‘Romantic Christianity” and English folk music

Bruce Charlton, in a recent piece, writes on a topic which is dear to me. In it, he examines modern English folk music and how it deals with Christian themes, specifically the Christian interweaving of Christian themes with the supernatural (“uncanny”) elements based on folk tales.

He specifially references Steeleye Span and related bands, such as the Albion Band, the Watersons, et al. I don’t know how many of today’s music audiences are familar with these artists, but I recommend them to anyone who is a fan of traditional music, or English/British culture generally. When I first heard these artists years ago, I was fascinated by the supernatural themes of many of the songs; some morbid or gruesome but some simply eerie and spellbinding.

Nowadays, Christians tend to disassociate the supernatural from Christianity and Christian sensibilities, having been taught for many decades that the supernatural equates to occultism and the demonic, and that it’s out-of-bounds for Christians. Modern, established ‘Churchianity’ looks askance, at best, at the kinds of supernatural themes running throughout many of the old ballads, which bands like Steeleye Span popularized in the 1970s.

In recent years, a few in the Christian fold have been re-examining this rejection of the supernatural amongst Christians, and those who recognize the obvious fact that the supernatural is, in fact, essential to Biblical Christianity are taking a second look at the historical attitudes towards the subject.

Perhaps, as this piece suggests, the obvious Romantic influence in the old English (and Scottish, in some cases) ballads was somehow not developed to the full, and English music and folklore are the poorer for this. If I am understanding him correctly here, I agree with this idea.

Were the members of these bands consciously shying away from exploring ‘Christian romanticism’ with these themes? Were their own non-Christian proclivities responsible for their reluctance to go further in this direction?

It has seemed odd to me, considering that England was for long a very Christian country, though at times the people were irreligious; still, there were times of a great resurgence of Christian beliefs in England. Yet legend — or is it only legend? — has it that England was Christian since at least the second century A.D., with Glastonbury being the heart of early English Christianity. Of course, now Glastonbury is a counterculture  Mecca, and neo-pagans claim it as their own, denying Christianity’s deep roots in the country. Today Christianity is moribund in the U.K.

It’s natural to speculate about how today’s post-Christian Britain regards the cultural remnants which are reminders of the time when that island was a bastion of the Christian faith, and the culture in which it grew.

Regardless of all this, the music can be enjoyed on its own merits.

Professor Charlton’s musical examples include Steeleye’s renditions of the traditional ballads Demon Lover and Alison Gross. Visit the links to hear and see the videos at his blog.