Friday, August 3, 2012

I Liked that Song More When I Didn't Know He Was On American Idol

on pop theology, philosophy, theology, culture, pop culture, christianityby Ben Howard

I don’t know if this is a universal experience or not, but I really love falling in love with catchy songs on commercials or TV shows or the intros for sporting events.  I mean I really love it. 

Scrubs is one of my favorite TV shows not only because it made me laugh, but because it introduced me to Colin Hay, Joshua Radin and a whole bunch of other music I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

I remember the World Cup in 2010 for two reasons.  My total and utter fascination with the Uruguayan soccer team led by Latin Michael Bolton aka Diego Forlan and the catchy song from all the Coke commercials, Wavin’ Flag.  I still listen to that song every week.  In Spanish and in English.  The Spanish version is awesome.

So imagine my excitement and glee when I caught the beginning of women’s gymnastics on Sunday night and found myself falling in auditory love with “Home” by Phillip Phillips.  However, my excitement came to a screeching halt when I realized that Phillip(s) was a contestant on American Idol.  How can I enjoy something so…so populist?

Interestingly, I’m not the only one of my friends who had this reaction.  Two nights later I was watching the gymnastics finals when the same song came on.  A friend asked me who it was, hoping for something in the Mumford & Sons/Avett Brothers demographic.  When I told her who it was and where he came from, she actually recoiled.

Now, before we get much further I should say I downloaded the song.  I’m listening to it now.  I love it.  But there is something about popularity that makes me automatically suspicious of, well, everything that’s wildly popular.  I mean I almost had an identity crisis earlier this summer when I found myself singing along to “Payphone” by Maroon 5.  Who am I?

In my mind authenticity has a negative relationship with popularity.  I used to go to a church that I prized for it’s authenticity and integrity.  Then it got bigger and bigger and bigger.  500 turned to 1000 turned to 2000 turned to 3000.  I don’t know if the people there changed, but the context changed my opinion on it.

I’ve tried to work on that hence my purchase of the song and my total and undying adoration of Carly Rae Jepsen, but it still haunts many of my political and theological beliefs.

I think it’s a good thing to question things that are popular because so often those things go unquestioned.  I think this skepticism has benefited me greatly, but I’m always worried that, to borrow a gymnastics term, I’ve over-rotated a bit.  Discernment is hard.  It’s hard to live in the tension between extremes constantly looking for balance and a stable equilibrium.  That’s one of the reasons we have culture wars over chicken.  It’s easier to be an extremist, but that’s not what I want to be.

There’s a story in Jeremiah where he encounters another prophet, Hananiah who is prophesying about the people’s return from exile.  Jeremiah has been telling the people for longer than he cares to recall that they will be in exile for a very long time, but when he encounters Hananiah preaching a new message that the people will be returned and the nation re-established in a very short period of time.

I love Jeremiah’s response to this because at first he’s really excited to hear it.  Yes, it contradicts what he’s been saying, but he thinks God may have just spoken a new word through Hananiah, and he is so grateful for it.

But then he goes home and God speaks to him and tells him that Hananiah’s lying.  That he’s leading the people astray and that Jeremiah needs to go confront Hananiah.  So Jeremiah confronts Hananiah and tells Hananiah that as punishment, he will die within a year.  And Hananiah dies.  And the people stay in exile.  And that isn’t a popular story.

My point is I want to respond to things the way Jeremiah does.  I want to embrace the popular and I want to be enthusiastic, but I also want to be discerning.  If the popular idea is nothing but a myth I want to speak out against it, even if I really wanted it to be real. 

I think that’s what the church is called to do.  Not reject everything, which is easy, or accept everything, which is easier, but to embrace everything with the hope that it might have God’s voice in it then speak truth if it doesn’t.


When he isn’t listening to “Call Me Maybe” and “Payphone”, Ben listens to bands you’ve never heard of, but only their first album.  You can follow his solipsistic elitism @BenHoward87.

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