Liberation and apocalypse in a country song

Liberation and apocalypse in a country song August 29, 2015

The piped-in music that plays all night at the Big Box was stuck on the country channel most of this week. This channel is not without its charms — although I prefer the older blend of “country & western” to the new format of country & southern.

MMIDAmong the highlights of this six-hour looped playlist are a couple of Martina McBride songs that I particularly like — “Broken Wing” and “Independence Day.” Both follow Springsteen’s formula for the musical and emotional arc of a song: blues in the verses, gospel in the chorus. And both let those take-me-to-church choruses soar, showcasing McBride’s ability to belt with the best of ’em.

The two songs cover similar themes around a similar topic — women trapped in marriages with abusive, controlling men. And they’re similar enough that we can imagine McBride and her label latching onto “A Broken Wing” as an attempt to repeat the success she’d had earlier with “Independence Day.”

But there’s also a big difference in the stories told in these songs. That difference, I think, is theologically interesting. So here’s a brief discussion of that difference, followed by some study questions for further reflection.

If you’ve never heard it, here’s “A Broken Wing“:

That bit there at the end? When the drums kick back in during that last big note? Yeah, that. I like that bit.

This is a story, and a song, about escape. That’s one response to injustice or oppression or however else we may want to describe the narrator’s situation here. She was in a bad place and she got out. That’s good.

Escape from suffering and injustice is a Good Thing. But it is not the only possible response.

The story of “Independence Day” doesn’t end with its protagonist flying away to escape. In this song, she doesn’t just get away from an oppressive context — she ends it. She burns it to the ground.

Back on Independence Day, Sarah Moon accurately described this song as “a hymn to feminist liberation theology.” That’s no exaggeration. Gretchen Peters’ lyrics include echoes of the Magnificat and an affirmation of resurrection. Toss in the snippet of “Amazing Grace” — not the first verse, either, mind you — at the beginning and it’s clear there’s some theology going on in this thing.

And that theology might not be what you expect if you’re mainly accustomed to the “I’ll Fly Away” theology of otherworldly escape. “Roll the stone away,” McBride sings, and the next line is “let the guilty pay.” Feel free to try to make that fit with any conventional doctrine of the atonement, but that’s not what’s going on here. In this song, Easter isn’t about the forgiveness of sins, but about a rebirth of justice.

Peters’ liberationist hymn, in other words, is — like the Magnificat itself — apocalyptic. It says what apocalyptic theology always says: This situation is unjust. Therefore, it has to go. Tear it all down and start over. It calls for “a day of reckoning.” It starts a fire.

Questions for further discussion:

1. If you believe that the mother’s actions in “Independence Day” were wrong because violence is never acceptable, then doesn’t it behoove you to condemn the father’s violence first, and second, and third-through-500th, before ever mentioning her use of violence in response? And isn’t the same thing true in every other case of a liberationist theology that might refuse to categorically rule out violent self defense?

2. I am personally opposed to the use of violence in most contexts, yet whenever anyone answers “No” to either of the questions above, I want to punch them in the neck. Hard. Is this hypocrisy on my part?

3. What is the narrative, ethical and/or theological importance of the presence of the young child in “Independence Day”? Would escaping through an open window — and leaving her daughter behind — have been an option for the woman in that song?

4. Regardless of how you feel about Country music as a whole, you have to admit that pedal steel guitars are pretty cool. That wasn’t a question.

5. Some Christian leaders insist that Christians have a duty, above all else, to forgive those who harm us, and that therefore it was the moral duty of the protagonists in both of these stories to forgive their husbands and to stay with them. Is it ethically acceptable to wish that such Christian leaders might meet with the same fate as the husband in “Independence Day”?

6. If not, then when is the idea so satisfying and delightful?

7. Do you ever wish you could make willfully obtuse and self-important pundits watch that video for “Independence Day” so that they could see that bit with the little girl recoiling from the clowns’ slapstick due to its reminding her of her father’s violent abuse and then, maybe, they might understand what trigger warnings are really about and stop writing willfully obtuse and self-important columns bemoaning them as a sign of some supposedly over-sensitive political correctness? Because I wish that.

8. Sometimes the Bible says “You should dread the Day of Judgment.” Sometimes the Bible says “You should look forward to the Day of Judgment.” Do you think this is a contradiction? Or do you think the difference is based on two different “yous” being addressed?

9. Which “you” do you think you are? I suspect I’m the wrong one.


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