Friday, August 1, 2014

Musicians' Gambit, Part 1: Mercy Me

From the June 2011 E-Block.
This issue we begin a new series I’ve been contemplating a while, profiling the theological content of popular Christian music and commenting on it in terms of issues of concern to apologetics. We begin this series with a look at a sampling of lyrics from the popular group Mercy Me. I chose them first because they offer what I frankly consider to be the worst song in popular Christian music today in terms of theological content, and it is with this song that I also begin:

I can only imagine
What it will be like
When I walk
By your side
I can only imagine
What my eyes will see
When your face
Is before me
Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all

The emphasis here is heavily on personal experience – so much so that I once thought to rewrite the repeated main line as, “I can only think of what I’ll do.” 

But of course, it’s not really that unusual: it fits in with what is already going on in so many churches now that place a heavy emphasis on “praise and worship” as some sort of revitalizing experience – to a goodly extent, a sort of drugless high. The sense transmitted is that of eternity as one long worship service of this sort – as is further offered, “I can only imagine, When all I will do, Is forever, forever worship you.” The options listed – feelings of the heart, dancing, being still and in awe, and so on – offer no hint of eternal life as one of continued responsibilities. Messages like these do little to encourage a sense of the Christian life as that of a disciple and servant.

Not surprisingly, Mercy Me also offers the expected message that God is a personal buddy:

My imagination
Gets me all the time
No matter where I look You're all I'm seeing
You're my fascination
The very reason why
The reason why I'll never stop believing

There is a disturbing turn to this message: It fits all too well into the notion the Christian worships their God unthinkingly, choosing to believe not because the truth or evidence demands it, but because they have chosen by fiat to see nothing else. Worse yet:

And I'm so amazed that I
Am always on Your mind
I believe that You're always here with me
You're everywhere but still within my reach
Cause how could You save the day
If You're a million miles away

The contrast is stark: My own studies have reached the conclusion that God is best understood in terms of a patron whose involvement is far from intimate. Mercy Me’s deity is, on the contrary, a personal buddy, “always here with me” and out to “save the day” (as if this were indeed God’s purpose and role!). This is a theology impossible to reconcile with even the most poorly formulated assertion of the problem of evil, and it sends the same mixed message not only to Christian suffering in their own way, but to the world at large.

Next, we have a song which reads more like a self-esteem pep talk than anything which ought to be presented by a Christian music group:

Days will come when you don't have the strength
And all you hear is you're not worth anything
Wondering if you ever could be loved
And if they truly saw your heart
They'd see so much
You're beautiful, You're beautiful
You are made for so much more than all of this
You're beautiful, You're beautiful
You are treasured, you are sacred, you are His
You're beautiful

This is the sort of thing I’d expect to emerge, though, in an era where our leading teachers are persons like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer – whose sermons are also more like pep talks than meat to be eaten by serious disciples.

Is there anything that could be called theology in any of this? One song offers the sadly misplaced conception of faith so common today:

I was taught to be practical in everything I do
Holding on to what is tangible, and then came You
That's when I found myself so far away, from everything I knew
I took a leap of faith
You're everything I cannot see
You're everything I cannot say
I know it all seems so illogical
But that's okay
What's so hard to understand
What I cannot comprehend
Is that You love me the way I am

The message is one that rejects evidence and reason – for what need is there of such things when we “feel the love”?

Other songs do offer some semblance of serious theology; but this appears to be incidental to a larger theme of using such theology as a vehicle for “praise” – as in this case:
Even before there was a drop in the ocean
even before there was a star in the sky
even before the world was put in motion
You were on Your throne
You were on Your throne.
You reign
glory in the highest You reign
every knee will bow
and every tongue proclaim
that Jesus reigns.

Biblical authors using the same imagery had in mind honoring a deserving and powerful king; but Mercy Me has reduced this to a vehicle for emotional and therapeutic highs – as indeed so much modern “praise and worship” has done.
The most positive lyrics I could find in my selection were these:

And I know that I can find You here
'Cause You promised me You'll always be there
Times like these, it's hard to see
But somehow I have a peace, You're near
And I pray that You will use my life
In whatever way Your name is glorified
Even if surrendering
Means leaving everything behind
My life has never been this clear
Now I know the reason why I'm here
You never know why You're alive
Until you know what you would die for
I would die for You

These sentiments are elevated and correct. Yet they ring hollow coming from the mouth of modern American who has likely known little in the way of serious suffering, much less a threat of martyrdom. I am not saying that the sentiments are insincere – only that I very much doubt the artist has a comprehensive picture of exactly what it is they are pledging.

Finally, though it may not seem so at first, consider the anti-reason sentiments implicit in this selection:

I'm finding myself at a loss for words
And the funny thing is it's okay
The last thing I need is to be heard
But to hear what You would say
Word of God speak
Would You pour down like rain
Washing my eyes to see
Your majesty
To be still and know
That You're in this place
Please let me stay and rest
In Your holiness
Word of God speak
I'm finding myself in the midst of You
Beyond the music, beyond the noise
All that I need is to be with You
And in the quiet hear Your voice

So also would a Mormon say. And while I am not expecting instructions for discernment in a song (! – for one thing, what rhymes with “discernment”?) the theme is one we have seen here abundantly from today’s shallow teachers, to the effect that the voice of God is a public resource for Christians to listen to, and all you have to do is “be still” – which is much the same as saying, in the modern parlance, “don’t think it through.”

If the reader thinks that this evaluation has been harsh, please consider what is at stake: The lyrics we see here are emitted daily on our Christian radio stations and are called upon for inspiration by the church at large. If what we are feeding ourselves for inspiration is a polluted stream, then it will inevitably reflect the way we act and believe as well.

Frankly, lyrics like these make me glad that I do hear, “got my eyeballs stuck to my plate.”

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff JP, I've been thinking of doing a similar series lately. People may not want to admit it, but I agree with you that this is a bigger issue than it seems. I also think back to N.T. Wright's commentary on the sloppy eschatology of many of our hymns (cf. Surprised by Hope).

    As Wright likes to say, if you want a Christian song with real sound theology, look no further than "Joy to the World".