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Matt Maher: Finding Freedom in Our Frailty

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

Fear of the unknown.  It’s something most of us have battled at one time or another in our lives.  The examples seem limitless.  A career move that could change everything about the way you live. Moving forward after a divorce.  Not knowing where you will spend eternity. 

After the launch of his last album, All the People Said Amen, Christian singer/songwriter Matt Maher found himself struggling through a period of unknowing in his life.  Rather than being complacent, he started gravitating toward some of the greatest influencers the world has ever known.  He found comfort in the words of Martin Luther King, St. Francis of Assisi, and Mother Teresa to name a few. 

I recently sat down with Matt to discuss his latest release Saints and Sinners, a direct reflection of music inspired by these leaders of the faith who left such an indelible imprint on Christianity.

The title of your new album, Saints and Sinners, is very polarizing to say the least. What can you tell me about your decision to name your new record this?

We live in very polarizing times, and I think at the time of Jesus, it was a very polarizing time. I think that the Gospel seeks to reconcile these two opposing sides. The funny thing is the first requirement of a saint is to identify as a sinner. And I think that over the years, what can sometimes happen in the journey of a believer is we lose sight of who we were before Christ. I think memory is a very powerful and important thing in the life of a Christian, because I think that so much of our faith life is really based on it. And in a lot of the Psalms when you consider the faithfulness of God, typically you’re remembering the faithfulness of God in your own life. So we live in this time where more than ever there is this real notion of I can kind of do whatever I want, and there’s no consequence for it. And so I think this album was really about me exploring the tension of what does it mean to be redeemed and still going through the process of your sanctification and salvation. It’s a moment, and it’s a definitive moment in the life of every believer.  The Apostle Paul says you have to work it out with much fear and trembling, and as that’s happening, as Christ is reconciling those things within you throughout the context of your life, how do you get reconciled with the world around you? As an artist I was like, how do I respond to all of this stuff? How do I respond to all these different judgments about the world? And it was sort of a thing that dawned on me. God’s given me this ability to make music, so I think I’m going to let music be my response.

There are several songs on Saints and Sinners that highlight some very influential figures in history. I’m talking about people like Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and others. What was it about these leaders that inspired you to write songs about them?

Honestly, at first I had no idea. I just felt compelled. It’s like Richard Dreyfuss’ character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who said, “Why do I keep making mountains out of mashed potatoes?” And it’s funny. Even with the song “Sons and Daughters” which is inspired by the “We Shall Overcome” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, I wrote that in March 2014 and then in August everything in Ferguson sort of unfolded.  I feel like the reason why God put this on my heart is that these men and women are what I call “prophetic voices” within the church.  And not prophetic, necessarily, in an ultra charismatic sense, although I’m sure maybe some of them did have a more exceptive type of spirituality in that way. These people were prophetic in the sense that they responded to the prompting of God’s voice and echoed it, and it echoed in such a strong way that it resonated with people.  And I wonder if in the West we’ve silenced most of our prophets?  I wonder if there are more young men and women in the Church who God has given them a voice, and given them a proclivity towards one figure of burden or issue to be raised up and speak about but because of how politicized Christianity has become they do not speak.

Saints and Sinners is your fifth major label release which firmly establishes you as a veteran in contemporary Christian music. How is this new album similar to your previous work but more importantly, how is it different?

I think it’s the same in the sense that I’m trying to write songs that help articulate peoples’ faith. And I would say a big part that’s established in my writing style is I love finding moments in the history of the church and sort of representing them to people, whether that moment was a hymn or a quote, or a poem or an old sermon. I’m realizing that that’s a big part of my writing. That’s probably the consistent thing. I would say that what’s different about this one is that I feel like my music is hopefully a little bit more human in the sense that Jesus Christ is reconciling me within my own flesh. And so in my desire to express and articulate my faith, I’m also more authentically expressing my humanity.  The songs are more articulate. It’s funny, what differentiates Christian music from all other music is really just the lyrics. I heard a great story that Johnny Depp was at a party and somebody was playing 10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman in the room.  The person went over to fast-forward it and Johnny Depp stopped them and said, “Wait. Stop. Don’t change that song.” And he listened and then he said, “Play it again.” And so he played it again.” That’s the power of language. The melody’s great but what makes that song so special is that Matt Redman found a way to use words to make manifest the mystery of God and the praise of God. To me, that is hopefully what makes this album better. At the end of the day, hopefully I’ve managed to express myself in a more relatable way.

I really see that in a lot of songs you have written in the past but especially on Saints and Sinners. Take for example, the song “Firelight”. It personifies exactly what you have been talking about.  What compelled you to write and record this?

That song was the one that was inspired by Mother Teresa, and it was actually inspired by one of her quotes.  She said, “If I ever become a saint, I’ll surely be one of darkness. I will be continually absent from Heaven to light the way of those on the earth.”

When I wrote it I started out really thinking about somebody who was trying to move forward after the loss of innocence, whether it’s childhood, whether it’s decisions that happened in college, whether it’s a painful divorce, or whatever. It’s how do we move on from tragedy, how do we continue to have faith in the midst of tragedy, in the midst of horrific situations which more believers find themselves in now today than any other time. And fire is an interesting thing, because with fire, it cauterizes, it’s burns and it also illuminates. And so I love that one of the earliest images of the Holy Spirit is fire, and not just sunlight.  Fire is this primordial image but it’s because of what it can do. And so the song really is an earnest plea for God to illuminate and purify, and confront in some ways, the darkness in our own heart.

The first single “Because He Lives (Amen)” is currently sitting very high on the Billboard Christian chart. What can you tell me about that song?

It’s got as many writers as a modern pop song. You go look at the credits in pop music these days and you will usually find ten people involved in the creation of a song. I would say that this song started out on the piano at Chris Tomlin’s studio with myself and two other people. The idea of it simply first was, hey, let’s write a song titled “Because He Lives”. Then we realized you really can’t do it without saying “I can face tomorrow.” And when you do that, it becomes the highest form of flattery known as plagiarism. So, the more we wrote the song, the more we realized we were going to need to get permission from Bill and Gloria Gaither. I think that’s kind of the story of the song, and along the way Chris Tomlin got involved. There was sort of a period where we thought he might record it, but he didn’t.  So the song was just kind of sitting there and I was in between albums. We made a demo and we were just kind of going to hand out the sheet music online to churches.

For me, singing this song has in some ways been a bit of a confrontation within myself to say, alright, I believe this, I really do. I think it’s a reminder to people that Jesus said we’d see greater things than when He was on the earth, and that’s kind of a ridiculous statement. Like if you really stop and think about it, if most of us had to choose between being with the Son of God on the earth and watching him cure people of blindness, raise the dead, multiply loaves and fish or seeing greater things than that, I think most of us in our comfort would say, you know, I’ll stick with watching the Son of God do that stuff. That’s all pretty amazing stuff. So the reality is for us is it’s our life in Christ that begins to resurrect; and that’s a pretty big beginning.

After people listen to Saints and Sinners, what’s your greatest hope for the album? What do you want people to take away from that experience?

My hope is that people will just keep walking with Jesus, just walk. I often wonder if Emmaus is really the model of the Christian life that Jesus set for us, that He meets people in their disappointments along the way and walks with them, and is revealed in community. It’s not a mountaintop experience. And I would say that more than anything, and that maybe like I said, if God’s given somebody a prophetic voice for something, could we help raise them up.

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