Gospel According to Matthew

The Good Lord Willing, Songwriter Matthew Levine Plans to Spread the word of Baha'i

On the surface, "Forever Will Stand," penned by local songwriter Matthew Levine, sounds like traditional gospel. Over a swaying rhythm, complemented by soft piano lines and the collective harmony of a choir, a woman sings: "O sisters and brothers, the hour is at hand / Our very foundation is turning to sand / So gather ye faithful, heed His command / And we'll build a home that forever will stand."

In some ways, this song is gospel -- Christ-inspired music as Isaac Watts composed it in early-18th-century America, around the time of the genre's birth. The song's message is a call to action, a cry for spirituality, a dedication to Him with a capital "H." The song's sonority is harmonious and its arrangement familiar to any who might frequent a Southern Baptist service: a piano intro, wild individual singing, sturdy group harmonies and a soft ending.

But in many ways, the song is decidedly un-gospel. Or more to the point, it is not gospel as the genre is usually defined, the word of Christ in song. It is gospel in that it is symbolic of a strong belief in something.

Cover art for Matthew Levine's various spiritual projects.
Cover art for Matthew Levine's various spiritual projects.
Cover art for Matthew Levine's various spiritual projects.
Cover art for Matthew Levine's various spiritual projects.

Matthew Levine is not a Catholic. Or a Jehovah's Witness. Or a Baptist. In fact, he is not even Christian. He is a Baha'i. And as a Baha'i, Levine embraces the messages of every religion's prophet: Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Zoroaster, among others, as well as Baha'u'llah, the prophet who initiated the creation of the Baha'i faith around 1850. And as a member of one of the world's most widespread religions, with communities in more than 200 countries, Levine believes in the unification of all peoples, regardless of beliefs. He attempts to bring people together by writing music that is uplifting yet never particularly faith-specific, never particularly Christian.

Yet Levine's music is often mistaken for traditional gospel by many, including some knowledgeable folk. "Forever Will Stand" has won three national songwriting awards over the past year and a half. It placed first in Songwriters Resource Network's "Great American Song Contest," took the grand prize in Enormous Records' competition and was one of three finalists in the 1998 John Lennon Songwriting Contest. Each victory came in the gospel category.

"It depends on the lyrics in 'gospel-inspirational,' " says Greg Ross, JLSC spokesperson. "And Matthew's song is a gospel song. It seems like traditional gospel."

Of the song's lyrics, Levine says: "The words can be attributed to Christ. A Baha'i friend of mine got professional Christian singers to record this song, the best, and none of them knew I was a Baha'i until afterward. I asked them, and they really liked it. They said, 'It's straight-ahead.' "

While the tune has earned Levine, a self-professed struggling songwriter, a minimal amount of success, its true rewards have not necessarily been measurable to the eye. Aside from some encouraging words, a couple of thousand-dollar checks and the self-assurance that comes with writing "John Lennon Songwriting Contest finalist" (out of 2,700 gospel entrants) on his résumé, the full-time graphic designer has earned something much larger: the confidence and conviction to continue working toward his dream -- composing music for a living.

At the same time, Levine's song has also made him, and some others in the industry, stand back. Naturally, they wonder: What exactly is gospel music? Some lyrical references to Christ or St. Peter? Some "hallelujahs" and the sound of a Hammond B3 organ? The key of G?

Says Ray Tellis, gospel performer and producer and session pianist on "Forever Will Stand": "Gospel to me is the message. In my [Protestant] faith, I believe it's the Good News. Styles may change, but it's the message....The gospel of Jesus Christ, that's what it is. People just interpret it differently."

Of Levine's song, Tellis says the message was "general." He continues: "It's just a general song that any person that loves gospel could identify with. It was a song that promoted unity. And that's why I liked it."

Levine's winning song receives no airplay and can be heard only on the songwriter's home page, matthewlevine.homepage.com, which provides a link to an MP3 page. Levine shrugs off the fact that hardly anyone has actually heard his music. The song has already performed the miracle he needed: When he wrote it in 1993, Levine was on the verge of sheathing his professional songwriting pen for good. But before he called it quits, he wanted to try to compose and record one bona fide, top-notch tune. "Forever Will Stand" was the result.

"When I wrote, I was drawing from the black Christian tradition of gospel," says Levine, a medium-T-shirt-size fellow topped with wispy gray hair, his face covered by thick-rimmed dark eyeglasses. "Having heard it and been influenced by Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire and George Benson, I liked gospel.

"I always write lyrics first, and if the lyric suggests gospel, then gospel music is written....This lyric was inspired by Baha'u'llah. I was thinking of him the whole time."

One of Levine's first transcendent experiences came as a long-haired teen in California, his home at the time. Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Fugue" spun on the black plastic portable turntable as Levine listened intently. He let the 33-rpm vinyl disc spin a couple of seconds, then deftly lifted the needle from the record's surface. With his other hand, his writing hand, Levine grabbed his pen and spiral notebook and transcribed the sounds he had just heard.

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