What does a Christian do when an artist calls Jesus a “boogey man”? How about the unbeliever when a musician sings “Jesus’ll kill you if you don’t get along”?
Or simply his name:
Does the Christian swoon, the unbeliever grimace?
For years, a favorite musician of mine has been Joni Mitchell. As the preeminent singer-songwriter of the twentieth century, many would recognize her songs “River,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” and “Both Sides Now.” My admiration for her music (which spans twenty-one albums) is rooted in her artful lyrics, inventive chord progressions, and constant evolution of style.
For better or for worse, honesty is central to her writing. This permeates everything from reflections on her relationships to her politics, and, especially, Jesus.
‘Sometimes Chickie had the car, or Ron had the car,
Or Lead Foot Melvin with his hotwire head.
We’d all go looking for a party,
Looking to raise Jesus up from the dead!’
That line comes from the rousing In France They Kiss on Main Street, the opening track to her 1975 LP The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The lyrics are accompanied by jazz rock riffs and urban percussion. As the melody climaxes on Jesus’s name, Joni can’t help but chuckle. It’s clever writing. Listening, half of me cringes, while the other half stifles a laugh.
Summer Lawns exists in the realm of modern city life, gangsters, infidelity, and drug culture. Over Moog synthesizer and Burundi drums, Joni illustrates the “mathematic circuits of the modern night.” Across this musical landscape, Joni places the name of Jesus/God as the climax of three tracks, comparing God to “childhood Santa Claus” and “a beggar rich in grace.” In this mire of urbanism, above explicit instrumentation and lyrics, the name of Christ is striking. He is fleeting, a wisp of smoke, and yet as real as the kingpins and skinny models who surround him. Clearly, Joni is not drawing any praiseworthy halo around Christ here. And yet, he is illuminated.
As a musician, I continually encounter the scenario of artists using Christ’s name in a candid, secular context. Wilco’s “Jesus, etc.” Erykah Badu’s “On and On.” St. Vincent’s “Jesus Saves, I Spend.” Each artist brings to their work an experience with Christ, good or bad, illustrating a heart that has tasted and seen, and perhaps said “No.”
“Jesus don’t cry/You can rely on me honey/You can combine anything you want,” croons Wilco lead singer Wayne Coyne.
“If we were made in His image then call us by our names/Most intellects do not believe in God, but they fear us just the same,” poses Erykah Badu.
“While Jesus is saving, I’m spending all my grace/On rosy-red pallor of lights on center stage,” sings St. Vincent.
When Christ’s name is dropped into a lyric, something changes in its weight and significance. Perhaps to these artists Jesus is a moralist, a rule-setter, or just an abstract historical figure with four gospels to his credit. But the ubiquity of just his name gives it a great deal of significance. When an artist such as St. Vincent boldly proclaims “I prefer your love/to Jesus,” not only do they reveal something of themselves, there becomes a profound connection between the artist and their listeners. I hear a brokenness that anyone, Christian or otherwise, has lived.
In my experience, I fear that the Christian response to these expressions is to shut them out. Of course we know that God is not a “boogie man.” Of course we know that Jesus is more just than to “kill you” if you don’t get along. These are bold proclamations. They may not be true, they may be problematic for the believer. But they are honest. He who writes the lyric “Hear a lie enough, and it cuts like the Gospel” is vulnerable and hurting.
When I hear the music available to the believer in Christian circles, I cannot help but think of these artists. When I stand in church surrounded by clapping hands and smiling faces, or turn on the radio to the “Uplifting, Positive” brand Christian station, something in my heart does not fully connect. Through airwaves and powerpoint slides ride words of “goodness,” “fire,” “desire,” the name of Jesus evoking happiness, contentment, zeal. But somewhere, across a vast disconnect, sits an artist, singing, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/But not mine.”
It is tempting to think that the divide is simply between the believer and the unbeliever, the saved and unsaved, the sacred and the secular. But I venture to say any believer who has confronted their sins has found themselves, if for a moment, devoid of joy, speculative and repugnant. Yet on the radio, the Christian is all smiles.
I fear that, in Christian circles, we encourage an image of God that is only strident major sonorities. I fear that the response to our Savior and his sacrifice on the cross is an opaque happiness. I fear we shut out the aforementioned expressions of skepticism, pain, and bitterness towards Christ because they shed light on ourselves, those who have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
If Christ is only fire and desire, do we experience him in his fullness?
If Christ is only doubt and skepticism, do we experience him in his fullness?
Yes. And no.
The gospel of John illustrates for us exactly who Christ is.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Here we see that, yes, Christ is absolute light and hope. We also see that Christ’s goodness on earth is challenged by darkness. This dichotomy of light and dark is one as old as Genesis.
To know Christ is to know this infinite light. Yet to know Christ is to look inside at the depths of our sin. Our lives are incomplete without encountering and fighting darkness. When I hear Christ’s name listening to Hissing of Summer Lawns, it is not edifying in the sense that praise is edifying. But I feel strongly that it is a reflection of our experience on earth, wrestling with an earthly mire while grasping for Heavenly perfection.
As Thorton Wilder puts it, “When God loves a creature he wants the creature to know the highest happiness and the deepest misery … He wants him to know all that being alive can bring. That is his best gift…. There is no happiness save in understanding the whole.”
We experience Christ in his fullness by experiencing all that being alive has to offer, the heights of joy and the drudges of misery. If Christian culture reflects only the heights of joy, it is incomplete.
Below is a collection of songs and artists, believers and unbelievers, who use the name of Christ in their writing, including every lyric referenced here. Some of these songs are biting and sarcastic. Others are desperate and beautiful. In my walk, they have shed light for me on the fullness of Christ. Perhaps like these artists, and the psalmists in Scripture, we can honestly express to Jesus what his name means to us. We can come before him, expressing our darkened questions and misplaced feelings. And we can rejoice that the true Jesus, the God of inexpressible wisdom, will willingly hear us, correct us, and transform us. Out of our darkness and into his marvelous light.
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