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Culture

Which Way is the Ground?

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I was sitting in an Arby’s, trying to eat a fish sandwich, with my ears completely unprotected from the all-out assault of country music blasting throughout the place, when I heard a most unfortunate song.  Luke Bryan’s “Most People Are Good” was released as a part of his What Makes You Country album at the end of 2017.  And - no doubt obvious from the title - the track conveys the artist’s belief that most people are good.  The chorus goes like this:

I believe most people are good

And most Mama's oughta qualify for sainthood

I believe most Friday nights look better under neon or stadium lights

I believe you love who you love

Ain't nothing you should ever be ashamed of

I believe this world ain't half as bad as it looks

I believe most people are good

Now, if we were wanting to criticize popular song lyrics, there would be an almost endless torrent of material to tear apart, but this song seemed especially egregious to me because of Luke Bryan’s reputation as a Christian (he has a song, “Pray About Everything”, and he grew up playing music with his church youth group), and because of another line in the song in question that claims:

I believe them streets of gold are worth the work

But I’d still wanna go even if they were paved in dirt

By referring to “streets of gold”, Bryan is pointing to a belief in what has been written in the book of Revelation. 

The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel's measurement. The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. (Revelation 21:16-18)

Bryan claims in his lyrics to believe in these streets of gold.  Now, he says that they are “worth the work”, which in itself is very troubling given what the Scripture teaches about salvation by grace and not by works, but that’s not the direction I really want this critique to take.  Supposedly, he believes in the reality of this heavenly Jerusalem depicted in the book of Revelation because it is written about in the Bible.  “Streets of gold” aren’t a part of the naturalistic evolutionary worldview and dogma, so he didn’t get that from the godless culture.  He got it from Scripture and Christian teaching.

But this is where so much of the song comes across as gross and contradictory.  If Bryan likes the idea of streets of gold from the last chapters of his Bible, then why does he write a whole song dedicated to a concept that the Scriptures completely contradict: namely, that most people are good?

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.  Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.  The venom of asps is under their lips.  Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.  Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.  There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18)

The above passage probably wouldn’t make a very good country song!  And yet this is what the Bible teaches about the supposed goodness of man.  And lest you think that maybe Paul goes a little over the top quoting all of these Old Testament references in Romans 3, remember how Jesus responded to the rich young ruler who simply addressed Him as “Good Teacher”:

“And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)

If Jesus reacted that way to someone flippantly calling Him ‘good’ (and He actually is good, because He is God - which was the whole point), then how do you think He would react to Luke Bryan’s song?

There’s another line of the chorus of the song that would be greatly offended by a direct confrontation with Scripture, and that’s the one that proclaims, “I believe you love who you love; Ain't nothing you should ever be ashamed of.”  Clearly, this is a reference to the current sinful revolution in our culture which tries to say that unnatural relations between two people of the same sex are to be accepted as normal.  The Bible makes a very different claim:

"If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them." (Leviticus 20:13)

"For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error." (Romans 1:26-27)

The Bible's message is always very consistent.  Not one person has been 'good' since the fall of Adam (except Jesus, of course), and homosexuality has always been "shameless", "dishonorable", and "an abomination".  If the Bible isn't your source of truth when it comes to these questions, then there's no reason for it to be the source of truth regarding something like the streets of gold.

Luke Bryan - like so many who bear the name of 'Christian' in vain - is picking and choosing what he likes from God's Word, while ignoring the rest and replacing it with the values of the godless culture around us.  Rather than imitate such a person, look instead to a man like Ezra, who made God's Word his intense focus:

"For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel." (Ezra 7:10)

This is the model for a faithful Christian.  We should set our hearts to study the Word of God as the ground and foundation of all truth.  And, once studied, we should "do it" - that is, seek to obey it in every aspect of our lives.  And finally, we should teach it.  Rather than write songs that confuse and contradict what God has said, we need to be intentional to faithfully teach others what has been graciously revealed to us.  The country music is optional.

Inspiration

What exactly constitutes a “good work” like Paul speaks about in Ephesians 2:10?

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Yes, it is obedience to the Law.  You could also extend it to amazing and creative acts of moral good (like planting a church in an inhospitable place and seeing many come to Christ).  And since we are including things like that, could it also be extended to the writing of a song that convinced dozens of people to explore the wonders of the Bible?  And if that, then what about the writing of a book like Fahrenheit 451 that convinced a person like me that it would be good to memorize a huge book of the Bible like Matthew?

In other words, what I’m asking is if there might be a bridge between Ephesians 2:10 and Philippians 4:8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Here we are encouraged to think on things that are pure and beautiful.  And in the Greek of this passage, Paul is using words that have more to do with ‘secular’ culture rather than religious culture.  He's telling us that there are good things worthy of our pondering even in sources other than just the Bible.  But could an unbeliever - or really even a believer for that matter - write a book or paint a picture or direct a film that we could ever rightly call a 'good work' in the Ephesians 2:10 sense?  Could Pilgrim’s Progress be one of those ‘good works that God prepared beforehand for [John Bunyan] to walk in’?  What about Robinson Crusoe?  How about The Martian?

Before you completely dismiss the idea, I would ask where we assume such works of man to originate from in the first place?  Perhaps some of man’s evil work is delivered by inspiration of demons or devils, or maybe it is just the fruit of a wicked heart giving birth to new combinations of evil.  But what about the good stuff?  What about the work of sin-enslaved unbelievers that can grab a hold of the heart of a believer and lift him up to want to serve his God more?  Can such a thing exist?  It does!

I had heard the song, ‘Masterpiece’ by Jessie J quite a few times before I ever really listened to the lyrics.  It has a catchy beat, and I found myself wanting to buy the track just because I always perk up whenever it comes on in some fast-food restaurant.  And, since I’m just naturally more interested in something that I spend money on, when I bought the song, I finally slowed down to pay attention to the words.

The song is about a woman who wants to be even more famous and respected than she already is.  She thinks of herself as incomplete, unfinished, but ultimately poised for great success in all of the ways that she has ever dreamed.  In other words, it’s exactly the kind of thing that sin-enslaved unbelievers pursue in this life.  They would foolishly sell their soul to gain all of this.

But that’s not what the song said to me.  I – like the singer or the songwriter (if they are different people) – certainly have felt like I have fallen on my face quite a few times.  My own past – especially with pastoral ministry – doesn’t really look that impressive to most people.  I would hope, though, for the sake of God’s kingdom, my family, and my own joy, that I am still working on my masterpiece – not as a way to be famous, but as an avenue to be useful to my Creator!  The song can literally bring tears to my eyes as I contemplate the hope of being and doing more for God’s service.  This is definitely something that I can ‘think on’ in the vein of Philippians 4:8.  So was this song a ‘good work’ that God prepared beforehand for the artist to walk in?  This morning I would have said ‘no’.  Now I’m not so sure.

The whole idea actually reminds me a lot of how we as Christians carry the Gospel as a treasure in jars of clay: our fallen human flesh.  There is gold contained within a very crude and common vessel.  Humans produce a lot of work like this.  If we’re being true to Philippians 4:8, though, we are to focus on the praiseworthy aspects of human creativity while essentially overlooking the dirt and grime in which it often comes packaged.  And the cool thing is, that’s the way God sees the good works that we do.  That’s how He can be pleased with us even though our feeble attempts at bringing Him glory are often couched in some thick human dirt.  Such works are still ‘good’ in His sight, though, because He put them there, and He has a purpose for them.