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Facing the Music: Faith and Meaning in Popular Songs

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780827210226
  • Publisher: Chalice Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Series: Preaching and Its Partners Series
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.48 (d)

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Chapter One


Facing the Music about God


Thinking about God


    Thinking about God as a Witness to the Gospel

    The subtitle to this chapter alludes to the subtitle of Dishwalla's song titled "Counting Blue Cars": "Tell Me All Your Thoughts on God." It is a rather explicit invitation to think about God, and thinking about God is certainly an essential component of what the Introduction called "listening for God." In fact, "thinking about God" could serve as a definition of the term theology! Despite this fact, of course, many Christians have been taught not to think about God. Rather they have been advised that Christianity is a matter of accepting things "on faith" without trying to understand. While there is undoubtedly an essential and ultimately inexplicable mystery that lies at the heart of the Christian faith (see below), the advice not to think about God is dangerously misleading and ultimately destructive of genuine faith for the following reasons.

    First of all, the history of humankind, ancient or modern, reveals that human beings simply cannot not think about God. Dishwalla's "Counting Blue Cars" features a child who, quite typically, has lots of questions. But the fact of the matter, of course, is that it is not just children who have questions. Human beings of all ages in all places and times have had and still have many fundamental questions about their origin, their existence, and the ultimate meaning of their lives—in short, questions about God. To advise people notto confront these questions—in essence, not to think about God—is unrealistic, uncaring, and unfaithful. Indeed, it is likely that many persons in recent years have been driven away from the church by the advice of pastors and other church leaders not to think about God. We live in a society that highly values education and critical thinking in every field and endeavor except religion. It's as if the church has asked people to turn off their minds as they enter the sanctuary. Therefore, it is no wonder that at least one of the primary reasons for the decline of the so-called "mainline" denominations is the church's failure to encourage persons to seek an intellectually honest and satisfying understanding of God and the Christian faith. Or, to use Dishwalla's subtitle, we have alienated people insofar as we have refused to honor their questions and insofar as we have been unwilling to say, simply and directly to people, "Tell Me All Your Thoughts on God."

    Secondly, the advice not to think about God represents a dangerous misunderstanding of what faith is essentially all about. In biblical terms, faith is not primarily intellectual assent to a series of propositions or doctrines. Rather, faith is the entrusting of one's whole life to God, including the life of the mind. Important consequences follow from the biblical understanding of faith as essentially trust rather than belief. For instance, we are set free to pursue the Augustinian direction of faith seeking understanding. That is, we are set free to think critically and creatively about God and God's character without having to worry that we are insulting God by way of our questions and without ever having to claim that we have finally arrived at figuring God out. Or, to use traditional Reformed or Presbyterian language, we are set free to use the life of the mind in the service of God. As Daniel L. Migliore succinctly concludes: "Christian faith is thinking faith."

    In more practical terms for contemporary persons perhaps, the biblical understanding of faith means that there is no necessary conflict between the claims of science and the claims of the Christian faith. It is telling that the church often loses people at precisely the age when they arrive at the point of critical thinking—late adolescence or early adulthood. Having been taught the methods and results of critical thinking in high school or college—in fields like biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and astronomy—young persons have trouble assessing these learnings in light of their experiences in church, where they have generally been offered no encouragement or help in thinking about God. Most often young persons have apparently concluded that the church with its God-talk is naive, outdated, or simply wrong. These conclusions can be avoided if the church would adhere to the biblical understanding of faith as trust, thereby freeing people to confront honestly and openly their many questions, and thus freeing them to think about God.

    From this perspective, thinking about God is a form of witness; and, as we suggested in the Introduction, we are concerned in this book with how popular songs serve as a witness to the Gospel. To be sure, there are not many songs that explicitly invite us to think about God, as Dishwalla's "Counting Blue Cars" does. But there are several songs that explicitly mention God and thus at least implicitly invite us to think about God. In view of what has been said thus far, one should not expect these songs to represent detailed doctrinal statements or developed creedal formulations. To the contrary, the first four songs to be discussed in this chapter speak of God in untraditional and striking ways; God is depicted as tired and indecisive (Crash Test Dummies, "God Shuffled His Feet"), as needing help (Tori Amos, "God"), as having a feminine personality (Dishwalla, "Counting Blue Cars," which we shall consider further), and as "a stranger on the bus" (Joan Osborne, "One of Us"). The value of these portrayals of God is precisely their striking strangeness, which virtually forces us to think about God.

    What Robert Coles says about stories applies at this point to these four popular songs and their value as a witness to the Gospel. According to Coles, "The whole point of stories is not `solutions' or `resolutions' but a broadening and even a heightening of our struggles." In other words, the whole point of these four songs is that they evoke the questions that lead us to think about God. That they may leave us without "solutions" or "resolutions" is actually quite appropriate theologically. As William C. Placher has pointed out, one of the problems with theology in the modern era has been its propensity to make "regrettable claims to explain too much." By stimulating us to think about God without claiming to have God all figured out, these four songs invite us to stand faithfully in the biblical tradition and the ecumenical theological tradition of the church.

    As Placher also demonstrates, thinking about God without claiming to explain too much not only protects God's transcendence, but it also makes it possible to speak faithfully and meaningfully of crucial biblical and theological concepts like grace and love. If there is any "solution" or "resolution" that the Bible offers, it is the ultimately mysterious and inexplicable good news that God is essentially loving and that God treats a sinful world with unfailing grace. It is this good news that is highlighted in the final two songs discussed in this chapter, "For the Love of It All" by Noel Paul Stookey, and "Show The Way" by David Wilcox.


Reimagining God

    As suggested above, human beings have always engaged in theology—thinking about God. Indeed, the production of the Jewish and Christian scriptures resulted precisely from the process of thinking about God. As Paul Achtemeier persuasively argues, to speak of the inspiration of scripture is to speak about a process of tradition, new situation, and response; in other words, Jews and Christians affirm that God was at work in a special way in a prolonged process essentially involving generations of people thinking about God. Even those who argue that the canon of scripture is closed do not deny that the process of inspiration and God's revelation of God's self continued after the New Testament era. For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity, which Christians routinely affirm as an essential of their faith, was not fully developed and finally articulated until the fifth century A.D. This doctrine was developed as Christians struggled to express their conviction that Jesus of Nazareth fully incarnated the God of Israel; in other words, the doctrine of the Trinity was developed as persons continued to think about God and to struggle to articulate their thoughts. And this process has continued and still continues in the development of creeds and confessions, as well as in the deliberations and pronouncements of church councils and assemblies. To use a term that has become popular in recent years, what the church has been and is constantly about is reimagining God.

    To be sure, the notion of reimagining God has been not only popular but also controversial. It is easy to forget that scripture came into being through a process of humanity's thinking about its encounter with God, and it is easy to forget that this process of inspiration and revelation continued and continues. Many Christians in years past and still today unreflectively assume that to be God means essentially to be unchanging and unchangeable. After all, they point out, the Bible itself proclaims that God is "the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb. 13:8). What the Bible means by this, however is that God's essential character—that is, God's grace and love—never changes. But the Bible itself is the story of how God does change in terms of the strategies God uses to reach out to a wayward world and to respond lovingly toward sinful humanity. Indeed, the Bible very explicitly says that God changes God's mind (see Ex. 32:12-14).

    Given this biblical way of thinking about God, it is surprising that the notion of an unchanging and unchangeable God became crystallized in the traditional understanding of what are known as "the classical attributes of God": God's omnipotence (all-powerfulness), omniscience (all-knowingness), and omnipresence (everywhereness). Particularly problematic in view of the actual biblical portrayal of God is the way in which God's omnipotence has traditionally been understood to mean that, because God is all-powerful, God does or is the cause of everything. The real problem arises when one places this traditional understanding of omnipotence alongside the biblical affirmation that God is good (Ps. 107:1; 118:1). If God is good and all-powerful, then what accounts for the reality of evil in the world? The problem is usually designated as theodicy (literally, "the justice of God"), since the justice of God appears to be nullified by evil in the world, including the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked.

    The problems surrounding the traditional understanding of God's omnipotence are compounded when this traditional understanding is accompanied by another notion that also appears to have some biblical support—the doctrine of retribution, which insists that God materially rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Pay careful attention to the dilemma—that is, if God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, and if an all-powerful God causes everything, then suffering must inevitably be interpreted as divine punishment! The book of Job explores this issue thoroughly; and Job's friends exemplify the logic of the doctrine of retribution when they conclude that the suffering Job is obviously being punished by God. The cruel corollary to this conclusion is that all afflicted persons deserve their afflictions, and the way is wide open for blaming the victims, thus victimizing them even further. For example, a frequently heard contemporary conclusion is that the poor obviously deserve to be poor, and if they'd just work harder, everything would be all right. To be sure, this conclusion may be sound in some cases; for in fact, some people are poor because they are lazy. But far, far more poor people work much harder than rich people, and they are poor for a number of very complex reasons (such as that our economy can produce and sustain only a certain proportion of high-paying jobs, or that there is discrimination against women and minorities). The extremely simplistic conclusion, that the poor deserve to be poor, allegedly supported on theological grounds, conveniently absolves the wealthy of any responsibility to help those less fortunate. Why should the prosperous help those whom God is punishing?

    Such a position is rampant in North American society; it is held by many North American Christians, who apparently have no awareness of how utterly unbiblical it is! Indeed, Jesus directed a significant portion of his ministry to the poor and afflicted, not condemning them but rather embracing them with compassion. Such a response is in complete continuity with the God of Israel, whom Christians affirm that Jesus incarnated, a God who hears the cries of the afflicted and responds not with condemnation but with deliverance (see Ex. 3:7-8). The word "compassion" means literally "suffering with." If most Christians don't seem to have trouble with accepting compassion as a fundamental characteristic of God, then why do they seem to have so much trouble with the conclusion that therefore God suffers?

    The answer seems to lie in the pervasive influence of the classical attribute of omnipotence. A suffering God just does not seem to be all-powerful. So, despite the evidence of God's suffering in the Old Testament, and despite even the suffering of Jesus (whom Christians profess incarnates God), most Christians still persist in concluding that God cannot suffer, and many further conclude that human suffering is evidence of God's punishment.

    To be sure, there is no easy "solution" or "resolution" to this basic theological issue. Unfortunately, therefore, the church has most often chosen not to struggle with the dilemma—that is, not to think about God. Rather, in an unthinking attempt to protect both God's omnipotence (as traditionally understood) and God's goodness, Christians have concluded that an all-powerful God cannot suffer or change, and furthermore that human suffering must be divinely willed punishment for human sinfulness. But the cost of these traditional conclusions is devastating! Think about it! A God who cannot suffer or change God's mind cannot really be a relational God, as the Bible affirms God to be. In other words, to use the Bible's own vocabulary, the concept of covenant is emptied of all real meaning. Furthermore, if God is locked into a system of rewarding and punishing human behavior, there is absolutely no room for crucial biblical concepts like grace and the forgiveness of sins. The irony is tragic. In its unthinking attempt to protect God's goodness and omnipotence, the church has actually portrayed God finally as distant, untouchable, and incapable of love, compassion, and grace!

    There is an alternative. It does not claim to have God all figured out, but it does involve the advantage of actually thinking about God, and it is both simple and biblical. As opposed to the traditional understanding of God's omnipotence, the alternative affirms that God both suffers and changes! God does so because God has chosen to be in genuine relationship with humankind. Genuine relationship means above all that humanity is really free, including free to reject God. According to the Bible, this is precisely what happened (see Gen. 3), and this "original sin" has proven to be characteristic of humankind. Given the freedom to obey God, we consistently choose to disobey, focusing instead on our own selves and our own purposes. Because God cares for us, this disobedience and the accompanying destructive consequences (see Gen. 4, and the rest of the Bible, not to mention human history in general!) hurt God. That is, God suffers on account of our disobedience. It is also human disobedience that, in effect, forces God's hand. In other words, because humankind originally disobeyed and continues to disobey, God resorts to new and creative strategies to respond to humankind in an effort to reach and rescue God's wayward creatures. That is, God changes God's mind. A change of mind on God's part is implied as early as the opening chapters of Genesis (compare Gen. 6:5 and 8:21); God's change of mind is explicitly indicated in Exodus 32:12-14, and indeed, the unfolding of the biblical story involves new and creative strategies on God's part to get through to sinful humans.

    What seems to bother people about this utterly biblical portrayal of God is that a God who suffers and changes appears to be weak and out of control. But the problem is more illusory than real. After all, only a truly strong being can really afford to be vulnerable. Because God is infinitely strong, God can remain in relationship with a humanity that consistently disobeys and hurts God. And because God is infinitely loving (and this is what never changes!), God is willing to remain in a relationship with humanity. It is precisely God's ability and God's willingness to love a sinful humanity that constitutes God's omnipotence, properly understood. In this alternative to the traditional understanding of God, omnipotence cannot be God's "control" of everything. By choosing genuine relationship with humankind, God has relinquished "control." Rather, omnipotence becomes God's ability to bear the sin and pain and brokenness of the world without being crushed by the incredible weight of it all. Just think of what an incredible all-powerfulness this kind of omnipotence represents! For instance, think about how you respond to personal disappointment or tragedy or setback. Or think about how you respond to a child's or parent's pain. If you're like most people, you tend to be "crushed" or "broken" by it, or you tend to "fall apart," or you may tend to withdraw, or give up all together, or resent those causing the pain. Now multiply your own personal and familial pain and disappointment by the billions of people in the world and you may begin to appreciate the incredible power of a God who bears the hurt, disappointment, and pain of the world without falling apart, without resentment, without giving up, and without failing to respond with love and compassion. Such is God's omnipotence, the incomprehensible ability and willingness to love the whole world!

    If the ability and willingness to love the whole world means that God suffers (and it does!), then such suffering is to be seen not as a sign of weakness but of ultimate strength. If the ability and willingness to love the whole world means that God makes God's self vulnerable to human disobedience (and it does!), then such vulnerability is to be seen not as a weakling's last resort but rather as the ultimate act of generosity by a confident sovereign who is not afraid to appear to be weak.

    The reality of a God who suffers and changes because of an unchanging and unfailing love for the world alters, of course, the traditional approach to the problem of theodicy. If omnipotence no longer means control, then the existence of evil and suffering in the world can logically be laid at the feet of humanity rather than God. Suffering, or at least much of it, can be attributed not to God's design nor God's will, but rather to the sinful choices of humankind and the destructive effects of these choices. Then too, if suffering is not antithetical to divinity, some suffering can be attributed simply to the conditions of creatureliness. In any case, suffering cannot unthinkingly be attributed to God's will nor to God's activity to punish the wicked. Indeed, suffering and evil cannot be easily equated. The afflicted are liberated from blaming themselves, and the prosperous can no longer congratulate themselves for their good fortune or blame victims for being poor or afflicted. The doctrine of retribution is obliterated, and space is created for the existence of grace and compassion.

    Indeed, one could say that knowledge of a loving, gracious God, who wills unending relationship with humankind and is willing to suffer for the sake of this relationship, creates a whole new world! In fact, this is exactly what Jesus said; he called this new world "the reign of God," and he invited people to live in it (Mk. 1:14-15). Because this new world is based on grace and love, not merit and control, everyone is welcome in it. In a world where the doctrine of retribution has been obliterated, there is even a special place for the humbled, the humiliated, the poor, the grieving, the meek, and the persecuted. Jesus went out of his way to welcome these kind of folk; and he announced that these kind of folk, often construed as victims, were to be welcomed as the fortunate or "happy" (see especially the two versions of the Beatitudes in Mt. 5:1-13 and Lk. 6:20-22).

    As people often respond when reading the Beatitudes, "That's not the real world!" And they are correct, of course. The new world of God's reign is anything but the world of business, politics, and religion as usual. That "real world" is based primarily on merit and control. Suffering is to be avoided at all costs. The value of people is measured not in terms of genuine relatedness, but rather in terms of what they can do for me and to further my success. Jesus had the audacity to announce that the so-called "real world" is not real after all. The real "real world," as we like to call it, is the world of God's reign. As Jesus said and demonstrated, the real "real world" is grounded in grace, compassion, and love. The God who undergirds it is a suffering sovereign, one whose infinite strength means the freedom to be vulnerable, and one whose infinite love means the freedom to suffer.

    While North Americans have always been and remain a very religious people, we need to address the question of what kind of God we believe in. In contrast to the traditional construal of God's omnipotence as control or sheer force, our rethinking or reimagining of God construes God's omnipotence as compassion (literally, "suffering with") or sheer love. Reference to popular songs will illustrate this direction and some of its implications as we continue the discussion of God's character. In short, songs will help us listen further for God and think further about God.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Authors' Acknowledgments xi
Introduction: Why Popular Songs? 1
1 Facing the Music about God Thinking about God 13
2 Facing the Music about Ourselves Valuable and Vulnerable 41
3 Facing the Music about Jesus The End of the World as We
Know It 59
4 Facing the Music about the Church All God's Children 75
5 Facing the Music about Mission Sensitivity to All the
Sufferings of Humanity 89
Conclusion: Facing the Music and Changing the World 113
How to Face the Music: A Practical Guide 119
Appendix A: Justice and Peace Organizations 137
Appendix B: Contacting the Authors 141
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