Good Music Bad Ideas
There is nothing in this world like an impassioned theologian. Gotta have them so there’s some fizz in this pop.
Impassioned theologians like to protest lousy song lyrics. We musicians try to guard against bad lyrics, but sometimes a song is so much fun to play that we just play it and let the theologians worry about the lyrics. Hey, that’s what they’re here for, isn’t it? If we guitar pickers had any theological sense we’d be theologians instead of guitar pickers. Can’t do everything.
A few months ago we played a tune called “I’ll Fly Away” just because it was fun to play. Three chords. Boom chicka boom chicka boom. Upbeat and simple. We didn’t have a drummer so Nathanael put a mike in his guitar case and beat on it with his foot. Magic.
Not so for Ryan Duford, he of passionate theology, who said that was the worst song he had ever heard. Terrible, he said. Misleading. Mush-minded drivel, or words to that effect. Do not play that again, he begged.
And we didn’t for a while, but you know what those guitar pickers are like…can remember chords for fifty years but can’t remember logic from last week. So when I got a chance to play with Nathanael again this week, we harked back to things we’d had fun doing in the past, and before you know it, boom chicka boom chicka boom chicka boom chicka “One glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away….” We had such a good time. I even got a smile out of him when I played an E minor where he played a D. Old guy and young guy.
That was on February first, which was Ryan’s thirty third birthday, which I found out on Tuesday the third, which made me say hey, let me cook you a feast tonite because that’s our son’s birthday too etc etc. So that all happened and we had very much fun and you guessed it the banter got around to “I’ll Fly Away”. “Oh yeah,” I said, “you didn’t like that song all that much, did you?” Everybody laughed.
Turns out he had even walked out in the second service when we played it. Nobody will ever call that boy lukewarm.
So I said, “you know what we should do, we should have some kind of public discussion wherein we debate the theological merits of that song, or lack thereof.” He agreed. He even pulled his phone out and checked out the origins of that song (done for royalties), further excoriated the theology (bad to non-existent) and lamented some more. After that we had cookies.
So I am going to phone him up…oh wait, right now he is processing theology with Duff and Alan…when he gets out of there, I am going to ask him to see if he can articulate his objection to that song in sixty words or less, and in another sixty words provide a robust theological alternative. He already did last night but you weren’t there so just hang on a minute….
Got him. Here’s Ryan:
Objections to I’ll Fly Away”? That song makes several theological blunders:
1. It denigrates physicality: “Like a bird from prison walls I’ll fly…”
2. It implies that life begins after death: “No more cold iron shackles on my feet…”
3. It sees life as purposeless drudgery: “Just a few more weary days and then…”
4. It implies that going to heaven is our goal: “I’ll fly away O glory…”
Me: That’s pretty good for sixty words or less. Can you get your theological alternatives in sixty words?
Ryan: Can a theologian get anything in sixty words?
Me: No, but musicians can pack whole worlds of meaning into three minute songs.
Ryan: Well, I’ll stick with my own medium. Like I always say, reasoned theology must govern musical passions, even if it takes some mental effort. That’s correct, isn’t it?
Me: I believe it is.
Ryan: In my view, the Gospel affirms the following things:
1. Physicality is good.
Seven times in Genesis, God calls His physical creation “good” and even “very good”. God made the world the way He wanted and He loves it. Creation is God’s cosmic temple or palace (Isaiah 66:1) within which His image (humanity) is displayed. In the ancient world, an image of a god was a physical representation of that god. Our physicality is not a hindrance, as in Platonic thought, but rather it is central to us being made in God’s image and therefore our capacity to imitate Him. In the light of this, how do you treat God’s sacred place? What do you do with the hands He gave you?
2. Life begins today.
The story of Lazarus (John 11: 17-43) powerfully illustrates this. In short, Martha confronts Jesus for being too late to help Lazarus. Jesus says Lazarus will rise, to which Martha responds with classic Jewish theology: Lazarus will have life at the end of time (the last day). Do you see what is going on? Martha thinks that you must wait to have life, that it comes at the end of the story. What is Jesus’ response? “I am the resurrection and the life!…Do you believe this?” Martha, you are waiting for the end but LIFE has come NOW! Do you believe this? John’s point is striking: Are you waiting to die to live? LIFE is here, He is waiting, He offers LIFE today. Do you believe this?
3. We have a task.
John 15:16 is probably the verse I most often keep in my mind: “You did not choose me, I chose you and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that lasts…” Around one of the doors to the Jerusalem temple was a cluster of grapes with each cluster being as large as a man. This symbolized Israel’s purpose, to bear fruit in all the world. From the beginning this was God’s intention for humanity; hence his desire for Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply…” So why John 15:16? It reminds us that we have THE task and THE purpose for humanity that goes back to the very beginning of creation. Equipped with eternal LIFE now, we will succeed, we will bear fruit that lasts. Knowing that your work will succeed, what will you work toward?
4. Heaven is coming here.
Mathew 6:10: “…Thy Kingdom come on earth…”
Revelation 5:9-10: “…with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be kings and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth…”
Revelation 21:2: …” I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…”
Equipped with LIFE, given a task that is appointed to succeed, we work towards the end to which Jesus taught us, which is nothing less than a world made new.
So, I’ll fly away? Say hi to Jesus when He passes you on the way down.
Me: Gee, Ryan, that’s quite a lot to think about. I’m glad you’re so worked up about it.
Ryan: Theology is like that. That’s why God gave you a brain. I hope you do think about it and play music with good theology in it.
Me: No guarantees, but we’ll try. In the meanwhile, go on youtube and look for Preservation Hall Jazz Band on Letterman: I’ll Fly Away. Think you’ll love it.
Ryan: See if I can fit it in. No guarantees though.