Would the Psalms Survive Our Criticism?

After the recent brouhaha (I love that word) over Jeff Bethke’s “Why I Love Jesus and Hate Religion” video, I’ve been doing a little more thinking about criticism and creativity. See, I love sound doctrine and I love creativity, and I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive. But for some reason, us Reformed folks have gotten a bad rap, at times, as being anti-creative and anti-art. I think that part of the reason is because we don’t always treat creativity fairly.

Systematic theology is a wonderful thing. I love Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and I think that I’ve probably learned more from that book than from any other. But, when it comes to interpreting a song or a piece of poetry or spoken word, we have to use our theology carefully. We need to interpret and critique the piece on it’s own terms rather than immediately plopping all of our systematic theology on top of it.

This is how we read the Psalms. When I read that in Psalm 17:8, “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings,” I don’t say, “Well God is spirit and doesn’t have wings!” I understand that the Psalm is poetry and is painting a picture of how God acts, not a physical description of God. I don’t put all my theology on top of the Psalm, I let it first speak for itself.

A song can only say one thing. It can’t say everything and it can’t make every qualification. There are going to be some sharp edges to a song. A book or sermon can make qualifications, a song or piece of poetry cannot. Jeff Bethke couldn’t say everything about religion in his video so he only said one thing: that Jesus is against false religion. Our temptation is to first run creative pieces through the grid of all our systematic theology and then point out the places that it falls short. That’s probably not the best way to do it, and it will probably end up frustrating the artist.

I think a better way to do it is to look at a song, or any other creative piece, and first ask, “What is the author’s main point here? What is he or she really trying to say?” Then, after the main point has been determined, we should ask, “Does this agree with the Bible?” So, for example, in Derek Webb’s controversial song “What Matters More?”, he says:

If I can see what’s in your heart
By what comes out of your mouth
Then it sure looks to me like being straight
Is all it’s about
It looks like being hated
For all the wrong things
Like chasing the wind
While the pendulum swings

‘Cause we can talk and debate
Till we’re blue in the face
About the language and tradition
That He’s coming to save
And meanwhile we sit
Just like we don’t have give a sh** about
Fifty thousand people who are dying today

What is Derek Webb saying? What is his main point? Because if I’m going to be fair to him, I have to critique exactly what he is saying. It seems that he is saying that we Christians tend to get all hung up on the wrong things. We get so focused on sexuality and homosexuality that we miss the fact that 50,000 people are dying of hunger. He doesn’t seem to be specifically saying whether homosexuality is right or wrong, but he is saying that it occupies too much of our attention.

So what does the Bible say about Webb’s song? First, it says that hating another person is always wrong. Webb gets that right. It also says that Christians should care for the poor and the hungry. Caring for the poor really is important. Webb gets that right too. But, the Bible also says that our sexuality is REALLY important. Those who willfully engage in homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God. That seems like a pretty big deal to me. If I fail to tell people, I could send them to hell. That’s what Webb gets wrong.

There is a place for dealing with specific word choices in the song, but I don’t think that is the place to start. I think we need to deal with the main point first.

When I read these lyrics I’m tempted to bring all of my theology to every line of the song. For example, I could talk a lot about the language and tradition behind Christian sexuality. And there probably is a place for that, but that’s not the main point of the song. I want to be fair to Derek Webb. I want to be fair to his song. I want to be fair to Jeff Bethke, and fair to other artists.

So for us Reformed folks, let’s preserve our passion for sound doctrine and the Bible. I’m not in any way suggesting that we should abandon sound doctrine or that words don’t have meaning. But let’s also be fair to those who create art. Our critiques and endorsements should always flow from the Bible, but they also should address the main point of the piece.

  • Bob

    Not only the Psalms but a lot of other parts of the Bible wouldn't survive the criticism of many cynical / discerning Christians.

    Another thing I've noticed is that when somebody or some work does have some wrong doctrine, but some value, we (people who are passionate about doctrine) too often "throw out the baby with the bath water". There is sometimes a lot of value in there that we just discard because of disagreement on some level.

    • Stephen Altrogge

      Yeah, you're right. Too often we can toss everything out instead of selecting the good.

  • http://twitter.com/joshphillipssr Josh P

    Your example uses one single scripture. While Bethke's video was a form of art, it was also much more than the equivalent of a single scripture (in terms of sheer volume), and therefore I think your example breaks down. A better example might be "When I read Psalm 17".

    Also, it would have been very easy for Bethke to draw a distinction between "Religion" and "The Local Church", or to make it clear that Religion = Legalism or Religion = Pharisee. His failure to do this has created much confusion by irresponsible, immature Christians and unbelievers; confusion that could have been easily avoided. You and I may be able to interpret his intention, but much damage has been caused by those unable to interpret his "art" correctly, and therefore using it to bash the church. This isn't just an opinion, but fact that's been acknowledged by Bethke himself. Had he submitted the video to a critical eye prior to releasing, this all could have been avoided.

    • Stephen Altrogge

      I understand your point Josh. I'm curious though, how could Bethke have made himself more clear than saying, "I love the church."? It seems to me that if had done much more he would have taken away from the force of the video.

      • Joey

        This is not Josh, but I was talking about this with him on the way home from work today (we can't bear it when someone is wrong on the internet). But seriously, this was a well written post and got us thinking. And I think your response to Josh would be something that we would totally disagree about. You see, if he had been more clear about what he was talking about when he said "religion", if he hadn't left room for folks to use what he said to bash the church then, yes, it wouldn't have been as forceful, in a way. It would have lost its edginess. He wouldn't have been saying anything new. But placing originality and edginess in art above beauty, which comes from Truth, is capitulation to a worldly mindset. I don't think the force of what he was saying would have been lost by presenting the truth more clearly (and one comment thrown in about loving the church didn't negate all the confusing things DeYoung did a very thorough job of pointing out).

        Anyways, that was a brief summary of some of what we were arguing against you in our car as if you were sitting next to us.

  • http://www.meaningandsignificance.blogspot.com Nathaniel Simmons

    This is really helpful. We emphasize authorial intent for interpreting the Bible. Why not with art too?

    Another mistake I often make with music is throwing out the baby with the bath water. I have, at times, discounted an entire song because of a single line that I found problematic. While its fine inspect the entire song, I sometimes miss the thesis of the song because I am too caught up in a minor part of the warrant.

    • Stephen Altrogge

      Exactly.

  • http://mrserven.blogspot.com Mrs. Erven

    Thanks so much for all you post. Our pastor first sent the Bethke video to me, and then I saw it here and at The Resurgence. When it was seen on FB that my pastor had "liked" the video, some of the super, duper Reformed (but not always reforming) people in our congregation sent him all the criticism that it incurred.

    He was frustrated and decided not to show it this weekend. (Our church is already having a rough time with a tiny cell of unhappy Presbyterians.) This weekend is Sanctity of Life Sunday, and he's not preaching against abortion. He's preaching on how Christians (the church in American) treats the women who've had abortions, along with everyone else who has made at least one bad choice in their lives.

    All that said, this is a great critique of how us Reformed folks tend to get our undies all wadded up over so very many things.

  • http://sightregained.com Louis Tullo

    As a trained actor and singer, but first and foremost a Christian I can empathize with your point of view incredibly in this post. I think we have to be careful the ways in which we look at art. Everything we do should glorify God ultimately, especially art. Because one of the fundamental aspects of art is a heightened reality and/or use of non-literal communication evaluating intent and message becomes a little more difficult. That difficulty shouldn't intimidate us and immediately write it off, instead it should probe us to see why the artist chose the form of communication they did to say something. Often times our literal-mindedness can cause us to pass over the more provoking and awe-striking aspects of something. Art ultimately aims to help us see something afresh and we should be grateful for that. While art that undermines the Bible or contradicts it outright shouldn't be tolerated, we do have to be careful, as you rightly point out, to evaluate what is actually being said. Thanks Stephen!

  • http://jasonlsanders.com Jay

    Very good word, Stephen. Thanks for posting this.

  • gjware

    On the subject of critiquing exactly what the author is saying, where does the song you quoted above mention that the 50,000 people are dying of hunger?
    I haven't heard Webb's song, so I can't tell if you're remembering that being mentioned in a part you haven't quoted or whether there's some metaphor that I'm completely missing.
    Reading it through my unhappy Presbyterian lenses I'd think Webb was encouraging us to share the Gospel (and then feed them.)
    Thanks for your continuing reflections on this subject.

  • Randall

    I'll be a bit contrarian and say that I find Webb's song offensive. We don't need to curse to make God's message clear, either to the church or to the lost. Art is great, but God's truth trumps art. The message is more important than the medium, and the medium needs to be subservient to the message – He doesn't need our art – transformation comes from the Holy Spirit using God's word. (To be clear, I've been a musician for over 40 years, and I love all kinds of music and art.)

    Similarly, my view is that the video in question is muddled at best. I makes some good points, but it mixes in error and confusion such that it essentially trips and falls directly into the culture's trap of rejecting anything traditional. The artist himself agreed with Kevin DeYoung's admonitions about its shortcomings, I believe.

    I think it's important for us who are artists to step back and be sure that we're willing to critique and subjugate our love for art and artists to God's word and God's ways and stop being defensive when someone "calls" an artistic work on its shortcomings. In my personal opinion, we accept way too much "art" from the culture with strained attempts to find something good amid the preponderance of evil…as the scripture says, a little leven levens the whole lump…I fear that we become salt without savor as we capitulate to our culture's values and norms rather than calling it what it really is.

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