Warning: This entry is not for the traditionalist or the ascetic. If you belong to one of those categories, better to stop reading now.
It is for the sincere Christian striving to reconcile their life in the world with their faith in Christ.
There are certain similarities between formal prayer to God and listening to a song you like. By formal prayer I mean a prayer that is written down somewhere, such as Agbia prayers, the liturgy and so on. By song I mean a song you listen to on the radio, or more likely nowadays, on your portable electronic thingummy.
In both cases you are paying attention to someone else’s words. Ideas, thoughts, experiences and feelings that someone else has had are embodied in language an melody and thus communicated far beyond the immediate proximity of the author. Across the oceans or across the ages, in both song and formal prayers, we share something with someone we have never met and often know very little about.
In both cases the words and melody are not the whole story. They are not like a mathematical equation that can only be interpreted in one way. The value of art is not in what it is, but in what it can inspire. You may have noticed that the lyrics of many popular songs are fairly vague, and listeners spend many hours trying to interpret them. When asked, the composer will often evade the question, because a song doesn’t have to mean just what the author intended – it can mean different things to different people. In the same way, the words and melodies of set prayers can mean different things to different people. They can even mean different things to the same person at different times in their life. The value of a prayer is not in the words or melody itself but in what they can inspire in us. They are merely tools we use to help us achieve the real goal: connection with God.
A good pop song will make you think and feel things you might not have experienced without it. In the same way, an effective prayer opens your mind and heart to new experiences with God, revealing new insights, changing attitudes, softening hard hearts and inspiring repentance.
There is a certain enjoyment in a well crafted song. Our brains were created to be pleased with harmonic melodies, clever rhymes or plays on words. We are also wired to derive satisfaction from seeing things in a novel way (‘Oh, I never thought of that!) All these things can also apply in a formal prayer, particularly when words are synchronised with tune. Which is why virtually all the formal prayers of the Coptic Church are sung or chanted rather than just read out blandly. It takes longer, but it adds another dimension to enrich the experience.
A truly great song inspires action, perhaps even helps to change the world. Just think of anthems like ‘We Are the World’ that moved millions to donate to help the starving masses dying in Ethiopia in the late eighties. Folk singers like Bob Dylan used their music to influence the thinking of a whole generation. Prayer too can change the world, only in this case it can act not only through the person who hears or prays it, but additionally through the work of the Holy Spirit who hears and answers prayer.
In modern times, our Coptic community has considered listening to popular music to be a waste of time at best, downright harmful and spiritually dangerous at worst. It is considered worldly and likely to entice the listener away from God. But I wonder if we could not view it in a more positive light? Perhaps those very skills one needs to enjoy pop music are the self same skills one needs to enjoy prayer? Given the right guidance and encouragement, I wonder if the avid music listener is not the best candidate for becoming an effective exponent of prayer? It’s just a matter of taking those skills of focus, interpretation, application and feeling someone else’s words deeply and applying them to prayer.
Kind of lends new meaning to the old phrase, ‘On a song and a prayer’.