Friday, January 2, 2015

Musicians' Gambit: Mandisa

From the November 2011 E-Block.
The singer designated Mandisa might well be regarded as a typical American success story: Featured on (but not a major winner on) the American Idol television program (which -- sorry! -- I have yet to see an eposide of), she parlayed her success there into a recording career in Christian music. A sample of her lyrics makes it fairly easy to understand why: With this singer -- who will be the last examined in this series for the time being -- we come full circle to yet another entertainer for whom the Gospel has been transformed into therapy. 

The repeated theme of many songs we sampled is essentially that God brings victory and joy in life. Sin? Not even mentioned. Doctrine? Never heard of it. Instead, what we have is what might happen if Joel Osteen put his sermons to music:

Look at my life
And I still can't believe it
How did I make it
To where I stand now?
You don't understand
I was up against the whole world
And all I could feel was it breaking me down
But out of a hopeless situation
There came a song of redemption
Life may push my heart to the limit
But I won't let go
Of the joy in my soul
‘Cause everything can change in a minute
And the world may try
But they're never gonna steal my joy
So get up, stand up
And rise above it
If every plan
That you've made goes so wrong
You don't have to give in to the struggle
You may be down
But don't stay there for long
In every hopeless situation
There is a song of redemption
The world may say
You're never gonna make it
The world may say
You're not strong enough to take it
But I don't care
‘Cause the joy of the Lord is real
And they're never gonna steal my joy

In this, "the Lord" becomes a tacked on sentiment that rounds off a paean glorifying in how wonderful life is when it is fixed. Indeed, if the last two lines were lost for good (after the manner of Mark's Gospel) we might now know whether the object of affection was the Lord, a Hindu avatar, or maybe even caffieneated drinks.

The bit of theology I found in our sample isn't particularly heartening -- here we find the bankrupt epistemology of divine communication -- which we have seen in, for example, Joyce Meyer, in past articles -- put into verse:

Have you ever heard a love song
That set your spirit free
Have you ever watched a sunrise
And felt you could not breathe
What if it's Him
What if it's God speaking
Have you ever cried a tear that
You could not explain
Have you ever met a stranger
That already knew your name
What if it's Him
What if it's God speaking
Who knows how He'll get a hold of us
Get our attention to prove He is enough
He'll do and He'll use
Whatever He wants to
To tell us I love you
Have you ever lost a loved one
Who you thought should still be here
Do you know what it feels like
To be tangled up in fear
What if He's somehow involved
What if He's speaking through it all
His ways are higher
His ways are better
Though sometimes strange
What could be stranger
Than God in a manger
God is speaking
I love you

Though less tragically trivial than Meyer's profession that the Holy Spirit told her to make her husband fruit salad, or Charles Stanley's claim that God told him to eat chicken soup for a cold, the epistemology of divine communication is basically the same: God's voice can be in just about anything -- because it has been in some unusual things before (e.g, the manger reference); so why not just about anything we can think of otherwise?

And yet again here, we have the God not of the Exodus, but the god of Counseling Session:

If what you thought was the truth is a lie
And what you fought to keep on breathing has died
You face the lonely nights and wrestle with the dark
And you reach to find the love to fill the space inside your heart
It's hard to put it into words the way you feel
It's an ache and emptiness that lingers still
Are you a victim of the past without a trace of hope in sight?
And it all goes by so fast without a way to make it right
If you worry, don't worry
God will come and wrap His arms around you
It wouldn't be too much
For Him to love you as He found you
And it may seem like you're too far gone
But He loves you like His only Son
And He will come
He will come
From the bounty of a river there's a flow
And from the beauty of the Father's heart's a home
It never leaves you empty no, and never leaves you bare
So come and bring your guilt and shame
Come and leave it there
If you're willing, He is willing
Oh, you don't have to be worthy
You don't have to be anything but willing to fall into His arms
Willing to fall into His arms

The latter stanza has a theme we have seen in modern preaching, probably too much so: That of not needing to be "worthy" for God to accept you. While that is of course quite true in one sense, the modern sense now relates to themes of self-esteem - a concept unknown in the Biblical world. Biblical peoples considered themselves unworthy in the sense of not having sufficient honor to match God's honor, and thereby warrant His patronage. This is about as far from a therapeutic faith as one can get.

As many times as the above themes are repeated, we need say little more, but will close with a look at the one song I did recognize as having been on the radio:

Some people try to listen to the bottom of a bottle
Some people try to listen to a needle in their arm
Some people try to listen to the money in their pocket
Some people try to listen to another's arms
You and I are not that different
We got a void and we're just trying to fill it up
With something that will give just a little peace
All we want is a hand to reach to
Open arms that say I love you
We'd give anything to hear
The voice of a Savior
Some people try to find it with blind ambition
Some people try to find it where no one else has gone
Some people try to find it in the crowns of victory
Some people get defeated lose the strength to carry on
Some people try to find it in the shadow of a steeple
Some people try to find it in the back row pew
Some people try to find it in the arms of Jesus
That's where I found it, how about you?

The theme of therapeutic closeness to God or Jesus is again obvious; but beyond that is revealed a core accuracy: Yes, it is all done to fill a void. But the desire for the god of Therapy is, in its own way, as bad as the bottle or the needle. In commenting on the many books by writers like Meyer, Lucado, Stanley, etc over the past several years, we have occasionally asked whether Christians might not be addicted to the self-help genre. If they are, then it is little surprise that Christian music now produces so many singers like Mandisa whose own productions reflect service to that deity.

In close: Obviously I am not saying such persons are at risk of damnation. However, they will indeed find that their rewards have already been received -- and may well be shocked to find that the reaction to their works on earth would have been more favorable had Simon Cowell been their judge rather than Jesus.

Yes....I know that much about American Idol, at least!

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