When an artist calls himself John 3:16, he’d better be ready for theological discussion. It’s a good thing this solo artist takes religion as his starting point. While his works are inspired by faith, they are neither caustic nor traditionally worshipful. Less concerned with overt evangelism than he is with reflection, John 3:16 uses music as commentary and exegesis, exposing deep meaning in ancient texts by subtracting the words.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of history’s most famous sermons, a fire-and-brimstone speech delivered by Jonathan Edwards in 1741. Vividly depicting the vicissitudes of hell, Edwards entreated his listeners to turn to Christ for salvation – and many did. Since then, such sermons have polarized Christians. Fundamentalists and American Southerners are still known for their lack of subtlety (“Turn to Jesus or Burn In Hell!”), but their numbers have continued to grow. Others have asked if those who are “scared straight” are truly saved. Most major religions offer variations on the following prayer: “Let me seek you not because I fear hell or hope for heaven, but because I desire only You.”
While one might expect John 3:16′s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God to sound angry, it does not, intimating that the artist has made his peace with the sermon and is simply trying to bring it to life for a new generation. The urgency is present in the drums, lashes of guitar and closing sermon excerpt. The comfort – or at least the call to turn one’s life over to a higher power, thus receiving comfort – is present in the ambient washes and even pacing. The artist could have gone for a more drastic sound, including louder sermon samples, backed by wild riffs and impenetrable drones, but why go for the obvious? A little bit of restraint can go a long way.
Apart from the somewhat bizarre “speaking in tongues” opening of “In the Name of the Lord”, the sonics are accessible. The low vocal chant of the same song can be interpreted as either dark and foreboding or holy and uplifting, depending on one’s frame of mind, just as the original sermon may be regarded as judgmental or responsibly prodding. As the song rises into clearer guitar patterns, reminiscent of U2′s “Where the Streets Have No Name”, one imagines an ancient spirit or two being lifted upward, catching the jet stream of faith. ”Obey God” takes industrial rhythms as a base, then invites a pure-voiced woman to sing atop the foreboding percussion, imitating the invitation to rise from the chaos of a wicked life. The title track is even more urgent and propulsive, as listeners are urged to make up their minds right now. Who knows when the Good Lord will call them to account?
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God turns out to be the oddest of religious creatures: a release that fundamentalists would normally hate due to its unfamiliar timbres, but will be forced to defend due to its source material; and that the non-religious would normally shun due to its topic, but will be forced to defend due to its musical appeal. The world needs more faith-based music like this. (Richard Allen)