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.

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