The Gospel According to Kesha (Part 2)

Part 1 here

If you’re going to read something in the Bible, it helps to also know the background story. Who wrote it? Why was it written? What was going on in the surrounding culture at the time?

If you’re going to listen to Kesha’s new album, it helps to also know the background story. I don’t know all the details. To best understand why these songs were written, it helps to know what was going on in her life that led to this. There are lots of allegations and legal actions. But with the climate of our current culture and the systemic way that women are treated, we can assume what the truth is. You can read all the details here. To sum it up, she was in an abusive situation and contractually bound to be in it.

Out of that situation comes the song “Praying,” the fifth track from Rainbows:

Well, you almost had me fooled
Told me that I was nothing without you
Oh, but after everything you’ve done
I can thank you for how strong I have become

‘Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell
I had to learn how to fight for myself
And we both know all the truth I could tell
I’ll just say this is “I wish you farewell”

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

I’m proud of who I am
No more monsters, I can breathe again
And you said that I was done
Well, you were wrong and now the best is yet to come

‘Cause I can make it on my own
And I don’t need you, I found a strength I’ve never known
I’ll bring thunder, I’ll bring rain, oh
When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name

You brought the flames and you put me through hell
I had to learn how to fight for myself
And we both know all the truth I could tell
I’ll just say this is “I wish you farewell”

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

Oh, sometimes, I pray for you at night
Someday, maybe you’ll see the light
Oh, some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give
But some things only God can forgive

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

Songwriters: Kesha Rose Sebert / Ben Abraham / Ryan Lewis / Andrew Joslyn
Praying lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc
(Photo by AugeeKim, Wikimedia Commons)

Lyrical Analysis

Prayer is not an unexplored metaphor in pop music. Bon Jovi was living on one and Madonna’s name was called like a little one. But what is prayer? Is it dead ritual? Is it recitation of ancient words handed down through the ages? Is it conversation with a deity?

We can think of prayer as many things, but it might be best understood as connectedness. When I’m being prayerful, I am aware of my connection to God and my connection to the people and things around me. Because of these connections I become opened to what God desires from me, and how I can serve the people and things around me.

Knowing Kesha’s story, the events that led to the composition of this lyric, we can assume they are directed at an antagonist. If prayer is really connectedness then why would you hope that your enemy is somewhere praying? That hardly sounds like revenge. Who wishes prayer, soul change, and peace on their enemies?

Jesus.

Don’t let this nugget of truth and justice slip away. This is not an insignificant detail. Perhaps one of the most Christo-centric lyrics to be produced in all the world in the last year, both within and without the church, just came from Kesha.

This lyric echoes the words of Jesus from the sermon on the mount: “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

It should not be so surprising for such lyrics to come from pop music. Jesus regularly found a home among the disenfranchised, the social outcasts, and women falsely accused. Kesha says for herself that she neatly fits in all those categories. Kesha prays that her enemies find peace. So what do you pray for?

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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?

Weekly Worship Thought – Disney Don’t’s

Earlier in the week I scrolled across a video on Facebook. It was a recording of a pastor leading his Sunday assembly in the singing of a song from a popular Disney movie.

This is a big no-no. Here are a couple of reasons why:

Legality – Disney songs are not covered by your standard church music licenses. You need special permission to use their songs in a live performance. To publish a video of you using their song you would also need a mechanical license. Disney is very protective of their content. Our church made the mistake of publishing the title of one of their movies in an announcement. They quickly let us know about what licensing was needed to host a public gathering that featured one of their films. Don’t steal their content. You can’t afford the legal consequences.

Assembly song – Disney songs are not written to be sung by a worshiping assembly. As sentimental and charming as they are, their music wasn’t designed to be sung by average Joe parishioner. The range of notes and rhythmic complexity don’t translate to a large group of non-musically trained singers. They are meant for soloists and small ensembles.

So my advice – leave the Disney songs for the movies. There is plenty of good stuff to sing!

Weekly Worship Thought – Faithfulness

This has been an upside down week! Our air conditioner quit working in our house almost a week ago. In Houston, in July, that is a big problem. Our thermostat has been reporting 96 degree temps inside the house at 10:00 PM. To escape the heat we stayed in a local hotel for a few days. After that we have been graciously hosted by some of our sweet family nearby for another few days.

Despite the inconsistent schedule, frustration with the repair moving slowly, missing our comfortable home, and living out of suit cases, we are finding the silver lining. In all of the challenges and changes, God is faithful. We observe that we are provided for and loved despite not knowing exactly where we will sleep or when we will get back home.

It reminded me of the Psalm from last Sunday, and specifically the first verse. Psalm 89:1 says,

“Your love, O Lord, forever will I sing;

from age to age my mouth will proclaim

your faithfulness.”

Last week I wrote a little song to go with this verse.

God is faithful even when things seem like they are failing and not going according to plan.

Weekly Worship Thought – Worship Leader FOMO

Do you know what FOMO is?

Wikipedia says, “Fear of missing out or FoMO is “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent”. This social angst is characterized by “a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing”.

I think worship leaders can get weighed down with FoMO. There is this subtle voice in the back of the worship leader’s mind that suggests there is new music and it needs to be sung this week. There is a fear of missing out on the most current worship songs. “If I don’t use this song that (popular Christian artist) released this week, then people are going to leave and go to the church that did.” Or, “If I don’t use this song that (mega church) used last week then people are going to feel like we aren’t relevant anymore.”

Or perhaps the actual fear is not being able to post to social media that you were on the cutting edge of using that song first?

Instead, I feel our call is to select songs pastorally. What does that mean? That means that songs are selected for worship that will reflect and meet the needs of the people who are actually assembled with you. Which is different than selecting songs for the sake of staying ahead of a trend. Our call is to lay down our preferences and lift up others preferences for the sake of the church being the embodied hands and feet of Jesus in the world.

Weekly Worship Thought – Every Table is An Altar

This is a new worship song I came across called, “Every Table is An Altar.”

If I were going to use this song, I might arrange it leaving the Bridge section out. An 11 minute ballad isn’t for every church. I think the song is lyrically strong enough without the Bridge. Especially if you use the Pre-Chorus in place of the building Bridge section.

The lyrics are striking. I’m drawn to them because they connect the tables of our everyday lives to Jesus’ radical table fellowship. They remind me of the sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts…Let us give thanks…”). They also recall the Emmaus Road story:

Verse 1:
Every table is an altar
Every breath is a gift from you
Every moment is a treasure
Every day is a kiss from you

Pre-Chorus:
So let our hearts
Be awake, be awake

Chorus:
Break the bread, pour the wine
Let our hearts, come alive
In your presence, in your presence
Let our fear, fall away
Let our faith, rise today
In your presence, in your presence
Jesus

Verse 2:
Every stranger has a story
Every story’s being told by you
We’re all children on a journey
Jesus only you can lead us through

Chord chart can be downloaded here.

Weekly Worship Thought – Taxonomy of Contemporary Worship

I’m convinced that labeling worship isn’t helpful. It puts our gatherings in boxes that they aren’t meant to be in. It creates the illusion that our assemblies are homogenized and that we can get away with using one genre or style that reaches and represents everyone. We should be able to design and implement any order of service with a full, robust toolbox of resources that draw from the best the church has to offer from all time and traditions.

This is why I have issues with labeling worship “contemporary.” It suggests a genre of music, and perhaps a philosophical approach, but is too vague. I’m growing to appreciate the work of C. Michael Hawn in identifying different streams of song in the church today. You can go knee-deep in this idea in his article from The Hymn, “Streams of song: An overview of congregational song in the twenty-first century.”

Here are the seven streams he identifies:

Stream 1—Roman Catholic Liturgical Renewal Song

Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Roman Catholics have been finding their voice. This voice is diverse ranging from folk and classical song to African American gospel and various Latino styles. Many of these songs may be found in most Protestant hymnals, adding vitality to liturgy. Some of the key names include David Haas, Michael Joncas, Marty Haugen, James Moore, Cesáreo Gabaréin, Omer Westendorf, Delores Dufner and many more.

Stream 2—Contemporary Classical Hymnody

These are the hymns that follow in the tradition of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. Their themes range from creation, ecology, mission of the church, social issues, to worship and the arts. Some of the most important names include Fred Pratt Green, Timothy Dudley Smith, Brian Wren, Carl Daw, Jr., Tom Troeger, Ruth Duck, Shirley Erena Murray, Mary Louise Bringle, and many more.

Stream 3—African American Gospel Song

This streams includes major African American voices including Andraé Crouch, Doris Akers, Margaret Douroux, Edwin Hawkins, James Cleveland, Kirk Franklin, and more.

Stream 4—Urban Gospel Song

Urban Gospel Song writers are represented by the Gaithers, John W. Peterson, and extensions of this song in the UK, Graham Kendrick, Stuart Townend, and Keith Getty.

Stream 5—Folk Hymnody

These songs use an acoustic musical idiom grounded in the folk and protest movements of the 1960s. The theological focus of these songs is on direct language, unvarnished frankness, a social consciousness, and a simple singability that allows everyone to participate.

Stream 6—Pentecostal Song

The roots of CCM/CWM may be found in the Pentecostal movement that began with the Azusa Street Revival (1906) on the west coast. Vineyard, Hillsong, and others.

Stream 7—Ecumenical Global Song

The twenty-first century church is the recipient of songs from the world church—signs that the overseas mission efforts of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries have born much fruit. The former mission fields are sending their songs back to the church in the West. More than two-thirds of Christians now live outside North America and Europe. They have been singing our songs for nearly two centuries and now we have the opportunity to reciprocate by singing the songs of the world church.

Weekly Worship Thought – Breaking Down for Lent

breakingLent begins this year on March 1 with Ash Wednesday. I have begun to think about all the possibilities of our music and space for worship during the upcoming season. Lent is a time to reflect, to pause, to weigh the costs of discipleship, and to prayerfully prepare for marking time with Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In particular I am thinking about the music for worship in our gathered assemblies. What can be done musically to carry across the layers of meaning we find during the Lenten season? One idea I am exploring is breaking things down. In a musical sense, this means simplifying things. The simplicity of our instruments and ensembles can bring out the themes of Lent.

An article at WorshipLeader.com makes some suggestions for improving congregational singing that I think are helpful: I did not have my band play on every verse and chorus. Musical accompaniment has one major purpose: supporting congregational singing! The most important sound on Sunday morning is that of your congregation. Have the band stop playing occasionally and let the people hear each other. I promise they will sing louder and more heartily in response!” Breaking things down instrumentally and providing simplicity can help the assembly sing – a worthy goal regardless of the liturgical season!

Scott Weidler shared a tip for Lent in a recent ALCM email regarding unaccompanied singing: “Lenten simplifying may well mean singing some music without instrumental accompaniment. If this is new (and, perhaps, terrifying) to your congregation, Lent may be an appropriate time to introduce it. The human voice is the primary instrument given to us by God. Let’s find ways to amplify its centrality. Many settings of psalms, Lenten verses sung as the Gospel Acclamation, Sanctus, Lamb of God, and other music may appropriately be sung without accompaniment. If eliminating accompaniments completely is unrealistic, try to imagine how to minimize the instrumental leadership in order to maximize primacy of the human voice.”

Breaking things down can be done in many ways. It could be using acoustic instruments instead of electric instruments, hand percussion instead of full drum kit, or just using piano or unaccompanied singing. Try one of these ideas in your context.

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 – Sing a New Church

We sang a text for the first time in worship on Sunday. “Sing a New Church” is written by Delores Dufner, OSB and sung to the tune NETTLETON (Come Thou Fount). I found the comments section on the previously linked page interesting, as well as this post, “Bad Poetry, Bad Theology.” It seems that some Roman Catholics have a problem with the lyrics in this song.

From what I can gather, the problematic text is the refrain,

“Let us bring the gifts that differ,
and in splendid, varied ways,
sing a new Church into being,
one in faith and love and praise.”

I can appreciate the theological hesitation. And I think it is always beneficial and good to discern the texts we sing in worship. It is not a trivial thing to pastorally care for the sung theology of a local church. It seems that the primary hang up is the idea that the church can sing itself into being.

From a Lutheran perspective, I can understand the objection. The Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith” (Small Catechism). There is no church, and no church can be sung into existence, unless it is the Holy Spirit singing.

l66co3n4gxu-andy-leePerhaps “new” is the most problematic word. I understand the argument that there is only one church. Perhaps “sing a renewed church into being,” better captures the idea in a less heretical way. A new church is a renewed church, which is another way of saying reformation. And certainly the work of continual reformation in the church is performed by the power of the Holy Spirit. But that is not to say that we, God’s people, don’t have a part in the reformation of the church.

It is the prayerful labors of God’s people, centered in word, meal, and baptism, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that make God’s church renewed. I don’t think the church can enter renewal and reformation through passively willing it. I definitely think that singing has something to do with how the church becomes renewed and reformed.

What do you think? Are the lyrics orthodox or heresy?