Unexpected Theologians

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I was having drinks with my friend Devin a couple weeks ago and he asked me to suggest new music. From time to time some friends reach out to me with recommendations for new music because I absolutely love music. And because I have verifiably the best taste in music.

A lot of times people are curious to know how I hear about all this new music. I wish I could give a more impressive answer like I am on a first name basis with Thom Yorke or Sufjan Stevens (name dropping to show how cool and in the know I am) and they send me demos of their latest songs. Or maybe the staff at Pitchfork (another name drop, but come on, Pitchfork is kind of a parody of pretentiousness is it not?) want to run a few new albums by me for confirmation of their relevance.

The truth is far less inspiring. I just pay attention.

If I’m at a grocery store and I hear something I like I pay attention. I take out my iPhone, open SoundHound and let it do its magic. Sometimes that doesn’t work and I have to ask an employee if they can find out who is playing. Is there a song I like in a film? I’ll check who the artist is. Catchy tune in a commercial? Google is a wonderful thing. But it all comes back to the fact that I just try to pay attention.

I’m not trying to sound enlightened, I just really like music so I can’t help but notice. I find the same is true theologically, especially in music.

My first concert as a kid was DC Talk. …And I’ve lost all my music credibility. If you’re unfamiliar with DC Talk I sort of feel bad for you, but not that bad. They were one of the pioneering artists in this machine called Contemporary Christian Music, CCM for short. Here’s a taste.

Now, the style has changed, but a lot of the substance has stayed the same. Jesus is awesome. He’s my best friend. I’ve got problems, but God’s got it under control. God’s not dead, etc. I’m not going spell out the troubles I have with CCM, that could be another discussion entirely. What I will say is that CCM doesn’t have a monopoly on theological reflection.

There are a lot of artists, professing believers or not, who hold deep theological conviction and what I might argue is that they are a little more honest with what it means to be a human and make sense of existence.

Here’s what I mean.

TYPHOON – COMMON SENTIMENTS

Led by Kyle Morton, this Portland band’s most recent album White Lighter is a largely autobiographical piece of work about Morton’s childhood, his wrestling with his disease, and how to make sense of a life where life happens, sometimes in ways you didn’t plan, but it happens nonetheless.

Common Sentiments comes near the end of the album as a bit of an acceptance of how things are and the determination to be well in spite of the parts of life that are difficult.

Morton writes,

“When am I gonna feel better?
I have been patient for a long time now.
I’ve been a patient for a long time now.
I’ve been the patient for a long time now.
I’ve been the patient for a long time now.
And I will never be a younger man now.”

Anyone who has struggled to do what is right knows this feeling. As the apostle Paul writes, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” I know that there are times in my own life that despite my own best intentions I mess up and fail and hurt others and hurt myself and get angry. And who of us when we’ve failed doesn’t ask the same kind of question, “when am I gonna feel better?”

In another letter to the Thessalonians Paul asks us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” The distinction here is to give thanks in all things, but this is not the same as giving thanks for all things. Some things are frustrating. I once heard that God wastes nothing, and so this circumstance, with all the sadness wrapped up in it can shape me.

Is it any wonder then that the song ends with the repeated refrain: “I will be good though my body be broken?” This is what Paul talks about when he compels us to be thankful in all circumstances.

It sounds like Kyle Norton has come to the same conclusion.

ARCADE FIRE – ANTICHRIST TELEVISION BLUES

In a 2007 interview with Rolling Stone, Win Butler, front man of the Canadian band Arcade Fire revealed that Antichrist Television Blues was largely inspired by Joe Simpson, the father of Jessica and Ashlee Simpson.

“It could be about other people, too, but it definitely applies to that family’s dynamic. We haven’t heard from their camp at all, which is great, because some people we’ve worked with have worked with them and said you definitely don’t want to cross them.” [1]

The song wrestles with our intentions and turns light on Christians. What begins as a father’s desire to have his daughters be the lanterns of God’s light turns into a very conflicted man wrestling with the love of money under the guise of praising God. At the end of the song the protagonist ends up with more questions than answers.

“Do you know where I was at your age?
Any idea where I was at your age?
I was working downtown for the minimum wage.
And I’m not gonna let you just throw it all away.
I’m through being cute, I’m through being nice,
Oh tell me, Lord, am I the Antichrist?!”

I would venture to guess that on your typical Sunday you won’t hear these kinds of questions at church. But shouldn’t we be asking them? 

DAVID BAZAN – HARD TO BE

Of the three songs we’ve listened to, David Bazan’s is the most explicitly theological, wrestling with the creation of the world at the beginning of Genesis.

David Bazan grew up in the Evangelical church and has since moved away from that identity, labeling himself agnostic. Hard to Be is the opening track on what is described as his break up album with God, Curse Your Branches.

This is one of my favorite, probably my very favorite, theologically challenging albums of all time. These are the questions that many Christians have rolling around in their brains, but are either too afraid to ask or resigned to the fact that God’s ways are not our ways.

Bazan is not comfortable nor satisfied with that kind of answer and so he dives into it and he digs hard. This the work and the questions of a man who has wrestled with his faith for years and while Bazan and I come to different conclusions I am ever grateful that he pushes me and others to look long and hard at the things we assume to know without some healthy critical reflection.

Because they are so rich, I’m going to post the entirety of the lyrics for you to read.

“You’ve heard the story
You know how it goes
Once upon a garden
We were lovers with no clothes 

Fresh from the soil
We were beautiful and true
In control of our emotions
‘Til we ate the poison fruit

And now it’s hard to be
Hard to be
Hard to be a decent human being

Wait just a minute
You expect me to believe
That all this misbehaving
Grew from one enchanted tree?
And helpless to fight it
We should all be satisfied
With this magical explanation
For why the living die

 And why it’s hard to be
Hard to be
Hard to be a decent human being

Childbirth is painful
We toil to grow our food
Ignorance made us hungry
Information made us no good
Every burden misunderstood 

So I swung my tassel
To the left side of my cap
Knowing after graduation
There would be no going back
And no congratulations
From my faithful family
Some of whom are already fasting
To intercede for me 

Because it’s hard to be
Hard to be
Hard to be a decent human being”

 As Christians, we believe that there is no place that God is not. If that’s a tenant of the faith that one really holds to then our eyes need to be opened, maybe for the first time, to see that we can find reflection on the question of what it means to be human in unexpected places.

So, may your eyes and ears be open to hearing God still speak today through reflection and questions of artists everywhere, sometimes in the church sometimes not, but you’ll find it if you pay close attention.


[1] http://www.popmatters.com/article/talking-bible-with-the-arcade-fire/

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