Dear God

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything. To the handful of people who have noticed, I apologize. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about life and observing culture through the perspective of my faith, I just haven’t been making time to share my observations. Let’s not pretend this is the rebirth of anewdoxology.com, but if new content starts finding it’s way to this URL more often I hope a few people will see it as a good thing.

Like anyone else, my musical preferences have been changing, evolving, even maturing throughout my life. The first CD I owned was Hi-Five, but back then I pretty much listened to whatever was on Casey’s Top 40. I also had a Shaq CD (as in Shaquille O’Neal, the now really old basketball player). I’m not one to talk about liking “good” music, at least not when I was younger. In high school I listened to a lot of hip hop (2Pac, Notorious B.I.G. and Outkast being some of my favorites). I played basketball into my first couple years of college, so the rap thing never quite left my system, but I also began listening to a lot more acoustic and folk rock in college.

I realize that many young people’s musical tastes are influenced by their college experience (parties, friends, whatever the people down the hall decided to play LOUD), but for me I think it also had a lot to do with the specific college I attended. The Dave Matthews Band had been to Luther College twice in four years before I arrived in the fall of 1999 (including a live album that was released during my senior year of high school). During my four years as a student at Luther we hosted concerts by Live, Guster, G. Love, Jurassic 5, Blues Traveler and a couple singer-songwriters who at the time I had hardly even heard of; named Ben Harper and Jack Johnson.

College is also the time in my life when I discovered Christian music (and it’s sibling genre “praise and worship” music). Being a person of faith who also likes a lot of mainstream music, I’ve always had a hard time finding music that connected with me on multiple, meaningful levels. During my early music-listening years I probably would have responded to questions about my favorite music by saying “I like what I like, because I like it.” Bring up the fact that a lot of the lyrics in rap music are vulgar, violent and speak poorly of females, I’d tell you “I don’t really listen to the words, I just like the beat.” Try telling me that the content of an acoustic or pop rock song is all air (fluffy and nice, but without any real substance) and I’d probably have said “but it makes me feel happy,” or “it’s good background music when I’m studying.” Ask me how I can listen to cheesy love songs about Jesus and I’d struggle to come up with a response but eventually say it’s “encouraging” even though it’s also corny and unrealistic. (Thankfully, music made my Christians has come a long way in the last ten years and we now have artists like David Crowder, Bethany Dillon, Shane & Shane and the Robbie Seay Band making music that speaks of God and faith while maintaining some sense of human reality and musical quality.)

The music I most enjoy today falls somewhere between genres or categories (by the way, “Christian music” is no more a genre than “80s music” is). I love music that’s difficult to describe, but can be felt (especially at concerts or through really good headphones). Really great music is a form of art, and when the lines between genre, style and even religion are blurred you can experience something that is truly real and beautiful. I love hearing Chris Tomlin and Phil Wickham sing specifically about God’s healing love and the hope they find in Jesus, but after a while I want to hear the vague words of Mat Kearney when he sings to a struggling young girl that “he hung in love just to draw you near” or even Kanye West when he honestly raps “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long.” (For an earlier example of this, listen to Jeff Buckley’s version of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.”)

Music doesn’t need to include the name Jesus, or any of the other Christianese words to express faith and a longing (or searching) for God. I still remember the first time I heard Matt Wertz sing about life, love and faith in a style that spoke to the core of my music-loving soul, and it wasn’t long after that I discovered his buddy Dave Barnes and felt a similar response. More recently, I’ve discovered Brooke Fraser, Needtobreathe and MuteMath. They all make good music that is honest about life but also recognizes the role of God and the influence of faith. You can add your own favorites to this list, but these are just a few examples. I suppose two obvious bands that haven’t been mentioned yet are U2 and Lifehouse, whose music is laced with God and faith, whose music has inspired worldwide organizations, been used in worship, and even a youtube famed dramatic skit and other/lesser-viewed projects.

There are many artists or bands whose music doesn’t include consistent theological themes or undertones, yet in select songs (or albums) it’s definitely present. Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” is an example of this, as is Coldplay’s Viva La Vida album (check it, yo!). But in the end, the reason I started writing any of this on a Thursday afternoon while sitting in my office is because I ran into a student on campus here at the seminary this morning and he asked if I was going to the Monsters of Folk concert in Minneapolis tomorrow. I mentioned that I hadn’t really listened to their album much, but that I’d check it out soon. “Soon” became reality when not even five minutes later I was back at my desk facing MOF’s myspace page, listening to the first track from their album, “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.).” Wow! Talk about music in the grey area between sacred and secular, the church and the world, theology and life…this is it. Click play on the video below to listen to the song. I’ll post the lyrics below in case you want to follow along.

Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)
by Monsters of Folk

Dear god, I’m trying hard to reach you
Dear god, I see your face in all I do
Sometimes it’s so hard to believe in
Good god I know you have your reasons

Dear god, I see you move the mountains
Dear god, I see you moving trees
Sometimes it’s nothing to believe in
Sometimes it’s everything I see

Well I’ve been thinking about,
And I’ve been breaking it down without an answer
I know I’m thinking aloud but if your love’s
Still around why do we suffer?
Why do we suffer?

Dear god, I wish that I could touch you
How strange sometimes I feel I almost do
And then I’m back behind the glass again
Oh god what keeps you out it keeps me in

Well I’ve been thinking about,
And I’ve been breaking it down without an answer
I know I’m thinking aloud but if your love’s
Still around why do we suffer?
Why do we suffer?

The Soloist

My dad reads, a lot. When he was in Tanzania for three months last year he read something like 12 or 13 books. Put simply: the dude likes to read. One of the great things about knowing someone who reads this much is that they often tell you about the books they’ve recently read, and in the event that any of the books sound interesting, you can usually borrow them. Several months ago my dad told me about a book he had just read about a newspaper columnist in L.A. who met a homeless man who was a former Juliard music student, and thanks to their friendship and the power of the press (the man wrote about his new friend in the Los Angeles Times) the homeless man slowly got back on his feet…kinda — it’s a true story, so it doesn’t have a perfect/happy Hollywood ending (even though the events transpired in the shadows of the Hollywood hills).

The book is The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, and it’s on sale at Amazon right now for only $3.99. If title or the storyline sound familiar, that’s because it was recently made into a movie (starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr.) and it comes out this Friday. Here’s the trailer:

The real stars of the story – Nathaniel Ayers (mentally ill musician who has lived on the street of L.A. for years) and Steve Lopez (columnist for the L.A. Times whose articles about Nathaniel — and the response they received — inspired him to write the book) – were on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago.

OLD school hip-hop

When I started a website exploring the intersections between faith and pop-culture I did not have this in mind, yet while visiting the COLLIDE Magazine blog this morning I found this video and just knew it had to be shared. I mean, isn’t a church choir singing rap songs pretty much the epicenter of the intersection between faith and pop-culture?

I don’t want to ruin any of the surprising humor of the video, but if you’d like to know titles and artists of the choir’s selections, read the rest of this entry.

Continue reading

Happy Birthday!

I doubt anyone is aware of this (I didn’t even realize it until today), but on November 4, 2008, anewdoxology.com turned one-year-old! Since there was no birthday party (and I’m sure most of you forgot to get a gift), this is your opportunity to share your belated thoughts on year number one and perhaps even offer some well wishes for health (and existence!) in the years to come. To sign the online birthday card, just leave a comment. (Even if you’ve never left a comment on a blog before, just give it a try. I promise it’s even easier than it looks…plus it will mean so much to this young and still somewhat self-conscious blog. Maybe you could even comment on how mature anewdoxology.com is for its age, or something complimentary like that.)

bday-cake-1st

As I wrote in the very first post on this site just over a year ago, the word doxology means “words to glorify,” and through the thoughts, links, videos and images shared here, I am seeking to find new words to glorify God. Words that are relevant in today’s world…for today’s people.

God is still active in the world, and today more than ever I believe that the music, movies, reality tv shows, books, magazines, art and other expressions of popular culture are windows into the lives (and faith) of the younger generations. People like me, and perhaps people like you as well. This is why I started anewdoxology: I wanted a place to share some of my thoughts on how I saw God’s activity intersecting with my life. Not in forced ways that were restricted to moments when I was in a church or reading the Bible, but even when I was doing regular/everyday/normal stuff like watching tv or listening to music. Because if we really believe that God is active in the world, then we must acknowledge that God is somehow (mysteriously?) present in many – if not all – of the various expressions of art, life and faith in our culture (even, or perhaps especially, those considered “secular”).

I appreciate all the support and encouragement everyone has shared toward what I’ve been doing the last year. It’s been cool to witness all the random and unexpected ways God has used these “reflections of faith in an MTV world” to connect people with the love, grace and hope of God as revealed in Jesus (something that’s even more transforming than a really great movie and more life-changing than a soldout concert).

If it’s not too much to ask, I’m hoping you, the readers of anewdoxology.com, might be willing to answer a few quick questions about how you discovered this little corner of the world wide web and how you think things are going so far.

Thanks again for making this a great first year!

Clumsily following Christ,

Andy

P.S. If you’d like to give the perfect gift, I’d appreciate nothing more than if you told someone about anewdoxology.com!

Religulous in Next-Wave

My pre-review of Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous was published in this month’s issue of Next-Wave Church & Culture E-zine. Next-Wave is a cool publication I discovered when one of my former seminary professors wrote an article on the theology of the TV show Lost for their June issue, and my theological review of the new Coldplay album was published in the August issue. The editor’s at Next-Wave titled my most recent article “I Might Go See Religulous” and ran it next to another article about the same film, that one titled “I Did Go See Religulous.” I really like the juxtaposition between the two articles; one written by a person (me) thinking about seeing the film, the other by someone who has just seen it. And perhaps the coolest part is who that other person is… Dan Kimball (pastor, speaker, and author of The Emerging Church, Emerging Worship, and most recently, They Like Jesus but Not the Church).

Here are links if you want to check them out,

If you like the articles, please leave a comment (or vote for them) on the Next-Wave website.

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By the way, I saw Religulous last week and although it was quite predictable in format and content (especially the people Maher chose to interview), I thought it offered a humorous look at an otherwise serious topic (especially because of the people Maher chose to interview). I actually really enjoyed it, with the exception of the last 5 minutes when Maher shares his belief that “all religions must die” and religious leaders are basically brainwashing people. As someone who is part of a religion and is somewhat of a “religous leader,” I took offense to those comments. Regardless of how much I agreed/disagreed with, I would definitely recommend that people of all faiths (especially pastors and ministry leaders!) see this film, because although it offers a rather harsh critique of the current state of our religion, churches and fellow believers…it is often right on! Which should scare us but also inspire us…to honestly and humbly think about what we believe and how we express those beliefs to others (both in organized and unorganized settings). But that’s just my two cents. You should see it for yourself and then share your thoughts if you’d like.

religulous

There’s a new documentary that came out in theaters recently (Oct. 3) called Religulous (“religion” + “ridiculous”). Bill Maher stars as the film’s “host,” guiding viewers on an exploration of organized religion in our world today – offering plenty of his opinions along the way – and it was directed by Larry Charles, who also directed Borat … so you probably already know enough to determine whether this documentary will be wildly, or simply mildly offensive to you.

Apparently aware of the film’s potent potential for offense, the front page of the official website offers visitors two options; the typical “enter site” link (which happens to be on the left side of the page) and the unusual “enter kosher site” link (which just happens to be on the right). I’m not Jewish, so I entered the regular site and watched the trailer. For what it’s worth, the website does boast that it’s “one of the funniest and most offensive documentaries ever made.” At least they’re honest, right?

Let me be clear on a few things: I’m serious about my faith and I consider myself part of a religion. Maybe it’s because I try not to take myself too seriously, but this film looks really funny. If I end up seeing it, I’m guessing I will find myself nodding in agreement with a lot of the jokes being made on religions and religious people…even the ones about Christianity (and it’s not all a spoof on Christianity by the way, Maher takes shots at other religions as well).

Going beyond a just an awareness of his irreverance, Maher seems to take pride in his atheistic/anti-religion stance. While I can’t speak for other religions or Christianity as a whole, if Maher’s goal was simply to expose that uncertainty must be involved for any system of faith or belief to work (or make sense), then I would agree completely with him, but I haven’t seen the movie yet to know if that’s one of the points that he is trying to make. (I have seen this clip of Maher on Larry King talking about religion, this new movie, and even Rick Warren.)

Although Religulous probably fits best in the documentary genre of “look how stupid those [fill in the blank] people are,” from what I have seen and read so far it seems much more Bowling for Columbine and much less Jesus Camp. I mean, sure, Maher pokes fun at religious fanatics (like the guy who plays Jesus at the “Holy Land” theme park in Florida) and if the movie poster is any indication, I’m guesing they mock a few examples of light-hearted religious ridiculousness (like the stories in the news a few years ago about a man who burnt a fish stick and thought it looked like Jesus or the woman who reportedly sold a grilled-cheese sandwich on eBay that bore the image of the Virgin Mary…final bid: $28,000), but clearly, the film is about much more than just making fun of sacred sandwiches and Christian theme parks (since religious folks wouldn’t be offended by a movie that only makes fun of fanatics and others who have found ways to pimp religion to make a few dollars).

If nothing else, Religulous offers a slap in the face to religious leaders and people of faith – whatever flavor of belief they prefer. The film provides humor as a way of helping people realize that it might be a good idea to be capable of responding to basic questions about their faith and, although it’s not necessarily a requirement to “validate” their faith (depending on the religion), we should all possess enough understanding to express what we believe in a way that doesn’t make us sound like the butt of a joke. I’m definitely not saying people need to act like they have it all figured out – since I don’t believe that is possible – but at least take some time to think things through, being honest with yourself and others about what you think and believe so that when/if the questions are too big or your understanding is too limited, you have the marbles to say “I don’t know.” Because let’s be honest, that’s where faith comes in…not as an excuse for not knowing things, but as a way of admitting the limits of our understanding and the vasness of God’s. It also forces us to put trust and faith in a God who reveals himself to us in ways that are often mysterious at best, since the reality of life and faith seems to be that sometimes, we’re simply left wondering in awe at the mystery of God, but even this confusion is an expression of faith and worship. Having doubts is okay. Not having all the answers doesn’t mean we don’t believe, or even that we believe less. Doubts and confusion simply remind us of our need for faith…our need for God.

So what is the point of Religulous? Why did Bill Maher decide to point out that religious people don’t have things figured out any more than other people? I’m not sure yet, but I think he’s probably right in a lot of ways, he just doesn’t happen to be a person who can get over the fact that believing doesn’t always mean knowing (and he’s a guy who likes to know stuff).

Here’s the trailer:

Would you pay money to watch this movie?

cheapo memories

“I like money.”

This obvious statement is uttered by one of the many stupid characters in last year’s wildly unsuccessful movie Idiocracy. While saying “I like money” is obviously obvious – everyone likes money – I think that’s why it’s funny. Idiocracy got terrible reviews (like, almost straight-to-DVD bad), so there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it, but I actually thought it was pretty good; so allow me to give a quick summary that will put the quote about money in context. Luke Wilson stars as an Army librarian who is considered to be the most average person in the entire military, and because of this distinction he is selected to participate in a top-secret experiment (he is frozen for a year). Through a series of unforseen events, he remains frozen for a bit longer (500 years) and when he finally thaws out (in the year 2505) he discovers that humans have become exponentially dumber and he is now the smartest person in the world. When he is forced to interact with the idiots who now make up the world’s population, he resorts to the most basic of all human motivators, bribery. He offers a man named Frito (yes, like the corn chips) several billions of dollars to help him (remember that with inflation this isn’t much money). It’s at this point that Frito utters the obvious response, “I like money.”

To me, this is funny, but maybe you have to see the movie to see the humor (view the trailer here). Regardless of whether or not you like stupid comedies, I’m quite sure you like money. If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent much of our life trying to find ways to make, save or somehow obtain enough money for an endless list of reasons.

I have been a full-time grad student for the last two years, and I’ve been only “partially-employed” during this time. As you might expect, taking loans and stealing money from my savings to pay for tuition, rent, gas, food and insurance kind of forces a person to develop an attitude about money that is much different than at other “fully-employed” stages of life. I have been living a very simple/no-frills lifestyle for the last two years. I graduated last spring and am now closing in on full-time employment (with benefits, hopefully), so I’m already getting excited about a life with a little extra coin to throw around, you know, stimulate the economy a little bit. I’ve been carefully determining how to put money aside for my next big purchase; a new computer (I’m waiting for the new macbooks to be released, which is rumored to be Oct. 14).

I saved some of the money I made teaching at the seminary this summer, I’ll hide the money I get for coaching at basketball tryouts recently, and since I already paid the deposit for my new apartment I’m going to save the money I get back from the deposit at my old apartment. I’m even considering going back to my old “job” of donating plasma twice a week (don’t laugh, it pays well and it’s really easy). Making big purchases is never an easy decision, especially when you’re just barely making enough to pay your monthly expenses, but having a good and trustworthy computer is about as important a possession as there is in my daily life (second probably only to my car). I would probably consider my computer a necessity (when I’m away from my computer, or somewhere without wireless, I feel like something is missing. I hope I’m not the only one who feels this way about their computers) – so of all the things I could buy that cost more than a pair of jeans, I can justify buying a new computer more than anything else. I actually think the reason Apple has become so popular and successful is because they help create/inspire feelings of dependence and euphoria within their customers, about their products. So you could actually argue that in buying a mac I’m actually joining a cult (for more on this argument, read Douglas Atkin’s book The Culting of Brands).

Sorry for all the tangents, I promise there’s a point to this, stick with me if you can.

I was hanging out with my sister at her house yesterday (by the way, her health is continuing to improve…thanks for all the comments and emails in response to what I shared last week). While at her house, I decided to look through some of the boxes of my stuff that have been stored in her basement ever since I lived there a few years ago. While looking for something else, I found a large collection of my old CDs, some of them from when I had my first CD player as a little guy in 6th grade. I was overwhelmed with memories looking through albums by some of my favorite artists from my earlier years. I found albums by Boyz II Men, Blind Melon and even Coolio. It was a lot of fun thinking back on the memories represented by all this music. I mean seriously, who doesn’t smile thinking about middle school and the ackward slow dances while “On Bended Knee” was playing, or watching that little girl running around dressed like a bumble bee in the video for “No Rain”, and how awesome was “Fantastic Voyage”?

For a while now I’ve been thinking about going through my old CDs and taking them to a store that buys used discs, if for no other reason, just to see how much I could get for them. Yesterday that idea came to life. I am usually a packrat. Nearly everything I’ve ever touched has sentimental meaning, which makes moving every year a real treat, but somehow yesterday I overcame my nostalgic nature and sorted through hundreds of CDs that included the songs that made up the soundtrack of my life as a teenager. It was quite an accomplishment for me, all things considered, and as I drove to the Cheapo Records near my sister’s house with a box full of CDs in the back seat of my car, my heart was filled with memories and in the back of my mind were plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t get rid of the discs that had brought all those memories back. You see, for me, getting rid of the source of a memory feels like losing the memory all together. I know this isn’t how it is in reality, but that’s still how it feels to me. I overcame these previews of regret by reminding myself that I haven’t listened to any of those CDs for years and, until that morning, hadn’t even known where they were stored. Plus I was going to get a fair amount of money for them that would go toward my new computer, so I drove on and dropped off the box, being told that it would take about 30 minutes to determine how much they could give me for my precious collection of classics.

During the time between dropping off the CDs and waiting to go back to hear the verdict, I tried to determine a dollar amount that would be enough to make me feel okay about selling them – as if you can place a value on memories – but my online research on how much to expect to get paid for used CDs was fairly inconclusive (every site said the same thing, “the price we pay is dependent on condition and demand”). I knew I probably paid between ten and fifteen bucks for each of the 125 CDs I brought in, they were all still in good condition and since I’m the one who bought them in the first place, I thought they were all pretty good, so I figured there should be other people who would pay for them. I drove back to Cheapo a few hours later to collect a small fortune for recycling my music. The guy working there fit the stereotype of a used record store employee to the T, complete with thick-black plastic frame glasses, floppy hair, old jeans and a ratty t-shirt that definitely could have been purchased at a local thrift store. I couldn’t see his shoes because he was standing behind a counter the whole time, but I’d bet he was wearing an old pair of New Balance. (Side note: I guarantee this guy reads Chuck Klosterman, or at least claims he does, and my internal jury is still out on whether he enjoys or is offended by Stuff White People Like.) Yep, this hipster found the perfect job to fit his lifestyle and personality, and now he was guy who would define the value of a large portion of my music collection. When I walked back into the store I saw my CDs on the counter in three stacks of nearly equal height. The previously described hipster recognized me as the guy who had brought in a box of old hip-hop and R&B CDs (I’m guessing he wasn’t impressed, although I guarantee that dude listened to Coolio back in the day), and without saying much, he unpeeled a post-it note from atop one of the stacks and explained that my discs fit into three different categories; some value, little value and nearly no value. He could give me $78 for the CDs in one of the stacks, $0.25 each for the CDs in another stack, and only $0.10 for each in the final stack. All together, my collection of musical memories was only worth $88.  <insert curse words here>  I froze for a minute as he let me think about what I wanted to do. It’s not that I thought I would get rich from this exchange, but the reality that my collection of Janet Jackson CDs for instance, were worth less than a dollar (combined) was a lot to take in all at once. So as it went, deflated, I walked back out to my car with an empty box in my hand and 88 bucks in my pocket.

Things had not played out as I had hoped, but as I’ve been reminded time and time again lately, such is life. I don’t mean to be cynical or cliche, but honestly, this is just how life is sometimes. I never thought I’d quit working in my mid-20s to pursue a master’s degree in theology, spending over half my savings in the process and taking on more school loans. My sister and her husband never thought they’d wait so long to get pregnant, and when they did finally conceive they never imagined it would result in so much pain and confusion (and no child). As a little boy, the guy working at Cheapo probably didn’t think he’d be stocking racks and making stacks of used CDs when he grew up, and Luke Wilson and the other people involved in Idiocracy could have never predicted it would do as poorly as it did, but they are still moving forward and trying to put it behind them. As one of the most influential poets of my generation (2Pac) shares on one of the CDs I no longer own, “life goes on.”

Life goes on even though our lives may not always result in memories that end up being worth as much as we had hoped or imagined, but there is still hope that things will one day get better. As a person of faith, I put my hope in Christ as the sign that God will fulfill the promise found in Revelation 21:5, “behold I make all things new.” I like new stuff, but it only takes one bad experience to realize that even new things can disappoint and fail to meet our expectations, but the “new” that God promises to bring will be better than anything we’ve ever imagined (even better than HDTV and new macbooks). This new creation will be the fulfillment of God’s ultimate will for the world, transforming things to be how they were always intended; perfect. In the meanwhile, Matthew 6:19-20 reminds us not to care so much about stuff.

“Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust will destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust will not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Viva La Vida | a theological review of Coldplay’s new album

Note (7/22): This is the second draft of an article I posted last week. Many thanks to my editor Heather for all her help.

Growing up in the church I developed a strong faith, but I also grew up watching MTV and caring a lot about popular culture. Today, as a mid/late 20-something, I still have a fascination with popular culture (music, movies, sports, even celebrity gossip), but I also feel a desire to understand and share my faith. Bringing these interests together, I graduated from seminary this past spring with a master’s degree in Theology & Pop-Culture (a degree that didn’t exist until I created it). As a “pop-culture theologian,” I see the world through a unique perspective – seeking to interpret what is happening in today’s culture and translate it in a way that reflects God’s activity in our world. It is through this perspective that I would like to guide you on a search for the sacred in the (perceived) secular, by reviewing Coldplay’s new album theologically.

I became a Coldplay fan while on a trip to New Zealand in January, 2001. It was my junior year of college, and one of the guys I was traveling with wanted to listen to an album called Parachutes (their first album) on our group’s bus. We listened to it over and over while exploring NZ’s south island and it provided an incredible soundtrack to an amazing trip. I loved the music because it was both depressing and hopeful at the same time, much like the tension of real life. I downloaded Parachutes when I got back to campus, and seven years later I’m still listening to Coldplay’s music and they’ve become one of my favorite bands.

Along with millions of other Coldplay fans around the world, I spent the past year awaiting the release of what coldplay.com promised would be “the album people will remember them by.” That is certainly a bold statement to make about an album that was already highly-anticipated; especially since their last album, 2005′s X&Y, received some rather harsh reviews, but since Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends came out last month I have been listening to it on repeat. Although it took me a few weeks to move beyond simply listening to the melodies and feelings of the album, I have now begun hearing the songs on a much deeper level (i.e., the lyrics and meaning of the music) and to my excited surprise, I have come to realize that much the album focuses on issues of faith and theology.

An unexamined album is not worth listening to.

Nearly every song on Viva La Vida contains theological undertones and themes. Taking a quick tour through the track list (although not necessarily in the order they appear on the album), ‘Yes’ seems to be about personal faith and possibly even decision theology; ‘Cemeteries of London,’ ‘Death and All His Friends’ and ‘Violet Hill’ address death and the inevitability of dying; ‘Lost!’ explores the search for meaning and identity; and ‘Viva La Vida,’ ‘42′ and ‘The Escapist’ (the “hidden” song at the end of the album) focus on heaven/hell and the thought or hope of life after death.

While songs like ‘Reign of Love’ lead listeners to more theological questions than answers, I happen to believe that it is in the questions and the search for understanding that faith finds its home. The Greek philosopher Socrates once said “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and many theologians have borrowed from his quote to say “an unexamined faith is not worth believing.” I agree with both statements, and as a theologically-minded music fan, I would like to add another Socratic saying into the mix, “an unexamined album is not worth listening to.” Coldplay’s new album might not be a contemporary expression of Socratic philosophy or theology, but it’s definitely more than just another rock album.

Long live life!

“Viva La Vida” is a Spanish expression, and depending on who you talk to it means “long live life” or “live the life.” (“Viva La Vida” is also the name of a painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, which is where Coldplay got the name of the song/album, although that’s not the art that serves as the album’s cover.)

All four members of Coldplay (Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman and Will Champion) wrote the lyrics and music of Viva La Vida together – at least they all share the credit in the album’s liner notes – and listening to this album as a whole you get the sense that they are all very interested, if not obsessed with thoughts of death and dying, as well as heaven and hell. Viva La Vida is a deeply theological album, and there are moments when Martin, the voice of Coldplay’s music, sounds more like a prophet or priest than a rock star or pop-culture icon.

At times, Viva La Vida hints indirectly at themes that seem somewhat theological – for instance, ‘Strawberry Swing’ is a happy song that creates the mood and images of what a “perfect day” in heaven might be like (either that or it’s about a marching band of Oompa Loompas) – but I would like to focus the rest of this article on a few songs that dive directly into theological waters.

In the album’s co-title track ‘Viva La Vida’ (the song featured in the colorful iTunes commercial), Martin sings “For some reason I can’t explain, I know Saint Peter will call my name.” To be completely honest, the first couple of dozen times I listened to this song I thought Martin was singing “I know Saint Peter WON’T call my name,” as if he thought Peter wasn’t going to be let him through the pearly gates. Even listening to the song really closely several times through didn’t help me determine if Peter “will” or “won’t” call his name. I think Martin’s British accent made it difficult for my American ears to decipher what he was saying, but I was also interpreting and making assumptions based on other songs on the album (see my thoughts on the song ‘42′ below). It wasn’t until I looked up the lyrics online (and checked at least four different websites to make sure they were correct) that I realized Martin was indeed singing, with what sounds like a sense of confused confidence, that he thinks Saint Peter WILL call his name and let him into heaven. This was quite a relief to me, since it hadn’t felt right driving around singing along with a song that was about not making it into heaven.

It’s a cool song musically; I just have no idea what it’s about.

The fourth track on the album is ‘42.’ The musical structure of ‘42′ will be familiar to Coldplay fans, as it starts out slow and peaceful – even somewhat boring (reminiscent of ‘Fix You’) – only to build and transform into an almost entirely different/driving rock song by the 1 minute and 30 second mark. In the second half of the song, after an extended instrumental interlude, the somewhat bizarre lyrics “You thought you might be a ghost” and “You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close” are repeated several times until the song ends with the same disturbing words it started with, “Those who are dead, are not dead, they’re just living in my head.”

I wish I knew who Martin was singing to in ‘42,’ or how he knows that the recipient of the song’s message didn’t get into heaven. As for what it means to “almost” make it to heaven? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s a variation of the Catholic understanding of some sort of in-between place – not heaven, not hell (“purgatory”) – almost like a heavenly waiting room, where people hang out until learn whether or not they will get into heaven. It certainly seems to be based on an understanding of eternal life/salvation that requires good works. In some ways, it reminds me of NFL players, coaches and fans anxiously waiting to see if the call on the field will stand or be overturned after the referee reviews the play in question; since it’s all about performance and based on what happened (who did what, when and why). I personally have issues with understandings of faith that require anything, especially as it relates to salvation, but I will save those words for a different time and place.

Although there are only 10 tracks on Viva La Vida, three of them are two-for-ones (tracks that include two separate songs). Only one track is officially/appropriately labeled as a twofer (‘Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love’), but you can find titles for the other bonus songs online. (The song after ‘Yes’ is ‘Chinese Sleep Chant’ and the song after ‘Death and All His Friends’ is ‘The Escapist’.)

Although ‘Lovers in Japan’ is a nice tune that seems to be a fairly typical romantic love song, it’s the second song of the track (‘Reign of Love’) that is of more interest, for theological reasons. I can’t tell if the “reign of love” that Martin is singing about is of human or divine origins. There are a few spots in particular that confuse me. First, the word “locusts” is used in both the second and third stanzas. The word “locust” is not a very commonly used word these days – people usually just go with “grasshopper” – so when it shows up twice in a fairly short song, I notice. People familiar with the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures may recognize locusts as one of the Ten Plagues of Egypt that God inflicted on the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelite people out of slavery (see Exodus 7-12, locusts were plague #8). The last two stanzas of the song (the post-locust verses) require some theological analysis. I’ll let you read the lyrics for yourself, but then I have some questions for you to think about in response.

Reign of love
By the church, we’re standing (1)
Reign of love
My knees go praying (2)

How I wish
We’d spoken up (3)
Or we’d be carried
In the reign of love (4)

(1) Do you think “reign of love” is another way of talking about God, or God’s sovereign love?

(2) Who is praying and what are they praying about? Since Martin is the one singing, is he praying? If so, what do you think he is praying about? Who is he praying to?

(3) What do he wish they’d spoken up about? Was it perhaps an injustice that displayed a lack of love?

(4) Are they being carried in the “reign of love,” or not? Is the “reign of love” a call for universal love, a worldwide “reign” of love ruling over all? or is it something more specific to faith/religion?

Aside from the few songs that were analyzed theologically above, there is a lot more material on Viva La Vida that could be included in theological conversation(s). I will leave most of that for others to do, but here are a few obvious “God spots” that deserve some attention.

From ‘Cemeteries of London’

  • “Through the dark streets they go searching to see God in their own way.”
  • “God is in the houses and God is in my head…I see God come in my garden but I don’t know what he said, for my heart it wasn’t open.”

From ‘Yes’

  • “Then we were dying of frustration, saying, ‘lord ‘lead me not into temptation.’”
  • “God only, god knows I’m trying my best. But I’m just so tired of this loneliness.”

From ‘Violet Hill’

  • “Priests clutched onto bibles, hollowed out to fit their rifles. And the cross was held aloft.”

From ‘The Escapist’

  • “And in the end, we lie awake. And we dream we’ll make an escape.”

Coldplay’s tour in support of the new album began in July, and as part of the tour, they are offering a free song for download to people who purchased tickets to a show. The song is titled ‘Death Will Never Conquer’ and it sounds a bit like a hymn. It includes the hopeful line “I hope sweet heaven is a place for me,” which seems to express a Christian understanding of eternal life and the hope of spending eternity with God. What do you think?

Is Viva La Vida the album people will remember Coldplay by?

Only time will tell how or if Coldplay will be remembered 30 years from now, and Viva La Vida certainly hasn’t been out long enough to determine whether it will be the album that defines their music (like Radiohead’s Ok Computer); but for now one thing is certain…it is a very good, if not a great album, and it says a lot about their beliefs in God, life, death and whatever comes next.

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In case this wasn’t enough Coldplay for you, here are a few extras:

Rolling Stone recently featured an interview with Chris Martin titled “The Jesus of Uncool” in which Martin opens up about a whole slew of issues related to life, music and even his experiences growing up in the church (a portion of the article can be read on RollingStone.com).

Dan Kimball (pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA and author/speaker in the emerging church) wrote an interesting response to the Rolling Stone article on his blog a few weeks ago (it includes a few quotes from the interview that aren’t included online).

Chris Martin was interviewed by coldplay.com just before beginning their current tour and he talked a lot about what’s involved in taking their show on the road, how much control they have in making decisions about the production of their concerts and what you can expect to see if you see Coldplay live.

catching up on life and links

After being in Haiti for a week (seven days without tv and little-to-no internet access), followed by a week at my cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin (where a few tv stations come in fuzzy and there is only internet access when the wind blows strong enough to pick up the wireless signal from one of our neighbors), I am finally catching up on what has been going on in the world while I was away from my “normal” reality. For instance,

In the pop-culture world, Coldplay’s new album has already set tons of download/sales records in only a month and the latest season of MTV’s Real World (Hollywood) came to an end. (Note: I have been listening to the new Coldplay album (a lot!) and am currently writing a theological review of it that will hopefully be online later this week.)

In celebrity gossip, Angelina Jolie had twins and Jimmy Kimmel & Sarah Silverman broke up, among other things that most people don’t care about.

In the wacky world of church and theological politics, a college student in Florida says he received death threats for “smuggling” communion wafers out of church…seriously?

And of course, in the wonderful world of sports, I’m excited about the recent moves being made by the Timberwolves (a team for which I am a season ticket holder for the upcoming season) and I am frustrated and saddened by all the Brett Favre retirement/return drama…why are you doing this Brett? Just make up your mind, please.

Looking through this quick list of news and events, all of which I have actually spent time caring about since returning to my “real world,” it makes me think about how much different my life is compared to so many other people around the world. I’m thinking specifically of my friends in Haiti who I was hanging out with just a few weeks ago. The more I learn about and see others parts of the world, the more I come to understand that the realities of life that most Americans – like me, you, and anyone else who has access to read this blog – are lucky enough to live, is a lot better/nicer/easier than how a majority of people in the world will ever experience life, even for a day.

I realize I’m not the only person in the world who has come to this realization; nor am I the only person who has had the opportunity to see the faces of poverty in other parts of the world, but I’m not writing this to convince you of anything specifically that I think…I’m just asking you to think.

Think about all the blessings in your life, have you done
anything to deserve them?
We should recognize what we have and give thanks for the ways
we are blessed.
I realize some people don’t like this country, but if you
live in America, you are lucky.
Maybe you’re critical of America, and it’s understandable
if you are, but have you thought about how lucky you are
to live in a truly free country?
Have you ever stopped to think that someone in your family tree,
(probably several generations ago),
sacrificed everything they had,
left the only life they knew,
packed up all their stuff and did whatever they had to do to get here
(most of them probably sat on a boat to travel across the ocean),
and when they got here,
they had to completely start over,
new place to live, new job, new language, everything,
(it was probably really hard for at least the first couple of generations),
and they did all this so that you could have a better life?

We don’t deserve to live the way we do in America any more than my friend Tijean deserves to live in a one-room shack with four of his family members in Haiti. But we can learn a lot from Tijean. He is happy and joyful. He works hard. He is respectful to everyone and thankful for everything, often sharing the little he has with others. He makes the most of life, and that’s what we should be doing as well.

The theologoy of Lost

My advisor from seminary (Dr. Andrew Root) recently wrote an article for Next-Wave Church & Culture Ezine titled “The TV Show Lost and Eschatology.” I have personally only watched a few episodes of Lost – and I think it’s pretty good – but I know there are a lot of people who get really into the show and read nearly everything written about it online (fans of the show have even started a user-generated wikisite called Lostpedia to share thoughts and theories about the island, characters and direction of the show). As I said, I like the show, but I’m not into it like many others, so I’m just passing on the link to Dr. Root’s article for people like my roommate who can’t get enough of this stuff. By the way, the word “eschatology” is a theological term used for the study of the last things, or what is sometimes referred to as “the end times.”