Music and Theology, Part 5

Sunday, February 28, 2016

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.

The big $20 word for this is theodicy, which comes from the Greek words theos (God) + dikē (judgment). So theodicy literally means justifying God. Most of the time when theologians do theodicy, they do exactly that, they attempt to justify evil, explaining why there needs to be evil, why bad things happen to good people.

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

Where is God in the genocide? Tell me that you're there. There is no attempt to explain suffering in this song, only a cry out to God. As well-intentioned as attempts to explain suffering by theologians may be, the focus on explaining suffering and evil -- on justifying God -- communicates that all we need is to find the right explanation, and our struggle would be solved.

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
Your love

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At 8:07 AM, Blogger kent said...

This really got me thinking, derek... i appreciate that. here's the rabbit hole i'm exploring: how does reaching out in love to others (god or man) affect our sense of being loved, or does it? I sense that love externalized towards another does have a positive effect on one's sense of being loved, but i don't think this is necessarily a mental understanding but an intuited sense that leads to the peace of justification (justification being a sense that we matter). i don't know the mechanism for this, but feel that our hearts realize something that our minds don't. our hearts automatically want to move into a space of peace, and subliminally our hearts reach out with love knowing that this will assuage our current insecurities.


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