There was a popular song a few years back titled “This is the Stuff” by Francesca Battistelli. Well, I don’t know how popular it was, it was just always on the radio. Though I’m not a fan of Christian pop, it had a catchy tune – catchy in the sense that I would be annoyed hours later that I was still humming the song. The words of the song were pretty simple…as with most Christian pop:
I lost my keys in the great unknown
And call me please ’cause I can’t find my phone
This is the stuff that drives me crazy
This is the stuff that’s getting to me lately
In the middle of my little mess
I forget how big I’m blessed
This is the stuff that gets under my skin
But I’ve gotta trust You know exactly what You’re doing
Might not be what I would choose
But this the stuff You use
She goes on to also talk about getting pulled over for speeding. The entire premise of the song is that God uses these small, inconveniences in our life to “break us of impatience” and remind us that “in the middle of our little mess” we really are blessed.
The first time I heard this song, I couldn’t identify. I felt scummy for living a much more complex and insidious life than this sweet girl who just can’t seem to find her phone.
So, let me express some of my frustrations with this song that is really a small representation of what happens in a larger context.
- Exemplifies Christian Disconnectedness
Maybe these lyrics are the experience for many Christians, though I highly doubt it. However, how can we expect to communicate the gospel to those around us, when the most challenging elements of our life are losing our keys, our phone, and getting pulled over? Maybe Battistelli isn’t saying those are the “most challenging,” rather they are the ones God uses. However, if she’s not saying it explicitly, it is certainly implied.
The world around us is wrestling with addiction, anger, hatred, greed, rejection, self-injury, thoughts of suicide and many are looking for a solution to their brokenness. If they looked to the church and found this sort of ideology, they would be left hopeless, with a sense of too-far-gone-ness. By hearing the lyrics of this song they may be left thinking “man, these Christians are such good people and there is no way that I could ever fit in.”
- Trivializes the Human Experience
While I’d never want to generalize, I highly doubt that any Christian has lived such a moral and upright life that the most gigantic struggle that they face is trusting in God when they lose their keys and phone. Every Christian wrestles with the deep-seated residual affects of sin. Before Christ, we were enemies of God, with hearts aroused by evil and wickedness. Sin had affected every part of our being and every part of our existence. Coming to Christ was not an immediate change from “a heart bent towards wickedness” to “darn, I lost my keys again, gee-golly I better trust God.”
After listening to that song, I was left feeling condemned and lonely. If that is the Christian experience, than I am a filthy, arrogant, wretch damned by my own vice. Because, God knows, my daily struggles are so big, so cosmic, and so lethal, that I must crucify myself daily. My personal human experience is so much stronger, that losing my keys isn’t even on my spiritual radar.
Grace doesn’t make a lot of sense when all I need is a little bit of faith for when I lose my phone. A cheap explanation of the human experience, will inevitably lead to a cheap explanation of grace.
- Dishonest Art
Sadly, it is these sorts of songs that critics of “Christian art” often point to. It is dishonest. Not in that Battistelli is lying, but it doesn’t adequately express her daily life. This song is not evidence of strong soul-searching, deep into the caverns of the human heart, expressing deeply compelling truths about her life before God. Rather, it comes across like a cheap marketing scheme, that will quickly rise to the top of the charts.
You would find none of this sort of superficial writing in the words of Paul, Peter, James, or John. They were harshly true and viciously honest about the human condition. Paul tells us “18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[d] I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” He concludes “wretched man that I am, who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin?”
Paul’s frustrations are not that he keeps poking himself with the quill writing his letters, or that the wheels on the chariot that arrested him were a bit squeaky. His writing is honest to his human experience.
For an alternate example of an honest expression of the human condition, consider Sufjan Steven’s song John Wayne Gacy. After explaining the horrific tragedies committed by the hands of Gacy, Stevens writes one of the most honest, self-assessments I have ever heard:
and in my best behavior, I’m really just like him
look underneath the floor boards for the secrets I have hid
This sounds like a man who has understood that he too is the chief of sinners. I don’t want to demean, or condescend. However, as Christians, we must do better. And, we cannot allow this sort of sugarcoated air we call “Christian music” define our artistic expression as followers of Jesus Christ.