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.

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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.

it’s been a while

No, I’m not quoting the painfully annoying song by Staind from back in 2001, I’m simply stating the obvious, it’s been a while; or, as Kevin Garnet might say, “it’s been a minute” since I last posted anything on anewdoxology. To be specific, the last time I wrote was about three weeks ago and it was the day before I left for Haiti to film a documentary – with my friend Andrew Brown – on the realities of life in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. There were four of us (from America) in our group. They are all good friends of mine and we had an incredibly memorable and meaningful week together in Haiti.

Highlights include the baptism of our friend Partick’s son Evan (I was even asked to be his godfather…what an honor!), spending time at the beach with the family and child (Jean, 10 yrs old) I have sponsored through Compassion International since 2005 (this is the third year in a row I was able to hang out with Jean and his family, and one of my friends sponsors his little sister), and we even has the opportunity to visit the neighborhoods and homes of some of our Haitian friends while interviewing them and collecting footage for the documentary.

If you’d like to see some pictures from the trip, along with my commentary to explain what you’re looking at, here are links to a few photo albums I made public on facebook (you can view them even if you’re not on facebook, or if you are but you’re not my friend).

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.”

already/not yet…when and where is God’s Kingdom?

“Your kingdom come, your will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.”

In the middle of Jesus’ training prayer with his disciples (Matthew 6:9-13), he spoke this phrase in reference to God’s coming Kingdom and will (or plan) for the world. My mom forwarded me an email this morning discussing this passage of the Lord’s Prayer, it was actually an excerpt from a book and the title of the daily devotion was “Where have you had a taste of the Kingdom?” This is an intriguing question, especially since we all experience “the Kingdom” in different ways, times and places – and many people probably wouldn’t describe these experiences as “Kingdom moments” – and as for the “how” of the question, it implies that we are apparently able to use our senses (including taste) to experience these moments.

I could write a lot about the imagination and possibilities involved in the wording of this question, but regardless of the when, where or hows that are involved in people’s experiences with the sacred/spiritual in our world, I want to include Richard’s Daily Meditation from today because I think it offers a good/brief description of when and where the Kingdom of God is found here on earth today.

“Thy kingdom come” means very clearly that the Kingdom is something that enters into this world, or, as Jesus puts it, “is close at hand.” Don’t project it into another world. It’s a reality that breaks into this world now and then, when people are like God.

When that can happen in terms of structures or groups, when you have a free group of people who love the truth more than themselves, then you have a taste of the Kingdom descending to earth.

“Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is my favorite and most-used phrase from the Lord’s Prayer. I’ve used it in several papers and sermons as a way of not only talking about what God is doing “right here, right now” but also because I think it calls us to do something, to actively work with and on behalf of God in the world – in whatever ways we see possible – to help Jesus’ prayer become a reality.

George Eldon Ladd was a seminary professor during the 1900s who taught that the future Kingdom of God – what many people believe we are waiting for, heaven – is already here on earth (through the church), but it won’t be complete until Jesus returns (again). This has become known as the “already/not yet” theology of God’s kingdom.

What about you? How do you understand the Kingdom of God? How have you experienced it in your own life? Where have you seen God working in your world? Have you ever witnessed people doing God’s will and helping bring glimpses of God’s Kingdom to earth? What senses have been involved in your experiences with God moving closer to us, to meet us here and now? Where have you had a taste of the Kingdom?

Open your imagination to the endless possibilities of how God can work in and through any part of creation. God can use music, art, nature, technology, even the media to speak to people and whisper a message of hope, joy, love or forgiveness. Individuals can be inspired to get involved in efforts to make a difference in the world – God’s movement in and for the world – by watching a movie, hearing a song, reading a book or even seeing others make a difference on the news or a TV show. Allow yourself to be free of any perceived expectations and simply follow the Spirit into the world to make a difference in whatever ways are available to you. Maybe it’s something small, or perhaps it’s something big. Don’t worry about the specifics, just start with the simple prayer that God’s “Kindom will come and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

kiwis, fitzsimmons and albertine

I had the chance to see Brooke Fraser in concert a few nights ago. Brooke is a kiwi (a New Zealander) who I just started listening to about a year ago. She doesn’t tour a whole lot in the US, so I have been excited ever since I saw that she was coming to Minneapolis to play at one of my favorite venues, the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown. It was a great night of music, including a short set by my friend Elizabeth Hunnicutt followed by an incredible new and still unsigned artist named William Fitzsimmons, who nearly stole the show. I just couldn’t get enough of his music, and in the days since the show I have bought both of his albums on iTunes and he has quickly become one of my most listened to artists. If you like really chill/acoustic music you should definitely check out his myspace to give him a listen (his style is similar to, but not exactly like, Joshua Radin and Iron & Wine).

When Brooke first came on stage I was a bit surprised by her quirky personality – her NZ accent kept reminding me of Flight of the Conchords, a comedy/music duo also from New Zealand – but she also showed a very kind and serious side (which is what I expected, given that she is closely connected with Hillsong Church in Australia, where she has written and recorded some of today’s most well-known modern worship songs, like “Hosanna” and “Lead Me to the Cross”).

Before closing the night by playing her “favorite song,” Brooke told the incredible story of an experience she had a few years ago in Rwanda that inspired  the title track of her new album, “Albertine” (the song she was about to play), which is named after a young woman she met there. I had seen the video for this song on youtube and thought I understood a bit of the story behind it, but hearing the story from Brooke took it to a completely new level. Later that night, after getting home from the show, I was reading through the liner notes of Brooke’s CD (I bought it at the show) while listening to the album on my headphones and I ran across the story of Albertine again, this time as it had been written by Brooke. Albertine’s story is one that Brooke felt needed to be shared through her music, and I feel it needs to be shared here as well.

Here is the video for the song (much of which appears to have been filmed in Rwanda) and below that is Albertine’s story (in Brooke’s word, as found inside her album).

Albertine by Brooke Fraser

In 1994, the tiny Central-East African nation of Rwanda was devastated by genocide. Almost one million Rwandans were killed at the hands of their neighbors, friends and community leaders within the short space of 100 days…the catastrophic outcome of decades of tension and fighting between two ethnic groups – the Hutus and the Tutsis – a conflict that did not exist before Belgian colonists moved in during the first part of the 20th century and introduced an alien politician divide.

My first visit to Rwanda occurred in June 2005, eleven years on from the atrocities. I visited local authorities, churches, schools, official memorials and living ones: child-headed households and communities living with AIDS, facing life without adequate medical care or basics like clean water. I met a people who are humble, joyous, diligent and in deep pain.

One day before I was to fly out and onto Tanzania, my friend and guide Joel Nsengiyumva took me to a village school in a district called Kabuga. He wanted me to see that Rwanda had hope – and no better way to see it than in the next generation. The kids and I exchanged songs and dances, and as things wrapped up and we were about to leave, Joel asked if we could take a few minutes and meet with an orphan whose personal history he was familiar with.

Throughout the trip Joel had introduced me to people as a musician from the other side of the world who was going to go back to my people, tell them about the people of Rwanda and help. No pressure. That afternoon we walked across the schoolyard into an empty classroom, joined by a tall, beautiful girl wearing the school’s cobalt and navy garb, where Joel’s introduction was about to become a kind of commission.

Just before he shared her story with me, that of one person laying down their life for another, he uttered these words:

“You must go back to your people and you must write a song,
and I will tell you what the name of the song is going to be.”

He motioned toward the girl.

“This is Albertine.”

Albertine is alive today because of the selfless, sacrificial love of another. Funny thing is, so am I. And now I want to know what it’s like to love other people like that, so have decided to spend my whole life on the experiment.

Feel free to join me. We might just change the world.

gospel of love

I spent some time reading Out of Ur this morning (the conversational companion blog of Leadership Journal) and ran across an old interview/article titled “Donald Miller Isn’t Hip: a gospel for people tired of trying to be cool” (from May 15, 2006). Some of you may recognize the name Donald Miller as the author of several recent books, including Blue Like Jazz, but I don’t think it matters if you’ve heard of him or read any of his books because I think what he says in this interview is still fitting for people today; especially for anyone who has observed the Church – whether from the inside or the outside – become too focused on its “image” (trying to keep it clean, or even cool), and in doing this, has misplaced Jesus’ commandment to love others by putting it after their own agendas and beliefs about who or what is worthy to be loved.

I believe that God’s call (and Christ’s witness) to all of us is that we love others, no matter what. This is not easy, in fact, it can get really difficult. (Just think about someone you don’t get along with, then think about loving them with the love of Christ…it’s tough, huh?)

Here is a portion of the interview with Donald Miller:

You’ve said that the church “uses love as a commodity.” What do you mean?

Miller: We sometimes take a Darwinian approach with love-if we are against somebody’s ideas, we starve them out. If we disagree with somebody’s political ideas, or sexual identity, we just don’t “pay” them. We refuse to “condone the behavior” by offering any love.

This approach has created a Christian culture that is completely unaware what the greater culture thinks of us. We don’t interact with people who don’t validate our ideas. There is nothing revolutionary here. This mindset is hardly a breath of fresh air to a world that uses the exact same kinds of techniques.

What’s the alternative?

Miller: The opposite is biblical love, which loves even enemies, loves unconditionally, and loves liberally. Loving selectively is worldly; giving it freely is miraculous.

If love isn’t a commodity, what is it?

Miller: I think of love like a magnet. When people see it given in the name of God, they’re drawn to it. If I withhold love, then people believe I have met a God that makes me a hateful and vicious person. And they’re repelled.

I have two responsibilities to this world, the first is to love; the second is to speak the truth. I can tell somebody such and such a behavior is sin, and still love them. Why not? Why not bring them food, why not hug them, why not have them over to the house? Won’t this only help them understand the truth?

To read the interview in its entirety, click HERE.