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.

 

9 comments:

Kim Best said...

You would totally understand this song if you grew up believing you were worthless! I remember Just a few years ago saying "Jesus, I'm not worth your life. You shouldn't have died for me." I have truly felt that all my life! When I heard this song, I was awe struck! I thought, I'm not the only one feeling this way! It lifted a cloud hanging over me. I had been going through some deep soul searching and this song brought an understanding to me that lifted a heavy weight off my shoulders. No, these people that are criticizing this song have never truly live a feeling of worthlessness!

Kim Best said...

I should have included that I am 51 years old. Its been a long life when you live feeling worthless.

Anonymous said...

You're missing the whole point. Christ's death on the cross DIDN'T show how "worthy" we are. It doesn't prove our "worth!"

He died for us because of His great love for us. Period.

This song gets it wrong, like tons of plenty other things in Christian radio. (making a God out of the family, for one.)

Boris said...

Yeah, the cross has proven
That you're sacred and blameless
Your life has purpose.

I agree with your posting regarding the worthiness point. My issue is on the second line above. Can you explain what is meant by the cross having proved that I am sacred and blameless? I might can give them sacred if they mean that Jesus' sacrifice sanctifies the believer, but the blameless part I do not see any Biblical support for. Help me out on this piece. Otherwise the song is solid.

Keith

Bill Martin said...

Thanks for the recent comments (challenges). Anonymous, I want to be fair here, but I really don't think you read my post, especially where I wrote:

"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).

I'm not trying to one-up you, because I think if we were in a room talking soteriology (theology of salvation), we'd be on the same page. I just think your comment illustrates my argument that people are reacting to the song on a surface read and treating it as if it pushes neo-Pelagianism. But it doesn't. "Worth," in the song, is a product of God's redemptive grace, NOT the motivation for it, I contend.

Keith,the language of "sacred and blameless" is directly citing Col. 1:22

he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy (hagios)and blameless and above reproach before him (ESV).

The next verse (Col. 1:23) shows us that v. 22 is really pointed toward the final outcome of our salvation ("if indeed you continue in the faith..."), but indeed this is a biblically accurate description of anyone who is justified (declared righteous) by faith (cf. 1 Cor. 1:8; 2 Cor. 5:21; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:12).

Our "sacred and blameless" evaluation and ever-conforming character are the result of the cross (it's "proof" in that sense), NOT its motivation. The cross vindicates God's righteousness, not our own, but it also secures our righteousness and holiness through faith.

Again, as I said in the post, if the text we are evaluating were in a theology book, I'd demand clearer, more exact language. But this is a song, aimed at an audience who sinfully feel unworthy. The cross corrects our self-image on BOTH ends-- false UN-worthiness and false SELF-worthiness.

I hope this offers reasonable responses to both comments, and I'd really love to commend Designed for Dignity by Richard Pratt for a solidly biblical and Reformed view of human worth, dignity and depravity. I found a set of audio lectures on the subject:

http://apolojet.wordpress.com/2008/12/14/pratt-lectures-on-designed-for-dignity/

-Bill

Chris T. said...

Bill-

I commend your 15-25 years, as I have the same heartbeat as a former board member in ministry with Steve Camp - the Martin Luther of CMI :) It is a wonder that God would open my eyes to see such things, (discernment issues in CMI) for I fight being a self absorbed sinner saved by grace every hour. On this matter, I agree with you that there may be more theological thought that went into this song than most songs containing such word usage. I commend how you use the lyrical content of other songs on the album for context, similiar to using other passages of scripture as the best commentary on scripture. However, what has been missed here is, in the words of my dear friend Steve Camp, "its not about us, its all about Him". I think you would agree that most people listening to this song will take it as a self esteem, feel good about myself song. Heres my point: The artist has to be more than theologically accurate in his own mind when writing the song - he has to also be responsible as to how his intent is perceived. The perception of the listener is really what it comes down to, since there is not the opportunity of explanation likened to a teacher in a pulpit on a Sunday morning who blurts out a phrase that can be taken three ways. If the song is meant to communicate something different than what is perceived by the majority of people, we cant conclude that its too bad that the listener isnt a 4-5 point Calvinist. whats the point of writing the song? This may go over well in the world, to be obscure or shock valued, but is a waste of a listeners ear in the Christian realm - Most people will take the song and run with it 100 times in their head as a "Im worth it" pick me up. Sad, but true. The person who feels utter worthlessness, as Kim Best did , is quickly given a pill, a book, or tickets to a self esteem seminar. As one with a Psych major who denounced the whole humanistic attempt to fix mans broken soul, I see musicians with a blessed "trust" to heal souls and point them to Christ ,in truth, thru music - and this involves the responsibility as to how a song is perceived. You are a blessing! Thanks for the blog. Im calling Campi about it today.

brochad32 said...

Bill,
Thank you for the blog...this is a song that I have struggled with a little bit as well. I enjoyed your comments and those here on the comment page also. I think where I struggle the most is "who is this song intended to reach?" I believe it could minister to both. I love the verses you used Colossians 1:22-23 and agree wholeheartedly! If it were aimed at a lost person I would say you "can" be blameless if you receive Christ's payment for your sins. If it were aimed at Christians then I could and can totally see the importance of the words and how needed it is for Christians to know who they are "in" Christ. But again I just want to reiterate and agree with your comments that it is very encouraging to see we are frustrated as Christians when we hear a song that does not or "might" not be accurate in its doctrine.
Those are my two cents!

Emily Brien said...

Thank you for your post! I had heard this song on the radio and felt conflicted about its message. It's still not my favorite, but your insight has helped me receive its lyrics more openly!

Much appreciated@

Tod said...

Bill ,
I agree with much of what you said. However ,I feel that in looking at a song to put on the radio the group may have found a better chorus to camp out on. It is true that most people as they consider the cross prior to salvation (and after) are overwhelmed with God's choice to save them by Christ's death , however because the average listener may truly wonder "did God find me worthy to die for" I feel the song chorus is unfortunate and should have been fine tuned more.It lends itself to our natural inclination toward narcissism , why not point out clearly in the chorus that God chose me in spite of how much I made myself His enemy. - Just an opinion.