A Way Forward
In moments of cultural crisis, it can be hard to find a way forward. Emotions have been at a sweltering high. This week as my son graduates high school, I am reminded of the Rodney King riots during my graduation from college here in Southern California. We all hoped things would be much better by now. Acts of injustice, racism, and prejudice ripped open old national wounds. We all want justice, and many are wondering what we should be doing. We need more than platitudes and political posturing.
What’s Going on?
Finding a way forward takes vision. How can you speak into a culture so volatile? Look to those who have gone before us. A great example is the late Marvin Gaye. He spoke into our culture with passion and insight in his song and album titled, “What’s Going On?” A timeless classic we have all heard on the radio, if you don’t own the CD or LP (or MP3). On the radio program All Things Considered, NPR described it as, “a song that stands among the most tuneful works of consciousness-raising in American music.” It is loved by people of any color or background, and remains a classic almost 40 years later. Marvin does not flinch from the struggles, but serenades us as we listen to a hearts cry. It begins as a celebration, but ends like a prayer.
Marvin Gaye Found a Way to Speak to Our Culture
Now, to be honest, Marvin Gaye has been on my mind for the last few months. I have been talking with a Hip-Hop artist about creating some new works inspired by artists like Gaye. He did more than make money for Motown and himself. He changed the course of Motown Records when He spoke out about the racism in our country as well as the way America was treating our Vietnam Vets, like his brother Frankie.
Far too many record labels have a history of not wanting their artists to get political (or religious) but push their talent to stick to love songs and party songs. Marvin stuck to his guns and spoke into the cultural milieu. Motown executive Berry Gordy didn’t get it. He sat on the project for months and refused to release it. Finally, Marvin threatened to never record again unless Motown released the album. Berry released the album with skepticism. But we know the rest of the story. The record sales went to the top of the charts and has stood the test of time.
Why does this matter? Because music is a powerful medium. Scottish writer and politician Andrew Fletcher famously wrote, “let me write the songs of a nation and I care not who writes its laws.” If you, as a creative, can capture the hearts of men and women, and inspire them with a better vision for our society, you can have a tremendous impact. I don’t want to be unrealistic. No one work of art can fix a nation or solve a problem, but each of us can contribute to a healthier society.
Switchfoot & Lecrae
Another song that wrestles with these issues powerfully is “Looking for America”, by the Foreman brothers of Switchfoot and Lecrae. It mourns the painful past without giving up hope for the future. Consider these lyrics and spoken word:
But I’m still holding on to hope
I’m looking for a miracle
I’m looking for a miracle
I’m looking for America
The land of the free, home of the brave
But Lord knows we need plenty change
I’m looking for America
Plenty chains in the past left deep scars
But when the sun come down we gonna be stars
And may the stripes heal when it’s through
Beaten red white blue for the green that we pursue
I’m looking for America
– By Jonathan Mark Foreman, Timothy David Foreman, Lecrae Moore
What should we do to find a way forward? First, stop watching the news, and get in your studio, start writing, and start creating. There are far too many men and women pontificating who are committed to political leanings instead of biblical principles. When people don’t believe in God, they are tempted to substitute their politics for religion, and transform their political ideologies into idols. We cannot imitate such an approach. Jesus was not a politician, nor was he focused on the political transformation the pharisees were looking for. He was not a republican or a democrat.
Christ came to transform our hearts so that we could be his ambassadors – leading others to the transforming power of the gospel. Politics are necessary, and we should be wise in how we pursue new laws and amendments that will enable greater justice. We need godly men and women in that process. However, we cannot make political talking points our salvation. Politics will not save you. It will not save our cities. It will not save our country. Without genuine humility before God, there is no reason to love others, respect authority or embrace our neighbors. Without such humility before God, societies fall. No exceptions.
Political parties and slogans will never renew your heart. Only the gospel can do that, because only Christ knows your pain, and only Christ can deliver the hope you long for. Why? Because only Christ knows the deep injustice of betrayal, unjust torture, and unjustly being sentenced to death. He brings compassion and mercy. And only Christ can bring dead hearts and bodies back to life -whether it is the body and soul of the man Lazarus, or it is the Lazarus heart in each of us that needs to be revived by the gospel.
Your art must be driven by love if we are going to find a way forward. If you cannot love those who are different from you, you have some repenting to do. There is no room for hate. Growing up, my parents never allowed us as children to say the words, “I hate him or her.” It was a simple, but profound lesson. We should not allow the roots of bitterness to grow, lest the fruit of hatred be born in our hearts.
They will know we are Christians by our love, especially our love for those who are different than us. I am inspired by Dr. King’s powerful role in our nation’s history. Thank God for Dr. King. You can read the entire speech HERE. If you are not moved and inspired by Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech – infused with a beautiful vision and passionate delivery by a man of conviction, I dare say your heart is dead, and your faith is false. As we read in 1 John 4,
“If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”
It all starts with our own hearts. Just to be clear. What I mean is this: Don’t protest and rant, or create art addressing these issues if you are not willing to address your own heart. It is disingenuous and hypocritical.
Know Your Voice
You need to understand your voice and the way God made you to create. There is a beauty we all long for. It is the beauty of a just society, where all are treated fairly. Where justice prevails, and love motivates the hearts of citizens of that society. As the prophet Amos exhorted us, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) This is the picture we all long for. But read verse 23 and 24 together:
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
God doesn’t just want our songs. He doesn’t just want our activities. He wants our hearts to change and justice to be flowing like water (freely).
What is your voice in all of this? Not all artists have the same calling or the same voice. God gave us unique passions and gifting. Like the offices of Christ we will often be called to either a priestly voice, a prophetic voice, or a kingly voice. If this idea is new to you, read my blog on “Stop Saying Artists Are Prophets”. We need to be careful. If you are a passionate activist, don’t expect everyone else to do what you do. If you create more therapeutic art, acknowledge the different callings God gives each of us.
To give you an example, If you have a more prophetic voice, and confrontational tendency, you will tend to point out the injustice like Picasso did with his famous and grotesque painting, Guernica.
If you have a more priestly voice, God has gifted you with the ability to comfort others, then you will desire to shed light on the hope we can find in the midst of trials. You will want to paint pictures that helps us mourn, grieve and find a new hope. Pointing us towards unity and graciousness towards one another.
If you have a more kingly voice you may focus on practical solutions, concepts and structures to lead us forward. The current chaos will be something you respond to by pointing our way to health, peace and order in a way that includes justice.
Don’t simply imitate what others are doing. Be who God uniquely created you to be and create out of that voice and temperament.
Our way forward is found in hope. Those who don’t know God will place their trust in social, external change. Yet we have hope in something greater than social programs, as helpful as they can be. Like the Law, they can restrain evil, but they cannot transform the heart. The core issue is the issue of the heart and the only one who can change hearts is God.
We should not be surprised by sin, but we dare not be complacent about sin. This is true about the sin in our own hearts as well as the reality of sin in society. Sin will be with us until Jesus comes again, and injustice will not be erased until then.
This is sobering but true. It is always a reason to cry out, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus”. May we yearn for heaven, and use that yearning to make this world more like the heaven we long for. Let us pursue the things we pray in The Lord’s Prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
We can have hope in any circumstance because we have the gospel. We know we are loved by God. We know that God made all of us beautifully unique in all the skin tones, races, heights and weights. We know God’s love can conquer fear, and provide a better way. We cannot give into cynicism. We cannot give in to hopelessness. God is still Sovereign. He is still good. Even what Satan intended to use for evil, God will end up using for good. This is our hope and our hope is sure.
Take a Minute
Take a minute and read these lyrics by Marvin Gaye, and consider how you might cry out to God in your own prayer time today. Don’t rush it. Take the time you need. But don’t stay there. Use the talents God has give you, and start creating. Today.
What’s Going On? by Marvin Gaye:
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, eh eh
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh
Copyright © 2020 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.