Working through the themes of this series on music and theology I listened to a lot of Switchfoot songs, and I noticed a persistent theme that surprised me: Over and over -- in the context of worship songs, love songs to God -- I found the recurring theme of longing, pain, and the struggle of seeing injustice in the world.
Some attempts to do this are better than others, but what I want to draw our attention to here is, if you listen to a Switchfoot song, they do not attempt to explain the problem of evil at all. Perhaps even more surprising is that these laments are almost always set in the context of a love song. There is a line in a song that captures this paradox: Every lament is a love song.
This makes for both a surprising approach to theodicy, and also for an surprising text for a worship song. Yet it is certainly not new. The Psalms are just packed with this kind of thing -- worship intertwined with lament, crying out against injustice and suffering. It's a theme we find all over our Bibles, yet almost never do we hear worship songs like this, nor do we hear theologians approaching such questions from the perspective of a lover.
Imagine singing this song next Sunday,
I am the thorn stuck in your side,
I am the one that you left behind,
I am the dried up doubting eyes
Looking for the well that won’t run dry
Running hard for the other side
The world that I’ve always been denied
Running hard for the infinite
With the tears of the saints and hypocrites
I can hear you breathing,
I can hear you leading
More than just a feeling
More than just a feeling
I can feel you reaching
Pushing through the ceiling
'til the final healing
I'm looking for you
I am restless, I am restless
I am restless, looking for you
I am restless,
I run like the ocean
to find your shore
I'm looking for you
It is at once shocking in its familiarity, and yet so familiar. It sounds like the Psalms. But not a pious but hollow attempt to copy the Psalms, but a raw and honest voicing of the same pain and love that the Psalms spring from. The title song from the album Vice Verses addresses the issue of suffering and injustice even more directly,
Where is God in the city life?
Where is God in the city light?
Where is God in the earthquake?
Where is God in the genocide?
Where are you in my broken heart?
Everything seems to fall apart
Everything feels rusted over
Tell me that you're there
But consider how we all struggle with the death of a loved one. We all know the explanation. We understand that death is natural, that we all die. Yet that does not mean we do not grieve the death of someone we love. We know the explanation, and we still hurt just the same, we still experience loss.
We need to grieve. That's why we can never explain away the question of theodicy. Because when we do that, when we stop struggling, grieving, aching, hurting, questioning, protesting in the face of suffering, we stop being fully human.
Good theology does not mean we are immune to grief, immune to pain. What it hopefully can do is help us give a thoughtful and deep voice to that grief and pain. People often say they want to "get over" or "get past" something hurtful. It even sounds noble, like it's connected to forgiving. But we don't get over loss or hurt, we get through it. A focus on finding an explanation to suffering and evil implies that this will provide us with a way to bypass the struggle and grief. What we need instead are the means to help us walk through what the Psalm 23 calls "the valley of the shadow of death." Theology that does not get that, focusing instead on explanations, does not get the human condition and what we need to live well in the reality of our broken world.
Every lament is a love song. This context of love and worship running through all these songs is so vital. They are not simply asking "why!?" into a theoretical vacuum, but asking the pained question of "why!?" addressed to the one we love, to the one we worship. That is the context that theology must spring from. If we are going to do theodicy as theologians, it should not take the form of a detached intellectual discourse, it needs to be expressed as worship, worship that comes ripping out of our souls
Feels like we're just waiting, waiting
While our hearts are just breaking, breaking
Feels like we've been fighting against the tide
Until I die I'll sing these songs
On the shores of Babylon
Still looking for a home
In a world where I belong
On the final day I die
I want to hold my head up high
I want to tell You that I tried
To live it like a song
The reason theologians try to explain suffering is that they want to give us a reason to hold on, to believe, to maintain faith in the face of suffering and injustice. But faith is not sustained by our reason, faith is sustained by God. When we can learn to be vulnerable and honest, but do that lament in the context of a love song, we can find a way to hold on. We feel the pain, we feel the doubt, but we still believe, we still hold on to love, to the one who is love.
Let the wars begin, let my strength wear thin
Let my fingers crack, let my world fall apart
Train the monkeys on my back to fight
Let it start tonight. When my world explodes,
When my stars touch the ground,
Falling down like broken satellites
Let your love be strong
I don't care what goes down
Let your love be strong
enough to weather through the thunder cloud
Fury and thunder clap
like stealing the fire from your skies
All of that I am hanging on
All of my world resting on
In part two of this series, we focused on how honesty--and more specifically, vulnerable honesty-- is a central element of powerful art. There we looked at the example of a song by the band Staind that dealt with what we might call, in religious terms, the inner struggle with sin. In this post we will explore that struggle in the lyrics of a "Christian" band, Switchfoot.
"None of these songs has been born again, and to that end there is no such thing as Christian music. No. Christ didn’t come and die for my songs, he came for me ... I am a believer. Many of these songs talk about this belief. An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me."
This again has to do with honesty and integrity as an artist. Switchfoot is fighting for the right to be able to say what is in their heart as artists and musicians, rather than being censored by a "Christian" music label that insists on letting their artists only say certain things that align with the label's (and more specifically with the label's financial supporters') doctrinal and moral stances, which they think are good to uphold. So-called "Christian" schools and seminaries likewise impose the same censorship to their professors, requiring that they compromise their academic integrity or risk losing their livelihoods. This kills the pursuit of anything, be it the pursuit of music or pursuit of science.
But I digress. Today, I want to focus on what we can learn theologically by taking a look at some Switchfoot songs on sin. Learning to do theology as art. Let's start with a song from the album Hello Hurricane, the song Mess of Me,
I am my own affliction
I am my own disease
There ain't no drug that they could sell
Ah, there ain't no drug to make me well
There ain't no drug
It's not enough
There ain't no drug
The sickness is myself
I made a mess of me
I wanna get back the rest of me
I've made a mess of me
I wanna spend the rest of my life alive
We lock our souls in cages
We hide inside our shells
It's hard to feed to the ones you love
Oh, when you can't forgive yourself
Yeah, forgive yourself
Notice here that the focus of the song is not on accusing others of sin, but in looking inward. "I am my own affliction. I am my own disease... the sickness is myself." This is a song about self-reflection.
In general, this is an incredibly hard thing for us to face. We have no problem condemning the sins of others -- and to be sure, this is something that liberals and conservatives do equally, just with differing definitions of what a "sin" is. Yet it is hard for all of us to face our own failings.
Another song with a similar theme is The War Inside,
Yeah, it's where the fight begins
Yeah, underneath the skin
Beneath these hopes and where we've been
Every fight comes from the fight within
I am the war inside
I am the battle line
I am the rising tide
I am the war I fight
Ain't no killer like pride
No killer like I
No killer like what's inside
We look around and think that the war is outside, but really it's on the inside. That does not mean that our concerns should only be focused on individual struggles, rather than on struggles of social injustice. It means that even in struggles of social injustice we need to begin with looking inside. Ain't no killer like pride, no killer like I. We tend to see the other's violence as evil, but our violence as heroic and good. They are attacking us, and I am defending us. So I'm the good guy and they are the bad guy. But from the other's perspective I am the bad guy and they are the good guy. So we all justify ourselves. It's only when we can look inside and see the killer in us that we can stop that spiral.
What's really key here is that these songs are not born from a need to regurgitate doctrine, but born from honest vulnerable introspection. When you read great theology you'll find it comes from that same source of personal struggle. That's what we find in the writings of Paul, that's what we find in the Psalms of king David, that's what we find in the writings of Luther. When this turns into doctrine that passion and struggle gets lost. It's fine for a biblical scholar to offer their interpretation of what Paul is saying, but that's not the same as doing theology, just as a music critic is not the same as a musician. This has a legitimate place, but we also need to have theology, and that means speaking with your own voice, not someone else's.
So you say you're just a lost soul
I know you better than that
Don't let nobody try and take your soul
You're the original
Here, if we were going to espouse "Switchfoot doctrine," we'd be inclined to think, based on their other songs, that we should proclaim that we are a lost soul, that we are the sickness inside. But they recognize this as a cynical defense, as a way to mask our pain, as a way not to care. So Switchfoot calls us on this and says, "I know you better than that, friend." You are broken and beautiful. Don't let go. You're the original. Don't let someone steal the song from your soul.
Every night, as I tuck my daughter into bed, she asks me, "Daddy, can we pray?" Sometimes I just listen to her as she prays for our three sponsored kids, calling each by name, prays for everyone in the world who is sad, prays for everyone who is a refugee. She then prays for an end to war, an end to sickness, and an end to racism.
The first time she did this I was taken aback, expecting her to pray for some "little kid" problems. But this is what is on her heart, and she prays for these things each night anew, with the unrelenting confidence that only a little child can muster.
In a recent TedX Talk, Jon Foreman, lead singer of Switchfoot, said, "When we were children this melody came so easy and effortlessly. It was not without its imperfections, but it was pure and it was honest, and it came freely...
Then life happens and layers press down. Layers of guilt and shame, and your own feelings of inadequacy. Then you read the headlines of war and divorce and murder and rape and racism, and you begin to wonder whether this fragile little melody you've been given can ever make a dent."
That's exactly how I feel as I listen to my daughter pray.
It's times like this that I know I need to just hold on. Despite how helpless I feel. Faith here is not about confidence, it's about being brave in the face of my own inadequacy, in the face of the dissonance and tension.
We humans were made in a way that we can recognize all that is wrong and broken about our world and ourselves. The older I get, the more I see that brokenness. That makes us different from any other animal. We grieve. We doubt.
Yet, at the same time, we humans sing. There's something in us that needs to sing out. Not despite the pain, but often out of it, through it, we sing the most beautiful melodies.
Songs, at their best, capture our hearts, they connect us with meaning, they move us... both literally and metaphorically. Good songs express the voice of a generation, they capture a time, they become our song.
This has to do with the way a song fuses music and words. Art (in this case music) has the power to make words and ideas really get under our skin. That's why Plato urged the city fathers to exile all the poets and storytellers. He argued that while philosophers deal with ideas in open rational ways, poets conceal their ideas within the seductive emotions of art. It's true. As Robert McKee observes,
"Every effective story sends a charged idea out to us, in effect compelling the idea into us, so that we must believe. In fact, the persuasive power of story is so great that we may believe its meaning even if we find it morally repugnant."
That kind of persuasive power puts a huge social responsibility on storytellers and songwriters. Yet McKee boldly insists,
"I believe we have no responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity, to uplift the spirits of society or even express our inner being. We have only one responsibility: to tell the truth."
Good art is about honesty. When we instead attempt to use our music or art to promote something--even a good thing--it becomes cheap and hollow. A lot of worship music is like that, as well as much "contemporary Christian music" (CCM). The artists are not allowed to be honest, to sing from the heart, and it rings untrue to us. A good song, including a good worship song, needs to come from the depths of the soul.
Honesty alone is not enough of course. If we are honest but unreflected, we get a shallow song like "I want to rock and roll all night, and party every day." It's honest, but it's shallow. But when we can be uncensored and raw, and combine this with reflection, we get the opposite of shallow.
Consider the song "It's Been Awhile" by Staind,
It's been awhile Since I could hold my head up high And it's been awhile Since I first saw you
It's been awhile Since I could stand on my own two feet again And it's been awhile Since I could call you And everything I can't remember
As fucked up as it all may seem to be I know it's me
I cannot blame this on my father
He did the best he could for me
It's been awhile
Since I can say that I wasn't addicted
And it's been awhile
Since I can say I love myself as well It's been awhile
Since I could hold my head up high
And it's been awhile
Since I said I'm sorry
This is a song about addiction, regret, and failure. It's a song about struggling with your failings, and struggling to love yourself in the midst of it, even when you know you are hurting those closest to you. It's a song about facing our own darkness.
Staind is not a Christian band. No one is telling Staind that they ought to write a song about sin and repentance. It is just a raw and honest song, that comes from the heart. What makes it powerful is that you can sense that it is honest and real.
But this song draws out the point that "honesty" is not quite the right word here. A better word is vulnerability. Honesty can imply saying what you feel or believe in an unapologetic way. Telling someone on Youtube that they suck may be honest, but it's not vulnerable. That's also where we get all the mean-spirited and reactionary judgmental statements from angry conservative Christians that has so poisoned our social conversation. People say awful ugly hurtful things, and claim "I'm just being honest." What's worse, they think this is an expression of their faith, that it has to do with upholding moral values.
It may be honest, but it's not vulnerable, and as a result it polarizes us. It does not lead to reconciliation or repentance, rather it builds up walls. That is quite the opposite of what Jesus and the gospel were all about. Jesus said he did not come to condemn the world, but to save it, to bring redemption and reconciliation--that's what the gospel is all about, and it seems that more and more conservative Evangelicals have lost sight of that. We may think it's brave to "take a stand" like that, but it's really not. What takes real courage is vulnerability.
There is a place for anger. It's not that anger is not real or legitimate, it's that expressing anger alone is just too superficial. When we dig down deeper to ask what it was that made us feel angry, we find something more vulnerable beneath--feeling disrespected, excluded, condemned, rejected, unwanted. "When you do that, it makes me feel worthless" gets down deeper than simply saying "it makes me really angry when you do that." Saying "When you walk away when we're fighting, I'm afraid you'll leave me" gets down so much deeper than simply saying "I'm mad at you for walking out."
That kind of vulnerability results in empathy, as the person hearing it understands our pain, rather than becoming defensive and pushing back. In short, being honest without vulnerability does not produce the result that we want. Vulnerability is harder. The very word means that we are susceptible to harm or attack. Yet somehow when we open up like that, the other opens up, too. It's that kind of paradox that Jesus referred to when he said "if you want to find your life, you must lose it." It's in confessing our sins, our weakness, our fear, that we find our way back towards love and hope. Faith is not the expression of certainty, it's the expression of vulnerability. It says, "I see all the pain and injustice, I see my own failings, and yet I'm still holding on."
Being vulnerable as a songwriter entails speaking of the things that are close to our heart with courage--speaking of our longings, what matters to us, speaking of our struggles and hopes. This results in songs that capture the real depth and complexity of life. It allows us to delve down so much deeper than when we merely say what we feel we ought to, what we are supposed to say.
It can be scary to go there, but that's what living is about. The theologians and philosophers of the world could learn a lot from the courageous vulnerability of the artist.