In a recent conversation between Bono and Eugene Peterson, the U2 front man said this:
“I’m talking about dishonesty that I find a lot of in Christian art. A lot of dishonesty. And I think it’s a shame because these are people who are vulnerable to God—in a good way—vulnerable. I mean porous, open. I would love if this conversation would inspire people who are writing [with] these beautiful voices, these beautiful gospel songs [to] write a song about their bad marriage. Write a song about how they’re pissed off at the government. Because that’s what God wants from you. The truth…and that truthfulness…will blow things apart. Why I’m suspicious of Christians is because of this lack of realism. And I’d like to see more of that in life, and in art, and in music.”
I want so badly to agree with Bono. I am tired of shallow writing and shallow music. I’ve long been a proponent of intentionally giving lament a place within the local church expression of worship. It is the fact that these laments were public and Godward which has me nodding my head with much that Bono says in the above paragraph.
Yet I believe there is also a way in which such “honesty” will not benefit the church but instead numb our souls. There is a way in which we can lament which isn’t life-giving but rather deadening to our worship. There is a type of “realism” which misses the Real. And I think in our effort to pursue honesty in our art we put ourselves in danger of falling off the other side of the horse.
I can imagine that mad at the President song, which is sure to be a hit in 2017. “I don’t like the President. He’s not my leader. He’s a big dumb meanie pants. Here are all the reasons why….blah, blah, blah…just thought you should know I’m not happy God.” Now, of course Bono is talking about something far more artistic and beautiful. But at the end of the day I fear that what we often mean by language of lament is permission to complain to God and tell him that we aren’t happy with the way he is dealing in the world.
Our Language of Lament
But that is a far cry from the Bible’s language of lament. In the Psalms, the Bible gives us a wonderful pattern for being real with God in a corporate setting. And it also provides us with individual Psalms of lament. They follow a predictable pattern with a few notable exceptions. Almost without fail they start with calling out to God, crying out for help, sharing their beef, and ending with praise and confidence in God to come through. What you don’t find much of are angry tirades against God or even those Psalms which just kind of end in brokenness. They exist, but they aren’t the major thrust of the Psalms of lament. “I’m not happy with you God” is coming up just a bit short of “casting all your cares upon the Lord”.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a way in which God invites our rant. But there is a difference between carrying our vent to God and making it public. Consider Asaph in Psalm 73. Dude is about to burst at the seams. He is overwhelmed with confusion, anger, and bitterness. Some of his anger is directed at people but more than anything he is mad at God.
What would his art look like in that moment? What would it mean for him to “be real”? It’d likely be a rant. His song would have likely been one of those “I’m not happy with you God” type of songs. But look again at Psalm 73 and see what Asaph did. “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus’ I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” Asaph knew that what was real for him in that moment was more in line with the lies of the Fall than with actual truth. And so he shut his mouth.
Asaph had learned a lesson which many of us pastors/leaders would do well to learn. Speak publicly of your scars and not necessarily your wounds. It is the fool who gives full vent to his thoughts and says everything he is thinking and feeling.
In our day and age what I’m feeling has come to equal what is truth. And if you don’t give full vent to your feelings then you can be accused of being “not real”. And so we assume that what it means to have a language of lament is to just say everything we think and feel about the brokenness around us. But the Psalms teach us a different refrain. The Psalms don’t end with how we feel but push towards how we ought to feel. The Psalmists almost without fail point us One who is higher than our present troubles.
And so what I’m saying is that there is a way which we can be so focused on our wounds and our brokenness that we lose the purpose of the lament; namely, to life us higher. Yes, we must be real and authentic and not just put on shiny faces and pretend like everything is wonderful when it is not. But we also must remember that there is a Real which is much bigger and much more true than the fallenness all around us.
This is why I say we need less “honesty” and more worship. We need to create art which draws us out of ourselves and towards another. Sure, talk about how life sucks at times but don’t make that the refrain. Use the language of the Psalms and be really real.