There is the music I love to listen to, and there is music to live by. They’re frequently not the same.
The music I love is mostly the music I grew up with. My mp3 playlist is dominated by Elvis, oldies rock-‘n’-roll, and Motown. I also have a soft spot for some of my parents’ music from the Big Band era, particularly Glenn Miller.
Unfortunately, what radio stations now consider the “oldies” isn’t old enough for me. I want 60s music–but that’s a couple of decades earlier than what’s now the usual oldies fare. On a recent commute, I tuned into a local oldies station and was greeted by the Romantics’ 1980 hit What I Like About You. I scoffed as the singer whispered over and over “That’s what I like about you” while guitars banged away in the background. Pfft, I thought, imperiously. Why did they stop playing my music?
Then I realized how much there was to scoff at on my playlist. (I’m just a hunka hunka burnin’ love…)
For example, I’ve long been convinced that the prize for Dumbest Lyrics Ever Recorded belongs to the 1968 song Elenore by the Turtles, which contained such cringe-worthy couplets as “Your looks intoxicate me / Even though your folks hate me” and “I really think you’re groovy / Let’s go out to a movie.” (It’s also the only song I know that tried to rhyme the phrase “et cetera.” Seriously.) Only recently did I discover the backstory: the Turtles wanted to branch out musically; the recording execs weren’t having it; so the group intentionally wrote a stupid song to get back at them. The execs, apparently, didn’t get the joke–and Elenore went on to crack the top ten.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the music of my generation.
Moreover, I didn’t always understand the lyrics to the songs I heard. Undeterred, I’d make something up. You know how it goes: you bop along to the beat, singing what you think you know and fabricating or mumbling the rest. Later in life, I would often be horrified to discover the real lyrics: “Wait–is that what that song is about?”
As they say, there’s no accounting for taste. And our personal musical preferences are further abetted by technologies of choice. Don’t like what’s on the radio? Change the station. Not in the mood for the song currently playing on your iPod? Click to the next one. In that sense, all music may be “mood music,” not chosen to create a mood, but to reflect the one we’re in.
That’s often the way it is with the music we love. But it should be different with the music God has given us to live by.
I’m referring to the Psalms. We can read the Psalms like we listen to the radio, choosing the ones that reflect our current mood. But that’s different from treating the Psalms as a book of worship, a canonical collection of songs that discipline us to their rhythms. For example, take this short psalm of lament, which bears the heading, “For the director of music. A psalm of David.” Here are the lyrics:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. (Ps 13:1-4, NIV)
We’ve been in that place, haven’t we? When nothing seems to be right, and we just want it to end? When God seems to have turned his back? When we have no companionship but our own depressing thoughts, and everyone around seems to be against us?
Mood music indeed for a dreary day. But then the song modulates into a different key:
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me. (Ps 13:5-6, NIV)
That’s the final, resounding note: trust and the assurance of God’s love; joy in his saving mercy; praise for his goodness. The psalm shapes us when we sing it to the end. We don’t just wait until we’re in the mood to praise God; we’re directed to sing in that register even when we would prefer the minor chords of lament.
Of course, not all the Psalms tell the same story in themselves. If Psalm 13 is the song of one who feels abandoned by God and yet determines to praise him no matter what, Psalm 18 is the song of one whose trust has been rewarded with deliverance. Psalm 137 is unremittingly negative, ending on a shocking note of fist-shaking vengefulness. But Psalm 145 consistently exalts God for his grace, compassion, and trustworthiness.
Each song, each poem, tells a different story; but each is also part of a larger whole that tells of the faithfulness of God to his people. The story has glorious highs, desperate lows, and stunning reversals.
The point is that we need the whole worship book, and we should learn to sing each song all the way through, whatever our mood may be. The lyrics tutor our emotions. They help us hold despair and hope together, to cling to the goodness of God despite calamitous circumstances. They help us remember to praise God for his Exodus-deliverance and for what that reveals of his character. And they help us remember that sometimes, the situation is actually worse than our American predilection to cheerfulness might lead us to believe: sin is real, righteousness is mocked, and we have enemies–including ourselves.
If the Christian life were a musical, the Psalms could be a good portion of the soundtrack. To that end, expect to see occasional meditations on the Psalms here, as I get in the habit of humming their melodies.
Move over, Elvis.