Since the 2009 release of the band’s first album, Sigh No More, British folk-rock band Mumford & Sons has become a prominent plank in the structure of the popular music world. The group’s banjo-picking, kick-drum propelled songs of heart and soul have infected the playlists of bookstores and coffee shops, adding a curious collection of mysterious lyrics about God, purpose, and forgiveness to the musical atmosphere of our age. The group’s sophomore album, 2012’s Babel, has sold over 2.5 million copies and been awarded Album of the Year at the Grammies. With such cultural power and presence comes an inevitable onslaught of interpretations from observing critics, and even as the band has entered a hiatus, diagnoses of M&S’s music range from a collection of romance songs to a Platonic allusion to a struggle with life’s deepest questions.
Almost no responsible critic or listener misses the persistent use of religious language – without exception, Christian language – in both of M&S’s albums. In “Whispers in the Dark,” for example, lead singer Marcus Mumford cries that “This cup of yours tastes holy / But a brush with the Devil can clear your mind,” and “I’m a cad but I’m not a fraud / I’d set out to serve the Lord.” In “Awake My Soul,” he chants, “Awake my soul / For you were made to meet your Maker.” Jordan Monge (former Ichthus editor-in-chief) goes so far as to say that secular listeners simply cannot understand the “richness of M&S’s theology,” and so those without “the existential experience of worship,” cannot catch the beauty and triumph of this music.
However, Marcus Mumford, the band’s lead singer and lyricist, has confessed that he “wouldn’t call himself a Christian.” While pounded with questions about the religious content of their music, band members’ attitudes towards Christian culture often appear angry – guitarist Winston Marshall tells American fans seeking to pray with him to “F***k off.”
These reactions may seem to support those who dismissed the Christian leanings in M&S’s music as “religious shoptalk.” Yet the music is persistently and deeply evocative of a Christian experience colored by tones of doubt and lament. This tension shines through “Holland Road,” when Mumford sings “When I’m on my knees I’ll still believe / And when I’ve hit the ground neither lost nor found / If you believe in me I’ll still believe.” The top single from Babel, “I Will Wait,” is strikingly similar to a modern praise song. “Raise my hands / Paint my spirit and gold / And bow my head,” Mumford cries. He describes kneeling down and waiting, just like in prayer.
Marcus Mumford’s past is soaked with a spiritual richness that illuminates the paradox of creating music based in the Christian experience while rejecting Christian culture. He grew up in what he calls a “Biblical environment.” His parents, John and Eleanor Mumford, founded the evangelical, charismatic Vineyard church movement in England. An old interview with the couple reveals the depth of their belief; John says he received the idea for the Vineyard in a dream from God. He left his parents’ church as a teen but describes later years as purposeless and failure-scarred: he needed to turn to something, and this process of turning – not quite backwards, but not quite forwards either– is a central narrative in his lyrics. He calls his spiritual journey “a work in progress.”
No song is as powerful in conveying this experience of struggle and worship than Babel’s “Hopeless Wanderer.” In the bridge, Mumford sings of a command to keep the flame of his hope burning as the music reaches a joyful climax: “Don’t hold a glass over the flame, don’t let your heart grow cold.” Then, as a bolt of pain, a menacing pattern of eighth notes rips through the fiber of the music, followed by the lyrics “But hold me fast / Hold me fast / Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer.”
Other songs describe the mystery and joy of turning away from sin and accepting God’s grace. “It seems that all my bridges have been burned / But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works,” he says in “Roll Away Your Stone.” In “Below My Feet,” he sings of the challenge and beauty of remaining faithful and obedient: “Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.”
The most strikingly Christian allusion in M&S is hidden in “The Cave,” when Mumford paints a mysterious image: “So come out of your cave walking on your hands / And see the world hanging upside down / You can understand dependence / When you know the Maker’s hand.” Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton, of whom Marcus Mumford is a fan, writes in The Life of St. Francis of the medieval saint’s rumored habit of entering a cave for daily prayer, and his of slow transformation during these times:
He looked at the world as differently from other men as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands. … If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence means hanging. It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hung the world upon nothing.
Marcus Mumford’s deep depiction of the Christian experience reveals that his statements about Christianity are not a rejection of Christian belief but a rejection of contemporary Christian culture. His denial of his Christian-ness is essentially a push against the “baggage” and “religious images” that he associates with Christianity. And while key parts about the Christian faith, like the cross, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the Church, and missing from this music, it does not present a false image of the faith – no artist can be expected to capture everything. However, it does leave space for other spiritually-minded listeners to fill in the gaps with what is meaningful to them; for example, “internal fights” and “a desire to grapple with impossibly big terms like ‘sincerity’ and ‘belief.’ ”
Yet while there is space to explore in the music of Mumford & Sons, the music is deeply Christian. These songs characterize and bring the listener into the depths of suffering brought about by one’s own tendency towards self-destruction. They describe the beauty and difficulty of turning back, of what Christians call repentance, and of the need for God’s power in making this change. And they finally present, albeit less confidently, an image of restoration, of a future when sin has been defeated and things are right with the world, when “They’ll heal our scars / Sadness will be far away,” as he says in “Not With Haste.”
Mumford’s music draws the listener into this experience – this mysteriously and richly Christian experience – more powerfully than almost all popular musicians, either secular or religious. He is on a journey, neither lost nor found, but he has seen the world afresh, like walking on his hands. His band is truly blessing our coffee shops and bookstores, if not with the full Gospel, then with the depths of an experience unquestionably changed by it.