By / Mar 11

Moses was about to die. His 40-year journey in the wilderness with the Israelites had undeniably proven God’s people needed a circumcision much deeper than the flesh. They needed a circumcision of the heart—a fundamental revolution of their innermost being that was resistant to loving God (Deut. 10:16). This need would echo throughout the Old Testament until the Savior came, followed by the powerful indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

As Moses laid before the people of Israel “life and death, blessing and curse” (Deut. 30:19) he made sure to not leave the future generations of Israelites without testimonies of God’s holiness, righteousness, and faithfulness. He promised that the day would come when “the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6). But until then, he called three lasting witnesses against Israel’s chronic unfaithfulness: heaven and earth (Deut. 31:28), the Book of the Law (Deut. 31:26), and . . . a song (Deut. 31:19). 

The centrality of God’s Word

The Book of the Law, which Moses wrote down at God’s direction, was to be put alongside God’s very presence—the ark of the covenant (Deut. 31:26). It was to be read aloud by the priests to the whole congregation of Israelites every seven years at the Feast of Booths “that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God” (Deut. 31:12). God also instituted this tradition for the sake of the children who didn’t yet know God’s Word (Deut. 31:13). 

The community commitment to hearing God’s Word wasn’t only a concern every seven years. God had called Israel to “teach them diligently to your children” inside and outside of the home (Deut. 6:7). The Word of God was to be central in the life of his people—“it is no empty word for you, but your very life” (Deut. 32:47). It was vital that God’s people passed down the testimonies of his redemptive work in Egypt and his faithfulness in the wilderness from generation to generation. 

The Song of Moses 

And how would these testimonies get passed down from one generation to the next? The Song of Moses. God told Moses:

Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give. (Deut. 31:19–21)

Though this song’s stated purpose was rather bleak, it ended with a triumphant proclamation of God’s future restoration of his people (Deut. 32:43). And this word of warning and judgment and hope would find residence in the mouths of generations of Israelites, carried on by a melody. 

God and the arts

God created the arts. He is, of course, the greatest artist of all time (and before time). Nature—God’s general revelation of himself—undeniably communicates his power and creativity (Ps. 19:1–6). And the Bible—God’s special revelation of himself—undeniably displays even more profound aspects of his creativity and glory (Ps. 19:7–11). 

The Bible is one grand story of God’s incredible redemptive work in history, which centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. And this grand story is communicated through various text types, from law to discourse to narrative to poetry. Just as God didn’t communicate his Word solely through the Book of the Law but through the Song of Moses, God didn’t communicate the truth of who he is and what he has done through one literary genre. He filled the Bible with various literary masterpieces, which help us to feel, experience, and remember his glory.

The art we create in the Body of Christ, then, isn’t meant to replace Scripture’s centrality in our lives. Rather, the arts are meant to help us emotionally connect to the words of Scripture. Whether visual or poetic or storytelling or musical, the arts help bring color to our imagination as we read the Bible. They help us engage our senses in such a way that we feel we can almost embody the text

Do you remember how you learned the alphabet? I bet it was through a song. By putting melodies or rhythm and rhyme to Scripture, memorization becomes much easier. The Song of Moses illustrates this, as do the Psalms. 

Children and the arts 

But of course, any Sunday School or elementary school teacher could have told you the importance of the arts in their curriculum. When I had the privilege of teaching during Sunday School for four to six year-olds for about five years, I learned that what especially stuck with them were the songs (with a few dance moves thrown in there), the chants, and the storytelling through visuals and crafts. 

Now that I’m a mom of a five-year-old, I’m learning once again that it’s not my lectures about God’s Word that she tends to recite later on. It’s the storybooks and the YouTube animations that retell Bible stories and, of course, the songs. Apparently, children still learn best by singing, as they did in Moses’s day. 

How can we faithfully teach God’s Word to our children and the next generation? Moses tells us, “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:7–9). 

In other words, make the Word of God your constant meditation, conversation, and yes, song. Utilizing the arts and the gazillion children’s Bible resources out there, share his Word with the little people in your life. 

By / Sep 17

I was the guy at my high school who knew all the hot bands–and the ones who would be hot even though nobody knew it yet.

I remember when I had Queen’s first three albums before anyone had ever heard of them and found out they were coming to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, a mid-size venue for Los Angeles County. I convinced a few of my friends (who I don’t think had ever heard of them) to go with me. “Killer Queen” had been a moderate hit the previous year, but that was all anyone other than me know about them. Then, about two weeks before the concert, “Bohemian Rhapsody” hit the airwaves. There we were, the only ones around with tickets.

At a reunion not too long after graduating from college, an old college roommate came up to me and said, “You know, you used to play music from all these bands that no one had ever heard of. And, a few months later, they would be really popular. “So tell me, what’s going be popular next?” I don’t remember what I said, but I hope it was something like, “Polka. Trust me.”

Then there was the friend at my fraternity, who, upon discovering I was a wealth of knowledge of the pop music world, would grill me every time he saw me about some band or another. I was walking through the lobby of the University of California Library one day and he stopped me. “Okay, I think I’ve got you now.” And he proceeded to formulate some question having to do with a band from Canada which was the only band that had gotten so far on the charts in America–or some such thing. “You can’t possibly know that!”

I looked at him calmly, and said, “April Wine,” as I turned and walked out the automatic doors, leaving him standing there dumbfounded (This is what passed for important knowledge at that time).

I’m trying to figure out how I knew all this, since, at the time, there was no Internet and very little information available on what is now the object of a whole industry. There was Circus magazine, which you could obtain at one of the few record stores around, Melody Maker, a British magazine―if you tolerate all the coverage of British bands that didn’t even have American releases. And then, of course, Robert Hilburn’s articles in the “Calendar” section of the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles was a great place to live if you liked rock music, since it was always on everyone’s tour schedule. I saw a lot of bands live growing up there. Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Queen, Kiss, Yes, Peter Frampton, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick, Jackson Browne, Al Stewart, The Dictators, Rush, UFO, Talking Heads, the B-52s, the Kinks, Kenny Loggins, Journey, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Gentle Giant, Thin Lizzy, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Sparks, and Be Bop Deluxe. There were others. I saw some of them more than once.

I remember a friend of mine and I going to see Devo at the Whiskey A Go Go before they hit it big in the early 80s with “Whip It.” It was also before they began performing as their own opening act at their concerts without anyone knowing about it. Before the show, my friend Wes and I had a couple hours to kill and we were walking down the Sunset Strip, seeing the sights. Wes had a T-shirt with a picture of the Tubes on it. The Tubes were a moderately popular band in the early 80s. As we were talking, a fairly tall guy walked up to Wes and said, “I like your T-shirt.” It was Fee Waybill, lead singer of the Tubes. They were playing at a club down the street.

I’m thinking about all this now that I’ve listened to the new U2 album that is partly famous because iTunes has released it for free.

U2 is one of the few classic rock bands that is still together and writing new music. Like the Heartbreakers, who also have a new release, U2 is one of the many classic rock bands that believed in meta-narratives. They couldn’t actually provide any, but they at least believed they existed. Aside from disco and other subgenres in pop music at that time that were about little other than having fun (through various means, including sex and drugs), many of the classic rock bands at least attempted to say something they thought might be significant. Most of the time they ended up trying to say too much, in which case they ended up just being pretentious (I’m thinking of Rush here).

Among the most pretentious musical events ever was, of course, the movie “Tommy,” a so-called “rock opera,” with music and performances by the Who. Because it was produced by a popular rock band, everyone was expected to suspend critic judgment and talk about how profound it was, a critical assessment commonly voiced by such expressions as “Oh wow” or “That was so radical” (expressions that were considered high praise among us knuckle-headed teenagers of the time).

Of course, there was nothing profound about “Tommy” at all. It wasn’t really about anything–or at least anything important. But everyone was expected to think highly of it because it was the Who and the Who were cool.

The only rock act of the time that made any real sense was Alice Cooper, and that was only because his act was a Vaudevillian stage play wherein the character he played was shown going to Hell (where, incidentally, he belonged). All of it, of course, was a tongue-in-cheek. No one took Alice Cooper seriously, especially Alice Cooper: He spent half of his stage act making fun of himself, dispensing with the need for the rest of us to do it. I still consider it a favor.

And there’s not much good you can say about Kiss, but at least there was no pretense to their unadulterated hedonism.

When it comes to popular culture you have to be thankful for small things. Bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, and Genesis, although they never pretended to say much that was very compelling (well, maybe Pink Floyd did), their attempt to say something could at least be taken as a bow to the idea that there were things about life worth saying that had some importance in this life and, sometimes, beyond it.

They at least tried to say something big, and if they couldn’t find anything particularly big to say, they said it big. In fact, the lack of any substantive message was more than made up for by the size of the show. Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” tour, and virtually all the concerts of groups like Yes and Genesis (when they were led by Peter Gabriel), were huge spectacles. They were big, bold, and gaudy.

Nostalgia for metanarratives

I wonder what it says about us now that bands no longer make much of an effort to actually put on a show? Today’s rock bands don’t even attempt to say anything big. They have small things to say and they expend little effort in saying them.

No one writes a song like John Lennon’s “Imagine” anymore, a song which evokes a wholly different world. In one sense that’s good, since I can’t imagine any world in which I would less like to live. I don’t want to live in a world in which there is “nothing to kill or die for,” or where there is “above us, only sky.”

But what’s worse than living in a world in which songwriters write songs about worlds that are not very good worlds is a world in which no one writes songs about other worlds at all.

We don’t live in a world in which songwriters can’t write such songs; we live in a world in which they won’t. It’s not that they can’t say anything big because they don’t know how; rather, it is because they don’t believe there is anything big to say.

Many of the rock bands of the 70s and 80s were pretentious because what had to say was less important than they seem to think it was. Now it is considered pretentious to say anything important in the first place.

In Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, he defines postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Our culture now doesn’t believe there is any one narrative in which we can all participate, but only smaller, subnarratives under which we gather only briefly and for some small comfort, before having to disperse back to our atomistic individuality. “The narrative function,” says Lyotard, “is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, is great goal.”

We got the world John Lennon hoped for. Unfortunately it is a world in which a song expressing hope for such a world could not be written.

What we are left with in a world without metanarratives is a world in which there is nostalgia about a world with metanarratives. Has anyone noticed the recent blizzard of shows about “the 60s”? Why are we engaged in this frenzy of nostalgia for the 60s?

I’ll tell you why.

We look back longingly on the 60s because it was when John F. Kennedy announced his vision for putting a man on the Moon. It was when Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Civil Rights Crusade and the March on Washington, D.C. It was when Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society programs. there were grand causes and

What do we do now? The big, bold imaginative quest, like the Apollo program of the 60s and 70s, is too expensive, or too troublesome, or simply not realistic. It doesn’t address any of our current priorities, the chief of which is what benefits me personally. The safe, comfortable little individualistic world in which we live militates against it. We got what we wanted: a bottomless pit of information and goods from anywhere on earth. We’ve got air conditioning microwave ovens, and wide screen TV.

Was there something else we needed? Comfort kills culture.

Our contracted imaginations are simply incapable of even formulating any kind of grand vision. And we try to find causes big enough for crusades, but they’re getting harder and harder to find. All the cultural walls have been scaled. All the barriers have been broken. All the cultural landmarks have been removed.

And besides, isn’t The Walking Dead coming on in a few minutes?

The best we can do is something like gay rights. But that’s a poor excuse for a crusade. Despite the comparisons with African Americans, gays were never enslaved, they never had to live in separate neighborhoods or go to inferior schools or had to drink at separate drinking fountains.

Never happened.

Discrimination against gays is largely a myth. In fact, they’re wealthier than everybody else on average and have political clout way out of proportion to their numbers and are celebrated at every cultural juncture by the media and entertainment industry. The only danger they are in is suffocation due to over-adulation.

The gay rights movement is nothing more than the muscle twitch of a tired, dying culture.

And then, of course, there is Woodstock. How many television specials have we had now celebrating what was, essentially, a big, over-haired, drug-induced orgy? The attempts to exalt an event in which a whole bunch of spoiled, overgrown adolescents show up and behave, well, like spoiled, overgrown adolescents are nothing short of comic. But at least if you take away the pretense of “freedom,” you can see what kind of society modern liberals really want.

And if you want to see something other than old reruns of it, just go to a college coed dorm hall.

But what about space, the final frontier? It’s too expensive to explore, and besides we need the money to prop up Medicare.

We can’t do culture big anymore. All we can do is admire the past era in which we could. Which brings me back to the new U2 album.

What is U2’s “Songs of Innocence” about? It’s about nostalgia for meta-narratives. U2 is a classic rock band that has lived past its era, “chasing down the dream before it disappears,” as Bono sings on the first track. To speak to the current culture it can no longer evoke the great; it must instead evoke the era in which the great could be evoked. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is not about greatness, it is about the memory of thinking things could be great.

Of course, I remember the first Ramones album. I had it before anyone else. One listen to “Blitzkrieg Bop” on the radio and I was on my way to the record store. But I grew out of it: I not only grew out of liking it, I grew out of the idea that it was worth liking.

But we live in a culture that refuses to grow up.

“The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) is Bono’s nostalgic reminiscence of hearing the punk band the Ramones for the first time. It begins with an anthemic chant, much like the Ramones’ cartoonish “Hey, ho, let’s go” from “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Then the crunching electric guitar chords, and then the oversimplistic drum beat―Ramonish fixtures all.

The Ramones were the quintessential nihilist band. They may have invented torn jeans and T-shirts of the kind that you can now buy in high-end stores for some ridiculous price, I’m not sure. From the way they visually presented themselves to how they played their instruments bespoke the philosophy of nothingness. Joey Ramone sang in a mock monotone, Dee Dee Ramone played an intentionally unremarkable bass, Tommy Ramone played pretty much the same no-frills drum beat in every song. Then there was Johnny Ramone, the guitarist of the band who bragged that his guitar playing style (such as it was) was entirely without blues influence, which was just another way of saying it was devoid of human subtlety. It was a styleless style.

And by the way, the blues thanks Johnny for disassociating himself from it.

Everything about the band evoked a senseless and sterile world in which human feeling had no context and human aspiration no place. A broken relationship was reduced to “I don’t want to walk around with you,” anger to “Beat on the brat (with a baseball bat),” and all the while they just wanted to be sedated. I don’t want to attribute too much intelligence to the band, but knew exactly what they were doing.

And boy did it play. In modern culture the demand for nihilism is bottomless.

Rolling Stone Magazine famously designated the Ramones one of “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” Yes. You heard that correctly. Then again, that probably says as much about Rolling Stone as about the Ramones.

So why would Bono so admire Joey Ramone? At first you’re tempted to think that the high tone of a song about something as mundane as the lead singer for a punk band is slightly comic, but when Bono sings that he “woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/To a song that made some sense out of the world,” you begin to realize that there comes a point in the lives of many people in my generation when you either grow out of the attraction for the shallow appeal of the music you listened to when you were young, or you have to take it seriously and come to terms with what much of it really is.

If the song you liked asked you to Rock and Roll All Night and Party Every Day, it’s a little easier to shrug it off. You realize it is just silly and debased and you try not to think too much about it so you don’t end up unconsciously whistling it all day.

But in what way did the Ramones “make sense out of the world”? You could only say that if you just accepted their nihilism outright, something Bono seems explicitly to professes when he says, “I was young, not dumb/Just wishing to be blinded/By you…”

Make no mistake, Bono knows how to fashion a lyric:

We use language so we can communicate

Religion so I can love and hate

Music so I can exaggerate my fame

And give it a name

But the irony is that the worldview championed by the likes of the Ramones is the very thing that has ended up making groups like U2 obsolete and irrelevant. U2’s concerts were never quite the big productions of many other classic rock bands, but they at least wanted to be about something. They and musicians like them are less and less able to communicate to a culture that rejects the grand narratives they were once able to voice. But, hand it to them, they’re smart enough to know what they are still capable of doing, which is to reminisce about the time when this could still be done.