A Still, Small Voice: Faith and doubt in the music of Josh Ritter

The singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has opened for an Irish rock band, held sold-out shows with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and graced the stage at a number of New York City’s most popular venues. But the first place I saw Ritter perform live in concert was a church.

In 2007 he performed a solo show in the Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Westport, Conn., apparently the only local venue with space to accommodate the fans. Filling the pews, they refused to let the stained-glass surroundings or the lack of alcohol sales dampen their enthusiasm for Ritter, who, beneath a mop of red-brown curls and dressed in a white suit, cheerfully crossed in front of the pulpit to take the so-called stage.


While the venue was unusual for rock and roll, it seemed fitting for Ritter, given that so much of his song catalog deals with faith—keeping faith in oneself, finding it in others or in the natural world and, with regard to God, questioning whether it’s worth having at all.

O’Connor Meets Dylan

An Idaho native and son of two neuroscientists, Ritter attended Oberlin College with the intention of following in his parents’ footsteps but eventually settled on a self-designed degree in “American history through narrative folk music.” This focus, not to mention years of practice and grueling tour schedules, has paid off. Today he is a vital force shaping the very tradition he studied.

Ritter, 34, started singing in coffee houses in New England and found his big break in Ireland, gaining notoriety while touring with the Irish rock band, the Frames. Always rock and roll, often folk-inspired and with some country twang, Ritter’s music is melodically and lyrically rich, influenced as much by Flannery O’Connor and Muriel Spark as by Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. Ritter’s songs tell stories of love and fear, grace and redemption, of busting out, journeying and returning.

Ritter demonstrates apparently effortless ability to weave spiritual and biblical allusions into his lyrics in a way that is more literary than religious, subtle yet still meaningful. His fourth studio album, “The Animal Years,” was a broken-hearted love song for America, with tracks about doubt, war, love of country and peace—not uncommon themes, but masterfully nuanced—the kind of songs Thomas Merton might have written had he embarked on a rock career instead of a monastic one.

But the faith present in Ritter’s songs is Jeffersonian: we make our own happiness; the focus is more on how we behave than what we say we believe. At times, Ritter describes a world in which religion is distorted by humanity, where things are not always as they seem, where “lost sheep grow teeth” and “forsake their lambs and lie down with the lions”; eyes are as green “as the grass that might grow in the 23rd Psalm”; and “the garden of Eden/ was burned to make way for a train.” Yet in that world Ritter provides a surprising amount of hope. It’s just that we must look to each other to find it.

In “So Runs the World Away,” his sixth and most recent album, Ritter presents a world on the cusp of change; forward momentum is embodied in the energy of his songs. On his Web site, Ritter wrote about “a new feeling” he experienced prior to writing and recording the album, an emptiness that settled on him “like a cold shadow.” This sort of pain, wondering and longing can be heard in many of his latest songs. But so can the hope that followed.

God as Black Hole?

Ritter’s music does not present a world without God but rather a world that cannot figure out whether the Creator got back to work after resting on the seventh day. The biggest question in Ritter’s music is not “Does God exist?” but “Does God care?” “Rattling Locks,” with its pounding drumbeats and haunting minor chords, shakes its fist at a God-as-black-hole, who takes and consumes without giving back and without explanation, without answer. This is the kind of god who allows soldiers to die at war, men to kill men and hearts to be broken; there is no hint that the same god might also be capable of offering comfort.

In “Folk Bloodbath,” a song in which several characters meet violent, untimely ends, Ritter sings, “I’m hoping it ain’t true that the same God that looks out for them looks out for me and you.” And if it is? Well, as he sings in “Lantern,” it’s time to take things into our own hands, to “throw away those lamentations” in favor of “a book of jubilations,” even if “we’ll have to write it for ourselves.”

In “So Runs,” Ritter serves as a Thomistic troubadour, posing questions and providing answers, unafraid of either. Again, in “Lantern,” he sings:

For every cry in the night

Somebody says, “Have faith!”

“Be content inside your questions”

“Minotaurs inside a maze”

Tell me what’s the point of light

That you have to strike a match to find?

Why get lost, Ritter wonders, when we have one another to offer light? So he sings to those who love him, asks others to walk with him through darkness and shadows, and promises to do the same. Ritter sings of a world where love always wins out, even when faith and reason fail us.

Along the way, Ritter strives to balance the apparent contradictions between faith and science; he has no problem pairing the mystical experience with the scientific one, filtering each through the other. In this balance, this interconnectedness, Ritter finds the greatest sense of peace.

In “Lark” images of shells, trees, larks, heartbeats, oxygen and “priestly greens” swim together in a world where there are “telescopes atop the mountains of ecstatic vision.” It is a world where faith is sometimes lacking but where doubt sounds a lot like hope. He sings: “I am assured, yes, peace will come to me/ a peace that can, yes/ surpass the speed, yes/ of my understanding and my need.”

A Wandering Faith

In Ritter’s songs, God is often distant but there, somewhere. Despite shadows and doubts, the search for this God, and a possible connection, is not over. At a time when life sometimes seems filled with noise, confusion and emptiness, Ritter sings of shutting out that din and trying to decipher what remains. Like Elijah standing by the mouth of his cave, Ritter sings of finding a place where one might hear that “still, small voice” as it “comes in blazing from some vast horizon.” But it is up to the listener to determine the source.

The faith in Ritter’s songs is active, searching, wandering. It is a journey made better in the company of loved ones. In “Long Shadows,” the final song on “So Runs,” Ritter pledges to stand by those who stand by him in the dark; he sings of the need to provide light for one another along the way, the need to help each other to see the good, the hope and maybe the divine in this world. The voice in the song is not afraid anymore. He’s got love. He’s got friends. With them, he’ll keep searching for a way forward, a new light and, as Ritter puts it in the title of one song, “Another New World.” You get the sense that he is willing to explore the kingdom of God, even if he doesn’t quite believe in it.

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