Music is a powerful mystery. Humans have been making music for thousands of years, using just a few notes and chords in new combinations to create an infinite landscape. There are thousands of new songs written every year, yet creating a brand new one seems to be relatively easy for many people.
We crank music up when we’re excited. We turn it on when we need to cry. We sing it in church to reminded of God’s love and truth. And it’s a great way for us to change our mood, minds, or lives.
Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger believed so strongly in the power of music to change hearts and minds that they inscribed their instruments with war metaphors.
I agree with them. Music can change us, and these five songs are some of the most powerful songs I’ve ever heard.
1. “With God on Our Side” | Bob Dylan
What It’s About: Bob Dylan released this song in 1964, right when the Vietnam War was really ramping up in intensity. Dylan used this song to reveal how the underlying justification for all of America’s wars was the false assumption that God was on our side each time.
In the masterful way that only Dylan had yet achieved, he satirized the justification for America’s involvement in Vietnam. He revealed the mistake we so often make of assuming God is with us instead of seeking to join him in his work. For most of our (human) history, we’ve used god as an excuse to commit actions that directly contradict his heart.
Crucial Line: “If God’s on our side, He’ll stop the next war”
How It Could Change the World: There are so many cultural norms this song addresses. Nationalism, manifest destiny, racism, particularism, etc. Essentially, listening can encourage us to seek first the Kingdom of God, and become more patient and peace making.
2. “Us For Them” | Gungor
What It’s About: Gungor released this song in 2015 as part of an album trilogy. I remember feeling incredibly challenged and encouraged the first time I heard it. There have been times I listen to it on repeat for hours when I’m having trouble loving another person or group of people.
Somehow Michael Gungor condensed much of the Christian ethic into a few words. By flipping a common phrase on its head, he challenges the listener to really contemplate what it means to carry our cross and live a life of sacrifical love. It’s a seemingly impossible challenge to take Jesus seriously when he told us to love our enemy, but this song has helped me apply it to my life in new and imaginative ways. Maybe it could do the same for all of us.
Crucial Line: “Cause if it’s us or them, it’s us for them. It’s us for them.”
How It Could Change the World: This song compels us to remember Christ’s self-sacrificial love for us. It forces us to remember that He called us to the same ideal, giving up our rights, lives, and preferences for others.
3. “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” | Sufjan Stevens
What It’s About: This is from the album “Illinoise” which Stevens filled with songs about the history of the state. One of the most shocking and darkest tracks is this one about the the serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. It is not an easy song to listen to because it laments the deaths of his victims while also exploring the human side of Gacy.
There are so many layers it can be hard to describe why this song is so compelling. First, it reminds us that even the worst of us is not only a monster. We also have parents that love us, neighbors and friends that trust us, and things we enjoy. Second, it explores the pain we can cause one another. Stevens simultaneously humanizes a killer while deeply lamenting the evil he did. Lastly, and most surprising, Stevens admits that he has secrets and is capable of evil and selfishness, too. And he forces us to recognize that in ourselves as well.
Crucial Line: “Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.”
How It Could Change the World: By humanizing someone evil, Stevens forces us to remember our own failures. Hopefully making us less eager to judge others, while encouraging us to be humble.
4. “Brother” | The Brilliance
What It’s About: The lead track of their 2015 album, is a good summary of the way The Brilliance writes lyrics. It’s a meditative song that challenges the listener to remember that all humans are image bearers. Each of us is loved and valued by God. Each of us have been made to rule alongside him, and only our own arrogance and fear allows us to dehumanize “them.”
The song reminds us that we are all bound by the same selfish and sinful nature, so we should always seek to see the “I in Thou.”
Crucial Line: “When I look into the face of my enemy, I see my brother.”
How It Could Change the World: We humans like to think we are better than other people, or that our group is better than other groups. If we applied this song to our lives, it would be easy to remember that my enemy is just as important and meaningful as I am.
5. “Bullet to Binary (Pt. 2)” | mewithoutYou
What It’s About: Aaron Weiss, the main lyricist for mewithoutYou, grew up in a Sufi household. His mother often read the poetry of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen to him as a child, and those stories form the backbone of this album. Most of the songs are folk tales about animals and plants, but Weiss reinterpreted their meanings in light of Jesus.
“Bullet to Binary” is about how we all share in creation together, experiencing the grace of God and trials of the world together. Much like Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, Weiss concludes that since God showers grace on all of us, especially the undeserving, we should do the same.
Crucial Line: “But grace, we all know, can take the place of all we owe. So why not, let’s forgive everyone everywhere everything all the time.”
How It Could Change the World: Our personal history, and the history of the world, is often heavily influenced by seeking justice against those that have wronged us. Since we (Jesus followers) should understand the grace we’ve been given, we should extend that grace to everyone, even when they don’t ask for it or deserve it.