Gospel According to Matthew

Gospel According to Matthew

By Anthony Mariani

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.

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.' "

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