The Common Good

Mumford and Sons: A Festival of Devotion

Mumford and Sons is in town. They are playing three shows at The Greek on the campus of Cal here in Berkeley. Wednesday's show was the first. I think there are a few tickets available. You need to get yourself one and go to the show. It's remarkable. I had the good fortune of attending with Cathleen Falsani. More on that another time.

Mumford and Sons play in Seattle, Mat Hayward / Shutterstock.com
Mumford and Sons play in Seattle, Mat Hayward / Shutterstock.com

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So, maybe you know some of Mumford's tunes. Maybe you know they won the Grammy. Maybe you know that they were interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine. You might even know they have been criticized by a few religious leaders for being lukewarm in their faith. Yeah. It's all out there for you to read. I encourage you to do it. Then I encourage you to go to the concert and let me know if you still think that they are lukewarm about anything.

I have never been to a concert that was so ... quiet. I mean, the band ... they rocked. Sure. They gesticulated as rockers do. There were big video screens set up and everything. It all read "rock concert" except that the volume read "accordion played here" or "have you seen my banjo?" And that was just the beginning of the night that said again and again ..."Yeah, it's a rock concert, but it's not."

The music does not lend itself to ear-blistering volume levels, so they don't do it. It ain't Mastadon. Mumford and Sons asks you to listen, to pay attention, to lean in a little and hear what they are singing, the lyrics, and the music. They ask you to devote a little of yourself to the moment, to give yourself over. To surrender.

In 1680, the Synopsis of Vocal Musick published this little pedagogical missive about singing and the affections (read it here). It read:

"Vocal Music is an Art of expressing rightly things by Voice, for the sweet moving of affections and the mind ... Singing ... directeth the understanding ... The end effect of it is, a sweet moving of the affections of the mind. For exhilarating the animal spirits, it moderateth gratefully the affections, and thus penetrateth the interiours of the mind, which it most pleasantly doth affect." 

Well, my understanding was directed and my affections were moved.

In a much more recent collection of essays, Christian Scharen writes of Charles Taylor's notion of "the festive" and how this aspect of religious life has been swept away in American religious life. Protestant ritual sensibilities, according to Taylor, govern most religious expression in our culture, which leaves people to find alternative locales to experience "the festival." Scharen points us to rock concerts. Both of these things were afoot last night. The sounds of devotion, of affections, and the festive. This is why rock concerts "feel like church should feel." We can bring our affections to bear. We can listen with the heart and the mind simultaneously. Our desires are reframed. Candor is offered up. Devotion is a full-out activity with others led by people who have a confessional musical posture. Joy. Grief. Shame. Jubilation. That it blends the so-called secular and sacred is what makes it typical of our time (and others, but that is not important here).

Mumford and Sons opened with a little introit called "Sigh No More" then a call to worship, "Roll Away Your Stone" and so we did. Understated and, dare I say it, reverent. Polished and yet still "honest" (this is a hipster liturgy, after all), the boys did a great job offering their work to us. They spoke with the audience. Marcus jumped off stage to give a beer to a woman celebrating her 21st birthday and then led the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to her. Welcome to a living room that seats 8,500.

The band played most of their published stuff, took a bow, and walked off stage. The encore set is what took it home for me. The stepped away from their usual set-up, unplugged their instruments, stood around a condenser mic and then sang. They dragged us back into devotion. Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" followed by "Sister" sung a cappella did me in. A benediction? Perhaps I'm reaching. 

They closed the night with "The Cave" which had people jumping and singing along. You can find a set list here.

After the concert, my Facebook feed lit up with "it was just like church" or "that was church" by several people including some ordained church types in attendance last night. The Vineyard background has not been wasted, not by any stretch. It has been given a new venue, a new form, a venue where the truth can be sung in quiet tones, where no name is taken in vain or otherwise, where wild passion is replaced with festal devotion.

What I saw and heard last night was devotion. That there was no stated object of devotion will trouble many of those who balk at equating rock concerts with church services. I understand. But that's the reality in which we live. Nonetheless, people were shushing one another to hear the quiet a capella singing or singing along with the rowdy anthems, enjoying friendships, and holding their loved ones. There was what Taylor calls "ordinary human flourishing." It was a festival of devotion.

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

Photo: Mumford and Sons play in Seattle, Mat Hayward / Shutterstock.com

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