The Christian Life In Word And Song

Do Christians sabotage their own lives with their expectations? Certainly I would pose this question to the health-and-wealth prosperity preachers of Joel Osteen’s ilk. By promising people a happy family and good health and solid financial portfolios are you setting them up for disappointment? Now lots of churches do not subscribe to this ideology explicitly, but I worry that they do so implicitly. The songs that we sing in worship, the Christian music to which so many listen seems to imply a great deal of triumphalism – which is okay, because there is the triumph over death at the centre of the Christian story. The testimonials given when people are baptized, do they not also often follow a narrative arc that goes from a life combining elements of drunkenness, promiscuity, intemperate anger, and so on to a conversion where it is said that these things no longer tempt the new believer. Perhaps in the moment this is true, but I doubt that temptation ever goes away for anyone.

Nonetheless, here is the narrative that we have: 1) things are bad 2) Jesus 3) things are awesome. In larger sense, anyone who calls themselves a Christian should accept this. But day in, day out, does it feel that way? Why do so many convert only to fall away? I wonder if this is because so much of North American Christianity implies a prosperity gospel where one can “live in victory” as Osteen so often says. Where do you put the moments that don’t integrate into this narrative? I’m not even talking here about theodicy, about genocide or earthquakes, pastors see those ones coming. I’m talking about why our own little failures and stupidities continue to pile up. We must being doing something wrong. We aren’t trading in our sorrows, we’re still saddled by temptation.

Maybe we need to get over this paradigm. As I said above though, many of us think that we’re beyond it, but I don’t think we really are. The theology may be preached correctly from the pulpit, but the stories and the songs wave that aside and say, “yes, yes, Job and so on, but really, we’re going to be awesome now – that bad stuff doesn’t apply to me!” Say what you want about preaching, but I think there’s real power in that old line “Let me write the songs of a nation, I don’t care who writes its laws.” And when are lives don’t fit with the songs, when they are still mired and ambiguous, we give up.

What are we expecting of the “Christian life?” Be really honest. One of things that keeps me sort of grounded is trying to find words and songs that acknowledge that yes, life will still be difficult whether Christian or otherwise. I think it should be plain to Russian lit fans that Dostoevsky is tremendously helpful here. Though not really in the category of world-historical literary giants, I also like Belle & Sebastian in this regard. The singer and principle songwriter, Stuart Murdoch writes about Christianity with this sort of wry wit and frankness that I don’t hear in a lot of places. I’ll leave you with their 1995 song, The State I Am In, I think it hits on a little of what I’m talking about: