a couple friends and i recently made the one hour drive north from oxford to birmingham for a concert. we were going to see one of my favorite bands, angels & airwaves, and i was excited to finally see them perform live. particularly on this side of the atlantic.
i love music. and one thing that’s even better than music is live music.
i love music because it’s honest. people can tell when others aren’t being honest. and the same is true with art. people can tell when an artist isn’t honest. people can tell when music isn’t really music.
i used to think i knew what music was, but then i saw charles bradley sing the song, “why is it so hard?” and i realized i really didn’t.
when i saw his eyes and his mouth and the expression on his face when he sang those words, i realized he meant what he was saying. and i realized how few people who sing actually mean it.
i think that’s the difference between actors and musicians. actors are paid to pretend. they may look like they mean it, and they may even think they do, but you can’t really have music if you don’t mean it. musicians mean it. and that’s why i love music, because it’s honest.
second-story tattoos & skinny jeans
i had never been to birmingham before, but i had heard about it. never anything good. and it showed.
pulling into the city was depressing. garbage lined the streets. buildings were literally falling apart. and homeless men and women wandered the tired streets. you could almost feel the weight of the sorrow of this city as we passed through it.
after grabbing a quick dinner at a japanese noodle house that smelled of ginger and soy sauce, we found our way to the venue: an old three-story theatre. our tickets were for the second story, so we were looking down at the stage. it was an intimate setting, and it felt like we had a front-row seat, even from the second-story balcony.
the old theatre was crowded with 20- and 30-somethings. dressed in vintage t-shirts and skinny jeans. guys with spiky hair and girls with dark eyeshadow. drinks were being served at a bar in the back of the second story, and conversations were being had over pints and cocktails while the opening act took the stage.
i’m not sure i could recommend the opening band, but i was intrigued by their sound. and by the scene that played out as they performed. everyone was crowded into this dark room. dressed in dark clothes and tattoos. the kind of people who don’t look like they’d get excited about much.
and as this band began, i found my eyes looking around the room. taking in the scene. and thinking to myself, “how do you begin to connect with an audience like this?” and then, “how would you possibly try to speak about truth to an audience that looks like it could care less, about anything?”
when “truth” doesn’t match reality
i think one thing anyone who wants to speak to this generation–the 20- and 30-somethings who make up generation y–should know is that our generation doesn’t buy truth if it doesn’t fit with what we know about reality. and one of the conditions for truth is that it isn’t neat and tidy. truth isn’t neat and tidy because reality isn’t. it isn’t cheerful and shiny. it’s not smooth and soft. instead, quite often, it’s full of pain and anguish. it has a rough texture and it’s messy.
if someone attempts to offer us “truth” that doesn’t include the bitter taste of pain and hurt that we know life carries, we’re not going to waste our time with it. we know reality hurts. we know it hurts because we’ve tasted it.
this generation has watched as our own country’s commercial airplanes were flown into high rise buildings, killing innocent passengers flying to see family and friends and office workers just starting their day.
we’ve seen our friends go off to fight in a war we don’t understand, and return to the tears of family and friends who are handed a folded flag as a means of condolence.
we’ve watched kids our own age be gunned down in schools by other kids our own age who were bullied until they couldn’t take it any more.
we hear about rich men stealing money from the retirement accounts of our parents and our aunts and uncles, and we read about them getting away with what amounts to a slap on the wrist.
we receive the news that our mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents have cancer. and we watch as their lives slowly slip away.
we spend years in college only to be told that the economy is the worst since that of the great depression, and then we enter the workforce hoping to somehow, in some small way, make a difference in this broken world.
we hear… we hear about our loved ones getting to the point of being completely overwhelmed by life, and deciding to just put an end to it all.
this generation knows about hurt and suffering and despair because it’s the reality we’ve grown up in. and if “truth” is offered to us in a way that doesn’t reflect this, then we’re not buying it.
truth in music
i like music because it’s honest. it’s a reflection of the zeitgeist of a culture at a particular point in time. if you want to know what a generation is thinking or feeling, then listen to their music.
on this particular evening, the opening band began their performance with a very heavy sound. hard, steady drumming played alongside rolling guitar riffs, and vocals that seemed to moan of pain and anguish. this was true of the first two songs, and the crowds nodded along, as if they understood, before raising their arms and clapping their hands when the songs had finished. but then, when the third song came around, the sound began to feel much more optimistic. much more hope-filled. you could feel it in the air, as everyone began to wake up from the lulling sound of the first two songs. and by the band’s final song, the music made you want to dance. and people did.
and i think that’s the way truth is. we all want hope. we all want to dance. we all want to know things will be brighter. but we don’t want to be told things are brighter, because we know they’re not. we can see they’re not.
and so, you cannot offer truth that says, “hey, don’t worry. things are just fine. everything’s okay, let’s celebrate!”
we know things are not okay. in fact, we know things are very, very bad.
we see it every time we pass the homeless man wearing a sleeping bag and beard, laying on the street corner.
we see it when we visit our grandparents in the nursing home, when we look around and see those faces that are dying not of ailing health or mind, but of loneliness.
we see it in our friends and family who are so overwhelmed with sadness that they sedate themselves with drugs and alcohol. usually legal, but not always.
we know things are bad, and if you tell us they’re not, we won’t believe you. in fact, we’ll shut you out before you can get another word in.
and so, if you want to offer us truth, you have to acknowledge how bad things are.
an offer of truth
as i stood in the second story of this old theatre in birmingham, i found myself thinking about truth and reality, and all the ways this world screams out to us that things are broken. i found myself thinking about how truth has got to have the bitter taste of pain and brokenness that reality has. and i found myself thinking about how that’s exactly what christianity does.
it doesn’t dress up or dumb down how bad things really are. in fact, if anything, it emphasizes our sorry state. christianity says things are indeed so bad that it took God–the only Being who is outside of our reality–entering into our reality, living a completely perfect life, and then dying an innocent death on our behalf.
christianity says things are so bad it took Love incarnate swallowing up evil in this sacrificial act of grace and mercy to straighten the trajectory of our world, from darkness to light. things are still dark, to be sure, as we can clearly see, but the hope and promise of light is now before us. because of this act of love.
that’s what christianity offers as truth. it says, “yes, you’re absolutely right, things are broken. in fact, they’re far worse than most of us realize.”
and yet, even in that brokenness, christianity promises hope. hope that this nightmare is not all there is. hope that, one day, this bad dream will be over and it will finally be morning, to use a line from c.s. lewis.
it will not happen immediately, but it will happen eventually. because it is already happening. christianity tells us the Light has entered the darkness, that It might bring Light into every dark corner of this broken world we find ourselves surrounded by.
tim keller visited oxford recently, to give a series of talks. several nights into his visit, i remember him voicing the question so many have:
“if God really did enter into the world in a man, why didn’t He just destroy evil altogether?”
and after asking this question, he spoke to us all, answering his own question,
“you know what that would mean, don’t you? if He destroyed evil, we wouldn’t be here, because the evil is inside of us. . . He didn’t come with a sword to destroy evil, He left with nails in His hands to redeem it.”
that’s one of the reasons why i believe the truth christianity offers. because it’s not simply good cheer, but because it acknowledges the bitter, painful, broken reality we all wake up to each morning. because it speaks of a God Who knows the depth of this pain, and Who did the unthinkable to heal it.
i think john stott was thinking along these same lines when he wrote,
“i couldn’t believe in God if it weren’t for the cross. in the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”
the only appropriate starting point
and as i stood on the second-story balcony looking around the room while the music played and the lead singer danced around in the darkness with lights of blues and red shining around him, singing, “as God falls fast asleep, kids still move to a steady beat, even if its bombs falling at their feet,” i couldn’t help but think that these kids get it. they know the depth of the darkness of this world they’ve been born into, and they’re unwilling to consider any “truth” that doesn’t acknowledge that darkness. they won’t trust it, because they know it doesn’t fit with reality.
by the time the main act took the stage, i was encouraged that not only the audience understood that things are broken and in desperate need of healing, the band seemed to, as well.
at one point in the performance, the lead singer took a moment to say a few words. and i was completely taken off guard by what he had to say,
“we’re not about being a rock band, we’re about an idea… that you can make a difference…”
i was taken back by these words because they weren’t coming from a “christian” band taking a few minutes to speak to a churched audience about the gospel. we were at a secular rock show, in a crowd of 20- and 30-somethings who came to be entertained.
the truth is, we all know things are broken, and we all desperately want them to be better. as dark and hopeless as things now are, we still want hope.
the truth is, we still want the Light to overcome the darkness. we still want the Good News, but simply giving us good news is not enough. before one can say why this news is good news, one must acknowledge the brokenness.
we do others a great disservice–and ourself–when we pretend that everything’s okay. it is not, and we’re disrespectful when we celebrate the Light without acknowledging the present darkness.
the painful, bitter taste of reality must be our starting point because it is what we all share. we understand the brokenness. it is the hope we must be shown.