“For some reason I can’t explain, I know Saint Peter won’t call my name.” Coldplay’s Chris Martin feels like he’s “not on the list.” The lyrics of “Viva la Vida” spell this out. It’s often an unsettling feeling, but there is an upside to being on the outside.
“Viva la Vida” features many references to the Bible, but it’s mostly about lost faith. For Martin, religions are “pillars of sand” (Jesus’ parable about the fool who built his house on sand) or “pillars of salt” (Lot’s wife). The chorus sketches Christianity’s historic breadth. “I hear Jerusalem bells are ringing, Roman Cavalry choirs are singing; be my mirror, my sword and shield (metaphors for the Word of God), my missionaries in a foreign field.” This tradition is past tense for Martin, however.
Chris Martin can’t seem to square his beliefs with aspects of the Christian faith, particularly damnation. So he feels he’s damned. “For some reason I can’t explain, I know Saint Peter won’t call my name.” In an interview with the British magazine Q, Martin said “Viva la Vida” is about being “not on the list. I know about this stuff because I studied it. I was into it all. I know it.” He may know a few things about “this stuff,” but does Martin know the upside to being an outsider, or exile?
In a recent New York Times column, Costica Bradatan, an associate professor at Texas Tech University, describes the redeeming aspect of exile. “The redeeming thing about exile is that when your ‘old world’ has vanished. At the very moment when you lose everything, you gain something else: new eyes.”1 You can read about exile “in books, but there is no deeper knowledge than the one that comes mixed with blood and tears, the knowledge that comes from uprooting. Deprived of your old world, your old self is left existentially naked.” As old constructs collapse, beliefs can be rebuilt, only better.
Scripture says the same thing. God often gives fallen folks an experience of what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome them back in. It’s one of many ways that God demonstrates his mercy. For example, God booting Adam and Eve out of the garden was merciful.
When the first couple ate the forbidden fruit, sin entered and they were separated from God. But the Tree of Life remained in the garden, within easy reach. It permanently seals people in their present state. Had Adam and Eve eaten of its fruit, they would have been permanently sealed in sin. No redemption. God booting them out of the garden opened the door for them to come to their senses and hopefully, one day, come back in.
Isaiah tells the same story. God booted the Judeans out of Jerusalem, sending them into exile in Babylon. In so doing, the Babylonians – who were at that time outside the faith – received mercy as the Judeans served them. God closed a door to the Jews in order to open a door for the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar came to his senses. God was extending salvation to “all the nations” (Ps. 67) as well as restoring the Judeans.
This is the upside to exile. It’s the Prodigal Son, on the outs, coming to his senses, so that his older brother, smug in assuming he’s safely “in,” might also come to his senses. It’s an upside the Apostle Paul noted in his letter to the Gentile believers in Rome. “There was a time not so long ago when you were on the outs with God. But then the Jews slammed the door on him and things opened up for you. Now they are on the outs. But with the door held wide open for you, they have a way back in. In one way or another, God makes sure that we all experience what it means to be outside so that he can personally open the door and welcome us back in” (Rom. 11:30-32, The Message).
“Ours is now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture,” writes James Davison Hunter in To Change the World, “and the community of Christian believers are now, more than ever – spiritually speaking – exiles in a land of exile.” I have no idea how many believers actually feel this way about the church, but the good news is there’s an upside to all this. Those who feel on the outs receive new eyes. They gain new perspectives. And, as old constructs collapse, beliefs are rebuilt, only better. That makes being an exile worth it.
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1 Costica Bradatan, “The Wisdom of an Exile,” The New York Times, August 17, 2014.