If you’re like me, there is no shortage of catchy song lyrics that can get stuck in your head at the worst time in your day. Someone uses a turn of phrase that reminds you of the one-hit-wonder that was popular when you were in the eighth grade, and the next thing you know you’re humming the melody to a song about holding on for one more day so things will go your way.
The right song lyrics take you down memory lane, only to realize that these songs strongly shaped your worldview over the course of time. In some ways, these songs are empty calories, but in others they provide a framework for how we think through our lives and process the highs and lows of our experiences.
But are they truly empty calories in our diet of pop culture? Are we singing mindless songs?
When taking an inventory of the lyrical diet known as my “Drive to Work” playlist, I would venture to say that every song is communicating something. What I’ve been surprised to see is how often I find songs pining for a love that can only truly be found when the object of affection is the Savior of the universe.
“When a maaaaaaaan loves a womannnn….” hasn’t played in the Top 40 in almost 3 decades and despite it being in the category of “archaic songs from the 90s that your children don’t know,” it also won’t be nominated for any hymnals anytime soon either.
Neither would Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” – but that song carries some strong church choir vibes.
These songs were wildly popular in their day and aside from hearing them in the background at a dentist office lobby or the B side of one of your grandmother’s cassette tapes, they didn’t have longevity like some of the hymns we sing in church.
Songs like “How Great Thou Art,” “Praise to the Lord the Almighty,” and even “more contemporary” hymns like “Our Great Savior” have been able to carry the worship services for well over a century. These songs point to a Creator, the salve to our soul, the answer our soul unknowingly craves.
Just like songs in the Top 40, our local church hymnals touch on our heartache, grief, and our lowest moments. But the difference is the solution: God is the answer to life’s challenges. In modern culture, we have traded many of those songs for pleas to fill our void with sex, money, and fame.
Without a Christian worldview, modern songs do not provide the answer.
Or do they?
Whether we’re singing about the one who got away or the dark night of the soul, I would posit that there are some songs out there that inevitably show the depravity of man in a way that points to the same Savior that we sing about in church.
Many of the songs in the American Songbook, the Top 40, and even what’s playing on the radio right this minute, when stripped of rough edges, inappropriate language, and tawdry nuances show the God-shaped hole inside all of us. Whether love songs (Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”) or the best break-up song ever (Whitney Houston’s “I will Always Love You”), contemporary music has inspected the human heart and attempted to arrive at an answer without God.
As Christians, we can’t help but to have God as our answer. When Whitney is saying that she has to go, but wishes joy and happiness to the other person, Christians know that it is the Lord who ultimately brings joy.
Huey Lewis defines love in “The Power of Love” as “it’s strong and it’s sudden and it’s cruel sometimes, but it might just change your life.” It’s no stretch to say that God’s love for us is encapsulated in those lyrics—including the cruelty of the cross to change our life. Christ dying on the cross truly was “the Power of Love.”
I am not implying that we change the intentions behind every song, actually quite the opposite. When Christians view the culture from the lens of how the Bible says to view the world, it’s easy to see the disparity between how the Bible says to view the world and how the world sees itself.
Rick Springfield can go on and on about Jessie’s Girl and Tommy Tutone can memorize Jenny’s number, identifying the angst of unrequited love. Until paired with the type of love that only God provides to two people’s story that He orchestrates, they are just as empty as Brenda and Eddie from “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” who still couldn’t make it work despite the deep pile carpet and the paintings from Sears. They endure unnecessary pain and they end back up on the Village Green after a bitter divorce. Imagine what story Billy Joel could tell of two people who surrendered their story to God’s will.
While Huey won’t be the offertory song in any liturgical services anytime soon (thank goodness) and someone out there will need a good breakup song to cry themselves to sleep, imagine how the world would be transformed if the heart songs of our day had turned their lyrics to the One who brings respite, relief, and comfort?
We wouldn’t have to run through the halls of our high school because we would have hope that we were living in Our Father’s World. We wouldn’t be saying goodbye to the yellow brick road because we would know that God’s sovereignty brought us down the path.
While the writers of these songs may have missed the mark in pointing to a God who we can depend on, our Christian worldview provides a promise that we can’t miss when we apply the proper filters.
It’s a fact that some Christians choose to avoid secular music altogether. After all, the Bible states, “let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.” Swimming deeply or regularly in the sewer of culture can leave a consumer wreaking of it. Yet are we missing something significant when we tune out the cries of a world? Might our awareness of the lyrical angst provide us with an opportunity to shine a light and expose the darkness of its own sadness?
At our core, we face very similar struggles as those in the world and the most successful musicians identify that—even if they don’t possess the best vocals or the catchiest tune.
The most successful understand the desire to be loved, to be known, and to be free from bondages of our own making. It’s a message coursing through the veins of many songs that we miss when we ignore the pleas of the world.
Older hymnwriters faced dire circumstances, only to pen songs that decades and centuries later still hold real meaning. Modern hymnwriters are doing the same. But so are some secular musicians. And if we are listening, we will see a mission field that has expressed its pain for all the world to see.
Knowing the redemption that I’ve experienced through the power of God’s Word, I feel no choice but to point to the One who has offered me grace and hope and mercy. After all, He’s the one who promised: “Just call my name and I’ll be there.”
Photo from Randy Miramontez / Shutterstock.com