Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Someone (Worth?) Dying For

Worth Playing?

As MIKESCHAIR releases their second full-length Curb Records CD, A Beautiful Life (8/23/11), there has been no small amount of chatter over the first single, "Someone Worth Dying For."

As this post is being written, the song sits in the top 20 on the monitored Christian A/C chart. Many of the strongest Christian radio stations in the country have added the song, but a few haven't. And their reasoning intrigues me: it's the song's theology. The problem seems to be in the word "Worth" in the title and chorus

Stay with me for a little theology-breakdown. 

Man-Centered or God-Centered?

If you had told me a decade ago that Christian radio stations might actually consider evaluating a song theologically and holding it off because it reflects a man-centered view of salvation, I would have sneered in disbelief. In fact, for at least the last 15 of my 25 years in this industry, I've been praying for artists, producers, labels, radio music directors and program directors to become more theologically aware and God-centered in the way they make, evaluate, and disseminate the music we all hear. 

So, I love the fact that my peers are concerned that "Someone Worth Dying For" grounds God's saving grace on the intrinsic worth of humanity, as if God experienced cognitive dissonance, unable to bear the consequences of His own judgment on us--as if that motivated the cross OR that the song reinforces a therapeutic gospel: that Jesus died to fix our tarnished self-image. If only we could see ourselves the way He sees us! I love that some people don't want to play or listen to any song that misrepresents the character of God, the nature of human depravity and the sovereign grace of the atonement. But.

The problem is, they picked the wrong song to fight this battle.

Careless Exegesis

I hate to say it, but it's the age-old problem of careless exegesis: you read the title and think you know the message of the song. To break it down, the phrase "someone worth dying for" occurs in the chorus, just after these lines: 

. . . I wanna believe,
Jesus, help me believe that
I am someone worth dying for

a simple prayer from someone who senses their innate unworthiness. Of course, the felt-need in the song is not a theological unworthiness (compared to the holiness and perfection of God) as it would (should) be in a sermon; it's an existential unworthiness, a feeling that, compared to everyone else, I don't measure up:

Am I more than flesh and bone?
Am I really something beautiful?. . .

The soul-vacuum the chorus expresses is clearly man-centered, but that same soul is brought immediately into a theological context:

. . . Yeah, I wanna believe, I wanna believe that
I'm not just some wandering soul
That you don't see and you don't know. . .

so that the soul's real problem is estrangement from God. That estrangement is recognized in the dramatic circumstance of the song and clearly emerges as the song's major theological theme. All of this is just the DNA of the chorus.

The Anatomy of Verses

As for the opening verse, the voice (narrator) paints a series of postage-stamp portraits of broken people: the wife waiting up at night / the man struggling to provide / the son who chose a broken road / the girl thinking (she)'ll end up alone. Each of these dramatic situations anticipates a response of the listeners in a popular audience, for whom the song is intended. Just like a trained preacher, the song studies its audience as well as its subject. And it directs all who have just been called out to a simple petition: God, can you hear me? / Oh God, are you listening?

I remember my own experience of coming to faith in Jesus Christ: one of the biggest transformations of my life happened when I realized that God knows my name! This is consistent with God's meticulous providence--his care of his creation and creatures, the sparrows, which are known and cared for by God, and which are used by Jesus as an illustration of the superior worth of men and women made in God's image:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Luke 12:5-7).

"Someone Worth Dying For," I contend, expresses a theology of human worth in this sense, NOT as a motivation for God's initiating the plan of salvation or saving any individual, a great salvation which is sola Gratia (by grace alone):

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Crossing the Bridge

Nowhere in this song is salvation merited by human work or intrinsic worthiness. Witness the bridge, a key point in popular song construction which often expresses a new point or reinforces the main theme:

You're worth it, you can't earn it
Yeah, the cross has proven
That you're sacred and blameless
Your life has purpose

The affirmation of self-worth in "Someone Worth Dying For" is, I conclude, Christological, not anthropological (Christ-centered, not man-centered). And in case someone wants to be more exact, let me remind you this is poetry, not a sermon. Again, the dramatic circumstance of the poetry expresses the felt-needs of the intended audience, but it doesn't end there. Those needs are immediately brought into a theological, Christ-centered context where the riches of God's grace are presented as the answer to estrangement from God together with its fruits: self-alienation, self-hatred, and self-centered love (narcissism).

Just one more point. It is unfair to evaluate a product of composition in isolation from its context, whether it be the assumed meaning of a verse isolated from its inner and inter-textual setting or the supposed intention of a lyric isolated from the surrounding songs and the corpus of one's work. The songs immediately preceding and following "Someone Worth Dying For," which are "Save Me Now" and "You Loved Me First" clearly demonstrate the authorial intention of "Someone Worth Dying For." Clearly the author has the intent of "preaching" the Good News through this song.

A Reason To Sing

And that's what has me exercised that some are keeping the song off their stations or making careless comments on iTunes. Not because I don't agree with their theology, but their exegesis. In our efforts to reform Christian pop music, let's be careful to read the genre right (poetry, not sermon, essay or systematic theology) and put the themes, allusions, illustrations and metaphors in the right context.

If we need an example of truly man-centered theology in popular Christian music (including worship songs), unfortunately we don't have to look very far. Fortunately for MIKESCHAIR, they aren't on that list.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

From Disaster to Hope: A Personal Perspective

I’m not sure the date March 11, 2011 will emblazon itself on my memory like December 26, 2004. On both days, the earth shook, the deep awakened and swept thousands away. Both days can be quantified by earthquakes measuring nine-point-something on the Richter scale. Both quakes and resulting tsunamis set records in the number of deaths and did damage into the billions of dollars. But unlike the recent Sendai earthquake off the coast of Japan, I wound up in the middle of the recovery effort, thanks in large part to the folks I serve in The JOY FM community. Unlike this recent disaster, I can look back in wonder on what God did six years ago to bring glory and good out of tragedy.

A Tsunami of Support

On a cool January morning in 2005, I went on the air with my team, linked with other stations in our small, southeastern network, trying to raise $75,000 to build about a village-worth of permanent homes in South India, the third-hardest hit area of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. We announced the rebuilding effort as the result of having a local church contact within India who had connections on the coast to move in and rebuild small homes for families who lost everything. Pastor Paul had no idea, nor did we, that the small effort to rebuild a village was going to suddenly become a massive initiative to lead the country in restoration, setting the pace for government projects in several devastated areas.

By the time we got off the air, just after 10:00 a.m., we had received gifts and pledges totaling $720,000 – nearly ten times what we were asking! By the end of the day, the total was $1,000,000. I got to deliver “the check” personally, due to a previously-arranged trip to India. I presented it (symbolically) to Pastor Paul on the very beach where 60 families had just buried their loved ones. Initially, our presence there was suspect to the locals. Now, having returned five years later to see 650 permanent homes, I have been greeted with open arms. 

A God-Thing?

To say “it was a God-thing” is almost profane. The sacred orchestration of so many pieces coming together in just the right way so that a legacy of Christian love and Gospel-giving (the Good News of Jesus’ redeeming love made tangible in bricks and sweat) is a holy witness to God’s good providence and His determination to “so love” the world (John 3:16). As one listener put it: “We wanted to rebuild a village, but God wanted to build a city!” Actually, He is building his kingdom there through the ongoing missionary efforts of many connected with the areas in which we have built “Homes of Hope.”

I don’t know what God is doing or what He will do in Japan. But I know this: a tragedy of any size—personal to global—is an opportunity to see the goodness of God in action. We can all do something that eases pain, feeds hunger, shares hope and saves a life.

To give to relief efforts in Japan, visit the dedicated JOY FM page:  http://www.thejoyfm.com/headline/japanese-earthquake

To see videos from Bill’s trip back to India, visit the blog site:  http://bricksandsweat.wordpress.com/


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Eschatology of Leaving Eden

Yes, it was schtick.

But it was serious schtick. And since we had to move on quickly, I thought an explanation was fitting. Oh, in case you weren't there, Tuesday we tracked through Brandon Heath's new record, Leaving Eden, with the artist in our studio, revealing our favorite songs, sharing our enthusiastic perspectives on them, looking for any opportunity to get a rise out of Brandon or the audience.

My first favorite was the title cut. So was Carmen's. We decided to arm-wrestle for it on the air, she emoting her straightforward enjoyment of the "Oh" moments surrounding the bridge (literal lyrical "Ohs," a detail that would fly past most of us; not Carmen), I emitting my professorial perspective on the theological dimensions of the text. I think I said something like:

Brandon, I love how each scenario in the lyrics paints a picture of the eschatalogical tension that characterizes the Christian life, the tension between the now and the not-yet, and further, how the thrust of the song as a whole points toward the eschatalogical fulfillment of Eden as the New Heavens and the New Earth under the metaphor of "going home."

Well, I probably wasn't as clear as that, since Carmen was snorting, Dave was crying foul after the first use of the word "eschatalogical," and Brandon was
thinking "I could have been anywhere today..." And, despite the fact that it's believable patter for me, the verbosity and pomposity were schtick, shooting for shock-value, which I seemed to squarely hit, judging by the reactions of my partners. But underlying my pompous performance, I was entirely serious. Let me get past the radio stuff to unpack what I said and why. We should start with Brandon's lyrics. Here's verse two and the chorus:
People are losing their homes to hurricanes
Old lady living next door forgot her own name
Teacher is hiding her Bible, but at least she's got a job
My local Salvation Army just got robbed

Feels like I'm leaving Eden
Feels like I'm leaving Eden
It's like I'm further away with every step I take
And I can't go back
‘Cause I'm leaving Eden

I'm going, going home

Let me speak plainly: I love this song! I think the music is great, Brandon
delivers it with passion, and I even like the little "Ohs" that Carmen pointed out. But even more of my affection is reserved for what the song (secondarily) teaches.

Now, I know Brandon didn't sit down and say, "I want to write a song that teaches so-and-so," but still, the song comes from a perspective that is rich with insight into the Christian life. "Leaving Eden" is full of snapshots that portray life in a fallen world, broken, on the other side of the Garden: waving to a stranger who doesn't wave back, natural disasters, loved ones with Alzheimer's, a culture hostile to faith. This is the world in which we live. And like the best biblical wisdom literature, the song doesn't try to "fix" those dimensions of fallenness with a simple platitude or principle. Instead it portrays a God-given tension, the in-between state in which every Christian is called to live and walk by faith.

That in-betweeness is what I have in mind when I talk about "eschatalogical tension." Eschatology is the study of last things, things like the apocalypse, judgment day, the
new heaven and new earth, etc. When Jesus showed up, the disciples all thought that's what He was there to bring. "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," he said! This is it! Rome will be overthrown. The righteous will be vindicated. Everything is going to be set right. Uhh... not exactly.

The kingdom of heaven, and thus the Christian life, is like a... well, it's like a pregnant woman, or like a baby growing to a mature man, or, better yet, it's like Jesus taught:
like a man who planted good seeds in his field and then had to wait for the harvest. That's the Christian life. We are, as Luther said, like the crucified Jesus between Friday and Sunday, feet suspended between heaven and earth, already heirs of eternal life but having to go through the cross to get there. That's what the song portrays.

Even the little bridge-thing that uses "home" as a picture of fulfilled eschatalogical expectation serves to reinforce the present tension of living in the in-between!
And then, the shameless reference to Dorothy clicking her heels together ("There's no place / no place like home"). Well, it's a ready allusion, wouldn't you say? Aren't we all hoping to find a way back home that will undo the effects of the whirlwind and put things right? That universal longing is what the song evokes for me.

We need more Christian songs like this, songs that draw out the longing for heaven, for ultimate fulfillment, yet leave us in the tension; songs that refuse to take us by some desperate construction down the yellow brick road only to find some poser behind a curtain. We need songs that reinforce the reality of the Christian life and encourage us to face the realities of the historical, biblical fall and its consequences.

Some folks who know the Christian music audience well would say "Leaving Eden" is not a good song for radio, because the message may be too figurative, and the "solution" to our problem is not presented clearly enough in the four minutes and four seconds of space the song fills with its images of brokenness and alienation. I disagree.

The hope is in acknowledging our problem, recognizing its source, or as Brandon discussed with his counselor, "grieving Eden," an idea that became the seed of the song and the record's title. When we get to the source of our pain we are driven to the answer. That's how the law of Moses leads us to Christ, serving as our tutor, pointing to its own origin and end. Eden is the genesis of repentance: when we finally acknowledge that we are by nature children of wrath, and the deepest source of our problem isn't our genetics, our environment or our lack of self-esteem, we can break free from the chains that hold us bound to sin, the fall and its consequences. But not fully. Not yet.

"Home" in the song is a picture of eschatalogical fulfillment. It's the place where everything Jesus came to start, to inaugurate, will be complete, finally finding its (and our) Divine Design. Did you ever notice that the Bible begins with creation and ends in a new creation? It begins in a garden and ends in a city, the New Jerusalem, the fully populated city of the redeemed. All that was broken will be whole again, and better. We who trust in Christ will be there, every tear wiped away, relationships healed, no guilt, no hiding. "Leaving Eden" points us to that fulfillment.

As Brandon says, "I can't go back," but that's okay. We don't want or need to go back to the Garden. Home, for the Christ-follower, is through Christ, following him in the daily-death of the cross (which gives context to our suffering) into his kingdom and ultimately to the fullness of the harvest, the banquet feast, the consummated marriage, the reason for leaving Eden;
our the ultimate salvation and end.

To hear the entire conversation with Brandon, click the link below: 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

To America: Learn to Argue

Just the other day, we had an argument, Carmen, Dave, Kris and I – a loudvoiced, passion-pushing barnburner. It was in McDonald’s. At one point Dave was defending his position at a loud volume, loud enough to embarrass Carmen and Kris. That was my favorite part (because every other time, it’s Carmen snorting until the kitchen has to ask if there are any loose swine they missed for the pork sandwich special ). Dave made his points forcefully and defended them well. I was on the offensive, drawn out by Carmen’s challenge to state my position on an issue, tackling a subject we have touched before but left on the surface, like an onion waiting to be peeled so its potency can be felt.

What were we arguing about? It doesn’t matter. The point is that we each had a different take, we deeply believed we were right (but not so much we can’t learn) and we never came to full agreement. And we were in the studio the next day, on the show, interacting personally as if it never happened, only with a deep respect for the complexity of each individual and a deeper praise to Jesus for choosing to bring us together as a team and as beloved brothers and sister. I think our country could learn something from our argument.

The political posturing and power plays that followed the tragic shooting in Arizona that left six people dead and thirteen wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is a sign that we-the-people no longer know how to argue. Let me offer a few principles that apply to argumentation in general in the hopes that they will add a sprinkle of sanity to our public discourse:

  1. The principle of fairness – You can’t have a good argument if you are only interested in besting your opponent, no matter who gets slaughtered along the way. A decent argument begins by refusing to caricature your opponent’s position, by granting him or her an interpretation that tries to make sense of the position they are stating. To do this, you should practice re-stating your opponent’s position in a way he or she would agree with: “Yes, that’s what I am saying.”

  2. The principles of sound reasoning – Good arguments can’t be built on passion or rhetoric (verbal flare), so we have to guard against arguments that make points based on:

    a. The threat of force – If we feel strongly, we may express ourselves loudly or in a physically demonstrative way; that is fine, but taking advantage of an opponent by trying to dominate him or her with your voice or body is unfair and unreasonable. (Dave didn't violate this!)

    b. The popularity of the position – It’s easy to take a stand on the majority position, which is why it was so hard for Christians to stand against the Holocaust in Germany. A position is right if it’s right, regardless of how many people think otherwise.

    c. The popularity of the speaker – If this were the basis for making a reasoned argument, Carmen would win every time. She doesn’t (always). Who makes the argument has little to do with how sound the argument is, unless that person is an authority on the subject. Even then, his or her popularity doesn’t make the case.

  3. The principle of arguing for truth, not victory – Jesus argued with the Pharisees. Paul argued with the philosophers in Athens. Arguments are good and godly, provided they are battles waged to bring BOTH you and your opponent closer to the truth rather than blitzkriegs designed for total destruction, where only you are left standing. Whatever I feel about Dave’s position, a perspective he and Carmen share on the issue we attacked, I learned a lot about the strengths and weakness of my own position, and I was driven back to my need to be able to articulate and defend why I believe what I do.

With these principles in place, individuals and groups (like Democrats and Republicans, for example) can argue loudly and forcefully, passionately disagreeing, and we will all come out the victors with the country still intact.

In terms of democracy, the worst thing that can come from the Arizona shooting is a new “politically correct” carefulness (read: censorship) rather than vigorous, even passionate public debate. I do find that very few politicians, entertainers or media commentators take the time or make the effort to argue fairly, reasonably and truthfully. Most are Machiavellian, preferring power to the pursuit of pure, precise propositions. And I don’t really think this blog post will change anything; still, I know things can change. I saw a living example in the argument my team and I had just the other day.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The New Covenant in the Old Testament

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.

(Genesis 3:15)

I don't plan to keep doing daily entries as we in "The JOY FM" group read together, but it seemed important to follow up on a claim I made yesterday about the importance of reading the Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy) stand in relation to the New Testament as that of roots to a tree. The flowering of Gospel promises in Christ is germinated from the seed and soil of God's acting and speaking, from Genesis 1:1 onward.

In the specific verse mentioned, Genesis 3:15, we have the Gospel in seed-form, promised by the same "voice" that spoke the universe into existence out of nothing. The promise was fulfilled in Christ's death ("bruise his heel") in which death itself was permanently robbed of it's sting ("bruise your head"). There is a sense in which the entire history of redemption is a working out of this promise.

But there is a larger structure of biblical dynamics revealed in this chapter: God, the Creator and Sustainer of life, seeks relationship with humanity even after the fall. The prohibition of humans from forbidden fruit is a clue that the basic contour of that relationship is a grace-based covenant of works. Immediately following our fall, God pursued a redemptive relationship, requiring animal sacrifice as a substitute death for treasonous Adam, offering promises and threatening punishments, providing a way for sinners to be redeemed by another Substitute's saving work on our behalf.

Our part in that gracious, redemptive relationship would be simply to respond in faith to the gracious, promise-keeping God, looking for the One who was progressively revealed as Savior.

We who are in Christ live in the fulfillment of this "Covenant of Grace," ratified by the death of Jesus, enacted by his resurrection and ascension, applied and administrated as the New Covenant by the Holy Spirit. Here is the foundation of our salvation and the relationship we have with God, right here in the opening chapters of Genesis.

(Note: Look at yesterday's post for info on "The JOY FM" Bible reading group.)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Bible Reading Group

For some time, I've been asked to do something along the lines of a daily devotional, possibly leading folks through the Bible in a year. I'm afraid I'm not up to either.

But, this year I'm trying something based on those ideas that combines both and doesn't require perfection of any of us. I've set up a YouVersion group called "The JOY FM." YouVersion is an online Bible resource with lots of English translations (I use the ESV, but recommend the NLT to those who struggle with formal-feeling language), audio Bibles, reading plans and apps for your droid, iPhone, and more.

The plan is to get a group of JOY FM listeners reading together, encouraging one another, establishing a daily Bible reading and devotion habit that doesn't require "perfect attendance." We won't be checking up, catching up or even trying to read every verse of every book in the Bible. In fact, I've chosen a Bible reading plan developed by the Life Journal folks for "youth and new believers." Hey, I'm a theology instructor with a Master's degree, but this plan is not beneath me. If I stick to it, I'll improve my own daily habit.

Why not get set up on YouVersion and join our group? Set up a free account, get a reading plan, join the group, give yourself permission to not try to impress God or others with "perfection," then start a new habit!

Here are some links:

YouVersion - http://www.youversion.com/
The JOY FM Group - http://www.youversion.com/groups/thejoyfm
The First Steps Reading Plan - http://www.youversion.com/reading-plans/first-steps-reading-plan/settings
My Profile and Notes - http://www.youversion.com/users/Goodmorningbill

We plan to set up a page at TheJOYFM.com to integrate this, and we also plan to include some of our on-air, 6:40 a.m. devotions as well.

Let me know if this is something you'd like to do.