You Don't Have to Be Religious to Sing about God

God Songs

A couple of weeks ago, as you may recall, my daughter cut me off midway through a sentence to inform me that we wouldn't be talking about religion anymore. Her justification: "Religion is boring." The statement stopped me in my tracks, mostly because I'd been under the impression she enjoyed our little talks. Since then, I've realized that what we had there was a failure to communicate.

As it turns out, Maxine doesn't find religion boring in the least. She's still as fascinated with God and heaven and faith as she was nearly two years ago, when her little preschool boyfriend told her that "God made us." The problem is the word religion. To children — and, hell, to a lot of us — religion connotes something cumbersome and complicated. And, for many of us, complicated = tedious and tedious = boring. It's a little like the word math. There's nothing boring about counting money (especially when it's your own), but use the word math, and we feel overwhelmed.

So here's my advice, when it comes to religious literacy in young children, try this:

1. Lay off the big, esoteric terms, like religion, in favor of concrete ones, like God.

2. Stow away the serious conversations and stick to what's fun: creative play, books, movies, games, art, music. (You'll notice "talking" didn't make the list.)

3. Put the religious terms out there, and let your kids take it from there.

I realize there's a fine line to walk on that last one. We all know it's better and more effective to let our children do the talking and questions-asking, but our children will never talk or ask questions if we don't give them something to talk or ask about. Injecting the idea of religious faith into their periphery is vital if we're going to expect them to give any thought to these things at all.

My suggestion of the week:

Make a mix CD, chock full of songs with a religious bent. They could be songs you heard as children, or gospel songs, hymns, traditional chants, epic songs, or just faith-oriented songs: jazz, country, pop, rock — you name it. The only requirement is that religion is more than just mentioned in the background. Maybe you make it a mix of songs from every religion. Maybe make one CD per religion.

I made my own CD last week. And, I have to say, the results were about 100 times better than expected.

I chose to do Christian music first, since that's still the dominant religion in my area. Because my background is Christianity, the experience was a strange and liberating. There are so many wonderful songs I sung as a kid that will forever be burned into my memory — starting with "The B-I-B-L-E" all the way up to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." But all were songs I assumed my daughter would never be able to enjoy for herself. They were songs I never thought I'd revisit for myself.

I'm really glad  I was wrong.

So here's how did it: I started out with a master list of the songs I thought would be fun to hear — most I'd heard as a child, but some just sounded interesting — like "Who Built the Ark?" and "Who Did Swallow Jonah?"  Then I logged into the iTunes Store and listened to snippets of various artists' recordings of the songs I wanted. The selections were insane. Most famous religious and Gospel songs have been recorded time and again by amazing singers from a wide cross-section of genres.

The neat thing about this exercise, too, was that I was able to choose music that matched my — and my daughter's — quirks and styles. I am a huge fan of bluegrass and old-time country, for example, and Maxine, loathes hearing children sing (unless she knows the children personally). By doing our own playlist, I was able to accommodate us both. What resulted was, I believe, a fun and quite beautiful mix of country, R&B, Gospel, ukulele, folk, indie and, of course, rock-and-roll. Here it is:

This Little Light of Mine / Raffi What a Friend We Have In Jesus / Bart Millard Who Built the Ark? / Mad Tea Party Jesus Loves Me / The Bluegrass Gospel Group I'm In the Lord's Army / Cassandra Laudiaann Provencal Father Abraham / Spring Harvest Jesus Loves the Little Children / Frank McConnell B-I-B-L-E / Wee Worship Who Did Swallow Jonah? / Aardvark Kids Music He's Got the Whole World In His Hands / Etta James Onward Christian Soldier / The New Tragedies Swing Low, Sweet Chariot / Eric Clapton I’ve Got Peace Like A River / Harpeth Gospel Quartet All Through the Night / Peter, Paul & Mary Go Tell It On the Mountain/ Dolly Parton Leaning On the Everlasting Arm / Iris DeMent Hallelujah / Leonard Cohen Old Time Religion / Loretta Lynn Swing Low, Sweet Chariot / She & Him

Maxine is crazy for "Father Abraham" (which encourages you move body parts with the music; I've always thought of it as the Christian Hokey-Pokey) and "I'm in the Lord's Army" which almost demands that you march along with the beat. And she's so into the Gospel songs that I'm thinking about taking her to a Gospel brunch at our "local" House of Blues before too long. My personal favorites are: Etta James' "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands, " "What a Friend in Jesus," by Bart Millard, and "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. Oh, and I could listen to Loretta Lynn pronounce the word "religion" (reelijin') all day in her rousing version of "Old Time Religion."

I was so impressed, too, to hear that the Satan reference had been removed entirely from Raffi's recording of "This Little Light of Mine" — another of our favorites. The lyric used to be sung, "Don't let Satan [blow] it out, I'm gonna let it shine." Raffi's version (and maybe most these days?) goes: "Don't let anyone [blow] it out..."

It's also been great to inject pieces of religious information by way of "explanation."

During "Lord's Army," for example, I told her that "Lord" usually means God but it also can mean Jesus. And during "B-I-B-L-E," she asked if the Bible was the singers' favorite book. I said yes and that it's often called "The Good Book." She seemed genuinely pleased to hear this.

Religion, boring? Nah. Just depends on who's singin'.