Sara Groves: On the Evidence of Things Not Seen

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Sara Groves

The segmentation of Christian music is, quite possibly, more varied than any other genre. There's Southern Gospel, Hymns, Worship Music, Gospel Rock. And then there's Sara Groves, one of a handful of unique voices out there who make artistic commentary on the world itself, from the perspective of a Christian. The music isn't your seven-eleven chorus or reflexively responsive corporate worship style; Groves thinks deeply on her subject, which requires the listener to do the same.

With her new album, Invisible Empires, Groves continues her line of interrogation, philosophy, and apologetics, with a hard look at technology and the increasingly faster pace of life in today's world, and how to cope with it through faith.

Why are you a Christian?

Wow. That's a big one.

My story of coming to know the Lord personally is that I did grow up in a Christian home. I say often that faith is like getting a diamond ring in a velvet box, and that it's human nature when it comes to passing it down to say, "Here's this velvet box. This is how the ring came to me, it must be how it will come to you." And a lot of times I think it's human nature to just hand down the box -- and a lot of people open the box, and... where's the ring?

But I got a lot of ring from my parents. It's the ring that's sort of the vibrant kingdom imagination come to life. I got a lot of that from my folks. And I saw the kingdom at work in their lives, and in my grandparents' lives. Even though there was some box there, some external trappings, there's been something that has wooed me from the very beginning. From a very young age I had a sense of the reality of God.

I always come back in my walk to some basics. I'm a critical thinker; I like to think and read. I often can find myself having doubts. But at the core, I take it all the way back. My grandfather would talk it through: We have a choice. Either this is all an accident, or it's a purpose. Okay, it's a purpose. And then our choice is either God is this sort of Being, or he is a person, a benevolent God. Walking through those apologetics, I always come back to Christ. It's led me there all these years, and He's made my path straight. He's done work in my life. I have fruit in my life that was not there, and I couldn't make it be there without the work of God in my life. On many levels I have evidence of His work in my heart, and that's why I am following Him and don't want to move without Him.

Is there an overall meaning to the album title, Invisible Empires, and an overarching theme to the songs on the album?

Definitely. I always have themes working when I'm working on a record -- I'm usually chewing on a few ideas that come out. I'm painting a fruit bowl from many different angles. (laughs) So this record is no different.

I was reading Eugene Pearson's A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, and the byline of that book says "Discipleship for an Instant Society." And I've been thinking a lot about technology -- what we gain is amazing, but... what do we lose when we just enlist ourselves to this frenetic life? So I was reading in that book about Psalm 127 where the psalmist says, "Unless the Lord builds the house, the builder builds in vain." Peterson says that the work of man is frenetic; we're chasing our tails. We work like the devil. But God's work -- he compares it to a pregnancy. The way that God works is more along the lines of carrying a child, where you're doing a very important work -- maybe the most important work you've ever done of your life -- but you're not actually doing anything. You can't add a hair or a fingernail to that child. You're just faithful. You wake up and go about your life.

I love that image. And I was thinking about that throughout this record that I'm often in that frenetic, man-made virtual world where I'm building my own empire. And on the cover there's like sort of a dark city, and that's sort of the city of man. And then behind it is illuminated this "invisible empire." God is always at work in this more substantial, real way. I Corinthians talks about how the invisible things are actually more real than the visible things of this world. So that's what Invisible Empires is about.

As I listen to the tracks, and read along with the lyric sheet -- I don't know if it's intentional, but one of the most potent feelings that comes across in the music is this sense of personal smallness in contrast to such a large, almost overwhelming wave.

When I'm about my own work, and I'm creating all these virtual empires -- spreading myself thin, joined up with technology wholeheartedly and putting myself out there -- but I'm ignoring this larger work that God is doing in me, it creates such a restlessness. So in "Finite" I'm saying, "I can't do this by myself. I'll wait for you. In "Open My Hands" I say, "I'll trust that your blessings are what I need, because my way is not working."

And that's where I find myself -- and a lot of my friends -- where I'm just exhausted. I'm meeting all these demands that God isn't actually asking of me. I'm putting these things on myself. And when I really walk with His purpose and direction, that's when the meaningful things are happening. So I don't want to sacrifice all my real relationships for virtual relationships. So that theme of being small and saying, basically, "Unless You are building this house, I don't want to be doing it. Unless You're here, unless You're working with me."


"I'm meeting all these demands that God isn't actually asking of me. I'm putting these things on myself. And when I really walk with His purpose and direction, that's when the meaningful things are happening."

You mentioned technology, and nowhere on the album is that topic more obvious than in "Scientists in Japan." There are some very philosophical lyrics in there, and it's not a song that one would traditionally think of as a Christian Artist song. It's not one where you're going to run out to Mardel's and grab up the TRAX version of it for leading worship in your church. Is that becoming more common for CCM artists, to be doing songs that aren't so much secular but that aren't exactly praise/worship either?

Well, that's what I've been doing my whole career -- I feel called to do that. I love worship music, and it's a huge part of my own personal worship experience. But as an artist, what comes out of me is more along the lines of the singer/songwriter.

We exist out there. I think that the space for us has changed over the years. There used to be a little bit more room for that on Christian radio. Over the years, Christian radio has moved more towards corporate worship -- and I'm not guessing at that, those are actual conversations at GMA that there were decisions made to move in that direction. But I think that there are a lot of songwriters -- Andrew Peterson, Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken, Joel Phillips -- and many others who are writing about the whole of life. Charlie Peacock has always written about the whole of life. I think that that's always been going on, it's just not as much on the front lines of corporate worship or the way that CCM music is shared.

I think we've been out here for a long time writing about the whole of life, and to me that's important. I love worship music, and I need that in my life. I've attempted to write worship music in the past, and it's funny because this is what comes out of me -- this sort of apologetics worldview Christian music. So that's what I feel called to do.

The art that you produce -- the lyrics -- they're very dense; by which I mean I have to think about what's being said. It's very poetic, allegorical sometimes -- at times it's like you're CCM's Tori Amos. Who inspires you as a poet or lyricist, and what moves you to any particular form when you're writing?


"I've attempted to write worship music in the past, and it's funny because this is what comes out of me -- this sort of apologetics worldview Christian music. So that's what I feel called to do."

I grew up listening to a lot of different types of music. My folks were in the Jesus People movement -- Keith Green and Second Chapter of Acts -- so I grew up with a lot of that. Keith Green was such a passionate person about his faith and was sort of narrating about the culture through the Christian world view. So that definitely has influenced me in wanting to... I don't desire to go into the general market at all. I feel called to write blatantly Christian music -- to write about my faith in a very blatant way. But a lot of the lyricists that have inspired me have been in the secular world, in the sense that they are highly disclosing of their own selves.

Paul Simon has always been a hugely influential writer in my life. I haven't listened to Tori Amos in a while, but I used to listen to her. When I was in college, I was listening to the Indigo Girls. The two writers in that group, one of them, Amy Ray, is very angry, and I don't identify with her at all. But the other is Emily Saliers, and she's written some very beautiful self-disclosing music -- and at that time, when I was in college, I thought, "I want to write like this, but from a Christian world view." I feel like confession begets confession, and that's been my experience as I disclose what God is doing in my heart and how I'm struggling with working out my salvation. People resonate with that. They're living out that same experience.

So poets, and people that are writing from this gut place, really resonate with me, and I've attempted to do that myself.

Another song on the album, "Eyes on the Prize," has a very interesting introduction incorporated into it. Where did that come from?

We've done work with a group right outside New York City, in Jersey City. There's an incredible ministry called New City Kids. They use music to tutor young kids in the city that would normally be on the streets. They have high school kids teach the younger kids music lessons. So the young kids start out in the program taking music lessons after school, learning to play the piano, the bass, the guitar, drums -- and as they get older, then they become the teachers. It's actually their job -- they get paid minimum wage to teach students after school. So it engaged kids of all ages, all the way through college. The kids that they were getting in their program, none of them were going to college, and now they have one hundred percent placement in college, because these kids just get plugged in with music.

So they have a gospel choir and they have different bands that play out in the city. They do Bible study together, and fellowship. It's just an incredible model of the arts engaging kids and keeping them engaged in wanting to stay in school and stay in church.

So this song, it was originally an old holiness hymn that was rewritten -- new stanzas were added in 1959 for the Civil Rights Movement. So we asked New City Kids if they would sing this intro for this song, which is really about keeping our eyes on the prize, specifically along the lines of... We keep our eyes on the prize in our marriages, in our faiths, whatever God has called us to, but specifically in the area of social justice as well. It was really a treat to have them sing that introduction.

One more song on the album I'd like to visit is "Right Now." That's probably the shortest song I've heard since Paul McCartney's "Her Majesty." I can't help but think that, given its brief burst of emotion and urgency that there was an absolute need of some kind to do the song and get it out.

I was finishing songs for the record, and I kept coming back to that one. I was working with [producer] Steve Hindalong, and he said, "This message is really important." And the song wasn't finished, and we both agreed that I had really said what I needed to say in basically one verse and one chorus. He said, "You might finish this song later, but I think it's an important idea."

Again, a lot of this record is about giving up my way and "Your will be done." So this song is about my tendency to blame everyone around me for my problems. Especially you hear a lot of people blaming their church -- "My church isn't doing this. My church isn't doing that. I'm not fed. I'm not whatever." -- and I think what God's calling us to do, we should be able to do in a paper bag or a cardboard box. We should be able to do that regardless of our scenario or our surroundings.

So that song is just really to myself, a very personal disclosure that I've been blaming everybody else, and I need to just follow God and do what He's asking me to do. I felt like the message was strong, and we ended up really liking that it was short and to the point.

How do you think Invisible Empires compares to your previous works? How is it different or evolved from what's come before?

Well, it's hard for me to step back completely, but Steve went at this pretty purposefully. He wanted to make a bigger, more produced record than we did with Fireflies and Songs, which was our previous record. Fireflies was more like a girl and her piano -- Charlie Peacock really wanted to capture the songwriter, and that was a lot of fun and I loved how that turned out. That album was really extremely personal. I mean, I'm usually disclosing personally, but I really dug deep in my own marriage and relationships to write that record.

This records... I enjoy looking at culture and putting pieces together and reflecting on it from a Christian world view. So I kind of returned to what I've been doing in the past. But I feel like, playing with Tyler Burkum -- he's just an incredible guitar player -- I think it has a real vibrancy. Musically, I think it engages, and Steve Hindalong did all that.

Are you taking this out on tour?

We've already done one tour with it this last month -- we've been on the road for about thirty days with it. We'll continue to share music from it this spring.