Monday, October 12, 2020

The songs we listen to can end up shaping our worldview and affect our spiritual lives.

I was driving in my car last week and the radio station I usually tune in to was playing a few John Lennon songs in quick succession.  Turns out that it was his 80th birthday and as a tribute to him, they played quite a few of his songs that day.  

There are quite a few songs recorded by the Beatles that I am quite fond of, being from the ‘old school’ myself. But I am not fond of all of them, and in particular it was the one that John had written in 1971, two years after the Beatles had officially split up.  To be fair, the song isn’t one that was written nor performed by the Beatles, but by Lennon himself.  The song is ‘Imagine’.  


‘Imagine’ is clearly a song that is anthemic of the atheist movement, where there is a utopian dream of there being a country where there is no religion, and world where there is no heaven and no hell.  The melody and rhythm allows for it to be something that can be played as background noise, as it is rather soothing and not jarring, unlike the way heavy metal or rock songs can be.  For that reason, the seeming message of a dream of world peace that can come through the rejection of God, the promise of heaven or the eternal damnation of hell can be something that one passively accepts as it subliminally finds its way into the recesses of one’s consciousness.  


For us Christian disciples, world peace can only come about in and through the message and person of Jesus Christ. The peace that the world needs and aches for comes at a heavy price, and it was a price that only God himself could pay, which he did, on Calvary.  


When one’s deep conviction about the truths of Christian doctrine can make one really sensitive to the kind of lyrics that songwriters feed to undiscerning listeners.  But if one is listening passively to music, hardly paying attention to what is being touted and promoted, it is easy to let the false teachings be accepted as truths as well.  


This isn’t the only song that has objectionable lyrics that can negatively affect our view of God and the worldview as well.  I am sure that there are many many more, but for this reflection, here are a few more that could be problematic where our Christian doctrine is of concern.


1.   From A Distance, by Julie Gold.

This song was a major hit when it was sung by Bette Midler in 1990.  It has a soothing melody and like ‘Imagine’, it catches the imagination of a world where there is conflict and fighting, bombs and disease when up close, but from a distance, it appears that all is well.  While this is true, a great problem appears in the chorus and repeated refrain, where God, we are told, is watching us but from a distance as well.


It promotes the idea of a Deist’s notion of God.  This is the belief that after creating the world and giving it life, God doesn’t get involved in the world, and merely watches it ‘from a distance’.  God, a Deist believes, doesn’t get involved in the world in any way, even though there may be chaos and turmoil, conflict and fighting, bombs and disease.


But the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is attestation that God DOES get involved, to the extent of him becoming one of us human beings in all things but sin.  That the body of Christ exists on so many levels in the world despite its being mired in sin and evil is evidence that God is not just watching us ‘from a distance’.  In Jesus, God can talk the talk because he has truly walked the walk.


2.   We Are The World, by U.S.A for Africa.


This was a huge hit song, performed by a stage full of recording artists back in 1985.  It was inspired by the success of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and was a charity single.  


To be sure, the earnings and sales of this single were massive, and it did serve to raise over USD$63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa.  The aim of this as a charity single was indeed noble and good.


But it has a very jarring scriptural error that found its way into the lyrics, and it is the line that was sung by the late Willie Nelson.  It is one thing to slip in erroneous theology into a secular song, but it is far more problematic to quote from sacred Scripture, and to quote it wrongly.  The line in question is where Nelson croons in his signature warble “As God has shown us, by turning stone to bread.”


One only needs to go to one’s bible and turn to Luke 4:3-4 to see that though Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert to turn stone to bread, he did not give in to the temptation. His response was a quotation from Deut. 8:3, where it says that ‘man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’  


That the Son of God does not willy-nilly satisfy his human bodily needs makes him the exemplar of not living only for the self.  To suggest that God has turned stone to bread is tenuous especially in a charity song that is meant to help to feed the millions who are hungry, promoting in a backhanded way that God is not doing what he should be doing.  


What I am more astounded with is how this line in the lyric did not raise any eyebrows in that crammed studio with quite a number of Christian artistes in their midst, from Bruce Springsteen to Dionne Warwick.  Maybe the excitement of the moment made it challenging to be accurate in one’s quotation from Scripture.


3.   There’s a New World Somewhere by the Seekers, 1965.


I know listing this song here in this reflection may raise the ire of many a Catholic, especially those who have been active in the Marriage Encounter movement.  They have used it as their anthem, and it is easy to see why. The song promotes the belief that there will never be another person who will replace the one whom one is a spouse to. It is ideal for a movement such as Marriage Encounter where good marriages are empowered and strengthened to become better and stronger.  I myself was once the Spiritual Director of the ME movement here in Singapore, and I still do hold their flag flying high.


But I have a theological problem with this song, as it isn’t clear where this ‘somewhere’ is.  We Catholics have a very clear and firm understanding of where our baptism leads us to, and it is to heaven, where we will see God, as it were, face to face.  For us, it isn’t just a vague ‘somewhere’, allowing us to be seen almost as agnostics. 

But I have a theological problem with this song, as it isn’t clear where this ‘somewhere’ is, although there is the reference to a ‘promised land’.  To be clear, the term ‘promised land’ is only referenced in the Old Testament, a land given by God to Abraham and his descendants, the land which the Hebrew people in their 40 years of wandering in the desert were journeying to, our from their slavery to the Egyptians.  


Of course, one could argue that the Christian’s new ‘promised land’ is heaven, and it well is.  But if this is so, we will do well to name it as such and not use an Old Testament reference, because it can cause confusion as to whether we Christians are still looking for Zion or if we are indeed heading towards heaven as our goal.  

In my spiritual direction of directees, I have noticed that when the directee has a clear notion of where one’s life is heading, that one can be directed clearly.  When a person is very clear that his or her aim is heaven, and to be a saint, it makes directing the soul less arduous than when a person isn’t clear about where one’s spiritual GPS should be set as a ‘destination’.  If it is just to ‘be a good person’, or ‘so that I can be happy’, one could just as well be seeking the counsel of a therapist than to seek spiritual direction.  


I am sure that there are many more songs that can be added to these few that I have chosen to reflect on in this blog.  My main aim is to get you, dear reader, to listen more attentively to the lyrics that bombard your ears through many media, and to be discerning enough to point out the spiritual and theological errors that are being touted, even if it is in a passive way.    

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