Pop Stars, The Israelites & The Necessity of Lament

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.

About Stephen Hale
  • http://www.facebook.com/maxhaben Max Haben

    I like the conversation that this stirs up, and I agree with some points of this article. Lamenting is a necessary part of our relationship with God which is often avoided by the church. Musicians, poets and artists do play an important role in being a voice of the broken hearted and struggling pilgrims. Do I think Kanye is the go to source for this? Not really. For every “Jesus Walks” there is a “Kanye’s Workout Plan”. It doesn’t have to be a Priest or a Preacher, but I do think the artist who represents the Christian people has a certain obligation to holiness and integrity. I think you are right on the mark with the Psalms. These prayers touch on the most universal human experiences, whether one is Christian or not. I’m not sure Pop music is the place where we will find this. In my opinion, the true prophets tend to remain somewhat behind the scenes, like voices crying out in the wilderness.

  • http://twitter.com/hymndescants dschram

    Amen to your article. I have been thinking about this very topic for quite a while. This has the potential to solve relationship problems in the church and actually bring believers closer together. We are all vulnerable human beings and need each other. We can’t be perfect all the time – at least not without the support of our fellow sufferers. By the way, the saddest Psalm that I have found in the Bible is the 88th. I would love to see someone use those words in a modern hymn. (Do you think the Getty’s are up to that task?)

  • David Hawley

    I wonder whether happy clappy songs have some family resemblance to the prosperity gospel.
    Also, our culture hates downers, but we of all people should be able to look into the dark.

  • http://pushofpikes.wordpress.com Stephen P. Hale

    Dschram:

    You know, Ps. 88 is really interesting, because it breaks the pattern! There’s no praise at the end!

    I saw an interview with Michael Card, and he said “when people talk about bad things in their lives, the response from other Christians is to try and fix it, or blame them, or something. We can’t just cry with them.” The interviewer said ‘why do you think that is?’ He said “it doesn’t fit into the way we usually think, which is that God blesses you if you are good, and punishes you if you are bad.”

    I wonder if that is more true, or if what David Hawley noted above, that our whole culture seems uncomfortable with downers. I think they both might be true to some degree, but my half-formed opinion is that David’s idea can carry more weight. It’s MORE of the problem than what Michael Card identified. At least, that’s what I think at the moment….

    And I agree with everything Max said. There’s not much to say when I agree 100%!

    -Stephen

  • Steven Sukkau

    @Max Haben

    I like your thoughts, and i also share the anxiety of trying to find comfort in pop music.
    But i am curious, what did you mean by true prophets being behind the scenes?

    Who are these people for you? Secular musicians? Where do you find them?

  • Cindy Lou

    I very much enjoyed and agree with this post. I’ve worked in the church world for several years and have often been frustrated at people’s discomfort with pain. If anybody can offer hope to a hurting person, or at least just sit with them in their pain, it should be believers. But we are the worst at it. A couple years ago I went though the most painful experience of my life. In this time I experienced first hand how crappy the church is with pain. “When God closes a door He opens a window” “God is in control” “you just need to trust Him”. All I wanted to do was to shove these well meaning people through that closed door. But I didn’t. I read through the Psalms multiple times. I cried on my best friends couch (multiple times) and I chose to trust that the all powerful and perfectly loving God had reason and purpose for my pain, even when I didn’t understand it. Now, a few years later, I’m still in the healing journey. But I have seen a glimpse of God’s purposes. In the past year two of my very dear friends have experienced very similar catastrophes to my own. I have had the honor of walking through it with them, sitting with them, praying with them, crying with them, and believing God’s purposes with them. Sometimes this journey of life is not what I would have chosen, but I do believe in God’s amazing plan for us all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/maxhaben Max Haben

    @StevenSakkau

    I did have some certain artists in mind when I made that comment. I also think that the reason those voices tend to be “behind the scenes” is because they don’t necessarily go chasing after the spotlight and the prophets message by nature is one that people often ignore because it is always fighting up stream, it doesn’t kind of just go with the flow. John the baptist is someone who often gets little recognition, even in the church, yet Christ said that he was the greatest of men among those born of woman. I think to be a “popular” artist by definition means that you are popular to listen to, you fit into the mold of what most people find enjoyable and comfortable. I just find it very hard for someone to truly carry that prophetic voice and at the same time be on every radio station or music chart.

    Some artists I like in this light

    -Josh Garrels
    - Eshon Burgandy
    - Sufjan Stevens
    - Brother Ali
    - Luke Spehar
    - Praverb the wyse


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