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Music is unquestionably a gift from God. He didn’t have to create us with the ability to hear, much less to hear sounds so exquisite that we’re moved to tears. And yet he created the complex physics of sound and enabled our brains to interpret all of the beauty that eardrum vibrations can convey.

Christians, who should be the most attuned to God’s gifts, often find ways to limit our exposure to the depth and potency of music. For example, we like to limit our enjoyment of music to a specific subgenre we call “Christian music.” I’ve written on this before, and I also discuss it in Resonate (so, you know, you should probably buy a copy for everyone you’ve ever met…). My goal is not to degrade the music coming out of the Christian Music Industry, but to call us to engage with the wonder of God’s gift beyond this small marketing demographic.

Arcade FireIn this post, I’ll explore one brilliant piece of music that those who remain within the confines of the Christian Music Industry will never experience: the song “Afterlife” by Arcade Fire. (I wrote about Arcade Fire a bit in Resonate, but this song released after the manuscript was submitted, and I’ve fallen in love with it.)

Though Arcade Fire is not a “Christian band” by any definition I’ve heard, they frequently explore religious themes. In fact, they even purchased an abandoned church for rehearsals and recording and to give themselves access to an ultra-churchy pipe organ. So I wasn’t a bit surprised when their latest album, Reflektor, spoke of searching for the “Resurrector,” exposed the harmful effects of pornography, and meandered through other religious concepts. But I was surprised at the hopeful wrestling of “Afterlife.”

The song begins with a start: “Afterlife. Oh my God, what an awful word.” As Christians, we long for the afterlife. But Arcade Fire made me think here. After. Life. That is pretty crazy. The hope we have for the future comes after life. As the song puts it,

“After all the breath and the dirt and the fires are burnt…
After all this time, after all the ambulances go
After all the hangers-on are done hanging on
In the dead lights of the afterglow”

It reminds me of how odd our hope for the future must sound, of how odd it truly is that Paul would tell us not to “mourn as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).

The song also asks, “When love is gone, where does it go?” What a question! When we lose someone we truly and deeply and actively love, what becomes of that love? This question is followed by the related question, “Where do we go?” This has got me thinking so much about the ache of love in the absence of a loved one. It raises the question typically asked only at funerals, and then only briefly. And the question of where love goes leads me straight to this profound passage in the New Testament:

“Love never ends…So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13)

Arcade Fire 2The song never answers the question, but it does not shy away. The repeated refrain is:

“Can we work it out?
Scream and shout till we work it out.”

That’s as good a summary of the human experience as I’ve heard. We’re asking where we go, and our lives are a series of screams and shouts directed toward finding the meaning to our existence, the meaning that we know exists but remains just beyond our grasp. As the Preacher said,

“I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

Best of all, the music is incredible. Mysterious, hopeful, inspiring, exultant, beautiful. Hardcore music asks some of the same questions, but something about the way Arcade Fire explores the issue in the actual music, not just in the lyrics, strikes me as compassionate, honest, and full of longing.

It’s not that Arcade Fire is teaching me about the afterlife. It’s not that I’m ready to add their song to the end of my Bible, or even my theology books. But their creative approach to these concepts has pushed me to think and feel my way through these all-important issues with a greater sensitivity and some fresh thoughts. And I’m deeply indebted to them for it.

So to those who would appreciate God’s gift in its fullness I say: Enjoy every ounce of musical beauty that Chris Tomlin conveys in his music, but don’t turn up your nose at Arcade Fire. The gift of music is being joyfully explored in many “secular” places.

This great quote is attributed to Elvis Costello: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Indeed.

That’s one of art’s greatest characteristics. It defies description. It resists paraphrase. So when it comes to writing about something as complex, subtly nuanced, and experience-driven as music, you may as well be using a waltz to explain the Eifel Tower. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Resonate Mark BeuvingAt the end of this month, I’m releasing a book through Zondervan entitled Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music. It’s essentially a music lover’s approach to the topic. I have always loved music. Always. I still remember the time my dad came home with a new boom box and a cassette tape of the Beach Boys’ Surfer Girl album. Music has been a constant part of my life since that moment.

And that’s exactly where the description-defying nature of music comes in to play. I can’t tell you exactly what music has done for me. Inspired me? Deepened my emotional life? Helped me to contemplate key aspects of human existence? Enlarged my being (to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis)? Yes. All of those. But what do these grandiose claims mean precisely? As an educator, a book lover, and a writer, I spend a lot of time around intellectual types who would rather be reading commentaries than listening to Radiohead. That type of person gets suspicious when you talk about an “enlargement of being” in connection with melodies and tones. Yet I am convinced that all of us need to embrace the gift of music more deeply.

In my experience, we tend to take music for granted. It’s everywhere. Many of us pursue it eagerly, but even those who don’t care much about music are exposed to it constantly. The trouble is, we rarely think about the music we hear. Is music actually good for us? How so? Can it be harmful to our souls? If so, how? And how do we guard against the harmful affect? What kind of music should we be listening to? Is it okay for a serious Christian to listen to “secular music”? Should we be primarily focused on “Christian music”? And what does “Christian music” mean, anyway?

These are all questions that I’ve had throughout my music-loving life. I haven’t always had good answers to those types of questions. To be honest, I went through many years without even considering them. And yet music has always remained with me—affecting me in ways I didn’t understand, attracting me in ways I can’t articulate, even leading me into worship in the oddest of situations (a concept that I was not entirely comfortable with).

So while writing about something as mysterious as music is inherently difficult, I felt compelled to explore this gift from God. Anytime we find one of God’s gifts going unappreciated, or we find the gift being used but the Giver going unacknowledged, we need to think more deeply. If you’ve never felt awe at how unbelievable the gift of music is—if that gift has never left you in awe of the Giver—then you need to think more deeply about music.

That’s what I hope to offer readers through Resonate: the opportunity to think more deeply about music. In the first half, I explore a theology of music. What does the Bible say about it? How do we explain the universal fascination with music (there has never been a culture that has gone without music)? How should we as God’s image bearers relate to music? How should we think about the distinction between secular and Christian music? Then in the second half, I explore ways that we dive in and interact with music. How should we listen to it? How should we create it? How should we share it? How does music relate the worship and mission of the church?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll keep posting about music here and there. That’s partly to promote the book (what’s the point in writing it if no one reads it, right?). But I also genuinely care about music, and I sincerely want you to see the beauty, brilliance, and mystery of music as you’ve never seen it before. And my prayer is that you would see the beauty, brilliance, and mystery of God as your grow in your enjoyment of his gift of music.

If you’re so inclined, you can pre-order it here:

The evangelical world has flown into turbulent skies over the last few months. From Phil Robertson to bakeries in Arizona, and more recently the World Vision debacle. Evangelicals are facing a potential fork in the road in how they think through homosexuality. Then there’s the never dying debates about spiritual gifts, women in ministry, and the timing of future things. Worship wars. Doctrinal disputes. Young leaders improving on old methods; old leaders suspicious of new methods. House churches ditching the whole “institutional” church. An unforeseen flight of young Protestants to the Orthodox and Catholic churches. And the massive growth of Christianity in the majority world.

If I were a prophet, I’d predict a major divide in evangelicalism in the near future, one which would rival the split between fundamentalists and moderates in the early 20th century. In the one corner, we have a millennial, internet-savvy, social media driven, post-9/11 brand of Christianity that’s seeking authenticity, justice, and community. In the other corner, we have baby boomer Christian leaders, whose theology was forged in the caldrons of the Cold War era, where debates about the rapture, sign-gifts, and the rise of post-modernism formed a church’s identity.

One version of evangelicals define themselves by what they’re against; the other by what they are for. One group elevates truth; the other, love. One seeks authenticity and community; the other races to Bible studies and marriage seminars. One will divide over eschatology; the other over homosexuality.

We are facing a split. A growing chasm that will spawn two distinct versions of evangelical thought.

As I reflect on this inevitable divide, here’s my challenge to both sides:

1. Be Biblical. Don’t just blindly rehearse inherited presuppositions, and don’t base your theology as a reaction to your inherited presuppositions. Neither inherited theology nor reactionary theology is good enough. We are Protestants; we believe in the authority of the text. We value fresh exegesis and letting the text critique our theology. We don’t bend the text around our theology, but our theology around the text—even if we don’t like it. Head in SandWe cannot debate this doctrine or critique that theology with a closed Bible. We desperately need to root, and re-root, our 21st century theology in the actual text, and not some vague inherited notion of being biblical—without knowing the relevant chapter and verse, and being able to identity and articulate the strongest argument against our view. Search it out. Study with blood, sweat, and calloused knees. Be biblical. Root your theology in the actual text of Scripture.

2. Be humble. We believe in absolute truth. Absolutely! But such truth is harnessed and understood through fallible human interpretation. So be humble. Work your exegetical minds to the skull, but be humble in your conclusions. You may be right. You probably are (if your conclusions are backed by solid exegetical evidence). But recognize that you are human and you therefore might be wrong. And that’s okay. God is right. God is mysterious. God is beyond us, and He is always right. We are sometimes wrong. We are wrong more than we think. Much more. Our beliefs are clouded by presuppositions, cultural baggage, unexamined assumptions, and experiences that fog up our interpretive lenses. So be humble.

3. Seek truth and practice. That is, seek to live out and love out the truth you say you believe in. The world—and the evangelical left—is passionately unimpressed with unpracticed doctrines. Truth is validated and confirmed through doing it. So be biblical. Stay humble. And do it. Live out what you say you believe. For example, more than 2,000 passages in the Bible lambast the misuse of wealth, and only 6 address homosexuality. Align your values accordingly. Don’t be a stingy gay-hater, for this is not Christian. Become a Jesus follower who serves people who are attracted to the same sex. God served you when you when you were serving yourself—and idols. I don’t care if you are pre-millenial, post-millenial, or amillenial. Do you love the poor? Are you radically generous? Are you submissive, humble, and eager to love your enemies? Do these, and then I will know that you are a follower of the crucified and risen Lamb.

4. Study hard. I don’t say this because I’m an educator, but because the next generation of seekers are also thinkers. They ask hard questions and they get irritated at pre-packaged answers. With the rise (or world domination of) the internet, people have access to piles and piles of information. The anti-intellectual, Jesus-and-me, don’t-think-but-only-obey version of Christianity isn’t going to work with the 21st century generation. We need to think deeply and critically about sexuality, epistemology, science, and ethics. And if you don’t know what epistemology means, you need to. We need to think. We need to pull our heads from the sand and shed the stereotype that Christians have their heads in the sand. We need to think, interact, debate, and believe with our God-given minds the beautiful story about a God born in a manger. Millennials are asking very hard questions; recycled answers won’t work any longer. And we need to prove the truth we believe in not only with logical arguments—though we will always need these—but with an unarguable life that lives out the truth we say we believe in.

Let’s press on and obey and imitate the crucified and risen King, who pulled us into a beautiful story about a loving God who sought and saved the lost.

Frozen CastWith the video release of Disney’s Frozen this week, I have been doing what parents everywhere are doing: seeing bits and pieces of Frozen on a regular basis. I’ve written briefly about the movie already (here and here), but I feel compelled to add one more post.

As I watched Frozen again with my young daughters, I was struck by how clear the themes of love and fear are throughout the movie. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the whole movie is an exposition of a Bible verse (whether the filmmakers intended this or not is a different question):

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18a)

Think about how this plays out in the movie. The older sister, Elsa, has an incredible power. But because that beautiful gift has proven dangerous, she grows up in fear of the gift. In the film, she imprisons herself through fear, repeatedly mentioning her fear.

And then how is that fear overcome? Love. Love casts out fear. Anna pursues her sister, continually offers to help her, and eventually sacrifices herself out of love for her sister, which is the greatest form of love (John 15:13). And in the end, it’s love that shows Elsa how to control her gift, using it for beauty and keeping its danger at bay.

I’m convinced the whole movie could be summarized with John’s phrase: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

But I do want to be careful. While I do believe that Frozen is built on this biblical concept (and I don’t have any reason to think the filmmakers started with 1 John and built the movie from there), I want to emphasize that 1 John 4:18 means more than we will find in Frozen. Here’s the verse in its context:

“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:16–21)

Let me just point out a few things here. First, notice the judgment theme. John is talking about fear of judgment, fear of punishment. And he’s saying that God’s love is so powerful when we truly come to recognize it, to believe it, our fear of punishment disappears. That’s profound. We don’t fear judgment because we know that God loves us. In this sense, John goes far beyond Frozen. For Elsa, love casts out the fear of hurting people she loves. For John, love casts out the fear of eternal punishment.

But also notice the last verses. John insists that if we love God, we will love our “brother” as well. And once again Frozen comes to my mind. Many of us would love to see a movie like Frozen explicitly speak about Jesus’ love for us. But even without that level of explicit theology, Frozen is showing us a fundamental piece of John’s message. Anna and Elsa (and Kristoff and Sven and Olaf) spend the film loving their brothers and sisters, whom they can see. And John tells us that without this kind of love, whatever love we claim to have toward God is a sham.

So Frozen is actually calling a lot of attention to the fundamental portion of this passage. Yes, John is talking about a far deeper love: the love of God that removes our fear of judgment. But John says that if we don’t love our brothers and sisters, then we know nothing of that profound love of God. And he says that our love for our brothers and sisters can only be shown because God has “first loved us.” So 1 John 4:18 means more than Frozen conveys, but not less.

Go ahead and watch Frozen again. If you’re as emotional as I am, you’ll be moved by this powerful representation of a message that’s at the heart of the Bible.

 

 

One Verse Hollywood Believes

Mark Beuving —  February 17, 2014 — 1 Comment

Hollywood isn’t known for its adherence to biblical truth. But in some cases, Hollywood returns repeatedly to biblical truths. As with all humanity, Hollywood can’t seem to fully move beyond Jesus, as though Jesus were a “thorn in the brain” (to borrow a phrase from Christian Wiman), a “haunting figure” (to adapt a phrase from Flannery O’Connor), or a “rock in the shoe” (from my colleague, Ryan McGladdery).

In this post, I want to highlight one verse that Hollywood believes in. A truth that Hollywood considers profound and returns to time and again:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

As soon as I say that, I’m sure you can think of plenty of movies that feature self-sacrificing love, where a character lays down his or her life for a friend. Let me give you a brief sampling here, and then invite you to post other good Hollywood illustrations of this verse in the comments. And, by the way, spoiler alert: Don’t read any of the descriptions you don’t want to read (I shouldn’t have to say that, but someone always complains…).

 

The Lord of the Rings & The Chronicles of Narnia

I’m lumping these two together and treating them briefly because they are both adaptations from stories written by Christians. But they’re also great examples. Self-sacrifice runs throughout Lord of the Rings as Frodo and his companions risk their lives for one another and to save the world. And then Gandalf sacrifices himself so the “fellowship” can continue (and later returns—reborn—as Gandalf the White). And Aslan’s self-sacrificial death to save Edmond is so clearly Christian that I need not explain it here. But the success of these movies shows how powerful our modern culture finds such stories.

 

Harry Potter

I have written on this before, so I’ll direct you to those two posts for details (here and here). But Harry’s parents die so he can live, Harry and his friends sacrifice for one another for seven years, and finally, Harry willingly lays down his life to save everyone he cares about.

 

The Hunger Games

In the first film, Katniss willing chooses certain death in the arena when she volunteers as a substitute for her sister, Prim. In the second film, some of the other tributes throw themselves in death’s path to save Katniss. Depending on how faithfully the third film follows the book, we may see more of this later. (I’ve written more on this here, here, here, and here).

 

The Little Mermaid

I’ve written on why The Little Mermaid can be taken as absolutely horrifying or as powerfully edifying (here). But in either case, we see King Triton willingly becoming a pathetic piece of seaweed in order to take his daughter’s place and allow her to live. And Ariel and Prince Eric in turn risk their lives for one another and the good of the world.

 

Wreck-It Ralph

In this animated gem of a film, Ralph finds himself in a place where the little kid (Vanelope) for whom he has developed a big-brotherly love is going to be destroyed, along with every other character in the arcade. As King Candy (aka Turbo) holds him high in the air and tells him that it’s “game over for both of you,” Ralph says, “No, just for me,” and throws himself strategically to his death in a boiling geyser of Diet Coke and Mentos so that Vanelope and the others can be saved. Vanelope sees his sacrifice and risks her life to save him as well.

 

Gran Torino

The impossibly curmudgeonly Walt (Clint Eastwood) eventually learns to love his neighbors, and eventually gives his life for their good (see Preston’s take on it here).

 

Frozen

After the newly crowned Elsa flees into the mountains out of fear and confusion, leaving her kingdom in a perilously “frozen” state, her little sister Anna risks her life to help her sister. She is persistent in her life-risking because of her love for Elsa, and eventually she forfeits her last hope at life so that she can save her sister. It’s seriously beautiful. (You can read more here).

 

Titanic

After the horrifying events surrounding the Titanic unfold (spoiler alert: the ship crashes and sinks), Jack selflessly places Rose aboard a floating piece of debris and stays in the icy water, where he quickly freezes to death. A self-sacrificing act if there ever was one, but as many have pointed out, there was clearly room for two people aboard that piece of debris…

 

Conclusion

There are so many other examples we could look at. These are merely the first nine that came to my mind. But the point is, Hollywood seems enamored with the idea that love has no greater expression than the laying down of one’s life for the sake of another.

What does it all mean? Well, it certainly shows that non-Christians often say things that are true, profound, edifying, etc. It also illustrates that what we have in the gospel is the most compelling story in history. Perhaps the phrase “the greatest story ever told” has become cliché, but the host of Hollywood films (and keep in mind that we haven’t said anything about the world of literature or music here) focusing on this one biblical concept shows that this old cliché is far from tired.

 

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