Frank Turner's Secular Gospel: The Beauty of Humanity
One of the main missions of the Church here on Earth is to search for and promote beauty. Our universe, as it has been created and saturated with meaning, depth, and beauty, is a giant exploration map of beautiful and immeasurably fulfilling treasures. Over the past decade, I have found one of these treasures in the love, ire, and song of Frank Turner - a folk/punk musician from Hampshire, England.
Frank Turner, former lead singer of Million Dead - an English post-hardcore band - and current frontman of Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, is an outright and self-proclaimed atheist. Turner is a vagabond musician who picked up a guitar to write about his life playing for anyone who would listen. And his life is a crazy one, full of alcohol and drugs, promiscuity, sleeping on stranger's floors, and endless escapades of summer music festivals. Yet, his music has reached the depths of my soul more than many outright Christian artists. This is because Mr. Turner has come to know and be transformed by beauty. Beauty is the one transcendental that immediately and without fail reaches the depths of the human soul.
As I said, I was initially drawn to Frank's music because of its beauty. The mere sound of his voice and the strum of his guitar captured my attention as I was quickly drawn into the music. Then, AFTER my initial encounter with the musical beauty, I was brought to the lyrical beauty, the beauty about which he sang. But as a Christian, as a Catholic seminarian, where did I find the beauty in the music of an atheistic folk/punk musician?
Beauty transcends whether one believes in Christianity or atheism. Beauty is anthropological - it reaches us on a human level. Coming to see this reality after many situations and circumstances in his life, even ones of deep pain and darkness, Frank began to sing about the beauty of humanity. His songs are stories of anthropological poetry. In his songs, Frank dives into the heights and depths of human existence as encountered through his own experience. He explores what it means to be human through times of love and loss, of grace and sin. I have not found this kind of authenticity and depth in many other artists.
The beauty of Frank's music comes, partly, from his acknowledgment of his own brokenness and failings in life. Whether you are Christian or atheist, you cannot deny that humanity is broken, fallen, not perfect. Some of my favorite songs that show this anthropological depth are: “Redemption”, "Tell Tale Signs”, "Casanova Lament”, ”Substitute”, “The Next Round”, “Father’s Day”, "Song for Josh", and "Jet Lag". These are emotionally heavy songs that deal with the everyday brokenness and imperfection of humanity. Yet, Frank performs them authentically, passionately, and beautifully.
Some of these songs may even appear to be vulgar to a piously minded religious person, but I don't think that truth, goodness, and beauty are found strictly within the walls of apparent piety. Truth and beauty exist in all kinds of places. Certainly, for the early Christians, the cross was not a place they expected to find beauty - it was the last place.
Despite the sins and failings of human beings, one can tell from his music and from his autobiography-by-way-of-tour-journal, The Road Beneath My Feet, that Frank simply loves human beings. He loves spending time with others and cherishes his encounter with them, searching for the good in every person he meets on the road. Furthermore, Frank tries to help people by giving them a sense of hope.
One of his newest records, duly named Positive Songs for Negative People, shows this hopeful approach to life, yet a life that will indeed come to an abrupt end. Hope seems to me to be an odd and even conflicting virtue for an atheistic mindset as death would be much more an intimidating reality to an atheist than a Christian. Why hope when the future doesn’t and can’t essentially look optimistic if death is an imminent and final end? However, as Frank sings in “Get Better”, one of the hit tracks off the Positive Songs record, he reminds people, "Come on now, let's fix this mess. We could get better. Because we're not dead yet.” According to Frank, and rightfully so, life is beautiful and worth living well, of which I would totally agree.
The beauty of Frank's music also comes through in the love for his country, history, and culture. He always looks back to where he has come from and who has come before him. There is something that Frank loves about his English culture and history. History and tradition are indeed beautiful. Frank sings about the beauty of the English rivers and seas in a few songs, but particularly in "Rivers". He sings about the beauty of where he grew up in "Wessex Boy” and dives into folk history in his a cappella rendition of “Barbara Allen”. Frank also alludes often of the beauty of artists who have come before him, such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Ernest Hemingway. Whether it's by literature, song, history, or culture, all of these things are places where the beauty of humanity expresses itself to the Divine, the way humanity gives itself back to the Creator.
Even though Frank believes that there is no God - even unabashedly in his song "Glory Hallelujah" - I think that he searches for God much more than he knows. And I hope that would not be an offensive statement to him, but one of provoking conversation. In his songs, he is always searching for truth, beauty, and fulfillment.
I think Frank's view of life falls in line more with a secular humanism than anything else. This brand of humanism, born out of a rejection of God and an undying love of humanity, believes in the uniqueness and sacredness of humanity by its own volition. It proclaims that everyone is good and you should treat everyone with respect and goodness just out of the mere goodness and beauty of humanity.
On one level I totally agree with this ideology. Human beings are unique and beautiful creatures with an inherent dignity, but I don't think that humanity's uniqueness and beauty come solely from itself. The question is: Where does humanity's beauty come from?
The answer is that the true beauty of humanity necessarily has to come from a divine source, Jesus - the Son of God become man. The Incarnation is the answer to Frank's question of humanity's beauty. Think about this logically. A finite being cannot give itself infinite, transcendent beauty and be able to respond to infinite, transcendent beauty all on its own. Human beings are beautiful, not because of self proclamation, but because of divine endowment.
Furthermore, Jesus’s Incarnation not only gave humanity the fullness of it’s beauty, but Jesus throughout his life on earth went through the same sinful temptations that Frank talks about in his songs. Christ was fully human, yet he overcame every human temptation. Thus, in a very real way, Christ gave us the power to overcome temptation to sin as well.
In the Church’s proclamation of Christian humanism, the beauty of humanity doesn't come from within, but from without. Christian humanism, supported by Karol Wojtyla and others, recognizes the uniqueness and beauty of humanity because of the Creation of God the Father, the Incarnation of God the Son, and the Sanctification of God the Holy Spirit. Humanity’s beauty is dependent on the beauty of God, who has created out of love and has given life and purpose to the universe. The beauty of humanity makes sense only in light of Christianity, not despite of it.
I've wanted to write something about Mr. Turner's music for some time now, but I wanted to wait until I had something authentic to say about it, in the same way that Frank authentically reached me through his music. I pray that the Holy Spirit may inspire him to create further beauty and that he may come to know the source and summit of the beauty he chases, Jesus Christ God’s Incarnate Son, who has given us all a beautiful existence.