Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? (Part 2)

Our Relation to the World Is Both Serious and Playful

Ian Olson / 7.13.21

The meaning of art always exceeds an artist’s intentions. The lyrics of a song and the music which gives it life and form are evocative in a variety of ways that exceed circumstances of its composition (see Part One for further elaboration). But how can a song grip us as listeners with a meaning we don’t entirely mean ourselves? How can can authorial intent convey meaning and yet that meaning somehow evades why the song is significant to us?

Sometimes the coming-up-short of the given (the Real or literal) is a spur to seeking something behind it: a truth beyond the real; other times this truth-beyond-the-real comes and disrupts the given to expose a surplus one could not have gathered from the apparent and literal. There is more than meets the ear in the music we enjoy. 

There are songs that appeal to something we, in a different context, would decry and insist we don’t want any part of. We don’t sing Guns N’ Roses in church for a reason. But does that, by itself, mean that the appeal of Rock ‘n’ roll is misguided— that it is the devil’s music, fit only for the devil?

There some portrayals of the Christian life that would say yes, but in so doing collapse the future into the present. So we sanctify sanitize the form through the infusion of “holy” lyrics. The world is black and white, and the swivel of Elvis’ hips is unbecoming of those destined for glory. But this trains us to lie about what is, in fact, the case, retreating from the world — and ourselves in the process. The premature glorification many of us assume we must exemplify can sabotage our appreciation for doses of the tension of where we are now. That tension is not only indicative of what is wrong with the present — we are still meant to thrive here and now within the interplay between the fallenness of the present and the goodness it nevertheless still presents to us.

This anthropology also forgets that the cross is the nexus where the real and the true meet. The cross is simultaneously ugly and brutal and the eschatological vehicle for the truth of redemption. What appears to be tragic is also good news. Truth is the excess spilling out of the Real’s wounds, demonstrating that what is actual is not all that is or all that will be, that it itself cannot be apart from the Real. 

The music we enjoy isn’t precisely the same, but it does seem to be touched by the paradoxical grace which made its home at the cross. After all, there aren’t that many songs that straightforwardly praise decadence and depravity. Rather, music’s visceral force harnesses and disciplines the disorder embodied in its subject matter, even as that subject matter charges the music with its Dionysian power.[1]

I don’t know what else to call a Christian demand to deny the reality of our present life because it differs from the future in Christ except ideology.[2] It can make a hell of the real world by demanding it conform to how things ought to be. “You’re a new creation! You aren’t motivated by the imagined thrill of meeting the girl of your dreams!” But if that’s the case, why am I responding to “Shut Up and Dance” so energetically? It’s because the exhilaration encoded in that song interprets my discontent back to me with sensations tuned to my desire, not with a roadmap of my intentions.

Songs about love communicated in an all-or-nothing way (especially those that might not have a PG rating) express an innate, universal desire for a connection to someone else, a longing that’s encoded into our DNA. Why else would I blast “Sexual Healing” out of a boombox for my high school crush at the very same time I was seriously considering lifelong celibacy for myself?[3] That song evoked something despite its literal emphasis on a thing I thought I didn’t want.

Consider “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction. It appears to be an upbeat, acoustic guitar-driven song with lovely steel drum accompaniment. Its chorus is dreamy, full of soaring highs. But if you examine the lyrics you find that Jane is an addict, stuck in interminable loveless relationships, “treated like a ragdoll,” eager to escape the dreariness of her world. Jane’s never been in love, she only knows if someone “wants” her. And worse, this is who she continually settles for.

Everything hinges on that chorus, where Jane promises herself she’s going to change. She’s fed up and wants to put the present decisively behind her. There is a thrilling note of hope in her declaration, “I’m gonna kick tomorrow.” But the listener wonders how many times she’s said that before. Why it’s going to be different this time. But even within this skepticism there is an indefatigable consolation in the making of that promise. The band isn’t mocking Jane for her failure to make good on that promise: they are bearing witness to the painful contradictions of life in our world and shining a spotlight on Jane’s hope.

Whether or not this was the band’s intention when they wrote and recorded this song is largely irrelevant. The mere use of beautiful sounds subverts the musician’s avowed purpose by injecting an excess of meaning the musician did not create but only utilized. Loveliness frames the ugly, silently testifying that this isn’t how things are meant to be, but indicating that another way of being is out there, one to which this loveliness belongs. 

And this is how all the music that lifts us up and gives us life operates. It depicts the actual so as to open an aperture onto something better, something that we know will make us feel like we matter, will ease the pain of living, or, best of all, do justice to the good we experience in handfuls in the present age. The hopelessness of the song paradoxically points to something more.

We must not devalue the Real by pretending we can make the eschatological future fully present. The gospel’s goal (the salvation of humankind) necessarily includes the “penultimate by which man as he exists in the world is determined in the form of values, norms, and other marks of orientation”. What we must be on guard against, Helmut Thielicke cautions, is despising reality simply because it is not the pure goodness of eternity.

The result is distortion, not merely of the world God has posited for us, but also of the gospel itself … can we seriously hear the message of dying and rising again with Christ if we no longer love life and the earth in such a way that with them everything seems to be lost and to come to an end? Can we receive the message in any other way than as news which proclaims the destroying of what we love and yet also the restoring of what we meant by this love, even though we saw it only in a distorted reflection?[4]

The ultimate of the gospel’s promise meets in the here and now and finds its reference in and through the penultimate; the real and the actual are not allegories of the true and ultimate in the sense that their appreciation dissolves the significance of what is visible and tangible now. Knowing there is more to this world than the brokenness we see spurs a loving embrace of that very world. 

Our relation to it [the world], then, is one of both seriousness and play,” he says. “Thus tension has to be maintained between the ultimate and the penultimate. It must not be slackened by a puristic separation into this world and the next, into the sphere of the secular and the sphere of salvation.”[5] There are many good things which directly contribute nothing to our salvation which are nevertheless good because they make human existence enjoyable, or at least more tolerable. 

A monomaniacal focus on the ultimate breeds an ethic which judges things on an instrumental basis — “What things will further the therapy of my salvation?” — and consequently downgrades many goods to a sub- (or even anti-) spiritual level. But these pleasures and activities aren’t insignificant to the Kingdom: they are the media in which the pure goodness of that Kingdom can become desirable. 

Near to the heart of the gospel is the good news that the Lord takes on anyone with even a mustard seed’s equivalent of faith, with the heart they actually have and not the one they should have. We will have it, and it is trained through the responses of our heart as it is at present. And if that is the case, then I have little doubt that the lift I feel singing along to “Take Me Home Tonight” can be folded within the injunction to lift up my heart to the Lord of the Real and the True.


(thanks to Caleb Mannan for pointing John the Baptist-like to this song!)