Failure to flinch…
In today’s touchy world of tolerance, people recoil at being told they’re lost. It’s an affront to suggest that someone is arrogant. It’s intolerant to tell a friend that Jesus is the way. Yet this past week, tens of millions of people – many who wouldn’t darken the door of a church – heard these “offensive” remarks and didn’t flinch. Why not?
This past week marked the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama. It started with a star-studded Sunday afternoon concert at the Lincoln Memorial featuring Springsteen, Shakira, Beyonce, Stevie Wonder, and many more. U2 performed two songs, including “In the Name of Love (Pride).” What an odd coupling, love and pride. “One man caught on a barbed wire fence/One man he resists/One man washed on an empty beach/One man betrayed with a kiss/What more in the name of love?”
Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Lord Acton warned. Absolute or total love corrupts absolutely, unless you love an Absolute Being, God. Disordered loves produce pride. In the name of love, Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. In the name of love, Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for freedom and, in the name of love, James Earl Ray gunned him down. “Early morning, April 4/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky/Free at last, they took your life/They could not take your pride/In the name of love!/ What more in the name of love?” Tens of millions of people enjoyed two “offensive” ideas – that Jesus is the way (Bono sang “there is nobody like you”) and that pride plagues us. No one flinched.
“There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves,” C.S. Lewis wrote.1 Pride. “We don’t do humble as much as we should,” Bono later confessed, elongating U2’s credibility and authority to prick our pride. The antidote to arrogance, St. Augustine wrote, is properly ordering our loves. From all that I read, U2 is out to order their loves.
This past week also kicked off the winter season for the television show “Lost.” The theme song is “You Found Me” by Isaac Slade and The Fray. For those with ears to hear, the song is a cry to heaven about suffering and hope and God. “Lost and insecure/You found me, you found me/Lying on the floor, surrounded, surrounded. Why’d you have to wait? Where were you? Where were you? Just a little late… You found me, you found me.” The Fray is attempting to define reality – that while we’re truly lost in the cosmos, we are not finally alone in it. No reports of television viewers flinching.
Albert Einstein said the most important thing anyone can do is to name something – to define reality. But naming requires a credibility and authority to be put in a position to be listened to and taken seriously in the wider world. As Pierre Bourdieu puts it, it is the power of “legitimate naming.”2 For many centuries, Christians defined reality – in music, literature, and art. As a result, there was no such thing as “Christian” music – only good and bad music, written by people of faith, no faith, or differing faiths. But it was Christians like Bach and Tchaikovsky who defined the good, the true, and the beautiful.
We’re in a different world today. Oxford University Press recently announced that it will be dropping words like “dwarf,” “elf,” and “devil” from it’s children’s dictionary to make room for words like “blog,” “Euro,” and “biodegradable.” Oxford believes that references to the mystical no longer define reality as well as scientism – the idea that science alone accounts for all of reality. If you have ears to hear, this means the Judeo-Christian definition of reality is no longer taken seriously by culture-shapers in the wider world.
There are many ways to rectify this, but the arts enjoy some distinct advantages. Music that resonates with the rhythms of life is, first of all, memorable. For example, I know the lyrics to every Elton John, Beach Boys, Sly and the Family Stone, U2, and Beatles song. But I’m not sure I can recite more than a handful of Psalms. Second, most music carries a message – but it comes to us indirectly. St. Augustine said the soul delights in particular what it learns indirectly. If people are going to delight in our definition of reality, songs by groups like U2 and The Fray enjoy an advantage over sermons.
The Fray and U2 are attempting what C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien accomplished in literature. In a touchy world of tolerance, Lewis said we have to find ways to “steal past those watchful dragons” that spew flames at those who suggest that we might be lost, arrogant, or that Jesus is the way.3 With The Fray’s “How to Save a Life” – a story about reaching out to friends in a very flawed way – and U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – a song about salvation without satisfaction – they’re defining reality with Jesus smack in the middle. “We’ve found different ways of expressing it,” Bono says. “Maybe we just have to sort of draw our fish in the sand. It’s there for people who are interested. It shouldn’t be there for people who aren’t.” It’s for people with ears to hear.
On August 28, 1963, those with “ears to hear” listened to Dr. King describe a day when his four children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” King was defining reality by referencing Isaiah. No one flinched and what few could have imagined in 1963 – an African-American President – became reality last week. It was the same week that tens of millions heard “offensive” ideas about arrogance, alienation from God, and Jesus – and few flinched. In a few years, those with ears to hear might say this was the week that their definition of reality began to change.
1 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: First Touchstone Edition, 1996), p. 109.
2 Nicholas Brown & Imre Szeman, Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), p. 89.
3 C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper (London, UK: Geoffrey Bles, 1966), p. 37.
Tchaikovsky a Christian? I am not aware of any confession of his along these lines.
I appreciate the value of the indirect as you have described. I struggle with my own lyric writing for corporate worship contexts because of the demand of the direct and accessible. Although there certainly is value in making the Truth plain it is also valuable to leave with questions to be answered instead of having all of the answers especially if we want to see genuine life change. I suppose it is about who will receive your message.
Tchaikovsky did study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. However, I am not aware of any sacred themes within his compositions…
You do such great stuff.
Is it permissible for me to print 50 copies of this to use in an adult Christian education program I am leading. We are focusing now on listening and looking for God’s word in our world.
Hi John: Anyone who flatters me gets to print and distribute as they see fit! Uh, come to think of it, anyone can print and distribute – even my critics. Have at it! Tell me what kind of reception they receive and if I can further assist.
Ah, Bono, how you do refresh me.
A fanastic interview w/ Bono a few years ago: http://www.christianitytoday.com/music/interviews/2005/bono-0805.html