I saw a link to a song on Facebook this morning, a song called “Back to God” by Reba McEntire. I listened to it because I was killing time and the other option was to read more analysis of Nancy Pelosi’s insane comments about Justice Gorsuch. I love country music about as much as I love Boston sports so I was less than enthusiastic but I clicked through anyway. I also know the long track record of celebrity songs about God – a toxic blend of bad theology, American civil religion, and a tendency of Christians to exhibit little or no discernment about them. It was morning, I was being lazy and so, why not?
Honestly, this song is pretty good. I’m not planning to give it to my praise team for use in a Sunday service, but it’s one of the best celebrity God-songs I’ve heard. There are some lines that would not pass theological muster at our seminaries and it was absent of the Cross or Christ (verbally – there’s a crucifix displayed), but it was a lament, a cry for God. It seemed sincere.
There was quite the brouhaha recently when Carrie Underwood showed up at a large Christian gathering (Passion?) and suddenly joined the praise team. She then sang her God-song, which the discernment-oriented folks among us roundly condemned on theological grounds.
All this led me to a few moments of contemplation about how we should respond when celebrities sing about God. I’m not thinking here about Christian celebrity musical acts, but folks like Reba and Carrie and others who often throw a song or two with Christian themes into their repertoire.
Here are some random thoughts about the phenomenon.
- Use discernment with discernment.
Not every athlete or actor who thanks God after a winning performance is “one of us.” Look at the gospels – the clearest confessions of Christ came from demons. I’m not trying to make too much of that other than to say that someone who stands up and says, “I want to thank my Savior Jesus Christ” or who sings a song about God is not necessarily a blood-bought, born-again, saved, sanctified, heaven-bound spiritual sibling. We need to be careful.
On the other hand, we need to also be careful about joining in the Spiritual Stoning Brigade (SSB). Remember when those poor souls were marched out onto the beach and beheaded by ISIS? Within hours the SSB was writing articles and making post on social media making it clear that these were Coptics and not “real” Christians. We couldn’t wait till their blood was dry to consign them to hell?
You know what I thought about Carrie Underwood singing at Passion? Not much. I understand the complaints of the complainants, but was there anyone who was grievously and permanently scarred spiritually because Carrie appeared? Was the preaching so bad that her ONE song undid everything that had been taught?
It’s a balance thing. We need discernment. If Carrie had been the worship leader for the whole weekend, I’d be bothered. But it seems to me that too often discernment devolves into attacking ant hills with nuclear weapons.
- Don’t beatify too quickly.
I will have to admit that I know almost nothing about Reba McEntire. Is she a believer? Has she had some sort of recent spiritual renewal? Is she a charlatan looking to cash in on gullible and spiritually hungry Christians? I don’t know.
There was a famous athlete who was a vocal Christian. Every single time he was interviewed he “shared his faith” and spoke about Christ. But it came out that his life did not match his words in any way. He was living with a girl he wasn’t married to, had fathered several children by different women, and had been in a number of other situations that did not match his testimony. I’m not his judge and I’ve got my own struggles, but we need to be careful about elevating someone to role model status too quickly just because they claim to be a believer or wear a “purity ring” or mention Jesus or sing a song.
Reba sang a nice song. I’m not planning to invite her to the Pastors’ Conference. We should be slow to beatify her on the basis of this song.
- Stop demonizing.
On the other hand….
When I was a youth pastor back in the medieval days, one of the biggest country stars in America attended our church. She was the kind of household name that even non-fans like me knew. In the history of country, she’s one of the true luminaries. And her life was a mess.
But I think she really have faith in Christ. It was an undeveloped, undiscipled, undisciplined, uneducated, flawed faith, but I think that when she passed away, she went to glory. That’s a tough world. I’m sure there are pastors, perhaps some of you, who have used her as a sermon illustration. One of her most famous songs is a case-study in hypocrisy. She did not always live her faith, not by a long shot. But I think she genuinely loved Jesus. Our tendency to hold someone like this up to scorn is not necessary.
Some made a big deal about Carrie Underwood’s sympathetic statements about same-sex marriage. I’ve not seen them so I don’t know what she’s said and I really have no idea about the state of her faith. But the world she lives in exerts tremendous influence on her and unless she’s well taught in a Bible-expositing church, she’s not likely to have the ammunition to stand. I’m not advocating ignoring the lifestyles of these celebrities, but I also don’t think we need to apply the standards of 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 unless they are applying for ministry positions. that we shouldn’t care or that we should give anyone a pass, but as we deal with celebrities, grace and patience might be better than condemnation.
Mercy triumphs. Grace is amazing. This should be our language.
The ranks of the skeptics, the profligates, the degenerates – they are filled with people who grew up in church and felt judged and condemned. I’m not giving them a pass. Sin brings guilt and maybe they placed their own guilt on the church that preached the truth. But as a preacher’s kid who raised preacher’s kids, I know how harsh, judgmental, and picky the church can be – I’ve seen it firsthand.
Condemnation is not one of the fruit of the Spirit and judging is not a spiritual gift, in case you were wondering.
- There’s a difference between church and the radio.
There are songs that I can appreciate but which we wouldn’t (I’d say shouldn’t, but then I’m told I’m old, so my musical opinions don’t count anymore) use in worship.
If there are two lines of a song that are out of theological order in a song, we may not use it at our church. But I don’t expect Reba to be an accomplished theologian. She says, “cause we’re still worth saving.” Of course, God responds to us in grace, not because we are worth it, but because of his great love for us.
I wouldn’t sing that in church, because it violates the fundamental teaching of God’s grace. But on the radio, this song is an amazing call to prayer, to seeking God. We can appreciate it for what it is – a secular song about God that has a lot of biblical truth in it. Sadly, it’s got as much truth as some of the hymns and worship choruses I’ve seen in my nearly six decades of faithful church attendance, but I’ll get into that some morning when I’ve come to my garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses.
In church, our songs need to adhere to biblical truth carefully. A song like this can be given a little more latitude. No need to go postal about the “worth saving” thing – at least not until someone suggests we work it into a worship set.
That’s probably way more time than this topic demanded, but frankly, I’m tired of politics so something inconsequential like a Reba McEntire (I guess it was written by some guy named Randy Houser) was a welcome diversion for me.