Lessons on Spiritual Dryness from twenty øne piløts

Christian music brands itself as a safe space on the radio. Christian radio stations tout that they are safe “for the little ears” in your car. Both things are true: you can always find a peppy, God-loves-you song that doesn’t mention things that you really would rather your school-aged children have to hear. It’s a way to feel good and praise God and maybe bop your way down the road with your kids in tow.

But at what point does the bubblegum pop of Christian music lose its flavor? At what point do you feel like you can’t listen to it any more because it’s not speaking to you or to the spiritual dryness you’re going through? What if you’re a Christian whose feelings about God are love mixed with anger and feelings of abandonment? What if you feel too steeped in your own sin and are afraid to say anything because it’s not what Christians do?

Leah Libresco wrote last year about the “unrelenting cheerful” world of Christian pop:

I took a look at the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top 50 Christian songs1 to see whether Christian pop is unrelentingly cheerful. I looked at pairs of concepts across the entire collection of lyrics2 (life and death, grace and sin, etc.)3 and calculated the ratio of positive to negative words. For every pair I checked, positive words were far more common than negative ones.

There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.” (For the record, 1 John 4:18 — “perfect love casts out fear” — is advice for spiritual formation, not lyrics writing.)

DC Talk wrote a beautiful song that talks about the very feelings that seem taboo in Christian pop music today. “What If I Stumble” is practically an anthem for me as a Catholic mother, a Catechist, a writer… It talks about those feelings of inadequacy when you feel far from God and start to wonder if you’re doing things right. It pulls back the curtain to reveal that sometimes a person who seems to have their whole faith life together is terrified just under the surface and can’t share it for fear of making others lose faith. Fear of causing scandal by revealing doubts and pain makes people hide their own spiritual struggles.

I’ve found another band that addresses the spiritual dryness that we all go through at some point in life. What surprised me is that it’s not a band that is strictly under the Christian label. It’s twenty øne piløts, a two-member group that catapulted onto the charts last year with their song “Stressed Out”, which is about how growing up is stressful and makes you wish for the simpler days of childhood. My two daughters are crazy about this band, and tøp is now in regular rotation on our music lists. (I’ve got at least two of their songs on my running list.) Both members of the band are professing Christians, and I even follow the drummer on Snapchat. (Which I originally did to make sure it was safe for my kids, and then I just left there. The other day, Blink-182 was playing and Josh Dun (said drummer) was snapping the concert. Then one snap was silent with the caption “This song has bad words, so it’s silent.” I don’t know about you, but I thought it was nice for once. Needless to say, tøp’s music doesn’t have bad words, it doesn’t talk about sex, and I don’t worry for content. (There is some screaming between the ukulele stuff, which I hate, but I skip those songs.)

This isn’t meant to be some kind of commercial for twenty øne piløts, but I wanted to give you a feel for them, in case you don’t have teens or tweens who listen to them. They make some really good music, and there are definite Christian themes mixed in there. One song in particular is called “Addict with a Pen”, and it’s found on their self-titled second album. Apparently, Tyler Joseph (the singer and main songwriter) struggled with depression and used music and songwriting to help him get through it. (His lyrics blatantly say this.) A lot of it was written when he was still a teen (according to my main source, who happens to be my 18 year-old), and it’s brutally honest stuff. “Addict with a Pen” struck me in a big way when I listened to it. It speaks of a spiritual dryness, of reaching out to God when you can’t be sure He’s reaching back, of trying to come back to prayer when you’ve pushed God away for a while. It’s probably one of the most honest Christian songs I’ve heard, and it ranks right up there with “Firelight” (by Matt Maher) in displaying the raw emotion of a Christian who can’t feel God’s love. (I’m putting the lyrics at the bottom of this post for you.)

We need more like this. We need more Christian music that deals with sin and suffering, with feeling far from God and not knowing how to get back. We need more honesty. Christianity is not some panacea that makes us feel all happy and aglow; it’s not an opiate that covers up our suffering with platitudes. There are times when being a Christian is hard. Not hard because of outside forces on us, but hard because we’re human and sinful and we mess up and sometimes we can’t understand why we’re in the middle of a mess that we can’t get out of. Sometimes God feels distant, and even when you know that He is there, just stepping back like a father encouraging a toddler to take a step towards Him with faith that He will catch her, it’s still hard to be in the situation. It’s hard to take the step. It’s scary to reach out in the dark because deep inside, where you’re afraid to let anyone see, you’re terrified that maybe He won’t be there when you reach out.

We need more music that speaks to that. We need more honesty about the real life that real Christians lead. We need to be honest with each other first, and let each other in. Share the burden. Lift each other up in prayer. Hold hands as we reach out into the darkness and search for God’s hand.

This year, let’s be honest with each other. Share the load, and work hard to be there for each other. It’s uncomfortable and scary and sometimes it’s draining, but it’s part of our Christian call to be family. We can’t just be around for the good things – we have to be a real family and help each other through the hard times, too.

Let’s be a better family this year.

©2017 Christine Johnson


Lyrics:

Hello
We haven’t talked in quite some time
I know
I haven’t been the best
Of sons
Hello
I’ve been traveling in
The desert of my mind
And I
Haven’t found a drop
Of life
I haven’t found a drop
Of you
I haven’t found a drop
I haven’t found a drop
Of water

Water

I try desperately to run through the sand
As I hold the water
In the palm of my hand
Cause it’s all that I have
And it’s all that I need and
The waves of the water
Mean nothing to me
But I try my best
And all that I can to
Hold tightly onto
What’s left in my hand
But no matter how
How tightly I will strain
The sand will slow me down
And the water will drain
I’m just being dramatic
In fact,
I’m only at it again
As an addict with a pen
Who’s addicted to the wind
As it blows me back and forth
Mindless, spineless, and pretend
Of course I’ll be here again
See you tomorrow
But it’s the end of today
End of my ways
As a walking denial
My trial was filed as a crazy
Suicidal head case
But you specialize in dying
You hear me screaming
Father
And I’m lying here just crying
So wash me with your water

Water

Hello
We haven’t talked in quite some time
I know
I haven’t been the best
Of sons
Hello
I’ve been traveling in
The desert of my mind
And I
I haven’t found a drop
Of life
I haven’t found a drop
Of you
I haven’t found a drop
I haven’t found a drop
Of water

 

One thought on “Lessons on Spiritual Dryness from twenty øne piløts

  1. Love this. Our now-defunct diocesan newspaper used to have a weekly column where there would be a reflection on the spirituality of a Top 40 secular song. I miss that column, even if in later years they only had bad things to say about contemporary music.

    I’m also starting to think that the reason God never gave me much of a taste for CCM is because he wanted there to be at least one person in the world praying for the souls of secular musicians–mostly “Adult Alternative” secular musicians, but even Morrissey needs someone fighting for his soul!

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