We do not usually think of the theology of songs on the radio. And this is a great shame, as popular culture is often rich in a source of bad theology. This was not always the case. If one goes back even a hundred years ago or just a bit more, one could reliably find music that was popular that had very good theology. To be sure, many of these songs were written by religious people, but this ought not to surprise us that religious people would write music, and that this music was theologically worthwhile. It is more to be lamented that there is still a great amount of music, some of which actually becomes popular, but most of it not nearly as theologically engaging as it was in the past. It is not only that ordinary culture has become less theologically astute, but also that those who profess to be believers are so little inclined to make music that contains a rich understanding of theology to the extent that was the case in the past.
I would like to begin this occasional series by looking at the theology of a song that has inspired a blog before and which came out several years ago and was a successful song on the alternative charts called “Unbelievers,” by the group Vampire Weekend. I still hear this song from time to time and as far as a pleasant song musically speaking it certainly is enjoyable so long as one does not think too much about the lyrics. As I tend to pay attention to the lyrics of songs in general (they are a great source of writing material, it must be admitted), my pleasure of the song is limited by a major theological error that the songwriter(s) for Vampire Weekend have when it comes to their melancholy meditation about the fate that awaits unbelievers like themselves. And as this theological error appears to be common it is also worth correcting.
The song “Unbelievers” by Vampire Weekend assumes that it is believers, “half of the world,” according to the narrator of the song, who desire the fiery fate of eternal judgment that supposedly awaits unbelievers. The entire downbeat musing about hell and judgment and related subjects assumes that it is the belief system of believers that is what makes the fate of unbelievers unpleasant. This is a serious error. Speaking as a believer myself, my belief in judgment, such as it is, does not in any way affect what will happen to those who persist in rebellion against God and hostility against His ways. I am not the judge or executioner of someone in the position of the narrator of the song. I do not even wish that any should perish in persistent unbelief. Indeed, far from wishing suffering and harm upon unbelievers, it is generally the case that believers wish all people to be like themselves and thus enter into the Kingdom of heaven. Indeed, the Bible makes it plain that God desires all mankind to be saved, and this wish is taken by some to be an expression of will.
What accounts for this disconnect? Why are the motives and wishes of believers–and indeed of God Himself–so persistently misunderstood? Those who are hostile to God, or indeed hostile to anyone, tend to project their own feelings onto their object of hatred. If we behave towards someone with contempt, we hold them to be contemptible. If we treat them with disrespect, we view them to be disrespectful. We see others as we are. And it is the hatred that the narrator of Vampire Weekend, and others like him, that leads him to project his hatred for believers onto those believers themselves and to believe that they desire as much harm to happen to him as he wishes would come to them as a result of his contempt for their religious ways. What is to be done about this? How do we encourage people to see that it is their own hatred that they rage against when they imagine it to be present in others? How do we put the mirror so that people recognize that they are responsible for the feelings that they incorrectly and unjustly ascribe to others? It is not believers that the narrator ought to be concerned about, but rather his own feelings that add to his own judgment for unbelief by projecting his own lack of charity onto those who desire, often fervently, that all be saved from sin and unbelief. If this desire and longing for all to be saved is seen as hateful, that only shows how far some people have fallen not only from belief, but also from basic reason and sanity.
This is definitely part of the story. Mainstream Christianity has been fed this lie and must bear part of the responsibility, for the history of mankind is rife with horror stories cored in the attempt to cram religion down a resistant population’s throat. The bitterness borne from this has flowed down through the succeeding generations.
Someone that I know recently prefaced, “Don’t judge me” when he stated to me that his major cleaning day was Saturday (he knows that I observe the Sabbath). The subject came up when we were talking about hospitality and creating family routines that blossom into cherished memories when looked back upon. My response of “Why would I judge you?” seemed to come as a bit of a surprise. It appears that his aversion to organized religion was based, in part, to people who wear it on their sleeves instead of in their hearts. I don’t think that his was a case of displaced aggression (even though the subject of your blog most probably was). He was instinctively reacting according to his experience with “religious” adherents.
It’s hard not to end up making generalized conclusions about a certain group when one feels as though he has been judged in general by it. A true Christian will avoid this type of exclusivity at all costs, for the act of ministering is to do good works–tending to those who desperately need help. It is not insistently preaching where the ground isn’t fertile.
There is certainly a history of coercion in mainstream Christianity when it comes to the conquest of other peoples, at least once Hellenistic Christianity achieved dominance in the Roman Empire in the 4th century. There is also the expectation among many people that disagreement with one’s behavior, at least as expressed by one’s own choices, means a judgment or a disapproval of others. I find it mildly entertaining and also mildly frustrating, for example, that my own personal avoidance of alcohol is surprisingly often taken as hostility to drinking in moderation, when that is definitely not the case. The example you discussed about someone who cleans on the Sabbath would also fall into this situation. It is hard to know how to deal with such assumptions unless they are communicated and can be addressed, though.