feel it during the Allman Brothers’ final choruses, when the vocals rest for a beat while the rhythm section pounds on, “like I been… TIED to the whipping post.”

I felt it when we sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness” in the campus chapel on September 11th.

The national anthem gets an honorable mention because I know people feel it in “O’er the land of the freeeee.” I don’t feel it here, maybe because I am trying to force it or maybe because I am always distracted with worry over whether the soloist will actually hit that high note.

Of course, not only great hymns and classic tunes hold this power. The oft-forgotten 90’s grunge band The Toadies have a song called “Tyler” that gets me every time with its creepy crescendo. And local Boston group, Big D’s “Take Another Look,” has this quiet, brooding build-up that culminates in a drop-off of everything but the horns, then a distorted pick-slide that brings the rhythm section back in full-force as the horns all hit this high note and the singer screams. It’s probably one of the most cathartic musical moments ever composed.

You might hear it, create it, or participate in it by singing along, but we all have the potential to create this physiological manifestation of emotion through the miracle of music – those seven notes and their slight variations that have been arranged into countless creations over thousands of years. There is no rational explanation for the fact of music, and certainly none for the way it makes us feel. And so I believe it is a gift from God, a sort of general revelation, accessible to all his people, to remind us of the beauty and sorrow of life and to make it all a little more bearable.

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