In a post-Christian culture, how can Christian ministers let young people reared within it know that they can be trusted? The same way missionaries earn trust among the people they seek to serve: Learn their language. And as missionaries will tell us, being truly conversant means much more than an academic awareness of vocabulary and grammar rules; we need to learn the people who use this particular language to speak the abundance of their hearts. In our culture, that language is music.
This blog entry aims in a relatively unconventional way to help faithful shepherds know their flock, to empower their preaching and teaching particularly toward young adults and youth, and to help all of us better understand and more faithfully engage the times in which we live.
NOTE: I don’t want to simplistically, much less offensively, assume that what I write here is urgent for everyone or that undershepherds not completely caught up on cultural trends are inherently guilty of not knowing their flock. What I would humbly warn against, though, is the haughty dismissal of such knowledge and study. Remember, we are indeed daily laboring in a true mission field, and what we might assume is cultural ignorance among our young people might simply be their silence toward us on the topic. We ignore pop culture to our pastoral peril.
Our neighborhoods are mission fields, and prior to the Spirit’s gracious granting of new life, every human soul is a mission field and perhaps an altogether “unreached” person. As with any mission field, not being conversant with cultural trends and the deep philosophical currents which have brought them coursing and crashing into our people’s present day experience has dangerous repercussions. Not speaking the cultural language means that no matter how biblically faithful our expositions of Scripture, unless God blesses with the kind of miraculous work which Cessationists rule out for our era of redemptive history, our hearers won’t truly hear us. Communication will not take place. That disconnect ought to be the deepest dread of every preacher and teacher of Scripture. So here are some resources, easily available and accessible, to help us speak the language particularly of the millennial generation and younger. Unlike most recommendation lists featured in Reformed Christian blogs, this one contains no books (!!)
The following is a list of songs, relatively clean and conscience-accommodating, which serve as windows into the souls of so many young adults and youth in general. Music is lifeblood for these deep hearted, artistically inclined image-bearers, and the scarcity of artistically credible music produced by self-proclaimed Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians is to them a significant sign that they ought to continue to keep far, far away from the church. All of these songs speak to and express the raw-nervedness commonly observed (and often snidely, self-righteously derided by older adults) among millennials. The first two are from an artist who in no way associates with Christianity.
“Invisible” and “I Love the Way You Lie” - by Skylar Grey - Much of Grey’s material would be rated “R” and features the “Explicit” label on albums and individual tracks, but these two are clean presentations of very messy, all too common dynamics of life in our culture. Grey’s whispery voice communicates so well the quiet pains so many people keep hidden, but which scream inside them as they move in life, courageously, from one trembling moment to the next.
“Invisible” sings the desperate attempt to be noticed and cared about, the desperate (but VERY common) harmful measures taken in pursuit of such affectionate attention, and the desperation of realizing that no matter how drastic and dark such efforts become, they’ll ultimately fail to disclose the true heart of the tortured soul making them.
“I Love the Way You Lie” has been covered by others and used as part of collaborations, but the “demo” version keeps things clear and clean in expressing the lyrics’ haunting nature. The song is an ironic lament, ironic because the singer confesses in the midst of her personal disintegration that the bitter elations and deflations of a mutually destructive romantic relationship have become for her the stuff of personal satisfaction within it. It’s akin to the kind of relationship which C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves as “mercilessly chaining together two mutual tormentors, each raw all over with the poison of hate-in-love” C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. 1960), p.160.
The kind of relationship expounded in “…Lie” is not only common, but could perhaps be found in the past or present of the majority of youngish adults. These abusive affairs so skew our understanding of love, fidelity and honesty (or are a function of a view of life already skewered by our day’s worship of autonomy), that when such topics are addressed in Christian assemblies or from Christian sources in general, even those basic terms need to be radically redefined.
For example, to someone growing up in an abusive home, the description of God as “Father” might be initially terrifying; or for someone in the “…Lie” kind of relationship, the statement that Jesus loves people does not automatically imply to them that the Savior never lies or that he’ll never forsake them. Before the gospel is even articulated to such hearts, its essential terms have been gutted of their biblical, true meaning. As teachers and preachers, we must be every bit as concerned with how we’re heard as we are with what we say. Listening to lyrics such as these can help. (And I’d argue that listening, and not just reading the lyrics, is crucial. A song’s sound is so much of what carries hearts along in its sway, and speaks eloquently when lyrics fall silent or just plain fail to communicate well.)
The next songs come from 21 Pilots, a band largely regarded as Christian, or at least Christian-friendly, but who wisely don’t market themselves as such. Their incisive lyrics reveal to discerning listeners not only biblical themes, but some specific citations as well as the general ethical direction in which their lyrics move indicate a familiarity with the actual words and teachings of Scripture and not just a broadly-conceived Judeo-Christian ethic. You can tell that some deep meditation upon biblical specifics lie behind the band’s broader, and in many ways counter-cultural, call to engage in critical thinking.
These particular songs lead the listener on a poignant path into the traumas increasingly common and noted in our day. Speaking honestly from the inside of such pain and issuing general calls to caution when approaching people beset by them, 21 Pilots songs are both testimony and tutorial in navigating the tumultuous seas of souls reared in an increasingly and self-consciously Godless culture.
“Ode to Sleep” – Crazy creative in its sound and at times blisteringly quick lyrics (see if you catch the clear allusion to the Apostle Peter’s darkest moments of personal shame) – this song expresses the desperate plight of a soul seeking to remain vigilant against and unharmed by dangerous and even demonic influences.
“Heathens” – a beautiful cautionary tale about the importance of community, how desperate some people are to find a safe place for their souls, and perhaps most helpfully, a call against prejudice (more particularly the pre-judging which the word really indicates) based on the reminder that we really have no idea the kinds of traumas and abuses carried by the people whom we encounter (or by implication the people whom we think we know so well).
“Leave the City” – my personal favorite, so much so that I featured it in my last sermon as Geneva College chaplain. This song is truly, truly beautiful. It’s resolution in the midst of admitted, observed weakness. And once again, it’s a truly lovely meditation on the importance of truly communing with one another.
And lastly, songs from someone who does not market herself in the category of Christian music, but who is very clear and outspoken about her faith. She is a legitimate rock star, a chart-topping solo artist most recently on tour with Skillet to fill in on vocals for a band member not on that particular tour. I was deeply honored to have this sister in Christ write the foreword for my upcoming book - and to personally participate in a livestream conversation in support of her and her husband Josh’s “Reflect Love Back” Bible study initiative. I mentioned Lacey Sturm’s work as musician and particularly as an author in a previous GenRef post. This time, I want to focus on what she’s best known for: singing which is simultaneously gentle and fierce, and songwriting which expresses the agonies and joy of new and growing life in Christ, granted by his grace in the midst of death and darkness. Much of her material focuses on learning to be wary of the Enemy who ever seeks someone to devour, especially those recently freed from his grasp.
“Rot,” sings and screams from the standpoint of someone who has seen the true nature of the shining lies which fed and formed the darkness toward which she still feels so compellingly drawn. She knows she needs salvation that is nothing less than life from the dead, a fire blazing and lightning crashing kind of grace. “Rot” plays thematically like a hard rock remake of Wesley’s “And Can it Be ” – think, “I woke, the dungeon flamed with light” – as she learns to exult in “Breathtaking blinding truth, freedom I never knew.”
Food for thought for Psalm singers: I can’t help but feel that Lacey’s gut-punch-powerful vocals express something closer to King David’s searing cries for salvation in the Psalms than do many of our tame, if not timid, if not tepid, if not turgid arrangements of his soul-bearing songs. Can it be that in our rightful aversion to emotional manipulation in Christian song that we’ve over-corrected toward the discouragement of emotions as we arrange and sing God’s praises, unintentionally suggesting a decidedly un-Psalmlike separation of head and heart? For the sake of souls who want to feel the emotive power the Spirit placed within these God-breathed songs of Jesus, and thus to know viscerally that the Lord truly understands the stirrings in the depths of their souls, it's worth a discussion.
In recommending these songs, I'm not recommending that Christians try to sing them congregationally. Lacey’s vocal prowess is well-nigh inimitable; as such, imitations ought not be attempted, especially in congregational settings where collective attempts to sound the same would comprise musical horror. But for a song that feels as visceral and spiritually violent as salvation and the struggle of sanctification are (Psalm 116, Matthew 11:12, Ephesians 6), "Rot" really gets it. And it helps us to get it as well, if not in terms of our own personal experience, undoubtedly in the terms of hearts once snared in our culture’s deepest darkness, and upon whom the Spirit has shined the sometimes blinding, disorienting but liberating light of God’s face in his Son.
And lastly, I’ll mention a song Lacey and her former band “Flyleaf” covered, U2’s “Stay.” In the rules of my fandom, very few artists should ever attempt to cover Bono and the boys. Most attempts simply remind us of how good this Irish Quartet really is. Brandon Flowers and Mary J. Blige have managed to do it credibly, on “Ultraviolet” and “One” respectively, but Lacey does it immaculately on her strikingly sensitive interpretation. “Stay” sings a friend’s attempt to care for and protect someone who’s life is on a fast-track to devastation, someone who loves the way her abusive partner lies, or who at least tolerates the way he hits, because it makes her feel alive. Once again, a bittersweetly beautiful window into a terrible, all-too typical reality in our culture as we hail as salvation and deliverance what has always been humanity’s sickness and death: autonomy.
Lest my fanboying of these artists seem hyperbolic, I've talked with a good number of Christian young adults who credit 21 Pilots and Lacey Sturm for music that has guided them through dark and potentially deadly times. These artists speak their language, and pastors who want to shepherd such souls would be wise to learn from them.
May God use all the songs listed here toward our deeper sympathy and, given some of our personal stories, empathy toward souls reared in our cultural ethos and pathos. May they enlarge our hearts and open our minds further to ways in which we can by word and tangible deed minister the life-giving word of the living Christ His loving law is the picture of human wholeness, and his saving grace is the means toward it. Speaking the language of our culture can bless our efforts to lead hearts, including our own, deeper into his likeness and loving care.