Americans are less likely to belong to an organized religious community than ever before. According to a recent article in Axios, fewer than 50% of citizens belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque in the 21st century, down from 70% as recently as 1999. The decline was mostly due to the number of people who responded with “none” and expressed no religious preference. Polling indicates church membership is lower among younger generations, and baby boomers and Gen X are less religious than those born before 1946. The situation of religion in people’s lives has become even more complicated due to the recent pandemic that limited attendance in services and group activities. Meanwhile, existential questions such as what is the meaning of life have never seemed more pertinent.
Andrew Choi, who records under the moniker St. Lenox, has just released Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times. It’s a magnificent meditation on the role of religion in our daily life. There’s nothing sanctimonious about it. St. Lenox is a reluctant believer who struggles to find hope and meaning in our interactions with friends, family, nature, and society. He doesn’t preach nor does he dismiss the existence of God. He sings in a conversational tone like that emphatic guy at the club who wants to be sure you’ve heard what he said but isn’t about to shout. He gilds his lyrics with instrumentation that borders from cheesy synthesizers to church organs.
The melodies are deceptively simple but allow him to cram deep thoughts into the nooks and crannies of the hook-laden lines. That mimics how hymns and psalms work. They get us to sing along unthinkingly until we really start pondering what we’re chanting. (As a member of the generation that had to recite Psalm 23 in public school before beginning the day, I can still recall when I first realized what “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” really meant.)
Although each of the ten songs addresses some aspect of religion, the topics range from personal to political. He begins the album with a discussion of Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog who predicts the weather according to myth). He ends with Super-Kamiokande (the world’s largest neutrino detector 1,000 meters underground in Japan). What ties these two disparate subjects together is belief, whether it be in faith or science. St. Lenox believes in “hope for the future” because “you gotta believe in something” but admits his doubts and fears as well as optimism.
Each of the ten tracks are grounded in specific situations. They have a rambling verbal quality to them that camouflages their serious intent. For example, “Arthur Is at a Shiva” begins as a tale of two work colleagues at a bar waiting for the third to show up and ends with an epiphany about what happens when you die (“it’s just a change”). Or there’s the story of his Korean immigrant parents who escaped war and death (“Gospel of Hope”) that causes him to ponder the mysteries of life and shout “Hallelujah”. Even the lighter topics, like “Kroger Twilight” about the pleasures of solitary grocery shopping at night or “Bethesda” that looks back at attending a welcoming Lutheran church in Ames, Iowa as a teen, offer insights into his inner life and spiritual concerns.
The strangest song is “Teenage Eyes”, whose rock and roll beat and lyrics about youthful ambitions are played over a recording of President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 Republican Party Convention speech “The Three Imperatives of Power”. St. Lenox is presumably too young to be the teen in the song back in 1956. Still, the idea that the 1950s were turbulent times is clear in Ike’s warning (“There can be no enduring peace for any nation while other nations suffer privation, oppression, and a sense of injustice and despair. In our modern world, it is madness to suppose that there could be an island of tranquillity and prosperity in a sea of wretchedness and frustration.”). This track is followed by “Our Tumultuous Times” which declares the end of the world may be near so we should love our neighbors and help the destitute. The moral of these tales is clear. In times like today, we need to steel our resolve and be better people.
And maybe even have children and await miracles? St. Lenox alludes to these things in other songs in a hopeful way. The album as a whole is jam-packed with these positive visions and insights. The fact that St. Lenox offers them in an unpretentious voice with modest melodies disguises their resplendence. Like William Blake seeing a world in a blade of grass, St. Lenox perceives the deeper significance of our ordinary existence. We all live and die. And go to the supermarket, drink at the bar, and have dramatic family stories. The ten songs here explore what it all means to exist during these chaotic times (and maybe that’s all the time) and finds the hidden sparks of understanding and awareness within. It’s a beautiful record!