"We long to be a picture of Jesus/In His arms so many prayers rest/I long to be a picture of Jesus/With Him we shall be forever blessed"
— from "Picture of Jesus"

This highly acclaimed Californian is steadily gaining the kind of notoriety for which legends are known. Ben Harper's parents, both musicians, raised him on a variety of styles, and his grandparents run the Folk Music Center near Los Angeles. A skilled songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist, Harper's instrument of choice is the Weissenborn, a 1920s Hawaiian lap slide guitar.

Best known for his single "Steal My Kisses," Harper's highly acclaimed solo debut in 1994 combined a wide range of classic sounds–rock, blues, soul, funk, folk, and reggae. Imagine an impressive hybrid of Lenny Kravitz, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Prince, Dave Matthews, and Jack Johnson. Harper's versatility is also evident as a guest artist on Higher Ground, the 2002 album from the Blind Boys of Alabama—a CD which also features the talents of Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Like those two artists, Harper deftly combines a respect for traditional genres, an appreciation for new sounds, and a love for improvisational musicianship with expressions of faith.

On his latest recording, Diamonds on the Inside, Harper and his band, The Innocent Criminals, are joined by Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the a capella "Picture of Jesus," which sounds like a long–lost cut from Paul Simon's Graceland. "Picture of Jesus" (excerpted above) is a stunning expression of faith from a so–called mainstream artist.

Inspired by the image of Christ on Corcovado Mountain in Rio, "Blessed to Be a Witness" expresses the Lord's sustaining power: "So much sorrow and pain/Still I will not live in vain/Like good questions never asked/Is wisdom wasted on the past/Only by the grace of God go I." The beautifully instrumented "When She Believes" acknowledges God (and Mother Mary) for blessing him with such a wonderful wife. The classic rocker "Everything" can be interpreted as a love letter to his wife or to God: "You're my first thought in the morning when I rise/You're my last thought in the evening when I rest my head at night/You mean everything to me."

Faith is a regular subject in Harper's work, but his private life is another matter. He has been known to smoke marijuana, and his music sometimes includes racy themes of "sexual healing." Perhaps he's since grown out of those tendencies, now that he's a family man. And in interviews, he regularly calls himself a "believer" to whom faith is important. Are these spiritual references in Harper's songs sincere or are they simply done for style? There are many conflicting factors at work concerning Ben Harper, so it's probably best to take Diamonds on the Inside at face value—a delightful crossroads of musical styles that offers some seemingly well–intentioned declarations of faith.

Unless specified clearly, we are not implying whether this artist is or is not a Christian. The views expressed are simply the author's. For a more complete description of our Glimpses of God articles, click here.