“War Pigs” by Black Sabbath quite possibly comes the nearest to prophetic literature that we have in the modern time. I’m not say there isn’t something out right now that I haven’t heard about or that Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” was any less prophetic. But what if you took the lyrics of “War Pigs” and put them up against Melito of Sardis or Jeremiah and made a comparison?
That’s what I did for my Holy Verse Workshop this morning.
Why? Because Christians have become oddly saccharine – sticky sweet – about their faith. Our hymnals are full of praise songs, but there is very little lament that truly engages with human hearts. A century a go, there were still poems and writers that were willing to delve into the dark places or write from their own experiences of pain and loss to produce hymns. “It is Well with My Soul” was written by a man who had just discovered the loss of his family.
But largely we’ve decided pain is an evil or even worse ascribes evil to God. So our hymns dry up or are converted, and our hymnals, which will always be a repository of wisdom, have become 75% praise with much less mourning or trust during trial.
The psalms and the prophets don’t really have this problem. They hunker down to write with very human emotions and frustrations. They’re 75% frustration with trust and 25% adoration during frustration. The church sitting in between the resurrection of Christ and the awaited resurrection en mass may want to find a better way of articulating it’s frustration.
More than that, Christianity does not want to stand to convict the rich and powerful. The American dream has co-opted the Christian faith and made our dreams of obtaining unquestioned power and privilege replace our call for holiness or our challenge to those in positions of power and privilege when they seek to hurt the powerless and impoverished.
As a result, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd have become better culturally and delivering messages against wars and even cutting through to and exposing the realities of war. Metallica’s song ‘One’ does the same, and Johnny Cash manages to expose prison in “Folsom Prison Blues” and addiction through his singing of Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt”.
It may sound odd, but I would even claim that Ke$ha and Lady Gaga speak to cultural issues in ways that are revelatory of who and what we are more so than some pop Christian Music. They definitely seem to connect to parts of our community in such a way as to reflect that group’s understanding of the good life.
But I’m not crazy enough to think that we are without voices as Christians. There are and have been artists out there that do engage with cultural issues. Derek Webb offers some great and challenging songs even now alongside folks like Mumford and Sons. I have heard of a few that did the same during the armed conflicts and during the civil rights struggles. The popularity of the rock groups may out stripe the Christian singers, although the evidence of this is simply that I have heard of the rock groups which isn’t the most convincing.
Poetry at it’s best reflects on our humanity and our experience. This is essentially changed if we are Christians writing or reading, and it’s that later bit of reading that really gets to me. See, as a Christian, I think we all have the image of God in us, and any honest true engagement with who we are in verse or song or prose engages with theology. In other words, I don’t think there’s any such thing as secular music.
There’s good music and lyrics that truly engages with who and what we are and our experiences, and there is music that fails to do that – it doesn’t ever find it’s stride or meaning. But there is no such thing in my mind as secular music.