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Amen to Matt Maher

April 30, 2013


Now that we’re at the halfway mark of the Year of Faith, I thought that the time might be right to introduce Word on Fire readers to an artist who incarnates the Year of Faith both in his art and in his person: Matt Maher. If you’ve never heard of him, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve at least heard his music, either on the radio or at Mass – “Your Grace is Enough” is a pseudo-classic and his settings for the new translation of the Roman Missal are sung in parishes every weekend.

Many folks want to categorize Maher as a Christian artist, but in the spirit of Flannery O’Connor, I want to say that such a description is inadequate and inaccurate. Maher is an unapologetic Catholic Christian, but he is also an exceptional artist, and the title “Christian Artist” often calls into question, intentionally or not, the quality of the art.  O’Connor liked to say that she was an artist who was Catholic. I’d like to say the same about Maher.

Last week Maher released “All The People Said Amen,” a collection of thirteen songs – some old and some new, some live and some in-studio – that in an a little over an hour’s time will have you clapping your hands, pumping your fist, bowing your head, stomping your feet, belting out epic choruses, and whispering humble prayers. Drivers beware.

The album opens with the title track, which works as an invitation and offers understanding and hope to the listener: “You are not alone, if you are lonely/ When you’re afraid, you’re not the only/ We’re all the same, in need of mercy/ To be forgiven and be free.” The chorus is big and fun, and it’s hard not to sing along, especially with the “Woah-oh-ohs.” Maher brings the song home with a very cool and convicted rendering of the Beatitudes.

At 38, Matt Maher is one year older than me, which means that he’s a Gen-Xer. (The term Generation X came about because x is a variable that symbolizes a lack of definition or identity.) Born between 1964 and 1981, we are the fruit of a great deal of experimentation and revolution of our parents’ generation, some good, but much of which has proved to be quite harmful. GenXers are the first to experience the effects of Roe v. Wade and no-fault divorce – one third of our generation never made it out of the womb and half of our parents are divorced. Maher’s parents divorced in 1995. And we Gen-Xers are also marked by poor religious education. Where the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers learned their faith from the Baltimore Catechism, we Gen-Xers made collages about our feelings.

On his website, Maher uses a short video to explain the concept of his new record. The cover art of the album is actually a giant collage, which he created to symbolize the last ten years of his life and the music that he’s written over the last decade. But unlike the shallow sentimental collages that we Gen-Xers made in grade school religion classes, Maher’s collage, which is his new record, is loaded with depth, integrity, theological truth, and beauty. Leave it to a Gen-Xer to redeem the collage.

Until very recently, my favorite Matt Maher song was “Alive Again,” which is the second track on the new album, based on the famous passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions (Book X, Chapter 27). Maher sings, “Late have I loved you/ You waited for me I searched for you/ What took me so long?” The new version is recorded live, so the crowd comes on loud and strong for the Augustinian chorus: “You called and you shouted/ Broke through my deafness/ Now I’m breathing in, breathing out/ I’m alive again!”  I say that this was my favorite Maher song until recently because of the brand new track, “Lord I Need You.”

The best way to describe “Lord I Need You” is perhaps by recalling the purpose of the Penitential Rite at Catholic Mass. After the making the Sign of the Cross and the greeting, what comes next? We call to mind our sins. We admit that we are in need. We confess that we are not self-sufficient, self-reliant, or self-determining. Put simply, we need a Savior because we can’t save ourselves. This admission is the first step in the spiritual life – it also takes the most humility. On “Lord I Need You,” Maher offers a musically beautiful, lyrically humble and invitingly believable testimony to the reality of our need for God’s redeeming love. Look for this song to play the role that Taize’s “Jesus Remember Me” has played in the tradition, as it is a simple, meditative, and beautiful prayer of petition. I’ve already made it part of my own prayer life as a mantra to sing or at least hum throughout my day.

There are a lot of barnburners on the album as well. “On My Way” is a bluesy track grounded in a funky guitar riff with simple yet biblical lyrics about the Promised Land.  Maher tips his hat to Our Lady with a track recorded live at The University of Notre Dame on “Great Things,” which is based on Mary’s Magnificat. The record slows down a bit on “Hold Us Together,” as this track does for the faithful what Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” does for bar patrons at last call – it gets everybody to gather arm-in-arm and sing like it’s their last night on earth. A live version of “Your Grace is Enough” comes next as the crowd sings almost as loud at Maher. Unlike the original recording, this version is softer, but stronger – it’s less produced and more credible. And Maher’s voice is grittier too. He ends the song with a surprising transition into “Here I am Lord,” offering the post-Conciliar song new life and depth.

I can offer no proof that Matt Maher has studied theology formally, but I would bet my life that he devotes significant hours to immersing himself in prayer, scripture, and spiritual reading – all those things Benedict called for in the Year of Faith. Maher knows Jesus, he knows the Faith, he knows the Tradition, he knows the Bible, and he knows the liturgy. All of this is obvious in his music. He’s a credible witness of faith to a culture that is often plagued with unbelief.

Maher does not impose his Catholic faith on anyone, but he proposes it to everyone. On “Adoration” he offers a beautiful rendition of Thomas Aquinas’s Tantum Ergo with a moving new refrain of his own: “Jesus Lamb of God, saving love for all/ Lord of heaven and earth, Father’s love for all/ I bow to you.” And a few tracks later, “Mighty Fortress,” (which before listening to the album I thought was going to be a cover of Luther’s classic hymn), turns out to be another ballad that may have been written before the Blessed Sacrament. Maher sings, “How can I stand before a mystery/ And claim I comprehend the maker of all things/ You hold us all at once, the world is in your hands/ You call us as your own so we would understand.” Aquinas would be proud.

Maher offers a very lively and articulate response to Nietzsche and the new atheists on “Christ is Risen,” particularly in the new post-chorus, “He’s Alive, He’s Alive, Our God is not dead!” And if that track is able convince the non-believer, the following track, “Turn Around” presents the answer to one who finds herself lost and needing to figure out her next move: “If you’re scared that you don’t matter/ If your lost and need to be found/ If you’re looking for a Savior/ All you gotta do is turn around.”

Truth be told, as much I like artists like Matt Maher, David Crowder and Chris Tomlin, I’m not a big fan of Christian music as a genre. And I don’t listen to Christian radio very often. However, the other day I hit the genius feature on my iTunes for Josh Ritter’s “Kathleen” and the genius picked twenty-four other songs by similar artists such as Bright Eyes, Cat Power, The Avett Brothers, and The Felice Brothers, but it also included a few Matt Maher songs as well. Although this shouldn’t have surprised me, it did. Even the genius feature on my itunes is smart enough to know that good music is good music.

So if you’ve been itching to listen to some good new music, and you need a little inspiration for the second half of the Year of Faith, do yourself a favor and pick up “All The People Said Amen.” I promise, it won’t disappoint. Heck, “It Is Good,” the final track on the album, may very well become your song of summer.

And one last thing, if Matt Maher and company roll through your town, don’t miss the live show. I’ve seen hundreds of concerts – Maher can hang with the best of them.