A few weeks ago I went to see the Amazing Grace film about the recording of the famous Aretha Franklin gospel album. Filmed and recorded in 1972, it is the only gospel recording that Aretha made after becoming a Grammy Award winner. Granted there are recordings of her leading worship as a teenager at her father’s Baptist church, but this is the only album she made with a Christian emphasis in her professional singing career. As a star she often talked her of faith in God and how it underpinned her life, let alone her career.

One of the issues that has distressed me over the years, is the constant criticism from some Christians who declare that she turned her back on God and the church in order to follow a musical path. My own experience is that the church often tries to keep musicians and artists within its walls should they try and do something that would lead them astray and destroy the reputation of the faith. Yet musicians and artists are visionaries who hear and see what God has placed within them. Aretha’s journey wasn’t so much about walking out of the church, but more about being sent by God into an industry that needed him. She was often described as shy and quiet, yet when she opened her mouth the passion and conviction poured out through her singing, a talent and drive that come from the strength of something much greater than her.  

This album celebrates Aretha’s personal testimony of her journey through a difficult life. A single mother by the time she was 13 years old, divorces, an abusive home life and the back drop of slavery and the civil rights movement all led her into a deeper relationship with God. However, while some Christians decry her fame and status as ungodly, there’s also the possibility that God put her into that position so that he could use her to help others. Aretha’s Amazing Grace album is the best selling gospel album of all time, beating her gospel rivals. Not bad for someone who made their name as a soul singer. 

What is also interesting about this album is the rawness of the occasion compared to other recordings of that era. It is reported that Aretha wanted to capture live worship as she knew it in her own church and present it to a wider audience who had no church background. The album allows us to hear Christians worshipping openly in a Baptist church in Los Angeles with a small congregation of both believers and non-believers. This album wasn’t about creating a studio atmosphere with great musical prowess, but about opening a window on praise and adoration of the Lord for those who had never experienced it. Aretha displays a dedication to take the church and God’s love out to the world rather than to wait for people broach the church door tentatively. As Christians, we are asked to take the message of God to our mission field, Aretha just does on a much grander scale using her status and platform to spread the gospel of Jesus. What is notable is that on the second night of the recording, the congregation doubled in size as word spread about the “free” Aretha concert. Even Mick Jagger makes an appearance in the crowd.

However, it isn’t just this album which makes Aretha’s legacy so unique. She was known for singing about women’s rights and independence, performing strong and powerful lyrics that women across the world identified with. Many of her songs became anthems for change and breakthrough; we’re all familiar with Respect and Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves and the powerful message that pervades these performances. 

While the some factions of the church may be mourning the loss of musicians who follow a different path, others are valuing the mission work that they are doing. The music business is one of the most uncharted industries when it comes to Christian missionaries. Aretha’s entry into this world meant the gospel was spread further. I’m not suggesting that all church musicians and artists should up and leave, more that the church should recognise their call and prophethood into an area that needs light and hope. Artists and musicians are called to carry the very heart of God into a world that needs help and this includes the entertainment industries. 

I know the church feels the need to protect creatives from sex, drugs and rock n roll, however in doing so, sometimes it stops people from fully fulfilling their calling. There needs to be an element of trust that God knows what he is doing. I’ve often been criticised for writing secular songs, however I do believe that this is what God has called me to do. One wonders if the church lets down artists, such as Aretha Franklin, by not supporting them more. Perhaps less stars would go off the rails if the church walked with them through their musical careers. I think what we can glean from Aretha’s life is that God used her powerfully and that her music touches the lives listeners around the world. Music is more than worship, some songs heal by the fact that we identify with the pain, others uplift when we feel down, or build community when we all sing together. Music has more than one role in life. 

Perhaps it is time for the church to let more creative people go and do what they do best and reap the harvest of music and art that comes from it. We’re not walking out of church, but walking into what God has called us to do.

Find out more about Helen

Enjoyed this blog? Support Helen’s work by making a donation

A few months ago I hosted a worship evening at my church. In light of the theme of the evening, I decided that we needed to highlight how important prayer is in our lives. The phrase “every prayer a powerful weapon” seemed particularly apt so I added We Want To See Jesus Lifted High by Doug Horley to the set list. The well known arrangement always seems suitable for children’s worship but we needed something about more edgy and contemporary for this particular event. I came up with this arrangement which I performed with a bassist and guitarist, giving the song a a more jazzy feel to it.

Recently in an interview Bono said something that is very close to my heart. It’s something that I have been quite passionate about for a long time. It’s a reason to get out of bed, a reason to song-write and create, it’s a reason to be the person we were made to be as artists… It’s no secret that Bono has criticised Christian artists who only produce worship music, and that his own musical and creative journey started in a worship band that eventually morphed into the internationally renown U2. However his stand point is refreshing and challenging, “we don’t have to please God in any other way than to be brutally honest,” he said. And that’s what I love. The fact that I can be brutally honest in my songwriting.

Bono’s thought process goes further than that though; just because an artist is a Christian doesn’t mean that they can only produce worship music. He goes on to say that “Creation screams God’s name. So you don’t have to stick a sign on every tree.” And I agree with him. I always think it’s sad when artists are pigeonholed with the label “Christian” as the genre immediately limits their scope of work. We don’t need to mention Jesus in everything we do, we carry the fragrance of Jesus with us so his presence is always in our work.

Our music might help someone… Over the years, I’ve been encouraged by many a song that wasn’t Christian because I connected with it some way. This is usually because I could empathise with the topic because I was going through the same life experience. Our songs don’t always have to rejoice over happy endings, some of the best selling pop songs over the decades have been sad, yet the music-buying public lap it up as they need something to help them through their difficult times.

I am not a Christian artist. I refuse to be. I’m an artist who happens to be a Christian. What’s the difference? Well although I write the occasional worship song for church, I don’t feel that worship songs are my calling. I don’t feel the need to mention Jesus in every song I write; I believe that my art should be influenced by faith and that it needs to go much further than the walls of the church building. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people who are called to compose worship music for church gatherings, and if that is what God has called them to then that’s great, but for me it’s not the be all and end all.

This route into artistry is often lonely though; artists who don’t tow the party line and stick to producing worship material are often overlooked by the Christian public. Churches in the UK don’t tend to support artists whose work moves beyond the church walls. We need to release artists into their callings and let them create the works that God has designed for them to do. There are far more opportunities for people to meet Jesus if we are honest about life experiences and allow those experiences to help others. And how much more will we learn about God if we dare to explore further than the praise and worship genre? Some of my greatest experiences of God have come through secular lyrics, the process of songwriting or going to concert. So take Bono’s challenge and dare to go further than praise and worship song in everything you do. You never know you might help someone…

Quotes from an interview with Carol Kuruvilla