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.