Two things happened this weekend to remind me of how much I’ve changed in the last 20 years and how fluid faith and theology really are.
First, I was astonished to learn that it’s been 20 years since Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, committed suicide (April 5, 1994). Soon after his death, I was up on a stage preaching to 600+ teens about the dangers of listening to Grunge, wearing black clothes and writing dark poetry. I warned against piercings, tattoos and Pearl Jam. I wasn’t all that committed to the Christian subculture, and I regularly listened to secular music, but I was pretty sure that something inherently evil was going on in Seattle.
The second thing that happened is related to the old Jesus Music collection I’ve recently taken out of storage. While I was listening to Petra’s Not of this World, a song titled “Lift Him Up” caught my attention. I was singing along while doing house chores and had to laugh when one set of lyrics came up repeatedly.
Lift Him up, tell the gospel story
Lift Him up, let them see His glory
It doesn't take any Bible degree
Just lift Him up, so the world can see
So how do those two events signal a change in my own way of thinking about faith and culture?
The Cobain death was something I paid attention to at the time, but only with a desire to cast it as a dangerous omen for a gullible generation. That was a real shortcoming on my part. I remember one teen girl literally yelling at me after my anti-Cobain message, “Stop picking on Kurt!” Another young youth leader came to me with an anguished look on his face, trying to convince me that I was wrong about this new musical form of cultural expression. What I lacked 20 years ago was a sensitivity to what was happening in the lives of the very people to which I’d come to speak. I was almost completely inattentive to what they were actually saying.
If I had it to do again, I’d handle that situation differently. I’ve since learned to be a student of my students. I realize that they have much to teach me about their own perspectives of culture. I’m more inquisitive today, asking questions about the world around rather than summarily dismissing what I don’t understand. And now I know that even in the darkest corners of culture—where some would place Cobain—there are elements of truth and light. Nirvana called us to question our complacency, our sensibilities and our unrecognized prejudices. If I had a chance to preach to that same crowd again, I’d probably play “In Bloom” and then ask the kids how they’ve felt abandoned by a whole generation of adults. That could be a great introduction to the hero of our Christian story who was also abandoned as he challenged the notions of his day.
The Petra song is a different but related lesson. “It doesn't take much theology, Just lift Him up, so the world can see,” sang Greg X. Volz. He continued with, “It doesn't take any Bible degree, Just lift Him up, so the world can see.” That simplistic view of Christianity in the early 80s led me to my reductionist view of culture in the 90s. It was much easier to subscribe to a “just do what the Bible says” position than it was to engage in an honest investigation of Scripture. It was obvious to me: a good sermon told people what to do. The more certain of himself a pastor was, the more respect I had for that pastor. My theology was uncomplicated and comfortable.
But today, I’m pretty sure that theology is much more complex than I originally assumed while singing along with Petra. And it’s no surprise that exposure to other cultures is the single most important step in helping me understand this. As I ponder cultural engagement, I’m made aware of how difficult biblical interpretation is, as well as the narrowness of my own hermeneutical process. As I become a student of my students, I learn that the old adage is quite true: The more I know, the less I understand.
So, now in my fifth decade of life, I’m not as certain that one style of music is to be avoided and another is to be embraced. What appears to be unholy might carry a lot of truth, and what appears to be orthodox might actually have a fair amount of bad theology. It’s a bit tougher at times—sometimes quite unsettling!—but I’m a better Bible reader, teacher and preacher today because I’m not hesitant to struggle with and be honest about hard questions and difficult passages. I won’t get rid of my Petra albums (hey, “God Gave Rock n Roll to You”!), but I’m not afraid of listening to, or experiencing, something that makes me uncomfortable anymore.