Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Sad songs don't say enough...


“Guess there are times when we all need to share a little pain
And ironing out the rough spots
Is the hardest part when memories remain
And it's times like these when we all need to hear the radio
'Cause from the lips of some old singer
We can share the troubles we already know” Sad Songs, Elton John



            Let us pause whether enjoying life’s pleasures, or sufferings its sorrows and consider one of those little pleasures which comes amidst are many tears; sad songs. We all know them; we all have our own favorites. Some of them sound much happier than are, contrasting their appearance with their contents. Some sound even sadder than they really are, giving vent to every ounce of hurt and then some, even if their stories aren’t sad enough to warrant it. Some have a tinge of sweetness with the bitter tears, others season the sadness with defiance. Whatever the flavoring Sir Elton John is right about one thing, “Sad songs say so much.”

            They speak of another situation likes ours, heart to heart. Making us feel we are not so alone, while giving us an expression for the difficult things we feel and sense. The songs seem to understand us, and that is comforting in some way. The songs you know always come back the same as they were when last you called on them. You push play and there they are to say exactly what you remember them saying. It is safe, and reliable in way other comforts never can be. And it is all very good and well, isn’t it? We have an outlet to vent our feelings, help to say what we might otherwise struggle to say. We have a reminder that someone else has felt the way we feel. That is good. Sad songs really o say so much.

            Ah, but isn’t it a guilty pleasure? After-all, we are meant to be positive and upbeat. Christian radio has done a lot of harm in spreading the myth that Christian music is identified by its positivity. Psalm 88 a number from God’s own inspired hymnbook would certainly not play on contemporary Christian radio, and neither would a good portion of Lamentations, nor many of the cherished hymns of Church history. There is nothing wrong with a song being sad, sadness is part of life in this fallen world. Christians should feel free to express their many sorrows through those sad songs which say so much…

            And then they must go on to say a little something more. Christian music is characterized not by its upbeat stylings, or its sheer positivity; but by its truthfulness Colossians 3:17. The trouble with so many of our favorite sad songs, secular or Christian, is not that say so much, but that they do not say enough. They leave us with the same basic problem, all hope is gone.

            And the real danger of sad songs, and films, and games, and books, and all the sad stories in whatever media they are conveyed is that we will start to believe them. The danger is that we will start believing in them, and identifying with them. That is to say we start incorporating them into our identities. “I am the one they’re singing about,” and everything around me is interpreted by the lens of this new identity. Through subtle means we move from expression ourselves through the song, to finding ourselves expressed by the song. And when this happens, we become trapped in the world of the song. That is almost always a world we do not want to live in. Why?

            Look though the list of sad songs and you will see that many of them are left in sadness, with perhaps the vague hope that it shall pass, or worse that we will accept it. If an answer is offered, it is never a good answer. “Suicide is painless, and brings on many changes,” says one songster; but in fact, suicide is extremely painful to a whole host of people, and doesn’t change anything for the better. That is a rather extreme example, but the pattern holds true something critical is missing in all that sad songs say. Unless they something about…

            God, the ultimate truths that finally puts all of our sorrows in right perspective. God is the ultimate arbiter of truth, the definitive reality; when He truly enters a song that song must conform to His truth, the truth. Psalm 42 beautifully illustrates our point; the psalmist feels much and he has much to say about these sad feelings; but God is there and so His feeling must answer to facts. In this the psalmist see the way out of sorrow, he sees hope though he feels hopeless. Psalm 42 is not a prison of perpetual empathy, an echo-chamber of melancholy; a purposeful expression that leads to something more. Even Psalm 88, one of the grimmest and darkest expression of misery I know of in the psalms, finds God and so finds some glimmer of hope.

            With these songs we can identify because they are truthful, full of the full truth. We can identify with them truly, and run little risk of living a lie. These sad songs say so much more then their godless counterparts, and this is very good. So, what do we do with those lesser songs of sadness that simply don’t say enough?

            Well, we need to think carefully about them. We need understand that they do not express the fullness of our reality, and so we cannot rightly identify with them beyond a partial sentiment. If we find ourselves resonating more deeply with the godless sad songs, they need to go for own good. Otherwise, we are like poisoned men who drink more poison in hopes of being relieved. Get rid of them, and find some songs that speak to your feelings of sorrow, and then speak to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, I know it is tempting to think we have got this together, and can listen with impunity to whatever we want; maybe we can come up with some good reasons to keep on with our listening habits. Let remember though that we are very good at deceiving ourselves. Take care that you do not justify yourself back into the ditch you are trying to get out of.

            Without God we end up in a self-perpetuating feedback loop of, at best, in complete truth: and at worst outright lies. Even if the song claims to have God in it, it may only have some rip-off god that is too small and feeble to affect anything. God is so big and powerful He cannot help but affect everything, and our playlist should reflect this. Sad songs have a place, a limited place. They need to make room for happy songs which say just as much as the sad songs. More than happy songs we must have joyful songs. Happiness has to do with what is happening, but joy is the results of being in-touch with reality: the glorious reality of a good God.

            I am well aware that this step will put us out of step with the world around us. Good! We ought to be out of step with them, and especially in this area. Listen to their music, it is overflowing with sad songs, and so to is our Christian music. We are in danger of sounding just like them, of having all the same problems without any more answer than they have. This is not right! We have Christ and Him crucified! We have the ultimate answer to humanity’s problems! We have reason to sing joyful song, and to do so truthfully. In a world where sad songs are saying so much, the songs of believers in Christ ought to be saying a whole lot more.


Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Top ten songs of Heaven


            I can think of exactly two popular songs about Heaven that were written in my lifetime, and neither of them feature on this list! That is sad, Christians believe we will spend eternity in Heaven, but modern Christians don’t seem to have any songs about it. We are supposed to be looking forward to it, but we don’t sing much about it. Something doesn’t add up here: which is sad.

            However, what really makes me sad is that songs of Heaven are great helps to us on Earth. They are good when we are dying, and the truth is we are dying a little every day. They are also when we despair of life, when things down here are hard it is good to look up and now we won’t be here much longer. Songs help us in all of this, and we have a plethora of excellent songs available.

            I was surprised to learn how many songs had been written about Heaven, and perhaps you will be as well. This list is far from exhaustive. This list is based on the lyrics of the songs with preference given to those with rich contents. That said there is no particular order.

1.      On Jordan’s Stormy Banks

This song has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent years, and was one of the few hymns of Heaven that never fell too far out of favor. The lyrics are simple, but profound in painting a picture of place beyond all of our troubles. It speaks of place we can see, where our possessions are waiting; a real place just over Jordan.

2.      The Sands of Time are Sinking

It is good the sands of time are sinking, and we will know why if we listen to the verses which follow that opening line. This song focuses much on the sights of the wedding supper of the Lamb, and in so doing gives us the gospel in full

3.      This is not My Place of Resting

The real merit of this song is that continually reminds us we are not to look for rest in this world. It there when we are weary to keep us fixed on our true relief. The words are few, but well chosen for their task.

4.      Jerusalem Heavenly Home

Perhaps the most robust song on this list, we find everything here from God immediate presence, to our resurrection bodies. The focus here goes beyond our relief from the burden of living in a fallen world to pure wonders of Heaven, it is song of celebration for our true Home; and for that reason, it ought to be included in our hymnody.

5.      Marching to Zion

The great strength of this song is its sense of motion and unity. I think this simple composition is especially powerful for congregational singing. It also keeps the object of our march clearly in view.

6.      Shall we Gather at the River

Perhaps the most widely known song on this list, and the most often misunderstood. The river in question is that glorious stream which flows from Throne of God. The sense of certain in the chorus is very uplifting.

7.      Goodnight

Written from the perspective of a passing saint, this song brings the hope of Heaven to bear beautifully on grief and bereavement.

8.      Wayfaring Stranger

A song that really puts us in our place, while contrasting this life with the life to come.

9.      Beams of Heaven

A pilgrim’s prayers, looking forward to his goal.

10.  In the Sweet by and by

Another song with a corporate appeal, its simple chorus is easy to learn and remember.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

A nightmare on Thursday


G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday has baffled readers since its publishing. Even such great literary minds as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien could not deciphers its intentions. It is the sort of book which leads one to believe there are intentions behind the story, a message that motivates the story. I must urge the one who has not read the book for themselves to leave this blog, and go and read the book, and then return. I further urge the reader of this volume to leave any introduction alone till he/she has finished the story itself. The reasons for these requests will become clear in a moment. Seriously, though go and read it for yourself.

            There is something intriguing about a mystery, and here is a mystery wrapped in a mystery. Chesterton’s masterful writing, and engaging style serve to draw a reader further in, and aid him in continuing on despite possible confusion. The confusion, especially about the ending, would ordinarily be off-putting, at least to me, but here it seems utterly appropriate for this is a book all about anarchists.

            Our introduction is fairly brief and to the point, we have man who has apparently stumbled into an anarchist conspiracy as double agent. He is trying to figure out the plot, and if possible, stop it. The plot continues straight-ahead as the main cast is transported across international borders, and begin encountering stiff resistance. Then comes a series of twists and turns that one simply must read for themselves.

            I will note that one of the great moments of the book comes when Thursday encounters an ally, and muses on significance of having just a single compatriot. This moment alone is worth the read, especially for those who have grappled with loneliness.

            The work’s full title is, “The Man Who Was Thursday; a Nightmare.” And that last word is particularly descriptive. This is not story one would want to live out. It is best viewed, and not participated in: much like anarchy itself. Thursday as a character does a good job of standing in for us, as he rather average. Too often a story like this has a hero, someone extra-ordinary in some way that allows them to cope and overcome the situations they encounter. Thursday barely manages to hang on. There is never a moment where this man has a firm grip on events.

            The events are held in another hand, and the man that hand is attached to is the main source of mystery in the whole work. Who is he, and what is he meant to represent? We know he must represent something for he tells us so at the end, but his words are cryptic enough to keep us guessing.

            In his autobiography Chesterton reports that the books were apparently helpful in restoring the mentally ill. Elsewhere the authors give us a clue as to how such a book could be helpful, by drawing attention 9as we have done) to the subtitle. It is a nightmare, a very specific nightmare of a very particular sort of mind. An unsettled mind, a doubtful mind, a mind which sees the dark forces of chaus advancing everywhere and feels itself very much alone in a desperate stand for order.

            It is not real; it is in both cases a nightmare from which we can wake-up. I can say this now with some confidence; but I cannot say the book in question gave me any help. I was led astray by a straying introduction to look for something like a commentary on reality, rather than a commentary on a distorted commentary on reality. Introductions can be helpful, or hurtful, and it is hard to say which they will be till we have left them well behind.

            Adam Gopnik writing in the New Yorker in 2008, places this work of Chesterton at a pivotal moment in English literature between the happier fantasies that came before, and the darker works that followed, seeming to imply that Chesterton drove the change. I do not think so, rather I think he anticipated the change and tried to head it off.

            In some the man at the center of the whole tale is Chesterton himself. Only the real man could never exercise the level of control his fictional mastermind could. The story seemed to evoke some unexpectedly positive effects, but also many negative effects. It is as if the story became too big, and had a life of its own away from its authors designs. A nightmare indeed; and one which any writer, even the humble writer of this blog, might face.

            Well, I have hazarded my guess as to what the mystery is really all about. I don’t expect the nightmare will end anytime soon. If it does it will only be that we have entered into a fresh nightmare…  



Sad songs don't say enough...

  “Guess there are times when we all need to share a little pain And ironing out the rough spots Is the hardest part when memories remai...