The Gospel According to Kesha (Part 1)

Prologue

Anyone that knows me will find my willingness to blog about mainstream popular music curious. If auto-tune is being used to the point of it sounding like an effect then I am typically not a fan. My musical tastes have not changed much since the 90s. So let me begin with the story of how I came to discover Kesha’s latest album.

Shortly after “Rainbow” was released, Kate heard about it and played the song “Praying” while we were driving in the car one day. I listened to it with my musically analytical brain and found it interesting (“Huh, this pop song is about prayer and she jumps up an octave. Interesting.”) Fast forward a few months and I learn that Ben Folds is a producer on the album. Now I’m intrigued. Ben Folds is one of my favorite artists and I’ve seen him with the Houston Symphony the last two times he came to town. So, I listen to the whole album to hear for myself what is going on.

The album has grown on me. This is the first of three posts about the spiritual themes I picked up on in three consecutive tracks from Rainbow: Hymn, Praying, and Learn to Let Go.

Even the stars and the moon don’t shine quite like we do
Dreamers searchin’ for the truth
Go on, read about us in the news
Pretty reckless, pretty wild
Talking s*** and we’ll just smile
Don’t you see these f***in’ crowns?
If you know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

After all we’ve been through, no, we won’t stand and salute
So we just ride, we just cruise, livin’ like there’s nothing left to lose
If we die before we wake, who we are is no mistake
This is just the way we’re made
You know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion
Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, yeah, we do it our way
High as outer space, we don’t hear what the rest say
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

Songwriters: Cara Salimando / Eric Frederic / Jonny Price / Kesha Sebert / Pebe Sebert

Hymn lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

(Photo by AugeeKim, Wikimedia Commons)

Lyrical Analysis

News flash: Millenials don’t trust the church. There are lots of reasons: Millenials don’t feel heard or appreciated, their culture receives the blame for the world’s problems, and they exhibit a general disdain for institutions. Their perception is that church is more filled with empty words that action (HT: RecklesslyAlive.com). From the perspective of this generation we get these words: “a hymn for the hymnless.”

But why a hymn? A hymn is specifically a song of praise or adoration typically directed toward a deity. Why is this a hymn? What makes it for the hymnless? Saying the song is for the hymnless implies that it is for the disenfranchised and the outcast. In the gospels, Jesus was typically the champion of the hymnless. Jesus came to defend those who were marginalized and on the edges of society. He restored hope to the widows, cleansed lepers, and ate with sinners. Jesus was the hymn for the hymnless.

Kesha explains, “So when I sing the words to this song, I do so as a reminder to myself as much as anyone that we can’t let the haters and the negativity win. We are all ‘dreamers searching for the truth,’ and we know the unexplainable universal goodness in people — their innate love and light and compassion for one another — will bring us together to do great things.”

There is also a thread of simul justus et peccator in these lyrics. “I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up.” Our mistakes and flaws don’t define us. We are saintly sinners and sinful saints.

“Yeah, we keep on sinning. Don’t need no forgiveness. ‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in.” This lyric reveals how disenfranchised popular culture has become with the Christian church (especially the evangelical wing). Whatever carrot the church is dangling in front of the culture is meaningless – even “heaven” (the meaning of salvation in evangelical Christianity being wrapped up in avoiding eternal damnation). Even if the true idea about heaven and salvation is more to do with connection, wholeness, and healing from God, the church has lost the ability to convey that message due to the prevailing cultural perception.

My theory is that in the context of North American Christianity the church has lost the substantive content of its spirituality and the medium has become the message to the surrounding culture. In the popular culture, a hymn is no longer a song of praise used to unite an assembly in lifting their voice in adoration. Hymns, sin, forgiveness, and heaven are now metaphors used by pop songs. The spiritual reality beneath them is vanishing. How will the church embrace the hymnless today?

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Weekly Worship Thought – Punishment

I have written about the song “Immanuel” by Stuart Townend before. I love using it during Advent because I think it provides a great narrative arc that compliments the story of the season.

Previously I’ve talked about altering the fourth stanza of text to deal with the “fear of hell.” In Jesus, there is no fear. The idea that God is looking to eternally punish anyone is suspect. “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4:18)

As we sang the song recently, a new lyric jumped out to me. In the third stanza it says, “he was punished for a world’s transgressions.” As I have personally drifted away from a punitive, substitutionary atonement theory, lyrics like these stick out all the more. Violence begets violence. The idea that God violently punished the Son to make things even might be the source of many of our world’s problems.

I found this quote from Rene Girard helpful, I hope you do as well.

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Weekly Worship Thought – Spiritual Content

A photo by Jezael Melgoza. unsplash.com/photos/2ktKz6CnNk0When we gather together for corporate worship, the people assembled are engaging with the music at a variety of levels. I like to simplify this into three layers, or sections of a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid, the outermost layer, is the musical content. Some people engage and respond to the music used in worship purely at the musical level: melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and dynamics. The next layer down in the middle is the lyrical content. Some people engage and respond to the music and also recognize that there are lyrics and the lyrics have a quality. They are poetic and have rhyme, meter, and beauty. The bottom layer is the foundation that we want all people to get to. It is the spiritual content. All of the musical and lyrical content being presented is prompting us to recognize the spiritual reality of who God is and what God has done. Our songs in worship are there to move us into participation with God in the work of recreating and renewing the whole world.

Andrew Jones: 'Mighty to Save' and other worship songs that annoy me

From Tall Skinny Kiwi:

The line that bugs me is this one:

“Saviour, he can move the mountains”

It’s not that the statement is untrue because actually, God can do whatever he wants, including the relocation of mountains. It’s just that the particular idea of moving mountains, which occurs most strongly in Isaiah, the minor prophets and later in the Gospels, is almost exclusively in relation to people moving mountains and not God. Jesus told his disciples that they could move mountains. The Isaiah passage [Remember Godspell’s “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord”], as Jesus enlightens us, was in reference to John the Baptist who would level the mountains and fill the valleys. 

Mountain moving is the job of God’s people!

Yes, our Saviour could move the mountains if he wanted to, but he has commissioned us to move them so let’s get on with it, not in our own might or by human power, but by God’s Spirit (Zech 4:6-7)

The idea behind this lyric, in my opinion, is the same lazy “let go and let God” philosophy that inoculates the people of God from doing anything practical or hands-on because we assume if we just sit back and sing some more songs then God, who is somehow energized by our inaction, will stand up, bare his almighty arm and get things done.

Scared as hell

If you’re a worship/liturgy leader, you probably know the name Stuart Townend.

If you’re not a worship/liturgy leader, let me explain…

From his bio at http://www.stuarttownend.co.uk:

Stuart is known and respected around the world as one of the leading worship songwriters of his generation. The depth of lyrical and theological content in songs such as In Christ alone, How deep the Father’s love, The power of the cross and Beautiful Saviour have caused some to draw comparisons with the greats of previous generations such as Watts and Wesley; while the marriage of great lyrics with wonderfully accessible melodies (largely through his successful writing partnership with Keith Getty) means his songs bridge different musical and cultural genres, and reach into every corner of the globe.

In other words, he’s a worship music stud. Two of those songs mentioned in the bio are in the top 50 songs of CCLI currently. He is obviously blessed with some wonderful gifts, and millions of people sing his songs across the world.

But I had a problem with one line of his, in one song, and I changed it, and I think its a better song now.

Now let me say that song writing is hard. I consider myself an amateur at best. Songs are rarely perfected. They often have to be revised repeatedly, and even the final product sometimes needs more work. I respect Stuart. My songs stink compared to his. I’m not trying to be overly critical. But I do care about the words that churches sing. I think it’s extremely important to give congregation’s the best texts possible (both theologically and artistically). What we sing in church is as important as what is preached in church, if not more important.

The song in question is called Immanuel (or as I call it, “From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable”). It’s one of my favorite songs. I have put it into regular rotation every Advent for years. The lyric in question comes from stanza 4, the original quoted here:

Now He’s standing in the place of honor,
Crowned with glory on the highest throne,
Interceding for His own beloved
Till His Father calls to bring them home!
Then the skies will part as the trumpet sounds
Hope of heaven or the fear of hell,
But the Bride will run to her Lover’s arms,
Giving glory to Immanuel!

Here is the part I changed:

Then the skies will part as the trumpet sounds.
Heav’n joins earth where God will dwell,
And the Bride will run to her Lover’s arms,
Giving glory to Immanuel!

Here are some reasons why I changed it:

  • Fear is never a good motivating factor. Just ask any person who has lived under a dictatorship throughout history.
  • I don’t feel like God ever intended for a fear of hell to be the driving factor in His relationship to humanity. I vaguely remember Jesus saying some stuff about love.
  • A more biblical picture of the consummation of history is the collision of heaven and earth and the establishment of a New Jerusalem where God is present with us forever.
  • It’s also interesting that this “fear of hell” seems to be contradicted in another lyric from a different song by Stuart – the 4th stanza from “In Christ Alone:”

No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;

Romans 8:1 – “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and the rest of the chapter is pretty good too.