In the season of Lent, Ivor Moody explores the theological usefulness of pop music for themes such as suffering, remembrance, and atonement.

A Reflection on ‘Brothers in Arms’ by Dire Straits

It might seem odd to turn to pop music and use it as a ‘lens’ to focus anew on the Christian faith and the problem of human suffering. For some at best it might seem irrelevant, to others, maybe, just plain sacrilegious!

The fact is though we live in a society many would describe now as post-Christian. As congregational numbers continue to decline at an alarming rate, and traditional rituals and expressions of belief and faith struggle to maintain their appeal, urgently we need to discover different signs and symbols which might lead us afresh to discover the significance of Gospel and faith for today’s society. And they just might be on our doorstep waiting to be uncovered. Iconic pop songs adored by millions across the world which may be new and powerful expressions of a spirituality which still allows people to connect with the divine and grapple with life’s big questions. Stories in song which help us connect with our own stories and which help us to look again at how the sacred can be found nestling within the secular.

In 1985 a band called Dire Straits produced a song called ‘Brothers in Arms’. It is an anthem to peace and the futility of war. The song is written from the standpoint of a soldier who lies wounded and dying amidst mist-coloured mountains a long way from home. A key to the song is that through the song’s lyrics he identifies his comrades not only as those who fought alongside him, but those others who happened to be on the opposing side but who are brothers in arms, nevertheless- all of them someone’s daughter, someone’s son.

There are ‘so many different worlds, so many different suns’ sings the dying soldier, but although ‘we have just one world, we live in different ones’. The sentiment of the last line of the song, ‘war against our brothers in arms makes us fools’, is crucial for an understanding of how ‘Brothers in Arms’ might make us look again at our Christian Faith. It transforms remembrance into one where our brothers in arms are not just those with whom we fight, but against those with whom we fight; an inclusivity which displays in stark terms the true if difficult and challenging significance of the Christian concept of ‘neighbour’.

At their Dire Straits’ concerts, ‘Brothers in Arms’ was usually the last song to be played. One of the band members, the bass player John Illsley has said that the effect was to remind the audience that although they had come from all over the place, they were in fact a band of sisters and brothers – neighbours in the truest sense of the word.

Here is a fundamental characteristic of the Christian Faith: that we are a common humanity from all points of the compass conjoined in an ultimate inter connectedness and linked to the God who created us. And it may well be a link that is nothing less than genetic, borne through the Incarnation. A belonging to God which has been passed down in human DNA from the moment God decided to inhabit a human womb. An umbilical cord connection which meant that at Golgotha the two people who Jesus loved most in the world, Mary his mother and John the beloved disciple, were given into each other’s care. And perhaps through Mary’s human motherhood of God all of us have this same connection, one that links humanity with the divine. It is a story of connectedness and rootedness given a secular context by ‘Brothers in Arms’ but nevertheless one which may suggest a sacred precedent.

To be told though that ‘we are fools to make war on our brothers in arms’, because despite our different cultures and ideologies we are all part of the same human family, also highlights for us through our liturgies of remembrance the need for atonement. We are humanity in arms not just because of our common ancestry but because we are also united in the ability to succumb to the corporate madness of violence, and war is the enemy of us all. It is reflective of something perhaps which gives the song ‘Brothers in Arms’ its most acute significance, that is, a song which focuses on that most troubling of all Biblical themes: the relationship between a God of love and the reality of human suffering. That face-off between violence and peace, between hatred and love, between grief and hope.

And so, each year when we gather round our stone crosses, obelisks and memorials to remember the dead and pray for peace, those liturgies do two things for us. They provide a safe space to enable us to hold opposites together, to face up to that which seems to be beyond repair, and to enable us through the telling of our own stories to realise that inextricably we are bound up in community with the stories and lives of others. And they are a reminder of that thing with which we all wrestle; to carry on living our lives in the hope that one day there will be something better than this.

And this is deeply reflective of a two-thousand-year-old liturgy of remembrance. At the heart of the Eucharist, the broken bread is a reflection of that conundrum with which we all have to live, the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, and it is a call for forgiveness and atonement because it exposes the violence of which we are all capable, but it also offers us a vision of a heaven forever without violence and pain, to which we are called to aspire.

And all of this goes to what we understand is the very heart of the Christian Faith. In my first book Songs for the Soul, writing about another famous anti-war song ‘Blowin in the Wind’ by Bob Dylan, I wrote this:

‘The cross is a reminder not that Jesus died to make us good, but that goodness in its true, divine and heavenly apparel is part of the vision of the Kingdom of God that keeps us striving in our faith, keeps us throwing our prayers to heaven like messages in bottles, and helps us to keep trying to love because we know it’s worth the cost.’[2]

Rev’d Canon Ivor Moody has been Vice Dean and Canon Pastor of Chelmsford Cathedral since 2010. He is the author of Songs for the Soul (Manchester: Rejoice Publications, Matthew James Publishing Ltd, 2017) and Six More Songs: Further Reflections on Faith and Rock’n Roll (London: Austin Macauley Ltd, 2023).

[1] One of six songs featured in Six More Songs (London: Austin Macauley Ltd, 2023),  pp. 90-111.
[2] One of six songs featured in Songs for the Soul (Manchester: Rejoice Publications, Matthew James Publishing Ltd, 2017) pp. 75-92.

As with all guest blogs, the views expressed in this blog post may not represent the views of the CSBV.

Pop Music and Pain: Uncovering Sacred Meaning from Secular Soundbites
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