Take a pile of songs on the top of the Billboard Charts at random, close your eyes, and pick one, and chances are you’ve found a song that celebrates something ugly, abusive, hurtful, full of pain or at least fairly confused. Don’t misunderstand: I know the world is full of hurt, full of sin, full of abuse, and I think there’s even a place to sing about it. The Psalms are full of laments, Job was not shy about his complaints, and Jesus cried out to His Father in agony. So I don’t have anything against laments, the blues, or a downer song on occasion. But what is increasingly obvious to me is that we’ve got something else going on. It’s not piles of songs about misery per se, it’s piles of songs that celebrate misery. In other words, there’s something deep down sick about the human soul that doesn’t want to be delivered.
So take a fairly innocuous song like Fun’s Some Nights, a sort of indie pop ballad/anthem for 20 somethings who are a little too self-aware to go in for the full on boy band. This is like what would happen if One Direction and Greenday were genetically grafted together. Or maybe it’s just what happens when you wish you could have been a boy band, but now you have some chin stubble and at least three chest hairs and a little more angst.
At any rate, take Some Nights, full of vaguely sad, confused, uncertain lyrics maybe about a girlfriend, maybe about the world and life in general, probably about nothing in particular, all set to a driving rhythm and slightly effeminate group vocals. And it’s obvious that this is supposed to be an uplifting song. The song essentially says, I’m confused, I’m misunderstood, lot’s of bad things happen to me, I don’t know what I stand for… and look at me, I’m cool. If you hop over to Youtube and check out the music video (with its tens of millions of hits), you find a civil war era story unfolding (with short cameos of the lead singer rocking out in fields and forests), and the song’s metaphor takes on a *slightly* more sophisticated flavor.
But the point is actually even more clear: my life is uncertain, I feel a raging war inside of me, maybe in my relationships, it’s confusing, I don’t know what I stand for, I don’t know what’s going on, etc. But, and here’s the point: I’m a hero. I’m like a soldier battling through. Look at me with my war wounds, my scars, my pain. I’m a victim of my circumstances, and it sucks most of the time, but sometimes, some nights, I always win. In other words, it’s actually pretty awesome. And you can tell because I’m leaning up against this tree with my acoustic guitar and my shirt is not all the way buttoned up. Or now, watch as my sweet band and I rock out in this field together in our Union Army duds. And now we’ll flash to a war scene where I’ve just bayonetted the poor confederate sucker in front of me. This is awesome. It’s totally awesome to be misunderstood, to be unsure, to suffer. I don’t know what I stand for, and it totally rocks.
Ok, so this is a fairly innocuous example. There’s an F-bomb somewhere in there in the explicit lyrics version, but otherwise, we’re just singing along to vaguely confusing lyrics with a catchy tune, no worse than a nutra sweet laced diet cola, and hey, maybe you could do your basketball warm ups to something like this. It sounds like you’re winning, you’re conquering, or at least you’re enduring, you’re fighting through.
But take a more appalling example: Rihanna’s We Found Love has been on the Billboard Top 100 for 41 weeks as of today, and while the lyrics are even more vague “Yellow diamonds in the light/and we’re standing side by side/as your shadow crosses mine/what it takes to come alive/we found love in a hopeless place.” The video (with over 206 million views on youtube), on the other hand, explains what she means: it’s sexy, cool, amazing, fun, thrilling to be in an abusive relationship.
The video flashes through images of drugs, hangovers, selfish sex, clutter strewn bedrooms interspersed with parties, dancing, ending with Rihanna in a corner alone, curled into a fetal position, face covered. Her voiceover (video only) at the beginning actually says that it was worth it: all the pain along with all the fun. She’d do it all over again, and so she does (metaphorically) by embedding it in this song & video. This is her memorial, her sacrament, her salvation. And now hundreds of millions of other men and women and kids can participate in it with her.
Now here’s the thing, this isn’t some kind of pietistic rant against music videos full of immoral sex and alcohol abuse and cigarette smoking. As the kids say nowadays: whatevs. We live in a jacked up world, and I expect for jacked up people to show us their filth.
What I’m pointing out is the fact that they *like* it. There’s something cathartic about it, something satisfying, something glorious. Look at my life, battered, beaten, hurt, aching. Look at my cross. Look at my glory. We found love.
And that’s the thing: it’s a false gospel with a false god and a false promise of glory. If you are your own god, then your glory is doing whatever seems right, feels right, whatever you want. And all obstacles in your path (spouse, parents, morals, parole officers, pastors, etc.) are the Jews, Romans, and principalities and powers heaping their jealousies, anger, and power plays on you. You are god, and all obstacles are crosses, your means to glory, if you endure. This is your story and you’re sticking to it.
No matter that you committed adultery, no matter that you disobeyed your parents, no matter that you lied about your friend, no matter that you manipulated, used, stole, went behind their back. No matter that you are suffering for disobedience, for choosing evil, for choosing pain, for being a traitor, a whiner, a jerk.
Behold the gospel of the self-god: I’m suffering, I’m lost, I don’t know what I believe. I don’t know what I stand for. It hurts, I’m being used and abused, but I am my own god. And therefore, it must be glory, it must be good, it must be beautiful, somehow. To despair, to admit defeat, to give in to the pain would be to dethrone yourself, your self-god. It would be to admit that you are no god, you are a lousy god, a worthless idol.
And so the self-god embraces pain, perhaps even inflicts pain on herself/himself with cutting, fasting, hangovers, inviting abuse, because this is to choose suffering, choose the cross, to choose your own glory, your own way. But it’s all empty, pure bluster, pure rhetoric. Go ahead and scream obscenities on your death bed. Go ahead and write dark, whiney poetry in your journal. Go ahead and post your stupid thoughts on facebook looking for affirmation, looking for attention. Your hunger will only rage more, the pit in your stomach will only get deeper. The emptiness will only grow. The darkness will only close in.
But notice that this is only possible in a post-Christian world. This is a twisted version of the glory of Jesus. It assumes that there is such a thing as glory in suffering, beauty in pain, death swallowed up in resurrection life. But it’s simultaneously a rejection of the glory of that God, a rejection of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it’s so close to Christianity because Jesus does call us to take up our crosses and follow Him. This is why Christians are sometimes the greatest evangelists of this false gospel, the good news that your folly and sin can become badges of glory.
But Jesus only turns sin and pain into glory by His death and resurrection. And He does this by bearing it for us. He does this by delivering us from it first. And, this is most important: a cross is glory because it proclaims the death of Jesus. It points to Him. By the Spirit working in our hearts and lives, we resemble Jesus in our suffering, in our pain, in our storms because we are suffering for righteousness’ sake. We’re suffering because we obeyed Jesus, because we obeyed our parents, because we honored those in authority over us, because we were faithful to our spouse, because we stood up for the truth, because we refused to tell a lie, refused to steal, refused to be disloyal, refused to feed our lusts.
Sure, if we follow Jesus, we will suffer, we will be granted the glory of the cross. But where’d you get that cross, mister? Did you bang that thing together with nails of bitterness and anger and muttering under your breath that it isn’t fair, it sucks to be you, no one understands me, my family is so cruel, and then did you climb on to that duck tape tree, hoping you could get some sympathy, some love, some glory, some attention for your victim status? Are you trying to trick the system, trying to manipulate others, trying to get that glory by drawing a charge in the fourth quarter, sprawling out on the court hoping the refs weren’t paying too close attention? Did you draw those dark eyeliner circles around your eyes because your sacrament is an image you saw in a magazine, in a music video? Do you really want to suffer for that? Do you really want to say that you are a god, a goddess?
Jesus is the only perfect victim, the only spotless lamb of God, and He suffered once for all. He suffered for you and for your pain. Surely He bore our grief and carried our sorrows. Jesus is God, and He suffered to bring us to God, to bring us to glory, to deliver us from all harm, all hurt, all pain. You don’t need to pretend. You don’t need to dress up. You don’t need to invent a cross for yourself. Rihanna has not found love in a hopeless place. She has only found darkness and shame. She has only found a mirror that exposes her empty soul. And Fun isn’t having any. You might be able to trick the cameras and microphones into a 3 minute lie, but you aren’t cool, it’s not awesome to be confused. You just wish you were Jesus, you wish you were a god.
But God made you for glory. God made this world for real, genuine, everlasting glory. God is the one who invented love and sex, food and drink, beauty and laughter. God invented all the most awesome things, and this good and loving God sent His Son to suffer for us to set us free, to make us run, to crown us with His glory. There is a love to be found in every hopeless place, but it’s a love that doesn’t leave you there. It’s a Love that calls you home, that calls you out of the dark, that calls you by name.