Indie-Rock And Mission

by | 8 Jul 2015 | 0 comments

Indie-Rock And Mission

by | 8 Jul 2015 | 0 comments

The following chapter can be found in The ‘We Are Pilgrims’ book, which is now available as a free download from CBM.

The e-book, which is a collection of essays and reflections, explores personal stories of marginalisation and the discovery of faith and hope in challenging situations, including how the church can ensure those living with disabilities are supported on their journey with God.

Indie-Rock And Mission: Challenges and Possibilities of De-centred Mission in the 21st Century

Montreal-based indie-rock band “Arcade Fire” have been lauded as the most important band of the last decade. In terms of their cultural and potentially theological significance it has been argued that Arcade Fire is to Gen Y what U2 is to Gen X. This chapter explores the music and content of their latest album Reflektor, released in October 2013. The main influences in this album are Haitian “rara” music, the 1959 film Black Orpheus, and an essay by Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard entitled  ”The Present Age,” in which he contrasts the “passionate age” with the “reflective age.” These influences and the resultant themes are explored, with a final reflection framed by the Apostle Paul’s interaction with his contemporary culture, and using the work of Charles Taylor, to discover ways in which this important voice from the margins might speak to and help the contemporary church as it engages in mission in the postmodern world.

Since the launch of their critically acclaimed debut album, Funeral, in 2003 and through the release of their subsequent three albums, the Montreal-based indie-rock band Arcade Fire have been consistently lauded by both fellow musicians and music critics. In 2007, after the release of their second album, Neon Bible, the Guardian newspaper described them as the “best band in the world.” [1] In 2013 Paste magazine, dubbing their first three albums “the Holy Trinity,” ranked the albums as “among the most impressive streaks of recorded rock music in the past couple decades.” [2] Despite this recognition Arcade Fire has remained somewhat on the margins of mainstream pop music, defying pop culture norms in their music, lyrics, and performances while at the same time speaking significantly into the existential, philosophical, and even theological concerns of contemporary culture. They offer an artistic and incisive cultural critique while giving expression to the longings and desires of the human heart.

This chapter will argue that as the church engages in mission, particularly in contemporary Western culture, Arcade Fire provides an important voice from the margins that ought to be heard. More specifically this chapter will explore the music and content of their latest album Reflektor, released in October 2013, which speaks into the modern digital and media-soaked age. Through its main influences (Haitian “rara” music, the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and an 1846 essay by Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard entitled “The Present Age”) and by invoking the genre of Carnival the album deals with an array of issues such as death, love, passion, desire, the after-life, embodiment, spirituality, and the meaning of our humanity.

On the basis of this voice from the margins, the chapter concludes with a reflection, framed by the Apostle Paul’s interaction with his contemporary culture, and using the work of Charles Taylor, to propose a number of issues which the church should reflect upon as it participates in God’s mission in the world.

A Brief History

In 2001, Win Butler, a religious studies and philosophy student at McGill University in Montreal, began collaborating musically with Josh Deu, a visual arts student. Soon they added Régine Chassagne, another student at McGill whom Butler had noticed singing Jazz at an art opening. Although Deu left the band early on his influence in terms of visual performance has continued. Butler and Chassagne married in 2003 and additional band members were added, including Butler’s brother Will.

In 2003 Mac McCaughan signed the band to Merge Records after hearing a demo tape. However, it was only when he heard them play live in a small club that he experienced the essence of the band. “It was like seeing U2 on the War tour when I was 15. It’s not like they sounded like U2 exactly, but they had these huge anthems that the crowd was responding to right away even though no one had heard the songs yet.” [3] The parallels with U2 are worth noting. It has been said that Arcade Fire is to Gen Y what U2 is to Gen X. Like U2 their songs resonate with a generation who, while rejecting organised religion, still wrestle with issues of faith, transcendence, and the big questions of contemporary life. Butler has been called “an astute theologian and philosopher” [4] and the band itself “a rock band for our time.” [5]

Despite what many fans would see as anti-religious sentiment in their songs, Arcade Fire’s attitude to religion has always been complex and difficult to discern. Neon Bible most directly addresses the topic of religious life, albeit in the context of the religiosity of the United States. According to Butler the album “is addressing religion in a way that only someone who actually cares about it can. It’s really harsh at times, but from the perspective of someone who thinks it has value.” [6] Given Butler’s religious studies and philosophy background this is not surprising.

For Butler mere scientific understanding of the world is not enough, especially when it comes to talking about meaning. As Butler has explained, “I think a lot of the human experience has to do with trying to understand what things mean, and there’s not really any tools to do that unless you’re thinking about it in a more spiritual or philosophical realm.” [7] Such thinking occurs throughout Arcade Fire’s recorded works, including their latest offering Reflektor.


Arcade Fire’s fourth album, released in October 2013, is arguably their most challenging and ambitious to date. The double album departs from the more straightforward anthemic tones of past success. Rather than being music for the stadium, this is music for the dance floor, but with far from a straightforward disco feel. One review describes it well by stating, “It’s an elusive, frustrating album. It is also a masterpiece… It is at once fractured and cohesive, unbalanced and symmetric.” [8] It is a risky venture for a band with a consistent track record of success. [9]

The album’s holographic front cover artwork is symbolic of the album as a whole portraying the reflective modern digital age in all its shiny glory. [10] However, juxtaposed with the shimmer is Rodin’s 1893 sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice: the two main figures in a tragic story of love, death, music, the afterlife, escape, trust, passion, and the power of music.

In the Greek myth, Orpheus has the ability to charm anything with his music. When his wife Eurydice dies by stepping on a viper, Orpheus travels to the underworld, and due to the sweetness of his music he is allowed to return with Eurydice to the world of the living, but on one condition: he must walk in front and not look back until both have reached the upper world. Just as Orpheus reaches daylight, however, he turns to see Eurydice. At that moment she is snatched back and lost once more to death.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is featured on the first two songs on the second disc of the album. The first, “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” may refer to the sound of Eurydice falling to the ground dead after being poisoned. In the second, “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” we find ourselves in a conversation between Eurydice and Orpheus about love and trust which seems to end in a debate about whether pain and death ever end. Butler is on record that one of his favourite films of all times is Black Orpheus, made in 1959 by Marcel Camus, and set during Carnival in Brazil. [11] For Butler, “The Orpheus myth is the original love triangle, Romeo-and-Juliet kind of story,” and it is stories such as this that get to the core of human relationships. [12]

These themes of love and death, passion and risk, are explored on the rest of the album, with two major influences in the background: a trip the band took to Haiti and an essay by Kierkegaard.

Haiti and Carnival

Straight after the band received their Grammy award in 2011 for their third album, The Suburbs, the band travelled to Haiti, where Régine Chassagne’s family had lived until the 1960’s and the dictatorship of François Duvalier, when they emigrated to Canada.

The trip was transformative for the band; in Haiti they experienced another world. In playing to local crowds who had no background knowledge of Western music, the band had to connect through rhythm and emotion. This experience brought the band back to the core of what music was really all about. [13] The band also encountered carnival and “rara” street music with its horns and percussion. Despite the poverty and suffering of the Haitian people, the music brought a sense of joy and life, and even a spiritual encounter. In one interview Butler recounts being on the beach at three in the morning and seeing a voodoo drummer playing, with kids and teenagers dancing for four hours and starting “to get the spirit.”

A Haitian musical influence and an overall Caribbean rhythmic feel can be found throughout the album Reflektor, but is most apparent in the song “Here Comes the Night Time.” There are two version of the song. The one on the first disc anticipates the coming excitement of the night. The second version, which opens up the more sombre second disc, is more haunting with the night symbolising the ending. According to Butler, both versions are influenced by when the sun is just starting to go down in  Port-au-Prince. It’s a time of intensity, anticipation, and crazy energy “because most of the city doesn’t have electricity so everyone is just racing to get home before dark.” [14] In addition, says Butler, there is also “the nightlife thing that happens, and it’s a combination of really dangerous and fun.” [15]

In contrast to the spirit of the Haitian people there was the spirit of Western missionaries that Butler observed. In Haiti he saw packs of missionaries all wearing the same T-shirts saying, “Jesus loves Haiti.” In response to being asked why they were there they replied that they were going to paint houses. For Butler this was strange: why not just pay a Haitian to paint the houses? For Butler there was a certain incongruity of people coming to Haiti to teach people something about God: “Just the absurdity that you can go to a place like Haiti and teach people something about God. Like, the opposite really seems to be true, in my experience. I’ve never been to a place with more belief and more knowledge of God.” [16] For Butler the Haitian people are some of the most religious he has ever met. He notes that, “After the earthquake, people were singing songs of praise in the street. It’s a strange idea that we can teach these people something.” [17]

In “Here Comes the Night Time,” the Western missionaries come in for significant criticism. They preach a message of “being left behind”. This is ironic since the Haitian people have been left behind a thousand times. The message is one of exclusion, one which cannot recognise the spirituality of the people or their music, or even the Spirit’s prior working. The “heaven” proclaimed by the missionaries is behind a gate and the people are not allowed in. “When they hear the beat coming from the street they lock the door.” The criticism continues and becomes more pointed in the direction of TV evangelists whose message comes to Haiti by satellite. Hell is not somewhere out there reserved for the Haitian people, but instead resides within the hearts of these preachers.

Music plays a key role for the Haitian people, especially in terms of their suffering. It is a matter of life and hope, and allows the experience of the transcendent. To not be able to feel such music, as the missionaries seem unable to do, it is suggested, points to death.

One of the key “musical” events experienced by the band in Haiti was Carnival. For Butler it “felt like going to the Old Testament or something like that.” [18] It was like entering another world. In the words of Butler, “There’s sex and death and people dressed up as slaves with black motor oil all over their faces and chains, and there’s these little kids in puffer fish outfits or dressed like Coke bottles. There’s big firebreathing dragons that shoot real fire at the crowd.” [19] A key element of Carnival is that most of the participants wear masks. This anonymity seems to bring a sense of freedom. For Butler, “Wearing the mask in Carnival felt like less of a division between body and spirit.” [20] In other words, a sense of wholeness was experienced.

Carnivalesque and The Festive

In his 2009 book, Gods and Guitars, Michael Gilmore, using the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary theorist, argues that Neon Bible, Arcade Fire’s second album, has qualities of “carnivalesque.” [21] For Bakhtin, in European medieval carnivals “the unofficial culture would mock official culture, temporarily resisting political oppression and totalitarian order – political, ecclesial or social – through laughter, parody, and grotesque realism.” [22] In this experience, everything is turned upside down: social expectations and norms are cast off; authority is ridiculed; and the sacred is profaned. The concept does not fit the whole of Neon Bible and not every element of carnivalesque can be found in the album, but what Gilmore does is highlight an important aspect of Arcade Fire’s social and religious critique, which is more fully developed on the ground-breaking Reflektor.

In his well-regarded book, The Secular Age, Charles Taylor, the renowned Canadian philosopher, who is also a practicing Roman Catholic, narrates the movement of Western society from a culture in which disbelief in God was unthinkable and where a sense of transcendence gave significance to an “enchanted” world, to one in which such belief is almost untenable but which nevertheless remains “haunted” by transcendence. One way in which contemporary society forges a sense of transcendence is through various kinds of “festive” events and gatherings in which people come together to escape the “the everyday order of things.” [23] Taylor’s notion of “the Festive” includes religious feasts and pilgrimages, but also Carnival, and, interestingly for our purposes, “rock concerts, raves and the like.”

In such times of “collective effervescence” when there is a powerful shared feeling, participants experience “moments of fusion in a common action/feeling, which both wrench us out of the everyday, and seem to put us in touch with something exceptional, beyond ourselves.”24 This is often experienced as a sense of the sacred. Thus, for Taylor, that which is often experienced at a rock concert, even though nonreligious, sits “uneasily in the secular, disenchanted world.” [25]

These events are similar to the Carnival years gone by. Both can be powerful and moving, heady and exciting, witnessing to “the birth of a new collective agent out of its formerly dispersed potential.” [26] However, unlike Carnival, in such festive events as rock concerts there is no structure and counter-structure dynamic.

It seems as if Arcade Fire know this, implicitly if not explicitly. What Reflektor does in terms of the album itself and the associated concert tours is to bring together the festive rock experience with the experience of Carnival. In a number of interviews Butler has stated that one of his aims at concerts during the “Reflektor Tour” is to create a sense of Carnival. [27] This is to be achieved not only through the Haitian inspired rhythms of the music but also by asking those attending concerts to dress up in costume. [28] For Butler, “the point of carnival is about the crowd, not the performer.”

In bringing together the experience of Carnival with the collective fusion of the rock concert Arcade Fire seem to be giving their fans a means of dealing with the sense of personal fragmentation and isolation, the loss of transcendence, and the need for release from the alienating structures and practices of “ordinary” contemporary life, a life which is now lived in the digital age. This leads us to the final influence: Søren Kierkegaard.

The Present Age

The album title, Reflektor comes from an 1846 essay by Kierkegaard entitled The Present Age. Butler explains the background to the Kierkegaardian influence as follows:

I studied the Bible and philosophy in college and I think in a certain sense that’s the kind of stuff that still makes my brain work. There’s an essay by Kierkegaard called The Present Age that I was reading a lot that’s about the reflective age. This is like in [1846], and it sounds like he’s talking about modern times… [You] kind of read it and you’re like, “Dude, you have no idea how insane it’s gonna get.” [29]

The context of the essay is Kierkegaard’s reaction against post-Kantian Hegelian philosophical attempts to show how the truths of religion could be harmonized with the demands of reason. For Kierkegaard such attempts had the effect of replacing the core truths of Christianity with a set of abstract principles. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments Kierkegaard states:

My principal thought was that in our age, because of the great increase of knowledge, we had forgotten what it means to exist, and… If men had forgotten what it means to exist religiously, they had doubtless also forgotten what it means to exist as human beings; this must therefore be set forth. [30]

In his essay, The Present Age, Kierkegaard developed this thinking further and reflects more specifically on the popular culture of his day. For Kierkegaard, “The Present Age is one of understanding, of reflection, devoid of passion, an age which flies into enthusiasm for a moment only to decline back into indolence.” [31] “Reflection”, according to Kierkegaard, is the problem. In the present age “the individual… does not have the passion to rip himself away from either the coils of Reflection or the seductive ambiguities of Reflection.” By “Reflection” Kierkegaard means both deliberation as opposed to action and also, more importantly, a person deriving their identity and individuality from those around them who act as a kind of mirror. Such a mode of reflection means a lack of passion, desire and action. It means the present age is “an age of advertisement, or an age of publicity; nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it.”

The underlying principle in the passionless age of reflection is envy. Such envy creates the dynamic of levelling; bringing everyone down to the same level which stifles and hinders creativity, originality and individuality. People live in fear of being different; sameness becomes the aim.

As Butler states, the parallels with modern contemporary society are striking. Today the dominating influence of celebrity-driven popular media, as well as the power of social media, creates a sense of envy which ends up leading to a form of paralysis, passivity and inactivity. It is ultimately impossible to keep Keeping up with the Kardashians. Conformity to the fashions and standards dictated by such media is the norm.

The key activity in life becomes constructing one’s identity through profile and status updates on sites such as Facebook and Instagram. Achieving an acceptable number of likes/loves or friends/followers becomes the new levelling process. In talking about Kierkegaard’s description of the levelling process Butler states, “So it would kind of paralyse you to even act basically, and it just kind of resonated with me – wanting to try and make something in the world instead of just talking about things.” [32]

In the album Reflektor Arcade Fire not only try to name the reality which Kierkegaard describes, they also attempt, in a carnivalesque way, to challenge the existing order and structures. In this fourth album, Arcade Fire continue their prophetic role, described by Paul Morley of The Guardian as being “a scholarly post-punk gospel choir merrily identifying the menace of the world.” [33]

Kierkegaardian Songs

The most straightforward Kierkegaardian song is the opening title track “Reflektor.” The singer sings of the effects of the digital age. It is like being trapped and alone in a prism of light. In the digital world of the computer screen, which is supposed to be a form of heaven, the singer desperately wants to experience real relationship but he is trapped between the kingdoms of the living and the dead. “Now, the signals we send, are deflected again; We’re so connected, but are we even friends?”

Tragically it turns out that in this online world everything is just a reflection of something else. The singer knows there is something on the other side but he just can’t get to it. Even turning to religion, and specifically praying to the “resurrector,” does not seem to help since it too turns our to be just a reflector. Lack of passion and action can be found in religion as much as any other sphere of contemporary life. Something more is needed. Technology will not give us passion, life, real connection or authentic existence. Most of the other songs on the album are taken up with these themes.

“We Exist” is a song of rebellion and defiance; a proclamation of existence and identity in the face of various levelling processes. The song imagines a person, a “gay kid” according to Butler, who stands out from the crowd. [34] The crowd stares through him and prays that he would not exist but they cannot ultimately deny the reality of his existence. There is much despair in this song, as with much of the album, but it does end on a note of hope, pointing to the significance of connection and relationship with each other: “Maybe if you hang together you can make the changes in our hearts.”

“Normal Person” covers similar ground. What does it mean to be normal and what are the effects of defining normal? “Waiting after school for you they want to know if you if you’re normal too.” For Kierkegaard the notion of “normal” is a fiction that drains passion from life.

Other songs expand these themes and explore different aspects of contemporary life. “Flashbulb Eyes” confronts us with the culture of paparazzi, photoshop and selfies. What if the camera really does “take your soul”? “You Already Know” highlights the tendency to overthink. You don’t need to wonder why you feel so sad, “You already know.” In contrast, in “Joan of Arc” we are pointed to someone who lived their life full of passion, being willing to take action on the basis of what she believed even though this led to her death when she was only 19 years old. “Porno,” highlights how passion and desire have become distorted through pornography and the objectification of women. In contrast the singer longs to be seen despite the hurt that he has caused. “Afterlife” acts like a cathartic climax, bringing together the themes of desire, passion, love, and afterlife in what the most memorable dance-beat song of the whole album: “When love is gone, where does it go? And where do we go?”

Listening to Arcade Fire for the Sake of Mission

Like the statue to an Unknown God in Acts 17:23, Arcade Fire give us insight into the religious and spiritual yearnings in contemporary culture, particularly among a younger generation who are becoming increasingly alienated from organised religion and traditional forms of Christianity. Despite the claims of some secularists that “religious belief ” is on the decline because reason and rationality exclude such unreasonable superstition, which Charles Taylor calls a “subtraction story,” [35] Arcade Fire points to an alternative narrative.

Taylor paints a picture of modern society inhabiting a “cross-pressured situation,” one that hangs between the malaise of immanence/modernity and the memory of transcendence. [36] In the words of James K A Smith, Arcade Fire attest to the fact that:

[O]ur age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once and while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted … by intimations of transcendence. [37]

As has been noted, despite the band’s criticism of certain forms of religious practice, Butler sees value in religion, particularly in the issues and questions it raises, such as questions about death, the afterlife, and the nature of love; issues which are directly raised on Reflektor.

In addition, since their beginnings Arcade Fire have attempted in their concerts to create an experience of what Taylor calls “the Festive.” In an interview in 2010, Josh Due, the co-founder of Arcade Fire stated, “Rock is about the experience. It’s not just about rebellion and being avant-garde. It’s about interacting with the audience and having almost like a religious experience.” [38] This “experiential” and “religious” sense has been taken to another level in the Carnival theme of the Reflektor album and associated performances.

In this sense Arcade Fire acts as a prime exhibit in Taylor’s argument. Participation in formal religious activities may have declined but this does not mean Western society is less religious. Arcade Fire show a persisting desire for transcendence. As the church engages in mission this is something that needs to be recognised. The church has a role in challenging the accepted subtractionist narratives of secularisation. Arcade Fire can help in this task. The search for transcendence is alive and well but the ghosts of the past may be found in unexpected places; in the margins of indie rock music.

In this respect Arcade Fire ask some difficult questions of Christian mission and witness, both in, and from, the West. How is non-Christian religious experience, such as that experienced in voodoo ceremonies or through Haitian rara music to be understood? When “the spirit” descends, as Win Butler sings, does this have anything to do with the Holy Spirit? Such questions have been asked, and are being asked, even by more conservative missiologists and theologians. An interesting trend is the theological work being done by Pentecostal theologians such as Amos Yong.

Taking a pneumatological approach Yong has argued for the Spirit’s work in world religions. [39] This means the need for Christians to discern what the Spirit is doing and this requires dialogue. For Yong, however, this does not conflict with an evangelistic stance. Rather, dialogue and evangelism and intrinsically connected. This is the case with Christian interaction with voodoo. For Yong, the movement of the Spirit can be discerned in Haitian voodoo. [40] With its belief in “spiritual reality, the narrativity of theology, empowerment by the spirit, music and rhythms, dreams and visions [and] healing in belonging” Yong sees Haitian voodoo as phenomenologically comparable with Caribbean Pentecostalism. [41]

How might the Spirit then be discerned? For Yong, rather than being judged exclusively by whether Jesus Christ is named and acknowledged, the focus ought to be on “the signs of the kingdom.” With this in mind Yong has highlighted the role of voodoo in the development of early Pentecostalism and the empowerment of black communities against racism, sexism and classism. [42] In other words, the key question has to do with the role of voodoo and its music, in “liberation” according to the values of the kingdom. [43] These are precisely the issues that Arcade Fire are raising on Reflektor. Thus, it might be said that Arcade Fire are doing the work of missiological reflection, but on the pages of Rolling Stone magazine rather than the pages of the International Review of Mission.

If the Spirit is at work in Haitian music and rhythms then what about the experience of “something exceptional beyond ourselves” and “fusion” felt at what Charles Taylor names as “rock concerts, raves and the like”? Can the experience which is “almost like a religious experience” as Josh Deu articulates, be considered a movement of the Spirit? In other words, if we are to look for the movement of the Spirit in today’s modern urban culture should we be looking to the kind of concert experience that Arcade Fire seeks to produce? The impulse to build the statue to an Unknown God may not be a fully redemptive work of the Spirit but this does not mean we can discount it as an authentic expression of the movement of the third person of the Trinity at work in the world.

In that same Lucan narrative of Acts 17 the Apostle Paul quotes the philosopher Epimenides, “In him we live and move and have our being” and also Aratus, “We are his offspring.” Like these “non-Christian” philosophers who speak, as it were, from the margins, Arcade Fire not only illustrate to us the religious and spiritual yearnings in contemporary culture, they also point to truth; particularly truth about what it means to be human. Reflektor offers a telling critique of contemporary culture, which the church would be wise to engage with in relation to its commitment to mission in the West.

What is under threat in the modern digital age is connection and relationship and Arcade Fire helpfully and creatively make this point. In the online world the danger of simply becoming a reflection of one’s true self is great. Just as in the first century the church offered a radical vision of relationships in a hierarchical and sectarian culture, so in the 21st century the church faces the task of a similar radical vision but now in the context of an online digital world.

In his comments about Carnival and wearing a mask Butler has spoken about how such activities overcome the division between body and spirit. In other words, Arcade Fire are interested in challenging a basic dualism that lies at the heart of Western culture. This is not something new for them. In the song “My Body is a Cage” from their Neon Bible album Arcade Fire sing about this dualism more directly: “My body is a cage that keeps me from dancing with the one I love, but my mind holds the key.”

A good case can be mounted that in the modern era Protestant Christianity, and in particular evangelicalism, has been part of a movement which has dis-embodied and de-ritualised Christianity thereby turning it into a “belief system.” In The Secular Age Taylor describes this process as “excarnation.” He argues:

We have moved from an era in which religious life was more ‘embodied’, where the presence of the sacred could be enacted in ritual, or seen, felt, touched, walked through (in pilgrimage); into one which is more ‘in the mind’, where the link with God passes more through endorsing contested interpretations. [44]

Arcade Fire point to a truth about the embodied nature of our humanity and thus the need for a recovery of an embodied faith. Again, this can be taken as a cry from the margins. In our post-modern age, the mission of the church can no longer be envisioned as merely the articulation of, as Taylor says, a “contested interpretation.” Rather, the mission of the church needs to include a witness to the embodied nature of our humanity in all its fullness and wholeness. Thankfully, within Christian theology, even evangelical Christian theology, there is a recovery of the significance of human physicality. [45]

This links in with Kierkegaard’s critique of the reflective age in which “reflection,” in both senses of the word, keeps people from passionate engagement with the world, instead taking refuge in a “depersonalised realm of reified ideas and doctrines.” [46] Arcade Fire helpfully remind us that desire and passion are part of our embodied humanity. These are not things that we are to be escape from but rather things that we are to redeem. With the line “praying to the resurrector,” which turns out to be “just a reflector,” Arcade Fire ask another significant question of the church, with regard to missionary urgency, “How has the church lost the revolutionary message and power of the resurrection?” Such a message, far from denying our embodied humanity, actually sanctifies it and gives it a renewed meaning. Too often the church has acted, in the words of Kierkegarrd, as a leveller; with a message of conformity. The church in mission must find a place for the celebration of human desire, passion, individuality, and creativity. This is what we hear if we are willing to listen to Arcade Fire.


Rolling Stone magazine, in a review of Reflektor, referred to Arcade Fire as “the most important band of the last decade.” [47] Arguably they are also one of the most important bands for the church to hear as it attempts to engage missionally in the world. In Reflektor Arcade Fire provide a thoughtful critique of contemporary culture as well as certain forms of religious practices. In their music, lyrics, and performances we hear a yearning for transcendence and a sense of the sacred, a quest for wholeness in a context of fragmentation, a helpful critique of Western missionary practice, a questioning of the way accepted norms and attitudes lead to the draining of passion and creativity, and a challenging of the construction of the reflected self in the digital age. These are all crucial issues the Western church needs to engage with if it is going to stay relevant to postmodern context and come alongside what God is already doing in the world. Arcade Fire’s voice, albeit marginal for most within the established church, is deeply insightful and prophetic.

  1. Alexis Petridis, “The Bitter Taste of Success,” The Guardian, October 26, 2007, music/2007/oct/26/popandrock.alexispetridis
  2. Ryan Reed, “Arcade Fire: Reflektor,” Paste Magazine, October 29, 2013, articles/2013/10/arcade-fire-reflektor-1.html
  3. Kot, “Band of the Year: An Interview with Arcade Fire,” PopMatters,
  4. Blake Baxter, “Just a Reflektor: The Spiritual and Emotional Journeys of Arcade Fire,” Saying Something http://
  5. Patton Dodd, “Let There Be Arcade Fire,” Christianity Today, January 22, 2014, ct/2014/january-web-only/let-there-be-arcade-fire.html
  6. Sean Michaels, “Inside the Church of Arcade Fire,” Paste Magazine, November 4, 2007, http://www.pastemagazine. com/articles/2007/04/arcade-fire.html
  7. Josh Modell, “Win Butler of Arcade Fire,” A.V. Club,
  8. Gabriel Samach, “Arcade Fire: Reflektor,” Tiny Mix Tapes,
  9. A number of reviewers have made parallels with U2’s Achtung Baby and Radiohead’s Kid A. As Rolling Stone magazine states, Reflektor is “a thrilling act of risk and renewal by a band with established commercial appeal and a greater fear of the average, of merely being liked.” David Fricke, “Arcade Fire Reflektor Album Review,” Rolling Stone, September 27, 2013,
  10. For a description of the very intentional design process of the album cover and packaging see “Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’: The Story Behind the Album Cover,” May 11, 2013,
  11. As a teaser prior to the full album release, the band posted for 24 hours on Youtube the entire album accompanying the Black Orpheus as a soundtrack. In addition, in one of three official videos for Afterlife, one of the singles form the album, again Black Orpheus was used
  12. Patrick Doyle, “Win Butler Reveals Secret Influences Behind Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor,’” Rolling Stone, October 22, 2013,
  13. See Doyle, “Win Butler Reveals Secret Influences Behind Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor.’”
  14. Doyle, “Win Butler Reveals Secret Influences Behind Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor.’”
  15. Michael Barclay, “Arcade Fire Frontman Win Butler: ‘Yeah, We’re a Weird Band’,”, October 19, 2013,
  16. Doyle, “Win Butler Reveals Secret Influences Behind Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor.’”
  17. Barclay, “Win Butler.”
  18. “Arcade Fire – Interview with Win Butler in Brussels”, November 24, 2013, watch?v=yGpRqV1ClXs
  19. Doyle, “Win Butler Reveals Secret Influences Behind Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor.’”
  20. Q with Jian Ghomeshi: Interview with Win Butler and Jeremy Gara, watch?v=n6JWK44Ror8
  21. See Michael J. Gilmour, Gods and Guitars: Seeking the Sacred in Post-1960s Popular Music (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009); and Michael J. Gilmour, “Arcade Fire’s Parobolic Bible,” SBL Forum, 2009, http://www.sbl-site. org/publications/article.aspx?ArticleId=824. Gilmour makes the claim of carnivalesque by pointing out the way in which Arcade Fire subverts the official “culture” of Christianity by, for example: identifying the album as a kind of bible; listing and numbering the songs and verses in the liner notes like Bible chapter and verse numbers; and by recording and mixing the album at “the church” in Québec.
  22. Gilmour, Gods and Guitars, 57
  23. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MS: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 469
  24. Taylor, A Secular Age, 482–483
  25. Taylor, A Secular Age, 518
  26. Taylor, A Secular Age, 715
  27. See, for example, “Arcade Fire – Interview with Win Butler in Brussels,” November 24, 2013; “Big Day Out 2014 Interviews: Arcade Fire”,
  28. Butler himself wears mask like make-up while on stage which has the effects of hiding his eyes, and so leads by example.
  29. Doyle, “Win Butler Reveals Secret Influences Behind Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor.’”
  30. Søren Kierkegaard et al., Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 223
  31. All quotes from The Present Age are taken from
  32. Doyle, “Win Butler Reveals Secret Influences Behind Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor.’”
  33. Quoted in Christian Scharen, “Secular Music and Sacramental Theology,” in Secular Music and Sacred Theology, ed. Tom Beaudoin (Collegeville, MN: Litugical Press, 2013), 97
  34. See Jonny Ensall, “Arcade Fire Interview: ‘“Hipster” Means Absolutely Nothing,’” Time Out, January 11, 2013,
  35. Taylor, A Secular Age, 525
  36. For example, see Taylor, A Secular Age, 300-304
  37. James K A Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 3
  38. Madeline, “Deu Discusses Past with Arcade Fire,” Ultraviolet, November 13, 2010, wordpress/2010/11/deu-discusses-past-with-arcade-fire/
  39. See Amos Yong, Discerning the Spirit(s): A Pentecostal-Charismatic Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000); Amos Yong, Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK; Paternoster, 2003); Amos Yong, The Spirit Poured Out On All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2005).
  40. In terms of the development of modern Pentecostalism, Yong highlights the influence of William J. Seymour at Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906. Yong notes that Seymour grew up on a slave plantation and would have been familiar with Louisiana Creole religion, including Haitian voodoo. See Yong, The Spirit Poured out on All Flesh, 73, n.133
  41. Amos Yong, “Justice Deprived, Justice Demanded: Afropentecostalism and the Task of World Pentecostal Theology Today,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 15:1 (2006), 135
  42. Yong, The Spirit Poured out on All Flesh, 68-80
  43. Yong cites the D.Min thesis of James A. Forbes Jr, “A Pentecostal Approach to Empowerment for Black Liberation” who tells of his experience of Haitian voodoo: “It was a great surprise to the author to get a more balanced picture of the true nature of Voodoo in Haiti. I expected to see the instruments of witchcraft. I had been taught to think of Voodoo almost totally in terms of the use of destructive power. But observation of a Voodoo ceremony and an unbiased or positive presentation of its meaning revealed that Voodoo is the form of Afro-American religion which supplied cohesion and strength for the black people of Haiti. I also learned that while witchcraft is practiced in the area it cannot be lumped in with the religious ceremonies which centre around the effort to make contact with the spirit world. It became very clear why Voodoo had to be discredited. It was largely due to the unifying power of Voodoo that the Haitian peasants were able to throw off the yoke of bondage.” See Yong, The Spirit Poured out on All Flesh, 73-74, n.133
  44. Taylor, A Secular Age, 554
  45. See for example, James K A Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, 2009; James K A Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013); Timothy Gorringe, The Education of Desire: Towards a Theology of the Senses (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2002); Warren S Brown and Brad D Stawn, The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church (Cambridge; NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
  46. Patrick L Gardiner, Kierkegaard: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 40
  47. Doyle, “Win Butler Reveals Secret Influences Behind Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor.’”
Mark McConnell
Author: Mark McConnell

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