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Does Culture Want to Be Engaged?

People—whether they know it or not—desire the love of Christ. They want to believe. They would like nothing more that God is real. That Truth is real. That the Bible is more than a storybook. But…

They may not be finding the answers, the assurance, the voice they need to speak Christ into their lives. They may have been put off by the behavior of a Christian friend, Christian parents, a youth pastor, religious rules or the actions of “the church.”

At breaking point, people tend to cry out to God. To cry out for a savior. This may manifest in many ways. It’s amazing how often we see this in manifestation come through in music, art and films. Some of which we’ll talk about in a bit.

I love the lyric from Christian songwriter Rebecca St. James, from her song God, which goes: “Inside us all there is a void. All mankind is searching for the one who fills the soul. In Him there’s hope. In Him there’s light. The world cries for a savior and he’s right before their eyes.”

The world longs for a savior…we need to cultivate discerning ears and eyes so that we can recognize the cries.

To Condemn…Or Not To Condemn (That Is The Question)

It does not take much to find faults with main stream culture. Whether that is the vast field of pop radio or the latest TV line-ups on “the big four” (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox).

Several week’s ago I was invited to speak to a class at a local college. The topic was engaging culture (in context of evangelism). For this lecture I decided to examine several of the #1 songs on the Billboard Charts. I then pulled lyrics to several of these to look for any signs of longing or any commentary on God.

#1 Country Charts
At the top of the country charts was Diercks Bently’s “Am I The Only One”—a song in which he questions whether he’ll be drinking and entertaining himself alone…or with a female companion. Enough said.

#1 Rock Charts
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are back on the charts. These guys have been around for a long time. Definitely funky. Talented musicians. But wholeheartedly perverted in their lyrical matter. That has been the case since I first heard their music in the early 80’s and it is still the case with their current hit “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” which dwells on an individual’s sexual perversions.

#1 Pop Charts
And then there’s Kate Perry’s “Last Friday Night.” The country charts topped out with sex. The rock charts topped out with sex. And the pop charts are also littered with…you guessed it…sex. Miss Perry’s lyrics tell it all: “Theres a stranger in my bed. … I smell like a mini bar. DJs passed out in the yard. … Last Friday Night we danced on tabletops and we took too many shots. Think we kissed—but I forgot.”

We’re going to dwell a little deeper into the Inferno that is popular music. Rather than condemn, we need to question. Where is love? Where is commitment? Where is respect—for ones self? For others?

#1 Digital Download
This is the #1 download in the country. The first two lines of which—where I to pen—would get me labeled as a racist and a sicko. But somehow—since this is Lil Wayne & Drake—it ratchets them to the top of the charts (and certainly earns them marks in the “downloads your mother would never let you buy” and “downloads to sneak past the parent categories). [OK – Maybe a hint of condemnation creeps out here.] The song’s title is “She Will” half of whose lyrics I would be ashamed to say out loud. Treatment of women and race here is brutal. I will draw out a couple stand out lines: “Devil on my shoulder, the Lord is my witness. So on my Libra scale, I’m weighing sins and forgiveness. What goes around comes around like a hula hoop.” The attitude of the song is that, “I’m going to do what I want, what pleases me, what gratifies me. I’m going to believe in what I want. My god is made in my image.” In this light the lyric continues: “I’m all about ‘I’ give the rest of the vowels back.” Joy is found when the “I” is fulfilled. The “I” becomes god.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the music and musings of America’s top selling music artist Jay Z.

While walking down the streets of Chicago recently the poster for the Watch the Throne concert tour caught my eye. The cross that serves as the centerpiece of the design compelled me to want to check this out. So I pulled up the album up on Spotify to see if there was any spiritual weight to this release. There was not much in evidence of that to be found. I went on to check into Jay Z’s spiritual compulsion. [The fact that he’s touring with Kanye west—an artist whose been called to account for his own claims to faith.]

In looking into Jay Z’s take on Jesus I discovered that he had ruffled a few feathers with the song “Empire State of Mind” (Jay Z, from The Blueprint 3 – 2009) in which he cites: “Jesus can’t save you. Life starts when the church ends.” The new album features the song “No Church in the Wild” (Jay Z, from Watch the Throne, 2011) in which he pines: “What’s a God to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything.” Which is a great question to ask.

With Lil Wayne and Jay Z, we witness two pop stars who in many ways are seeking to elevate themselves to god (lower “g”) status.

Jay Z goes as far as to call himself “weh.” It scares me a bit when pop stars start peddling spirituality of any sort. Now that Oprah is out of the picture we hear their opinions pour out via other airwaves; like this Jay Z Hot 97 Interview w Angie Martinez (1/13/10): “If people must know my religious beliefs, I believe in one God. I don’t believe in religion. I don’t believe in Christians or Muslims. I think all that separates people. I think it’s one God. I think it’s all the same God, and I don’t believe in Hell.”

Proper Response

What do we do with this?

Do we accommodate? Maybe this is the music that gets you going each morning. In which case I would ask: Are you listening? Or are you one of the “I just like the music” people who sing the lyrics without realizing the words that are escaping your lips?

Do we condemn? And here I do not mean condemnation of the artists. There are plenty of rants out there blasting these people. For the most part you will be preaching to the choir or reaching deaf ears if you let your lividness live on Facebook or elsewhere online.

Do we retreat? If the majority of music listeners are listening to this music. If there is wide acceptance of misogynistic lyrics. Lyrics that put women down. Lyrics which degrade “Adam’s race.” Lyrics which demean God. Should we not challenge listeners to hear? Or to see (as the videos are equally demeaning)?
How do we engage? We start conversations. We question the listeners of this music. And if opportunities arise—we enter into dialogue with those who create this type of music.

In the Bob Dylan song “All Along the Watchtower” (which has been performed by the likes of Dave Matthews, U2, Pearl Jam, Lenny Kravitz and others) there is a lyric that may serve as a suitable response: “No reason to get all excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke. “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke. But you and I, we’ve been through all that and this is not our fate. So let us not talk falsely now—the hour is getting late.”

In Matthew 13, we find Jesus following a similar line of thinking as he tells his disciples not to get excited about those who speak of Christ’s mission as if this is a joke. Christ says, “they have sight but do not see; and hearing but do not hear or understand.” Here he is paraphrasing Isaiah’s prophecy—which he then presents in full: “With your hearing you shall hear and not understand, and you shall use your sight and look but not see. For the heart of this people is stiffened, and they hear with difficulty, and they have closed their eyes; so that they may never see with their eyes, or hear with their ears and with their hearts understand and turn back, so that I might heal them.”

For Christ had just been engaging in dialogue with some unbelievers and with religious folks—who were caught up in the “I” and forgetting God. And Christ is telling the disciples not to give up on these folks. Sure, some will never open their eyes to the truth…but some will. And those who do turn back will only do so with great difficulty. And we, the body of Christ, need to be there by their side, to comfort and heal and speak into their lives. To show them the way. To open their eyes to the Truth. To open their ears to God’s word. And to open their hearts to the full experience of Christ.

Where God and Culture Collide

I tend to roam in a landscape littered with art, film, music and writings on the fringes of culture; all the while rooted in a realm of grace and mercy of the one true God. On my forays outside the faith I inevitably stumble upon talk of God (or the lack there of). I may be reading an article in the Atlantic Weekly and a persons atheist tendencies and spite for Christendom clearly come through in her writing style. I may hear a pop song touting God as a woman, as one of us, as a lover, as an object, as a myth of some long lost fantasy life the songwriter leads us through. I may be watching a horror film where, in lieu of going to a priest, the fraught turn to science to help rid their lives of demons. Whether direct reference or just calling upon the language of faith [mercy, grace, longing, rescue (pull me out of this state), love, prayer, fruit, etc] there is a desire to be connected to God, to Christ, to something greater–even when people so earnestly strive to abandon any semblance of faith. These points of collision are the focal point of this blog. To quote Rebecca St. James, “the world cries for a savior; and he’s right before their eyes.” I’m interested in those cries. And think you should be too.