A few days ago, as I was looking through my You Tube video suggestions, I saw that sister act Aly & AJ had a new music video that I had never seen. While I have been fond of their music since discovering their hit “Potential Breakup Song” during their Disney Channel heyday, I had not been familiar of any of their more recent music. Given the sort of pop-rock music they performed, I was a bit surprised, and pleased, to hear their new song was a more melancholy but ethereal synth pop song. I was more puzzled by the sensual music video that came with the song, which featured the two sisters cavorting and laying down with each other in various ranges of clothing and partial (or complete) undress in a way that suggested both the compulsion of certain exhibitionist tendencies as well as a pervasive sense of concern about the effect of an immoral life on their own sense of innocence and decency. Having done a bit of research, I saw that one of the sisters had dealt with the embarrassment of having nude pictures of herself leaked to the public, an embarrassment that is lamentably common among female stars, even those (like the sisters) involved in Christian music. With the context, we may better understand what it is that the sisters are wrestling with in this melancholy but simultaneously sensual song, which is simply titled “Church.”
The lyrics of the song, just like the visuals of the music video, give the listener plenty of food for thought . Verse one reads: “I do bad things for the sake of good times. / I don’t, I don’t regret. / Call me what you will. / Yeah, I’m in it for the thrill. / I’m just, I’m just selfish.” Then the pre-chorus comes in: “I need redemption / For sins I can’t mention.” After this comes the chorus: “Too many nights and there’s no end. / I’m hell bent, the reckless one. / Too many nights I justify / All my casualties of love. / For all the times I can’t reverse, / For all the places where it hurts, / I need a little church. / I need a little church.” The second verse continues the melancholy picture: “I do bad things. / Can’t you see it on my face?/ I get caught in every lie. / I can’t even stop to take care of my own self, / Let alone somebody else.” And the bridge continues this gloomy view of the singers, repeating the first verse: “I do bad things for the sake of good times / I don’t, I don’t regret. / Call me what you will. / Yeah, I’m in it for the thrill. / I’m just, I’m just selfish.”
Given that the title of this song is “church” and the title of the EP that the song appears on is called “Sanctuary,” it is vital in properly understanding the song that we understand what the singers (who are two of the four songwriters here as well) are getting at. As one of the two singers is married and the other one has never been married, although she has had several high-profile relationships, it is quite possible that this song, like “Potential Breakup Song,” which was about a relationship one of the singers had with one of the Jonas Brothers (who replied with their own hit song “S.O.S.”), is a case where the sisters are joining together to sing about a problem that mostly involves only one of them, identifying completely with the experience of the other as they join in harmony together. The pre-chorus and chorus appears to offer the solution to what the song means, with the acknowledgement of the need for redemption (which can only come through Christ Jesus), the recognition that the longing for love and intimacy can lead people into self-destructive patterns of behavior, and the recognition that one needs the accountability as well as the community aspects of church in order to repent and to find healing.
This leads, of course, to all kinds of awkward conversations about American Christianity. There are at least two kinds of errors that American Christianity can easily lapse into that make it genuinely difficult to find communion therein. On the one hand, all too many congregations of denominations in general are full of people who live lives of pretense pretending that everything is fine because there is no tolerance for the messiness of lives that are marked by the effects of their own sins and the sins of others against them. Even if the sisters aren’t singing about their own experiences (and it seems likely that they are, at least in part), there are certainly many people who claim an identity of Christians but whose life of partying and unsuccessful relationships and related habits is something that would shame them upon their discovery by other congregants. On the other hand, there is a marked desire on the part of many professed believers to see themselves as ragamuffins who are privileged to be their messy authentic selves while seeking the encouragement of others without any apparent desire for healing and redemption and divinely-aided deep personal change. When on the one hand we see Stepford congregations of people pretending to live upright lives without sins and flaws and on the other hand the desire of others to live in their sins and flaws without facing the need to repent and change, the possibility of intense disagreement and mutual recriminations of hypocrisy is omnipresent.
Where does that leave our understanding of these two women, and the many more people who are like them? On the one hand, it is important to have compassion on those who face the brokenness of sin in their lives, whether it is from their own sins or the sins of others against them (or some combination of the two, as is often the case). This song appears like a cry for help, less the rebellious anthem of someone reveling in sin but the melancholy recognition that mistakes have been made that cannot be unmade, with no understanding of where one can go from here. What is needed is not the despair of the ungodly but rather a repentant attitude that seeks cleansing and rebirth and restoration. There may be lasting consequences of one’s past behavior that must be endured, but at the same time we as believers need to do a much better job at providing chances for others to receive a clean slate and a new beginning and a chance to prove one’s new character without eternally bearing the cross for sins that have already been forgiven by God. Whether or not Aly and AJ have found this or will find it in the future, it is at least something that we can provide for those who are within our own acquaintance.