Questions and Answers: For the Streetlight People

Questions and Answers: For the Streetlight People February 10, 2015

For those of you who are new to the site or can’t remember the last time I wrote an installment in this series, “Questions and Answers” explores the space where the secular touches the sacred in popular songwriting (emphasis on popular–no weird, obscure stuff here!) It is designed to help Christians think deeply about some of the most thoughtful lyrics that writers on both sides of the divide have contributed to the eternal questions: Why are we here? Who are we? What is love? Do we need to be saved? Can we be saved?

My first entry paired up a Journey song with a Steven Curtis Chapman song. Now, it seems I’m coming full circle, with another Journey song (“Don’t Stop Believin’ “) and another SCC song (“More to This Life”).

I know what you’re probably thinking (at least, if you grew up in the 80s). “Journey? Thoughtful and deep? Seriously?” This song in particular might raise such skeptical eyebrows, given its nauseating ubiquity at graduations, class reunions, and such like. It’s a fixture of American pop culture. There is no escape. (Hey, see what I did there? Escape, escape… okay never mind.) But believe it or not, I am serious. A careful listen to the lyrics apart from its fist-pumping tag will make you wonder how it ever became the go-to feel-good song for teenage America:

Strangers waiting
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlight people
Livin’ just to find emotion
Hidin’ somewhere in the night

Read the rest of it in full here, divorced from the music, and you’ll see that Steve Perry’s intended message was a much more tragic, more human one than the culture realized.

The word that rises to the fore when contemplating “Don’t Stop Believing” is “lostness.” Or randomness. Or purposelessness. The only “purpose” the characters have is summed up in the line “living just to find emotion.” They settle for the ultimately empty pleasure of a one-night stand on the principle that you might as well sleep with somebody when you have the chance. In that light, the oft-repeated tag “Don’t stop believing” almost takes on a desperate, secretly doubtful tone. It’s as if the narrator is repeating the inspiring phrase in a vain attempt to convince himself that as long as you’re “feeling stuff,” that’s all that matters. But what really lingers is the bleak pre-chorus: “Oh, the movie never ends. It goes on, and on, and on, and on….”

Steven Curtis Chapman’s “More to This Life” takes the position of an observer who is watching such people walk past him on the street with the exact same spirit: “Life just goes on.”

The old familiar story
Told in different ways,
Make the most of your own journey
From the cradle to the grave;
Dream your dreams tomorrow because today
Life must go on.

The second verse makes a bit of a shift and shows how even the outwardly respectable nominal Christians can suffer from the same gnawing dissatisfaction. He pictures a man who takes care of his family and even goes to church, yet “still feels a need to search.” It reminds us that lost people aren’t confined to the seedy boulevards. They may be sitting among us in the pews on Sunday morning, wearing a smile and a freshly-pressed suit.

Of course, the chorus doesn’t leave seekers in a state of limbo. It offers the answer. The virtue of Chapman’s lyrics is their simplicity. He does nothing more than sing the gospel, concisely and elegantly. “There’s more to this life… more than these eyes alone can see. And there’s more than this life alone can be.”

I will close with some insight from Christian folk singer Don Chaffer, reflecting on Steve Perry and this his most misunderstood song:

A friend of a friend supposedly sat down with Perry, and asked him why he’d dropped out of music. Steve said he’s been disappointed by how ironically his band’s been re-interpreted in today’s culture. He never meant anything as a joke, as overstatement, as bombast. He was dead serious, and if no one wants to take him and the music seriously, well then it’s too painful to try anymore. When you listen to “Don’t Stop Believin’,” you see what he’s saying: “Some’ll win/ Some will lose/ Some’re born to sing the blues… Don’t stop believin’/ Hold onto that feelin’.” If nothing else, that’s a work of utter honesty and sincerity. And his voice, for crying out loud, is full of pathos. I know. Journey. Dude, it’s just Journey. But, as my wife said, upon me telling her about how Steve Perry supposedly feels about his problem, she said, “Poor Steve Perry—bless his heart—everybody misunderstands him.” She was not, you see, being ironic. She was as serious as Steve was when he was telling us about the shadows, searching, up and down the boulevard.

There may be some here tonight who’ve never had the greatest need the human heart will ever know met in your life. The need for a relationship with God. The Bible says everything that was created was created by God and for God. I believe that means that the greatest purpose, the reason, the ultimate reason we’re on earth, is to have a relationship with God. And that relationship is possible because Jesus Christ came in this world, and he said “I have come so that you can have life.” He didn’t come to take the trouble out of life. He didn’t come to make all the problems disappear. He said “I have come, so that even in this world while you will have trouble, you can take heart, because I have overcome this world.” He said, “In me you’ll find peace. In me you’ll find life.” Jesus came so that we might have more to this life.
Steven Curtis Chapman

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