Rock ‘n’ roll gave us the Vineyard Church movement; one wonders if Vineyard has given us Mumford & Sons. The Association of Vineyard Churches, described as a “neocharismatic” evangelical church, was born out of the intersection of Jesus and rock music. John Wimber, the founder and first key Vineyard leader, had Rock ‘n’ Roll roots going back to the band The Paramours, a precursor to The Righteous Brothers (think “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin”). Wimber connected with other Jesus people in Southern California in the early 1970s to spark what has become one of the fastest growing church movements in the increasingly secular “Western” nations of Europe and North America.
Marcus Mumford, Mumford & Sons’ lead singer and songwriter (and drummer if you include his penchant for stomping on a kick drum), was born in Southern California where his parents, John and Eleanor Mumford, were on staff at Anaheim Vineyard. That short stint set them up for planting a Vineyard church in 1987 in southwest London, where young Marcus grew up. The Vineyard movement has its own highly professional music labels, recording artists, and hit records in the Christian music genre. The story of how Marcus Mumford emerged from a scene that pioneered the merger of Jesus and Rock ‘n’ Roll to later front an indie punk hoedown band that takes faith seriously is as yet untold, but one can hardly understand Mumford & Sons, let alone weigh their significance on the music scene today, without at least gesturing to this background story.
It is the church-y background, and the particular Vineyard shape of it, that helps make sense of the gushing descriptions used by mainstream journalists to describe the band’s music. In the UK’s The Guardian, Laura Barton writes, “To see this band live is an extraordinary experience: there is something fevered and euphoric, about both the way they play and the audience’s response, that puts you more in mind of an evangelical church than a rock ‘n’ roll show” (“The Almighty Power of Mumford & Sons,” 11 February 2010). Barton raises the religion question, but her conclusion is that with Mumford & Sons the power and euphoria are “not so much about God [but] about having spirit.” But this sentiment differs from what the band has to say and what their songs portray. Although he notes that some listeners have recoiled at the faith-orientation of the songs, Marcus Mumford doesn’t exactly say they are “not so much about God.” He does say that he would be unable to sing silly songs “about wearing Reebok trainers in a certain era.” To sing songs over and over again, full of fury and passion, he says they have to “feel what we sing every night, and believe it.” Falling back on a somewhat trite distinction, Mumford describes their debut album Sigh No More (2010) as “a deliberately spiritual thing, but deliberately not a religious thing.” And while acknowledging that band members have differences of opinion on religion, he continues by saying that they all believe faith is “something beautiful” and “something to be celebrated.”
The other members—including Mumford’s childhood friend Ben Lovett (keyboards), Winston Marshall (banjo, dobro) and Ted Dwane (upright bass)—mostly leave Mumford to pen the songs. His stint reading classics at Edinburgh University goes some way toward explaining the literary bent of their songs. Shakespeare makes the most frequent appearances (“Sigh No More,” the name of both their album and the first track on it, for example, is drawn from the comedy Much Ado About Nothing), but writers as diverse as Pascal and Steinbeck make appearances. As does, of course, Scripture but usually in more subtle ways than the direct quotes taken from literature. The band’s clear yet subtle engagement with Christian faith allows them to write songs that allow the hearer to make a kind of sense of one’s life without feeling forced to take away a “message” from the song.
Take, for example, the song that introduced the band to many fans: the rollicking Grammy-award nominated “Little Lion Man.” On the surface, it is a lament over brokenness. No Shakespeare here. Just the brutal honesty that
it was not your fault but mine
and it was your heart on the line
I really fucked it up this time
didn’t I my dear?
It is a tribute to the shallowness we are capable of, and its chorus allows us all a cathartic moment of confession no matter the character of our sins. In another confessional song, “Roll Away Your Stone,” the lyric channels Pascal’s description of a God-shaped hole within us:
you told me that I would find a hole
within the fragile substance of my soul
and I have filled this void with things unreal
and all the while my character it steals.
The following verses hint at a connection with the parable of the lost son from Luke 15.
It seems that all my bridges have been burned
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with the restart.
Mumford & Sons, then, seem to have taken aim at more than merely “having spirit” in their live gigs. For those with ears to hear, the band can evoke worship. Crispin Schroeder (who blogs at My Life as a Wrestler) wrote about emerging from a day-long Vineyard pastors conference to attend a Mumford & Sons show in Phoenix. Ironically, he had no idea who he was going to hear, and no knowledge of the Mumford-Vineyard connection. Unsure what he was headed for, he took an open mind to the crowded club. They opened with “Sigh No More,” and Schroeder describes “…four-part harmony vocals over a subdued acoustic guitar singing ‘Serve God, love me and mend/This is not the end/Lived unbruised, we are friends/I’m sorry.’” The song builds through pulsating energy, the band playing frenetically, and then “in a moment the music almost dropped to a whisper as Marcus began singing:
But man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Love it will not betray you
dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
be more the man you were made to be
There is a design, an alignment, a cry
of my heart to see
the beauty of love as it was made to be.
The song began building, moving to an explosive crescendo as the crowd joined in belting out the lyrics. Schroeder writes of being overwhelmed at how “connected I felt to God and to the others in the room of this club I had never been to listening to a band I had never heard.” He was pretty sure Jesus would have loved the show, too, “considering how much time he spent at parties.”
Comments on websites and fan forums demonstrate that this is not an unusual experience at Mumford & Sons shows. We humans are a giddy thing, which in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing functions as a summary statement for the entire play. Yes, we are frail, broken, prone to impulsive judgments. Yet as Mumford & Sons suggest, love will set us free, allowing us to be more the people we were made to be. Ah, yes, a trick plucked from the pocket of U2 whose use of the term love often covers for God (God is love. I John 4:8). God whom the first line calls us to serve. And why? The last line of “Sigh No More” tells us,
Longing, a cry of the heart
a passion to see the beauty of love
as it was made to be.
The 2010 release of the band’s debut album Sigh No More was successful beyond their hopes, selling more than half a million copies to date and garnering Grammy nominations for Best New Artist and Best Rock Song. Marcus Mumford shrugs when asked about the popularity: “I think it’s a lot to do with the time—people enjoying rootsier music, reacting to manufactured music.” Perhaps. But for my money, I’d say people are also looking for a spiritual connection that doesn’t shove faith down their throat, that captures some of the ecstasy and poetry of those rare spiritual experiences that mark and change us. Mumford & Sons write about these moments and seem able to evoke them too, through the ecstasy and poetry of their live shows. Catch them when they come to your town; they’re hitting the road in 2011 as they work out the songs for their forthcoming sophomore album.
Christian Scharen is Assistant Professor of Worship and Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.