Today is the official launch of my new weekly podcast "The Cross and the Jukebox: Roots, Music, and Religion." The first episode, which looks at Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light," is up now and available here in this post. Every Friday morning, there will be a new conversation about a particular song or artist, and what it can tell us about our neighbors and their often simultaneous longing for and rebellion against the gospel.
So why have this conversation every week? Well, first of all, because I'm already having it, and decided to let my friends listen in. When I used to guest-host the Albert Mohler radio program, I would frequently start and end each segment with bumper-music and spend a few minutes talking about what was really going on in the song and how it related to our topic. Since then, I hear from people all over the place who want to continue some of those discussions.
More importantly, I think lyrical music can often get to the bone of what's really going on in hearts, minds, and culture than abstract discourse can. Our neighbors are often more honest about what they really think and feel when they're singing than when they're talking. And so are we.
That's why, I think, the Apostle Paul interrupted his interrogation by his critics at Mars Hill by quoting their poets. What Paul was doing was not so much "building a bridge to the gospel" at that point as saying, "You don't really believe what you're saying. I've heard your music. Now let's talk about Jesus and the resurrection."
Most often on this podcast, we'll be talking about country music. Why? Well, first of all, because that's what I know. Some of the earliest memories I have are of sitting with several generations of my family listening to the Grand Old Opry. The music of Carters and Cash and Jones and Haggard has stayed with me throughout my life. If I'd been born in different circumstances, I'd probably be drawn to different music.
But, more critically, because country music and the genres that created and fueled it (blues, bluegrass, folk) got at something closer to the bone of human existence than the commercialized pop jingles every generation brings forward. And, with this the case, country music (and forms like it, most notably some aspects of hip-hop) can expose the hidden theologies around us, and within us.
Roots music, after all, is remarkably honest about things commercial music often doesn't want to talk about: despair, loneliness, heartache, sin, redemption, sowing what one reaps. And in so doing, this music often unveils what it looks like to be, in Flannery O'Connor's words, "Christ-haunted." Often, in this music, there's a Christian subtext but no Christianity. There's some kind of redemption but no crucifixion. There's grace, and grace abounding, but often grace that sin may abound.
This is how Wilie Nelson can end a concert by moving, without comment, from crooning "Whiskey River, Take My Mind" to softly singing "Amazing Grace." The point isn't that Willie does this. It's that he knows stadiums full of concert-goers want him too.
In the music of the Bible Belt, we can hear something of what it means to be simultaneously the Publican and the Pharisee. It's a religious identity, indeed a "Christian" identity, with a tortured conscience. That's an awfully heartsick place to be.
So I'd love it if you'd subscribe to the podcast and join me around the jukebox every week. Some of you will know the music I'm playing, and some of you will have never heard anything like it before. I'll introduce you to some old famous songs and some old obscure songs, and some new stuff too. And then we'll talk about how what we've just heard can help us to love and listen to our neighbors, and to sort out the almost-gospels hidden in our own psyches.
The Bible tells us the world is made up of theologians, some of whom acknowledge the Creator and some of whom don't (Rom. 1). We need to pay attention to the theologies of John Calvin and John Wesley, yes. But sometimes we also ought to pay a little bit of attention to the theologies of Johnny Cash.