An Argument with Sophie

BY ALCUIN DAVIDSON

I have to admit that when it comes to my taste in music, I’m an elitist. Buying a new album is a major commitment for me, and I listen before I leap. A good album deserves my undivided attention: I have to listen to it in one sitting, from beginning to end, and I have to have the lyrics in front of me. I have to consider the effect of the instrumentation, the timbre of the singer’s voice, and I have to roll the singer’s words around in my mind for awhile until I’ve identified the true taste of their meaning. Fine music is like fine wine, and I’ve always refused to get drunk on cheap beer. But then I met Sophie.

Sophie and I had known each other since the beginning of our freshman year, but we hadn’t known each other very well, mostly, I think, because she was always half an hour late to church functions, hasn’t read anything written before 1800, and wears overly expressive scarves. One time I happened to be standing next to her in church when we sang my least favorite worship song: “Every Move I Make.” I don’t hate this song because the lyrics are facile and slightly incoherent: I hate this song because in the middle we are required to sing “La la la la la” ad infinitum. My tolerance for contemporary worship music being, well, limited enough as it is, this sort of stunt really puts me over the edge. I’ve always refused to sing that part of the song. Sophie, however, became positively exuberant when that part came, even jumping up and down and doing hand motions. I was tempted to find this display off-putting, but then I saw her face. There was a vivid engagement and joyful openness to her expression that was really quite fascinating: here was an intelligent if too postmodern young woman who could passionately worship the living God by singing the stupidest nonsense I’ve ever heard. I tucked the interesting image away and would have thought no more of it, but after the song had ended on a final tacky power chord she turned to me and said, fervently, “Don’t you just love this song?”

Startled into honesty, I replied, “I hate it.” She blinked, and actually looked a little crushed for a second. Then she smiled and flashed me a knowing look. We sat down.

After the service she turned to me again and said, “So tell me, Alcuin, what’s the problem with ‘Every Move I Make’?”

“I don’t think the lyrics are particularly meaningful,”—I think the lyrics are stupid—“and I find the bridge to be in bad taste”—if I have to sing “la la la” I think I will stab myself in the gut and twist.

“I think the lyrics are very meaningful!” said Sophie. “The verse is obviously a reference to the part of Acts, I think chapter 17 or 18, when Paul speaks at the Areopagus. When we sing that song, we’re participating in the mystery of God’s revelation throughout time in, you know, different cultures. I mean, here Paul was telling the Athenians that the unknown god they had worshipped had been or should have been God all along. It speaks to the fact that God meets us where we are, but then lifts us up with His love to the truth made flesh in Jesus Christ.”

“Okay,” I said, slightly taken aback, “be that as it may, what about the way it’s written? The chorus is a mess, and the ‘la la la’ part, you have to admit, is kind of a cheap trick.”

“Good taste isn’t the point,” she said, as if talking to a small child.

I was in for it now. I don’t usually burden new acquaintances with my musical taste, and now I saw that I would forever wear the scarlet S for “Snob” in her mind if I didn’t explain myself. “I’m not saying that a worship song has to be a Shakespearean sonnet,” I backtracked, “it’s just that God—God deserves the first fruits of our labor, our art. God is so infinitely worthy of praise, our best praise, that to serve him two-buck chuck when he deserves the best vintage, from the costliest vineyard, is just insulting.”

“Ah,” she said softly. “I see what you mean now. I feel that way too, sometimes. I guess, it’s just—well, I don’t think that we’re capable of serving up Cabernet, or at least I’m not. If I only sang praises to my King when I was thoroughly convinced of their aesthetic value I’d be forever silent. I mean, the Spirit groans what we can’t express through words; the stars’ voice praises their creator without speech. I don’t think words are ever really going to cut it, and elegant verses are not that much better than trite cliché when you come right down to it.”

“Well then, what can we do?” I was actually slightly upset. “If there’s no legitimate standard of excellence, how can we find beauty, truth, meaning?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. “But I think that it all comes down to love. I mean, God was willing to use the words of a pagan poet to make his gospel known to the Athenians. God is love, and he sees things… lovingly. If we loved the things we read, or the music we heard, or the artwork we saw, if we approached them with humility, then God would reveal Himself and His mind to us even in Danielle Steele novels, or Fergie’s music, or Thomas Kinkade’s paintings.”

This was an overly pantheistic, if somehow appealing, statement, and I opened my mouth to argue, but she cut me off— “Oh man, I’ve got to go. I’m sorry to cut this short, but Alice and I were going to tie-dye shirts tonight for that rally on Sproul and she’s giving me a come-hither-NOW look. But good talking with you, Alcuin. See you next week!” And then she ran off down the aisle of the sanctuary, her scarlet scarf fluttering behind her.

“Good talking to you too,” I muttered to the empty air beside me. I had to think about her ideas for a while, but I think she’s at least partly right. I do not agree that true artistic excellence is “beside the point,” but I do concede that the work of the Holy Spirit can transcend stupid lyrics. God is the true lyricist; God is the only true Word, and art is only truly art when something of His Spirit dwells in it, just as a man is only truly human when the fire of Pentecost burns up what he used to be. And the fire is love, the Word is love: the Bridegroom turns water to wine at the wedding feast.

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3 thoughts on “An Argument with Sophie

  1. If we believe that the will of God the Father cannot be thwarted and that He works all things together for good, then of course the Holy Spirit can—and always does—transcend stupid lyrics. It’s true, then, that wherever there is beauty, there is the emanation of God’s beauty, and where God is, that place will be part of the ultimately beauty that God creates in the cosmic story. For this you rightly point the reader to the glory of the almighty God.

    But how are we to recognize this and yet resist not only the pantheism that you mention but also the much greater temptation of pragmatism? After all, no Joseph fails to see the injustice of his sale into slavery in Egypt, no matter what the status it ultimately brought him and no matter what the glory it was allowed to bring to God, and no Solzhenitsyn, however much he thinks “Bless, you, prison!” for the spiritual lessons of political persecution, will fail to write a Gulag Archipelago.

    On my part, I believe that “Listen to Our Hearts” has some ill-conceived lyrics, which would be a serious issue no matter how many people found in it the means for expression of a spiritual reality, that God’s love is greater than words and that we love because He first loved us.

  2. While I do think that “Listen to Our Hearts” is somewhat ill-conceived, I also agree with many of your readers’ comments: I don’t think there’s anything theologically wrong with the lyrics per se. I don’t enjoy singing it because I resent songs that force you to feel something – and this song in particular positively reeks of emotional manipulation – , but I don’t think its inclusion in an otherwise balanced worship set is problematic.

    I sent Sophie a link to this post, and she’s given me permission to share some of her response to your comment:

    “good catch lue-yee! i feel like [Alcuin] was a little cute with the set-up of my comments (gee, i should be more careful who i talk to after church!!!), so let me clarify: i was totally just talking about artistic expression. also, when i said that God can speak through all art, i didn’t just mean warm God-fuzzy kind of revelation. it could be that a really ghastly or upsetting work of art drives you to scripture and prayer for answers. i think that everything–good or bad–has to do with God when you’re a believer, not that everything’s good or bad or ‘one’ or whatever. as to pragmatism: word up. hate that crap.”

    So there, I suppose, you have it.

  3. I am a little late, but this reminds me of Augustine’s initial review of Scriptures. I am paraphrasing generously, but I believe he said something to the effect of: It was kind of dry and surprisingly dull for the alleged Book Of Everything.

    I agree that there is something divine and to be pursued in excellence — and yet, I’ve witnessed even the most mundane, unlearned words utterly undoing the wise and cultured.

    Er. Basically: thanks. I enjoyed reading.

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