Some say the blues were originally gospel music that talked about what you couldn’t talk about in church. All music that has stemmed from the blues (i.e., most forms of American popular music) has carried on this tradition, giving us musical forms which are particularly well-suited to singing sad songs. Your woman left you? Any blues singer could sing about that — and so can any rock band or hip-hop artist. However, you can be sure the issue will never be addressed in church. As Kanye raps on his new album with Jay-Z, “that’s something that the preacher don’t preach.” The church needs to relearn these lessons, and pop can lead the way.
This inability to discuss the real pains of regular life silences many. People racked with heartache notice that none of the songs in their worship service deal deeply and honestly with their pain. If one wishes to say anything other than “God is good!” while surrounded by people declaring God’s goodness, in a service that reinforces those same ideas, there is implicit social pressure to keep your feelings to yourself. If this goes on long enough, one will begin to think such feelings are unacceptable even to God. Church becomes a place where you can only discuss the pleasant.
The ancient Israelites faced a similar problem, and they developed the “Lament” psalm. Lament means more than just “sad song.” At least in its technical usage, the lament consists of The Complaint, The Request, and The Praise. In the Complaint, one sings about the hard things in life, the things “the preacher don’t preach.” The Request asks God to intervene in the situation, and is almost always followed with the Praise. However, it is important to realize that the Request can be much more confrontational than the word “request” suggests. Many theologians go so far as to say that it’s a challenge to God: “I believe You are good, but evil persists. Will You act, God, or will You allow evil to stand?” This can be easily seen in passages like Psalm 6:3 or 13:3. Elsewhere, Psalm 79:10 challenges God’s power, at least in the minds of the Gentile nations. The Request, then, is not the sort of thing that would be said in many church services. Yet, the Bible’s authors believed praying in this way was legitimate and important.
Lamenting allows one to express their hurts to God and validate their pain. The “Personal Lament” (e.g., Psalm 3, 4, 5, and 7) was likely performed in some sort of religious service, either in the village or at the temple. It acknowledged the pain of the one who prays, and publicly validated their pain’s significance. This rejects the implicit pressure in many modern churches to keep smiling. Furthermore, in acknowledging this hurt in a religious setting, with a prayer directed toward God, one is reminded that God cares about their pain.
The form also leads one, if just for a few moments, from despair to God. The form of the Lament, beginning in sorrow and ending in praise, can pull the eyes of the lamenter up towards God. It can turn the singer’s cries into a half-hearted acknowledgment of God’s goodness. It’s not much, but it’s more than what existed before praying the Lament. It might be enough to protect and preserve faith through a difficult situation.
At its core, popular music is music for dealing with difficult situations, much like the Lament psalm. Many songs on the radio are monuments to broken hearts and other sources of pain. This is one reason teenagers, who already feel isolated from those around them, connect so easily with music. In “Someone Like You,” Adele confesses her love to a married former boyfriend. Each refrain concludes with “Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead/Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.” The pop musician can sing about painful relationships, but a Lament-less church is unable to give voice to these struggles. This is yet another reason the Church often seems ineffectual.
True laments are not impossible to find in contemporary music: U2’s “When I Look at the World” and “Wake Up, Dead Man” are classic laments, as is Johnny Cash’s “Spiritual” and the interpretations of some who have covered Leonard Cohen’s exhausted “Hallelujah.” However, most pop can only provide half of a solution. Pop is good at delivering the Complaint, but rarely does it turn to God and ask for divine intervention. It almost never offers a way to praise God in the midst of pain. While pop can sometimes be encouraging, as in Katie Perry’s “Firework,” this lacks the power of the Lament.
The Church needs Laments because people need Laments. As things stand, huge swaths of the Church are unable to effectively address the hurts and questions of its members. The “secular world” has half-met this need, and many have been drawn out of the Church by their inability to address their concerns in the Church. I would suggest that an endorsement of Laments accompanied with examples from pop music would help to understand them better. This might even lead to a deeper appreciation of the Psalms, though addressing the concrete lives of parishioners is more urgent. The Church survived for centuries without most Christians even being able to read their Bibles, but it will not long survive if it fails to bear one another’s burdens.