Just Let People Have Their Music (128)

In this episode John and Gregg again discuss Christian worship music, focusing on a listener comment about the song “Fierce” by Jesus Culture.

John is of two minds in his response to the song. On the one hand he wonders if the song, in describing God’s love for us as a “hurricane that I cannot escape,” is actually presenting God’s love in a problematic way—such that if we loved our family or spouses in this manner this could create problems (such as requiring a restraining order). Should God’s love be “fierce”?

On the other hand, he wonders how we decide how much criticism (of this song but also of an idea, an action, etc.) is too much criticism. So is it okay just to enjoy the tune and ignore the fact that the lyrics (like a “hurricane”) seem to be in tension with what they are seeking to present (God’s love is good and necessary).

Gregg appreciates John’s view on two levels. First, Gregg wonders just what it might mean that God loves us like a hurricane. For instance, where do we see an example of this in the Bible? Also, by describing God’s love as a “hurricane” or a “tidal wave” the lyricist is evoking massive phenomenon that are transfixing, unmistakable, and terrifying. Second, Gregg wonders: what some examples of this in real life. For example, how has God’s love manifested “like a hurricane” in the life of the lyricist?

Again John wonders: should we not just allow people to “have their music?” Can’t this just be artistic licence. Gregg demurs: the level of criticism that we bring to bear (on music, for example) is relative to the scope of the claims that the music itself is making.

So pop music may, at very most, make a plea for listeners to adopt a certain perspective (for example the older, politically-oriented music of bands like U2 or Midnight Oil). Yet religious music is typically making radical and over-arching claims about what is real and true. So for Gregg, where Christian music necessarily makes grand claims about grand reality then these claims must be backed up with substance: whether with examples within the lyrics or several paragraphs of explanation that might accompany the lyrics.

Gregg also believes that Christian song-writing should be connected with the notion of personal experience. So he argues that the most legitimate basis for such a song is as an “artistic rendering” of a personal experience of God that is also consonant with the pictures of God that one observes in the Biblical text.

Yet to the extent that Christian lyrics are based on personal experiences that demonstrate insufficient connection with biblical pictures of God, Gregg is concerned that the message actually undermines the intent of the writers.

Specifically, in Gregg’s view personal experience is often problematically treated within evangelical Christianity, such that Christians either treat it very inconsistently or incoherently.

In the first case, where Christians will validate their personal experience in particular contexts and not in others and they will devalue (or ignore) the personal experiences of others in the very same contexts. For example, Christians have a tendency of conflating certain emotional situation (such as feeling joyful or guilty at specific times and places, such as during church worship services) with messages from God. Yet if a non-Christian were to be present during the same service and experience the music to be manipulative an the preaching to be demeaning then this experience would likely be attributed to the non-Christian’s “sinfulness,” and simply disregarded.

In the second case, Christians present experience incoherently where they make grandiose claims about divine action (i.e., “This is a miracle!”) or extreme claims about God’s nature (“God’s love is like a hurricane / tidal wave”)—claims that both lack substantiation and seem divorced from real world experiences. In such cases Christians paint themselves as senseless and so portray their beliefs as irrelevant.

John then raises the example of his coaching model, which views people as inherently “creative, resourceful, and whole.” Gregg explains that creativeness, resourcefulness and wholeness are important but offer an incomplete picture of human existence. So Gregg argues that the Christian insistence of human “brokenness” is excessive: as people who have survived in the world we are creative enough, resourceful enough, and whole enough.

So Gregg argues that affirming the Christian notion of being “fallen” necessarily implies that people cannot be whole enough to live with some success reflects the same misunderstanding as to assume that human beings can be “whole in themselves” and fully “as they should be.”

In this way Gregg distinguishes between the forensic, legal question of (ultimate) “rightness with God” with the practical, day-to-day notion of being able to make right and good choices / being a sufficiently good choice-maker.

Regarding personal experience, Gregg distinguishes between common, everyday experiences and uncommon, exceptional experiences (in particular, experiences that are claimed to be of or relating to God). Gregg argues that Christians cannot think themselves to be good interpreters of exceptional experiences—experiences of God—while not being well versed in interpreting common, everyday experiences.

One thought on “Just Let People Have Their Music (128)

  1. Pingback: You Guys are Too Picky (130) | Untangling Christianity

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