Music and Theology, Part 4

Sunday, February 21, 2016

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.

I put "Christian" in quotes above because, as Jon Foreman of Switchfoot has often stressed, a group or a song cannot be saved, only people can,

"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. 

We want to see ourselves as valuable and good. Indeed, it is really important to have a sense of self-worth. As parents we want to instill that sense of self-worth in our kids. But the reality is, we do things that really hurt ourselves and hurt those we love. Sometimes it takes a rock musician to honestly say what all of us fear to admit, "Hey, I'm a fuck-up." We can't get to forgiveness until we can face that there is stuff in our lives that we need forgiveness for.

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.

Learning to play music is not about memorizing notes, it's about letting that music get under our skin so you can find your own notes to play. Until we lean how to do that, we won't know how to do theology at all. We will just be singing someone else's song, and worse yet, we often will sing it without any soul, like some technically polished, yet soulless, performance by one of those boy bands assembled by a marketing team, where every note is perfect, but the music is as hollow as a birthday balloon.

Luther speaks from the heart. Sometimes his heart is pretty ugly and messed up. So is mine. So is yours. But really good theology, just like really good art, comes from being able to look deeply into that darkness, and if we can look at it with love, all the better. With that in mind, I'll conclude with a song from the album Vice Verses called The Original. Here I want to focus on just one small part the song,
So you say you're just a lost soul
I know you better than that
Free yourself
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.

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At 3:44 PM, Blogger gingoro said...

Oh well I was going to post a picture of a sculpture called Broken Woman that talks about the beauty and brokenness of our human condition. However, your site does not allow images to be pasted into comments.

I find that I am drawn to music with complex rthym, probably because I grew up in East Africa.

At 8:21 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

You could post a link to the pic...

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Manhoss said...

Wow. This series (particularly parts 2 and 4) really helps to encapsulate a lot of what I've been walking through since my (now ex) wife left me a year and a half ago. There have been a lot of questions and confusion, especially given my small town evangelical upbringing, about how to handle this - or, as I'm learning is the more appropriate mindset, to walk through this. I have slowly come around to how my vulnerability (or lack of) cost me my best friend. And how vulnerability is now helping me through the aftermath. Part 2 does a really nice job of illustrating my journey from a reaction of "right-ness" to a posture of vulnerability (to myself, for now. Still working on being vulnerable to others).

Part 4 was a phenomenal illustration/realization of how we can't fake the authenticity of recognizing our (or at least my) dark side. I have long known with my head that I'm broken and I have some pretty nasty parts of me, but I never really believed it. (Did Jesus really need to die for my petty little discretions?) But as I have journeyed into the darkest parts of me, growing in the knowledge - actually, the experience - that God is with me in those places (and indeed, Jesus died to show me how far God is willing to go into those dark places with me/us), I have been able to see and accept the broken person I am, along with the hope and experience that God, not only isn't done with me yet, but will actually use those broken places to do far better things than I could from trying to avoid them.

I have been holding on to Ephesians 3:19 (particularly the Amplified version) that I will "...come] to know [practically, through personal experience] the love of Christ which far surpasses [mere] knowledge [without experience]..." and this series has really helped me to see the fruits of that process.

At 12:36 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Thanks for being vulnerable (=brave) to share a little of your story here. It's wonderful to hear that this series has both challenged and helped you. What you say about being broken brings to mind the song Always,

These are the scars deep in your heart
This is the place you were born
This is the hole where most of your soul comes ripping out
From the places you've been torn

Hallelujah, I'm caving in
Hallelujah, I'm in love again
Hallelujah, I'm a wretched man
Hallelujah, every breath is a second chance


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