By / Nov 10

Many things we do in church are just “baked in.” We’ve “always done them that way.” Your church might serve the Lord’s Supper quarterly, or your Sunday school class might have an annual hayride, or the women may attend that same conference together year after year. Student ministry is no different. Often, we do the same thing week after week. The students hang out, eat snacks, play a fun game, and sing worship songs. Then, a pastor teaches, and the students break into small groups. This model is traditional for student ministry across America. And traditions aren’t necessarily bad.

Our “baked-in” model of student ministry, in fact, closely mirrors the rhythms of a Sunday worship service—that is, aside from the pizza, foosball, and minute-to-win-it games. This is why many youth pastors go on to become senior pastors. They have experience planning a worship gathering, and they’re practiced teachers.

But I wonder if our student ministry tradition is worth keeping? Should student ministry look like a Sunday worship gathering? Or (if you’ll allow me to ask a more direct question), does our student ministry need to sing? After all, students usually attend Sunday morning worship, too (or at least they should), and singing isn’t something that comes natural to many teenagers. So, why keep doing it? Should we focus our efforts only on teaching the Bible and helping students apply it to their lives?

Singing is discipleship

In the evangelical church, we prioritize preaching because God’s Word is the primary tool he uses to grow and shape his church (2 Tim. 4:2). But sometimes there’s a temptation that accompanies that conviction. We’re tempted to view singing as merely the warm-up for the Sunday sermon. Some members of our congregations demonstrate that they’ve embodied this subconscious assumption by arriving late—after the singing, but just before the preaching starts—week after week. But singing isn’t merely supplemental. It’s essential. Paul connects singing with a full spiritual life when he writes, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:17–19).

We also believe that singing comes as a response to the gospel; our doxology follows our theology. We’ll spend an eternity in heaven singing God’s praises. But singing is not just reactive. It’s also formative. That’s why Paul writes in another place, “Let the message of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col. 3:16). Singing helps us to remember biblical realities we may have forgotten, and by warming our hearts, it also helps us to trust and believe.

Singing is essential. Singing is formative. Singing is discipleship. And teens need it.

Students need a better song

The teenage demographic drives the multimedia industry. Producers today look to the lip-synching and dancing on TikTok and Instagram Reels to discover the next big hit. It’s equally true to say that music as an art form helps to shape how youth feel, think, and believe. You can see the cultural influence bleeding out of stars like Billie Eilish and the K-pop band BTS. Teens don’t just passively consume their music. They’re active fans, allowing the music to impact the way they dress, act, and talk.

The cultural influence of the music industry is scary for some parents and church leaders, and I’m not suggesting a separatist approach. You shouldn’t force your teenager to burn their Spotify and Apple Music accounts in a bonfire (like many of us did with our CDs, only later to regret it). I’m not sure how that would work anyway. The truth is we don’t grow in godliness simply by avoiding worldliness. More important than rejecting the music in the culture is giving youth a better song to sing.

Singing isn’t merely supplemental. It’s essential. Paul connects singing with a full spiritual life.

In Romans 12:2 Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” There are two commands there. Don’t conform and renew your mind. In other letters, he uses changing clothes as the analogy, and he says that we need both to “put off” and “put on.” That’s why theologically informed, gospel-centered singing matters so much for teenagers. It’s not just a tradition; Christ-centered worship offers the better story and better news they need. Learning to sing the good news forms youth over the course of their lifetime.

So, how can we be intentional about discipling teenagers through song? Here are three encouragements:

First, sing the whole gospel, not just the happy parts. It’s tempting to only sing songs about Christ’s victory with youth. This may be well intentioned, but it falls short. One of the reasons pop music is so appealing to youth is that it reflects the brokenness and sadness of their reality. When teens only see churches singing about triumph, it feels out of touch. It’s hard to sing about how “Jesus has won” when mom and dad just got a divorce. In fact, it feels hypocritical. 

Instead of being triumphalist, we must sing the whole gospel story: “God is glorious, the world is broken, and we are broken. Yet Jesus has worked on our behalf to make us and this world new again. We can experience this newness by faith.” Lead your youth group to sing songs of  confession and lament in addition to songs of victory. In doing so, our worship will embody Jesus’s heart and the whole biblical story.

Second, give students a celebrated role during Sunday worship gatherings. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was normal for churches to have a worship gathering for students that was completely separate from the church’s primary worship service. If you left the main gathering and walked into the youth gathering, you’d notice big differences. Each service—“youth church” and “big church”—was aimed at its particular demographic.

One result was that the primary worship gathering was aimed only at adults, and any teenagers there were simply called to observe. The trouble with this is that believing teenagers are called to encourage and admonish the church in song as much as the adults are. The Sunday gathering is for God’s redeemed of all ages, ethnicities, and cultures. We’re called to worship the risen Lord together. The 60-year-old needs the 14-year-old singing in the next row. The young married woman needs the middle school boy across the aisle who may have forgotten to put on deodorant that morning. Every part of the body is indispensable.

Reeducate your church and reinforce the role of worship as personal discipleship for all. And, if you’re leading worship, address the youth directly, and call them to engage. Celebrate their presence with God’s people, and make clear that the service is for them. Doing so will produce long-lasting fruit in their lives.

Third, sing during your youth programming too. If your church does have a program or a ministry geared toward students, don’t forget to sing. God doesn’t want kids only to be discipled through Bible study and community, but also through song. So, we should sing as often as we can. If singing was only the warm-up for Bible study, then, sure, we could ax it. But if singing trains our students to believe and hope in the gospel, then we should sing more and more.

Singing in student ministry is a way to raise up a generation of worshipers. It may help raise up a generation of worship leaders as well. When students gain a passion for worship, they need a training ground where they can grow in their ability to serve others through song. Student ministry is often a great platform for such students. It’s a place where they can use their gifts in a lower-pressure environment and still edify fellow believers.

These days, church leaders are fearful for teenagers’ futures. Data shows that large numbers of students are leaving the church. The reasons are legion, and the calls to action are many. Yes, we need to equip parents to speak into their teenagers’ lives. Yes, we need to involve teenagers in larger church community. Yes, we need to teach them Bible engagement and apologetics. But we also need to sing! And we don’t need less singing; we need more. 

Raise your voice with the next generation. Worship him through song in whatever style you prefer, with whatever equipment you can afford, and in whatever venue God has provided. But let me encourage you again. Whether they know it or not, students need to sing. Win their hearts with the gospel’s better song.

By / Oct 25

While we await the official release, anticipation surrounds Kanye West’s first Christian album, “Jesus is King."

A lot of news has circulated around Kanye West’s very public conversion to Christianity. Though we should be overjoyed at the news that Kanye West has become a born-again Christian, history should tell us that we should be cautious in putting too much faith in a celebrity’s conversion. We should be neither cynical nor seeking validation in our social standing because a celebrity has become a Christian. Nor should we make celebrities into Christian heroes, something I think there are echoes of in Paul’s concerns about a young believer becoming puffed up with pride (1 Tim. 3:6).

Learning what is true, unlearning what is false 

With all the precautions of celebrity conversions being duly noted, there is a particular angle to the Kanye West saga that I think could help us think about conversion and its relationship to discipleship and sanctification—or, to use a similar word, “ethics.” Ethics looks at a person’s conduct and measures it in light of a particular standard. Discipleship and sanctification, then, are ethically-shaped insofar as our faith in Christ results in a new pattern of obedience (Rom. 12:1-2). 

Discipleship and sanctification are a “putting on” of Christ (Col. 3:12-7) and a “putting off” (Eph. 4:22) of the old man. This means there are rhythms and patterns to learn as a person understands what discipleship and obedience means. It certainly means that a person’s ethics are expected to undergo a transformation. But what does that “transformation” look like for people who may have little to no familiarity with Christianity? The language of “putting on” and “putting off” is illustrative because it implies learning what is true and unlearning what is false.

Kanye West’s conversion has made me stop and think about what it means for a person, not just celebrities, to learn what obedience to Christ means when the person who comes to Christ may not yet know that certain actions are sinful. When the subject of West’s conversion comes up, there are immediate—and legitimate—hopes that his faith bears fruit (John 15:8). What could this look like for West in particular?

For starters, it could mean that his music would no longer be laced with expletives or crude sexual innuendo. It turns out, in fact, that West’s new album, “Jesus is King,” has no explicit language. While the album has just dropped, The New York Times reported that this was the case, which we have to accept on basis of journalistic integrity alone. Anyone familiar with rap or hip-hop music knows it’s a genre particularly laced with expletives. As language gets used, its shock value wears off, to the point that the culture of a given music style simply speaks a vernacular where expletives are routine. In that sense, it is no longer offensive or explicit; it is simply expected.

Now imagine you have someone like Kanye West who has grown up in a music scene where certain language and innuendo are no longer considered edgy. And then this person becomes a Christian. Immediately, we in the Christian community expect that person to talk, think, and behave a certain way, forgetting that the person who has become a Christian has, for their entire life, been a creature of learned cultural habit. I understand this expectation impulse, but underneath is an assumption that Christian morality is the understood morality of the world. The problem, though, is that for a person like West, his music is part of an ecosystem that does not consider expletives actually explicit; he’s simply speaking a language native to his industry. 

So what does sanctification mean for someone like West? While we should expect no unclean language to come from his mouth (Eph. 4:29), can we expect him to immediately abandon language that he does not consider problematic? Sanctification means that West comes to grips with the language he’s accustomed to using is not actually sanctified. It means that through the act of “putting off” and “putting on,” West’s conscience is being awakened and activated more and more in tune with the Spirit of Christ.

And yet, according to a news report, West’s new album is freed of any explicit language. We should praise God for this. While we can praise God for this seeming turn in West’s album, would it not also have been progress for West had his future albums had less explicit language, evidencing that he was, in fact, coming to grips with the Lordship of Christ?

Initiating something new 

I don’t write this in order to give a pass to new believers to go on sinning (Rom. 6:1). What I am trying to demonstrate is that conversion is iniatory. It begins something. While conversion is instantaneous, calling someone to repentance for sin that a person does not know is a sin is like asking the color blue to repent for not being red. What may be the case as our culture secularizes is that people will have to learn of the need to repent of sins that they did not know were sins. Repentance will be a process of learning a new grammar as a person is conformed more into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).

Who among us does not need to learn repentance as we become more aware of just how deeply sin has nestled itself in the crevices of our hearts?

This can work for other examples, too. Imagine a male, working professional in a coastal city. He’s 31. He uses a hook-up app impulsively. A new woman every weekend is his expectation and the goal of all men in his social strata. This approach to dating is backed-up by a culture that sees nothing wrong with casual-but-consensual hook-ups. That’s why the apps exist in the first place, right? They are there to facilitate what everyone agrees is good.

Then, this man becomes a Christian. He hears a message of his guilt before a holy God. His conscience is guilty because he knows he’s a sinner. His conscience aches, but he does not have the wherewithal to understand the full depths and consequences of his sin. He knows he’s a condemned sinner because he understands he leads an imperfect and even selfish life, but he does not know that sleeping with multiple women is wrong because, well, everyone around him is doing the same thing, and the culture around them is cheering it on. 

He might observe that the hook-up culture is killing real relational intimacy, but he does not have the moral grammar to think that monogamy is the solution. Maybe, he thinks, he should sleep with fewer women, but does not yet know the biblical portrait of monogamy. Of course, a faithful pastor or friend should be there to disciple him, but it would be inappropriate for this pastor to smugly scoff at a person who is accustomed to believing that sexual conquest is a basic part of human appetite.

Or what about the transgendered person who comes to Christ? Imagine it is 200 years from now. That person may know of their need for Christ for a number of sins they know they are guilty of, but because they’ve grown up in a culture that encourages surgical intervention for someone with a gender conflict, it could mean they are coming to Christ without an awareness that their attempt to alter their gender was actually born of rebellion. Is this person not a Christian because they do not yet know of their need to repent of a transgender identity? Of course they are, and we would pray and expect that the Holy Spirit would illuminate this person to ever-growing areas of their life in need of repentance. 

How true should this be for mature believers just as well? Who among us does not need to learn repentance as we become more aware of just how deeply sin has nestled itself in the crevices of our hearts?

Think for a second how revolutionary something like this can be, especially if you’ve grown up with a Bible-belt morality—where you expect everyone to oblige your Christian morality, where even non-Christians are expected to conform to the dominant language of their Christian surroundings. Why, then, of course someone who becomes a Christian should get with the program and lead a moral life—they should know better, shouldn’t they? 

But what if the dominant culture around the new convert is not in any sense recognizably Christian, and being Christian means learning what a whole new morality and ethical system entails. Now, this is not to say that Christian morality is irrational or sectarian. The opposite is true. Christian morality inheres within the created order as a part of general revelation. But rebellion against creation and general revelation results in a devolution of a person’s understanding of what is natural about Christian morality. The gospel of grace will mean learning what true, creaturely righteousness was intended to be all along.

My plea in all of this is for grace. It’s for patience for the new believer. It’s for us to understand that we should expect as a part of someone’s conversion that they have a “de-conversion” from the sinful patterns of this world and learn, perhaps for the first time, what righteousness really is. It’s to understand that obedience is learned; not simply deposited.

I did not really intend for this post to be about Kanye West in particular. But it seems clear that the Lord is moving in his life. So on that note, let’s pray for continued fruit in Kanye West’s life. Let’s pray that he has people in his life who can help him walk this new path of Christlikeness, who are helping him as a new convert to learn what it means to be a disciple.

By / Oct 23

Trip Lee discusses hip-hop, Christianity and the next generation, while at MLK50 conference in Memphis, Tenn. Trip Lee is a Christian rapper, singer, poet, and author.

 iTunes | Google Play | Stitcher | Tune in

By / Apr 3

Trip Lee delivers a brief talk on Christian hip hop and the next generation at the MLK50 Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. 

By / Feb 10

I grew up in one of those families that hands a child a musical instrument shortly after they learn to walk. I spent a few tortured years falling asleep in violin lessons, followed by a few more spent crying in piano lessons. Finally, in about the fourth grade, I was convinced (compelled?) to begin playing the trumpet, and I was—for a while—taken with the instrument.

That is, until I hit about 14 years old. My trumpet teacher and my parents were dreaming of college scholarships, challenging me with more and more difficult classical pieces. I recall one particularly torturing piece called “Mount St. Michel,” which caused the veins on my forehead to pop out and left me seeing stars. I wanted to quit. There was a brief scramble over what to do, and I found myself with a new teacher, a hip older guy named “Butch” that wore polyester golf pants and polo shirts from the seventies. He taught in his basement, where a pool table was stacked high with books of music and records, and where a gloriously ancient hi-fi sat, ever-glowing, against wall.

Music unlike any other

At my first lesson, we talked for a little while about trumpet. He had me sight-read a few things, and soon, I confessed that I hated the instrument. I didn’t want to play anything faster or higher. I was done. The thing felt dead to me.

He nodded and crossed the room to his hi-fi. He pulled out an album, slipped the record out of its acetate sleeve and dropped it onto the platter. “What about this?” he said. “Listen.” He waved to one of the moth-eaten chairs that sat between the speakers. A long note trilled on a guitar and a piano, cymbals sizzled. I sat down just as the horns started to play a slow, mournful phrase. A pause. A punchy bass line, a beat, and the song took off. I looked at Butch for an explanation. He offered none. Just poured himself coffee and sat down nearby. “Just listen,” he said.

I now know it was Lee Morgan’s The Search for the New Land. This album featured giants: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Reggie Workman, Billy Higgins—names that meant nothing to me at the time. It’s classic Blue Note jazz, recorded by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder in 1964 and released in 1966.

Of course, I’d heard jazz. I’d heard it in snippets separating clips on the radio. I’d heard it on TV and in movies. My dad would play Ella Fitzgerald at Christmas. But I’d never really listened. It was background music. Music that played while something else was happening. Polite stuff.

But that day, I sat and really listened for the first time. Butch sent me home with that LP, along with Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue and Art Blakey’s A Night at Birdland. “Just listen,” he said.  

And I did. I listened, and it drew me in. I wanted to know more. And while the trumpet did eventually fade from my life (a few years later, I sold it and bought my first guitar), jazz has stayed with me ever since. In the next few years, I’d make my way through the catalogue of giants: Miles, Coltrane and Monk. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Jack McDuff. Hank Mobley. Freddie Hubbard.  

It came from a different world

I came to realize that this music’s energy—it’s soul—came from a world that was very different from my own. Jazz invited me to peek into that world and its personalities. Their stories, often tragic (Lee Morgan himself was shot to death by his wife outside Slug’s Saloon in the East Village), revealed that the music sounded like a different world because it came from a different world.

It came from a world shaped by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, a world where the Negro Spiritual and the Blues provided a lifeline of hope, a world whose musical language would shape-shift into the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker, that would evolve again through Miles and Coltrane, and then again in the wild freedom of Ornette Coleman and others. Like the Blues and Rock, Jazz would cross the boundaries of race and class—there would be the Chet Bakers and the Dave Brubecks of the world—but at its core, it can’t be severed from its roots as the sounds of a people who inherited a legacy of injustice. It is not the music of a cozy brunch on a Saturday morning. It’s the sound of profound mourning and profound hope, protest and praise, love and death.

As I fell down the rabbit hole of Blue Note Records, Verve, ECM and other jazz labels, I also found myself searching for a view into the culture that gave birth to it. At some point, I stumbled upon Langston Hughes.

Hughes was a poet during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s—a time when jazz was finding its feet and African Americans were making their voice heard in the broader culture. His poems capture the tempo and rhythms of the music that was filling Harlem at the time, and they made explicit the sentiments behind them. Slavery and the civil war were not-too-distant memories during the Harlem Renaissance. It was a haven of hopeful creativity and flourishing, even while Jim Crow and segregation still held their stranglehold in the American south. The art of the Harlem Renaissance lived in that tension—the promise of freedom, the burden of racism, the burden of history. Hughes wrote often about that tension, referring to the hopes of equality and dignity as a “dream deferred.”

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Where Charlie Parker (and later, Monk, Miles and Coltrane) were the sound of a dream deferred, Hughes (and Zora Neale Hurston, and later, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison) gave it words. And Hughes’ poetry managed to express it in rhythms and language that are shaped by the same cultural forces as jazz. You can hear it, both in the rhythms and in the sentiment.

In “Still Here,” he writes:

I’ve been scarred and battered.

My hopes the wind done scattered.

Snow has friz me, sun has baked me.

    Looks like between ‘em

    They done tried to make me

Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’ –

    But I don’t care!

    I’m still here!

Hughes understood the way that music served as both witness and catharsis. In his poem, “The Weary Blues,” he wrote:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

    I heard a Negro play.

Down on Lenox Avenue the other night

By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

    He did a lazy sway . . .

    He did a lazy sway . . .

To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

With his ebony hands on each ivory key

He made that poor piano moan with melody.

    O Blues!

Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool

He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.

    Sweet Blues!

Coming from a black man’s soul.

    O Blues!

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone

I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—

    “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,

      Ain’t got nobody but ma self.

      I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’

      And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.

He played a few chords then he sang some more—

    “I got the Weary Blues

      And I can’t be satisfied.

      Got the Weary Blues

      And can’t be satisfied—

      I ain’t happy no mo’

      And I wish that I had died.”

And far into the night he crooned that tune.

The stars went out and so did the moon.

The singer stopped playing and went to bed

While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.

He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

The old bluesman sings, “Ain’t got nobody in the world . . . ” and “I can’t be satisfied.” But then he goes home and sleeps like a rock. The song itself satisfies—or at least satisfies enough to keep the old man going.

It’s tempting to separate art from the world that gave birth to it, to let jazz and blues be nostalgic “Americana” and to ignore its power as prophet and protest. It’s tempting to sanitize our musical history and ignore the way many great musicians were discriminated against, or to ignore the deep bitterness that formed as a result. B.B. King supposedly carried a pistol to every show he played after being stiffed one too many times. In 1985, during an interview with JET magazine, Miles Davis—who had as successful a career in music as any jazz musician could hope for—said, “If somebody told me I only had an hour to live, I’d spend it choking a white man. I’d do it nice and slow.” Please, let’s never pretend that this music is light listening ever again.

An invitation to listen

What it is, however, is an invitation; a chance to listen to the sorrows and hopes of our African American brothers and sisters. Their joy and their righteous pride, their pain and anger, their pleading for justice and equality, their declarations of beauty and dignity. Where political dialogue grows stale and ideological, the arts can cut through, whether it’s painting or music or literature, bypassing our rational defenses and letting us see and—more importantly—feel the experiences of someone else. The stunning and beautiful legacy of African American music, literature and art stands as an invitation to people like me—a white, middle-class, Southern Baptist—to glimpse inside a world that is not my own and to walk away a little more understanding and empathetic.

It is, of course, true that what we can learn through the arts is not the sum and total of another’s experience. It is also true that you can experience the arts and not learn a thing. That happens when we engage without curiosity, without expecting that we have something to learn. But patience, humility and curiosity will be rewarded. The world will reveal itself to be larger than you thought, more perplexing, more sad and more beautiful.

So turn on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and hear his soaring longing for God, his deep sense of the brokenness of the world and the brokenness of his own cancer-addled body. Listen to Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land” and hear both the sense of sorrow and possibility that Morgan felt in the midst of a growing civil rights movement and a growing African consciousness. Read The Bluest Eye and feel the discomfort of a child who learns to dislike her own eyes and skin. Read Brian Keith Jackson’s The Queen of Harlem and feel the pressures of stereotypes that accompany being young, black and male. Or listen to Henry Louis Gates. Or Maya Angelou.

The point is to listen. To open your heart. To tap into your empathy and—just as important—your curiosity about the world and about the way our African American brothers and sisters experience it. Ask where their stories, jokes and strokes of genius come from. Remember that they are image bearers like you, whose feel for the world is very different because their place in it is very different. Curiosity will bring understanding, understanding will bring empathy and empathy, love. By making space to simply pay attention, what is foreign becomes familiar, and a stranger becomes a neighbor. And it’s our neighbors, most of all, that we can learn to love, to lock arms with and to suffer with.

So, as we celebrate African American History month, let me urge you as someone once urged me: Listen. Just listen.

By / Aug 26
By / Aug 25
By / Apr 2

From the 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit on “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation”

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.

By / Jan 20

UPDATE (1/31/14): The Academy’s board of governors voted to rescind the original song nomination for “Alone Yet Not Alone.” The decision was prompted by the discovery that Broughton, a former governor and current music branch executive committee member, had emailed members of the branch to make them aware of his submission during the nominations voting period.

Lights, glamour, indulgence, actors, these are a few of the words that might come to mind when we think of the Oscars. In March, one of the most coveted nights in Hollywood will include big names, glitz, and a low-budget, obscure Christian film — Alone Yet Not Alone.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated “Alone Yet Not Alone” for best original song, taking everyone by surprise, including its singer, Joni and Friends Founder and CEO, Joni Eareckson Tada. “When I heard the news I thought they were kidding,” said Tada.

Set in the mid-1700s and based on a true story, Alone Yet Not Alone depicts a family fleeing religious persecution in Germany to America. The movie was adapted from a book by Tracy Leininger Craven. The Oscar nominated song (also by the same name) captures the vision of the struggle the family endured while living during that era. The lyrics of “Alone Yet Not Alone” also captured the heart of Tada.

“I really resonated with the words – after all, I sit down in a stand-up world and often feel ‘alone;’ but of course with my faith in God, I'm never really alone! The Bible is filled with stories of God picking ill-equipped, unskilled people for places of great influence – that’s how I feel, me, a quadriplegic, singing an Academy Award nominated song.”

Tada, 64, is the Founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, a Christian organization dedicated to advancing disability ministry within churches and assisting families affected by disability around the world. Joni and Friends was founded in 1979, 15 years after Tada, then 17, suffered a diving accident leaving her a quadriplegic.

Friday morning while preparing for the day, Tada’s phone rang and on the other end was her long-time friend.

“(On Thursday) my good friend Bobbie Wolgemuth called while I was still getting up and shared with me about the academy nomination. It takes me about two hours to get up in the morning. I have women who help me,” she said.

And though mornings can be arduous for Tada, this one was special, “It was quite a fun way to start the day. I thought they were kidding. Christian films are never given that platform and that this little film would beat out Taylor Swift. Wow.”

Last year, while speaking at the closing session of the National Religious Broadcasters’ Convention, Tada was spotted by representatives of Enthuse Entertainment, the producer of Alone Yet Not Alone, and asked to consider singing the theme song of the movie. During her session, Tada intertwined singing hymns as she spoke, which caught the producer’s attention.

“When I heard the simple, humble song, I wanted to record it,” she said, “I’m over the top about what God is doing. It is a little Christian film and here it is, up for an academy award.

As news broke about the Best Song nominations, People Magazine featured all five songs on their website, including video of the performances. Shocked to see this, Tada reflected on watching the song and her prayer offered prior on a secular magazine site.

People Magazine posted the video of me singing the song and offering up a prayer in the beginning. In that prayer I’m speaking of the Lord’s power in my life. And to think of how many people will see that. God did that. I’m excited.”

Tada’s prayer begins with acknowledging her limitations and dependence on the Lord: “We are the ones that run to you when we are weak. And, uh, you know this body, you formed this body. This is a quadriplegic body. That is broken. My lungs are limited. But there’s this fine balance with presenting to you all of my weakness and thinking that it can’t be done. I don’t want to think that it can’t be done. So Father, I pray that you will mitigate any crackiness in my voice . . . and so, give me your strength.”

Admittedly, Tada is not a professional singer and because of her limited lung capacity, she has a difficult time staying on pitch and hitting high notes. She has, however, previously recorded songs available for purchase on her website.

“Upon hearing the news, I kept thinking of the millions of singers who would want to be in my shoes,” she said, “I’m not a professional singer. Though this doesn’t mean as much to me as to some, I’m not cavalier. This is a huge surprise. Extremely honored.”

Each year the Oscars feature the nominated songs throughout the evening. Although Tada is unsure whether she will be singing, Christianity Today reported that the song will indeed be performed live during the televised awards night.

When asked what she would say if the “Alone Yet Not Alone” received the coveted award Tada said, “If it did win, it would be a miracle. If I were ever asked to share my thoughts, I would paint a quick picture of God’s heart and what he wants to see done with this marvelous themed movie. What God wants to see happen. I’d make much of the miracle of this simple little story. He’s saying something, so we should listen.”

Alone Yet Not Alone releases on June 13 and is set to release in 185 cities per the website. This is the second Academy Award nomination for Bruce Broughton, the composer of “Alone Yet Not Alone”. He was previously nominated for: Silverado (1985) – for Music (Original Score).

Along with leading Joni and Friends, Tada has written over 70 books including When God Weeps (Zondervan, 2010) and her latest along with her husband, Ken Tada, Joni & Ken: An Untold Story (Zondervan, 2013).