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.

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.”

Coldplay concert/tour postponed?

I’m not sure if this is BREAKING NEWS or just an inaccurate rumor, but I just spoke to a reliable source and learned that the Coldplay show on July 8th in St. Paul, Minnesota will be canceled/postponed (possibly rescheduled for sometime in the fall). This is all the information I have right now and I have not found any other sources confirming or denying this rumor. I don’t want to speculate about what this would mean for the band or the rest of their upcoming tour, but it should be noted that Coldplay performed on the MTV Movie Awards last night and everything seemed cool (they sounded good, Chris Martin was running around the stage and everyone in the band looked to be having a good time), so hopefully this is just a bad rumor or a scheduling issue that will get worked out soon. As someone with great tickets to the show in St. Paul, I’m hoping that my anonymous source is mistaken, but I have a bad feeling that their information might be correct. Coldplay’s tour is scheduled to begin in London on June 16th, which is the day before their new album Viva La Vida is released in the states.

pop goes the church

I just started reading a new book titled Pop Goes the Church. It was written by Tim Stevens who is a pastor at Granger Community Church in Indiana, one of the few churches I’ve heard about lately that I actually get excited about because they seem to be connecting people living in our (constantly-changing) media culture with God’s story of hope, love and forgiveness (things that never change) in meaningful ways by engaging pop culture. I don’t mean this to be a critique of most other churches I hear or know about – well maybe I do, but only a little – but I’d like to focus on what is going on here that I think is good. I find hope in the realization that there is a pastor and a church that are passionate about some of the same things as me. Stevens and Granger Community Church seem to share my vision of a church where the “texts” of pop culture (music, movies, tv shows, etc.) are discussed alongside the biblical text — even on Sunday morning during the sermon — without compromising or watering down the message as a result.

Here’s a sample of how Stevens thinks from the introduction of his book…

If Jesus physically entered twenty-first century America, I believe he would do much as he did in the first century. He would hang out with normal people in the real world, and he would reserve his strongest words for the entrenched religious leaders who love their traditions more than they love their people. He would leverage the culture. He would read our books, go to our movies, watch our TV shows, look at our magazines, and surf the internet so that he could better understand our culture. I believe he would look for themes in our popular culture that would help him make a connection between the topics that had our attention and the kingdom life he was offering. He would be encouraged by the lyrics in some of today’s mainstream music. He would see honest searching in the words, and he would use those lyrics to reach and penetrate hearts.

I think, that just as he did in the first century, Jesus would disciple a small team of leaders while at the same time looking for opportunities to attract and influence large crowds. And when those crowds gathered, he would draw upon what he had learned about our popular culture and would use illustrations, props, and analogies that would connect his love to our hearts.

I believe that is what Jesus did and that is what he would do, and I believe he expects no less from us.

I could not agree more with this or have written it any better. I believe that what Stevens is saying is important and true for not only the church and people of faith, but also for the world (inside the church, outside the church, everywhere), and I want to thank him for expressing this so well. Perhaps others do not agree with Tim Stevens, or with me. Maybe you think that letting the values and behavior expressed in contemporary pop culture will corrupt the church (and Christians) to the point where we will erode into some form of moral relativism (not knowing what is right anymore, because everything seems to be alright). I know for a fact that many people feel this way because I have had conversations and received emails from people who thinks this way. The last thing I want to do is keep anyone out of this conversation or make it sound like I don’t agree with them (I actually think there’s some validity in what they’re saying and their opinions should be heard by people like me and Stevens as a legitimate warning/caution), but before anyone jumps all over this with harsh criticism let me first clarify some things.

This is more than just a conversation about whether or not media should be used in churches. It’s less about churches having video screens and projectors in their sanctuaries and more about how they use them. Yet it’s not even about video screens and movie clips during sermons, it’s about pastors and ministry leaders reimagining their ideas of what it means to be the church in a media world. That’s why I think pastors and churches should use wisdom to discern how to most effectively incorporate pop culture into their ministry. It is not good enough to simply force connections between faith and culture, as if it’s a fool-proof equation (pop culture + church = good). I would have a difficult time convincing anyone that there was a meaningful connection between Jesus saying “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) with the movie Dude Where’s My Car, or that the Apostle Paul’s suggestion to “consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3) was somehow illustrated in The Big Lebowski, but I can see a powerful example of someone loving others as himself in Patch Adams or selflessly considering others better than themself in Good Will Hunting (coincidentally, the characters I’m thinking of from each of those movies are played by Robin Williams).

What I’m trying to make clear is that not any/every thing from pop culture will be appropriate or effective in communicating the Gospel. In fact, there are some topics or themes where using illustrations from pop culture might even insult or take away from the message. For instance, when I preached at Journey a few months ago about Jesus washing his disciples feet – and then calling them (and us) to serve each other in the same way – I did not use any clips from a movie, lyrics from a song or even a touching story from the newspaper (although I considered examples of each). I chose to give an old fashioned “no frills” sermon because none of the pop culture references or examples would have added anything to the message. Any examples I could have used from pop culture would have been merely an imitation of the original; but Jesus washing his disciples feet along with a few verses of laying down his life for us? That’s a powerful witness and example of what it means to be a servant.

Sorry I started asking for your thoughts and then went on for a few more paragraphs. I really would like to hear what people think about all this. Leave a comment if you have something to say.

creative video

In a culture where lots of bands are looking for new ways to make it big, this is one of the more creative music videos I’ve seen in a while. I’m assuming these guys aren’t already big because a) I’ve never heard of them, b) the video doesn’t look like it cost much and c) the band’s email address listed on their myspace is @hotmail.com. Anyway, here’s “Everything” by A Cursive Memory.

reality (m)tv

In a few weeks, the story of “seven [new] strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped” will begin being told in weekly installments on MTV’s The Real World: Hollywood. Hollywood is the 20th season of The Real World and it will premiere on Wednesday, April 16th at 9:00pm CT. But before season twenty begins, MTV will celebrate the history of the show with the first ever Real Word Awards Bash, airing this Wednesday, April 2nd at 9:00pm CT.

mtv-logosvg.pngThe awards show will bring together cast members from all 19 seasons to share what they’re up to today and find out what moments, individuals and seasons the voting viewers thought were most memorable. Just like the show being celebrated, many of the award categories will highlight behavior and perspectives that are far from what I would consider wholesome (like “steamiest scene,” “biggest playa” and “best fight”) but for viewers like me who have been watching The Real World since (or at least near) the beginning, the show has always been about more than sex and shenanigans…it’s been a window into the lives and relationships of regular people and an opportunity to watch them “do life” together.

Since the first group of strangers lived together in 1992 (New York), each season of The Real World has been like a time capsule of what is cool at that time in history (fashion, music, technology, cars, home decor and more) and the diverse cast members have represented the pulse of young people living in the realities of the day, as they dealt with and discussed issues that viewers of all ages could relate to (racism, sexuality/homophobia, addiction and even faith).

The Real World was ahead of it’s time, forging the path for reality TV as we know it.” – MTV.com

Created and produced by Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, The Real World is MTV’s longest running show and is most likely the first American reality show. Today, nearly sixteen years after the first episode of The Real World aired, MTV (as well as most other networks) has several reality shows in its lineup. Among MTV’s menu of shows depicting the “real” world, one of the most popular is The Hills, which is the spin-off/continuation of Laguna Beach (which was MTV’s response to The OC, since it followed the lives of teens living in California’s Orange County). As if an awards show and a new season of The Real World isn’t exciting enough for MTV reality fans, the third season of The Hills started last week and new episodes will be airing on Mondays at 8:00pm CT. This is especially good news since season three of Rob & Big is almost over.