Does the Music of Joy Division Belong in Church?

Honesty is a huge part of the appeal of Greenpoint Reformed—honesty that we are not perfect, we have moments of darkness, and that sometimes we have doubts about our faith. As pastor CB Stewart pointed out in his sermon on April 17th, it is by acknowledging our doubts and confusion that makes us more present, confident and true. We are not deceiving ourselves with false confidence. To wander in a desert of confusion is an important part of every spiritual journey.

I try to pick songs for our service that reflect and expand on our meditation of the day, so when Pastor CB said that “doubt” would be the theme (from the Doubting Thomas reading),  for April 17th,  I saw an opportunity to go to music that, in a secular context, gets a very spiritual treatment. There are so many popular artists (the list is endless) that dwell on sad topics of being in pain, confusion, needing love, not knowing what to do, not being in control. It emanates from the blues, and it emanates from the English folk ballad, and it emanates from our own lives every day. One may go to see some of these artists in concert, and the crowds behave in a church-like manner, staying very quiet and still, sometimes holding up lighters as symbolic torches, together finding some comfort by sharing the moment all together. So to that, why not bring some of that music to a church community where we can really have a community bond through the experience of confronting and discussing these thoughts and feelings together? There is life within and beyond the music. The experience should not end when the concert is over. A religious experience should last all week, every day.

The music of Joy Division has been held in high regard, revered even, by fans and critics since its creation in Manchester in 1978-1980. Even people who only know a little about the band know there is a sort of impenetrable aura about the group. It’s high art in the medium of popular art, like the painter Andy Warhol or the author J.G. Ballard, or the films of Stanley Kubrick. Highly conceptual and often pulling from dark aspects of the psyche, while at the same time incredibly entertaining and exciting. Joy Division has been a favorite band of mine since I got their album Unknown Pleasures in 1990. But loving the band is a slippery slope into darkness—the songs center primarily on lyricist Ian Curtis’s fear of becoming disconnected with others or losing the ability to feel at all. I love his choice of language to confront such a difficult topic, and he and the band are extremely passionate—they knew what they were delivering had import and power. It had not been done before in quite that way.

One of their few songs that emit a ray of hope is “Atmosphere.” While the meaning is obscure, I gleaned some insight to its inspiration by reading Curtis’s original draft in his published notebooks, So This Is Permanence. His lyric “see the danger” was originally “face the danger.” This is an important turn for a writer, going from a directive to a descriptive. I believe it is a song about finding the courage (“hunting by the rivers through the streets, every corner”) to face your doubts. As he implores, don’t walk away from the challenge (abandoned too soon), walk in the silence of meditation (set down with due care). Life rebuilding.

Awhile ago, in the social hall at Greenpoint Reformed, I was having a conversation about music with a fellow congregant and the topic turned to Joy Division. He seemed embarrassed about the dark nature of the band and said that it seemed wrong to even mention the band in church. To the contrary, I find something very spiritual about the band which needs to be addressed in a religious setting. There is an urgency about Curtis’s lyrics. Our need to connect with others and confront our doubts is crucial to our self-realization, our spiritual journey and our identity in being a Christian. By meditating on darkness we realize the relief of light. Together as a congregation we can find better strength for this difficult but worthwhile journey.

We performed Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” just before our Sunday service began on April 17th, and I believe it set just the right tone for the service and connected with our congregation in a way that felt relevant and true. When we finished playing it, everyone was in the perfect place for meditation and discussion. The song had come home at last.

Jason Benjamin is the Music Minister of Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY. His Milton Street Revival Band performs there in the services every Sunday, 11AM