Ever notice that there come seasons in your life when you just can't find enough boxes? You notice it most when you move, of course, but there are countless other times when you stand above a pile of stuff that needs to be stuffed in a box as you covet said box. We as a nation have a box fetish. There are so many things in our lives that we need bigger things to hold all the smaller things. When I was in New York City this spring, I had my first encounter with The Container Store, which exclusively sold these bigger things. It was positively swarming with people, happily paying ten dollars for twenty cents' worth of cardboard, because it was shaped in a manner which made it capable of holding things.
We like boxes because they allow us to categorize things. If you have similar things and find a big box to put all the similar things into, you are now "organized" and suddenly have license to feel slightly better about yourself. And if you get overrun with boxes, you can pay to put your small boxes in a very large box - a box that locks - which is itself part of a huge box with an office at the end. We of course label the boxes inside the box inside the box, but since half of them read "MISC" this is of dubious value.
And all of this is fine. I don't begrudge my wife because she likes to organize things in obscurity while I like to organize them in the open. I don't begrudge self-store landlords - who wouldn't want a rental with no plumbing, HVAC, carpet, walls or tenants? The people I begrudge are those who carry this mentality of boxing from their little pile of clutter to the world at large. This works itself out in any number of ways, but one I'm increasingly bothered by is music.
We have dichotomized music, like everything else, into crisp "secular" and "sacred" camps - and wrongfully so. Kids in my generation were told that the former was inherently BAD and the latter was inherently GOOD. Only buy music at the overpriced Christian bookstore - all else is filth. "Worldly" music couldn't glorify God, because it didn't talk about Jesus (in reality, because the consecutive syllables "Gee" and "Zuss" were not present in the song).
It took a long time, but I finally divined the folly of that admonition, because the opposite is so often true. Now, don't hear what I'm not saying. I realize that there is awesome music labeled 'Christian' out there, just as I realize that there is secular music that is patently worthless or even antithetical to leading us unto grace. But the fact remains that many of us have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in an attempt to purge that which is 'foreign.' So called 'secular' music has often connected me to God in ways no "clean air" radio station has. For instance, listen to "Hear You Me" by Jimmy Eat World:
It's a hymn of sorrow over the death of a friend, lamenting the narrator's lack of gratitude while they were living. In case you're skimming or conscience precludes you, here's a sample lyric:
Similar sentiment in "My Immortal" by Evanescence:
There's no one in town I know
You gave us some place to go
I never said thank you for that
I thought I might get one more chance.
I'm so tired of being here
Suppressed by all my childish fears
And if you have to leave
I wish that you would just leave
'Cause your presence still lingers here
And it won't leave me alone
Or "The Saddest Song" by The Ataris, as the narrator tries to encourage the daughter of a broken home who doesn't understand yet:
Raw, real, honest-to-God emotions. Stuff that constitutes the floorplanks of where people live. Expressing that which burdens the heart. Now compare that to examples in CCM, where by turns you have wide-eyed, sappy sentimentality:
Only two more days until your birthday - yesterday was mine
You'll be turning five - I know what it's like
Growing up without a father in your life
"Shine, Jesus! Shine!"
Ooh, ooh, you know it’s gonna be alright
Ooh, ooh, you know it’s gonna be alright
There’s a love much stronger than everything
That holds you down right now
Sayin’, ooh, ooh, you know it’s gonna be alright
You give me joy that's unspeakable!
And I like it...and I like it!
Then you have misleading or false theology:
(So if you have problems in your life, we have to surmise that we are not in the presence of God? What are we to do with Jesus' promise that, "In this world you will have trouble"?)
With boldness we draw near
And in His presence our problems disappear
(So being beset by weakness means God doesn't love us? Or does it mean His love lacks power? Or does it means He loves us powerfully, but something we did weakens it?)
The weaknesses I see in me
Will be stripped away
By the power of Your love.
Then you have repetitive lyrics. Third Day's "You Are So Good to Me" repeats the phrase, "You are beautiful, my sweet sweet song" a total of fifteen times in a sub-four minute song (and the first, second and fourth verses consist of a short, repeated phrase). MercyMe's version of "I Could Sing of Your Love Forever" repeats the titular phrase TWENTY TIMES. And in my experience, worship leaders wanting to wring all the emotionalism they could out of a song could, with a swirl of their index finger to the band, subject the audience to an indefinite chorus cycle.
Others have framed these laments well; Marc Barnes, writing for Ignitum Today, had this to say:
Imagine, for an instant, that you’re writing a song for a girl you love, a girl you want to marry (or a guy, as the case may be). Would it be fine and dandy to write all your songs with an “I love you so much, your love feels so good, I’m really grateful that you love me, it’s so amazing that you love me” approach? Would you rhyme “the way she walks” with “the way she talks” all the time? Alright, that wouldn’t be completely miserable, but it’s the most macroscopic view you could take of the subject. You’re not singing about your girl, about what she – as a person, as your lover – speaks to your heart, about your insecurities, your doubts, your fears, your hopes, no. You’re singing about General Girl and General Love. Eventually, you’re gonna have to mention that you love her blue eyes, her pretty, short blonde hair, and her incredible sense of humor, or else she’ll leave you for a man who does. But somehow, when we’re singing about the Lover of Lovers, the Prince of Peace and the Lord of Lords, we think we can get away with singing “Jesus Saves”, “Our God Reigns” and rhyming “grace” with “face” all the time. Now God won’t leave you, but any human who appreciates the poetry of music will. And that’s a lot of people.We seem, in any number of quarters, to have lost an ear for poetry - and in the process have confused the sentimental with the beautiful. Here's Eugene Peterson's take on that from The Contemplative Pastor:
Not all words create. Some merely communicate. They explain, report, describe, manage, inform, regulate. We live in an age obsessed with communication. Communication is good, but a minor good. Knowing about things never has seemed to improve our lives a great deal. The pastoral task with words is not communication but communion - the healing and restoration and creation of love relationships between God and his fighting children and our fought-over creation. Poetry uses words in and for communion. This is hard work and requires alertness. The language of our time is in terrible condition. It is used carelessly and cynically. Mostly it is a tool for propaganda, whether secular or religious. Every time badly used and abused language is carried by pastors into prayer and reaching and direction, the word of God is cheapened. We cannot use a bad means to a good end. Words making truth, not just conveying it: liturgy and story and song and prayer are the work of pastors who are poets.Now, the question is this: Can music we have chosen to put in a box labeled "Secular" accomplish this task? I posit that the answer is yes - and if you reframe the lyrics, you'd be shocked at how so many songs in this box fit better than ones we have engineered from the start as "Christian." What do I mean by that?
What follows are song lyrics from "secular" songs. Imagine Jesus Christ singing them to you, and see if they aren't breathtakingly beautiful:
I've felt so strong for you ever since
The day you caught my eyes and I
Can't help but wonder if my life
Is turning upside down this time
I wasn't sure of when but I
Knew there'd come a time when I
Would feel this way about someone
And always need them by my side
You could make me want
To leave the one I'm with
And never wonder why
If I was ever given something else
I'd give it back a thousand times
There is just something hard for me to grasp
How it was I could survive
If I would have to live my life without
One thousand times
You'll sit alone forever
If you wait for the right time
What are you hoping for?
I'm here I'm now I'm ready
Holding on tight
Don't give away the end
The one thing that stays mine
Yeah, life is beautiful
Our hearts, they beat and break
When you run away from harm
Will you run back into my arms?
Like you did when you were young
Will you come back to me?
And I will hold you tightly
When the hurting kicks in
Are those not haunting? And inevitably someone is going to protest that there's a lack of intentionality behind these songs - that they weren't intended to be spiritual, and therefore aren't. Yet have we completely foregone Saint Ignatius' call to "find God in all things"? We've decided that because these words were published by Atlantic, Interscope and Sony BMG, instead of Sparrow or Provident, that they are valueless? And I'm not about to pronounce redemption upon your efforts for being intentionally vapid.
Let's broaden this out a bit. Do you still feel you dispense God and his grace like a spiritual pharmacist, or have you caught on to the fact that wherever you go in an effort to communicate God's grace, you're merely breathlessly catching up with Him - that He's been there, working, long before you even thought to go? And that the Spirit works even in our absence in the places we haven't proceeded to yet?
The underlying issue here is that we place too much emphasis on purity and not enough on holiness. What's the difference? Purity is specklessness; holiness is reservedness. The English word 'holy' comes from the Greek 'hagios,' which means to be distinguished from that which is common and reserved for a particular use. In case you haven't noticed, we're all speckled. When Jesus said, "Be holy as I am holy," He didn't mean to not be speckled - to be perfect, without blemish, never getting worldly cooties. He meant to be distinguished from that which is common and reserved for a particular use - God's. Be as committed to the purpose of heralding the coming of the Kingdom of God as I am. And that...well, I'll let you connect those dots.
My message to you in sharing these things is this: Abandon thy boxes. So much of the stuff of our lives is spectral as opposed to digital. Music won't fit in your boxes. Philosophies won't fit in your boxes. People certainly won't fit in your boxes. Just content yourself with engaging them as Christ did. Bind their wounds. Look into their eyes. Rebuke the religious around you who would prevent them from encountering their God. Feed the hungry among them. Make sure the threshold to draw near is low (Matthew 11:30), but that the threshold to identify and remain is high (John 6:60,66). Do true things instead of just saying true things. But first and foremost, don't hasten people into boxes.
We'll all be in boxes soon enough.