In 1995, I moved to Nashville, TN to attend Belmont University. But really I moved to Nashville because that’s where you were supposed to go if you were a Christian who wanted to make music. So I had been told. I spent a lot of my high school life in northwest Iowa dreaming of being in Nashville, the epicenter of Contemporary Christian Music. Upon moving there I was almost instantly disillusioned.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I found. I think some of my frustration was justified. But the real problem was me. I just didn’t fit. Some record labels told me my music sounded too Christian. Other music execs told me my songs weren’t Christian enough. To make matters worse, I never knew exactly what they meant when they said things like that. Did they think I was asking too many questions when instead I should be giving answers? Or was this just a “spiritual” way for them to tell me they didn’t like my music?
Then I met Michael Card. He didn’t fit the mold either, but he had something that I didn’t have. For almost three years I had the opportunity to tour with him; at first as a production manager, and eventually as a musician and opening act. Michael became a mentor, friend, and co-songwriter. I eventually met other people doing similar work, but he gave me chances that nobody else did. He taught me about the Psalms and lament. He showed me what I had been missing, honesty in art.
Michael was never concerned with awards or accolades. He was only concerned with being a faithful story teller. He wanted to tell the whole story of Scripture, honestly, through song.
Eventually life on the road led to Seattle where my family and I moved so I could work as a church music director. I found my artistic home in the church and was called into pastoral ministry. Through it all I have been drawn again and again to the Psalms. It is a lifelong goal of mine to write new songs inspired by all of the Psalms.
Nashville is a lot different now. The digital revolution has forever changed how music is made and distributed. There are many Christians there (and elsewhere) who are writing honest songs that defy the sanitized categories of a previous generation. And this is why people are mad at Bono.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend David Taylor released a short film through Fuller Studios called The Psalms. The film, directed by Nathan Clarke, features an interview with Bono and Eugene Peterson in which they discuss, among other things, the Psalms. I was excited for the release of this film because it was (and still is) my hope that more and more people will read the Psalms as a result of watching it.
In the midst of the short film, Bono talked about how he wished there was more “honesty” within Christian art. He talked about how he wished more Christians wrote songs about their “bad marriages.” In other words, he was saying that we need to get real with God.
This set off a firestorm on the internet. Articles were published by Billboard, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, CCM Magazine, Christianity Today, and so on and so forth. My Facebook news feed exploded with people commenting on the film. However, most of the comments had very little to do with the Psalms and a whole lot to do with Bono’s pithy diatribe.
Some people felt that Bono was right on. Others thought that he needed to get with the times. Many jumped to the defense of songwriters who are doing the very work Bono said wasn’t being done. Someone published a Spotify playlist called Honest Christian Songs. (The playlist’s title was soon changed to Honest Songs because, well, it’s not always easy to tell what makes a song “Christian.”)
The simple beauty of the film The Psalms is that it introduces a problem (we need more honest songs in this world) and instantly follows it up with the solution (the Psalms themselves).
If you want to know what an honest song is then look to the Psalms. They cover every kind of human emotion. John Calvin talks about the Psalms as “an anatomy for all parts of the soul.” They are prayers that capture the totality of the human experience. They are the songs that Jesus sang. The Psalms teach us to pray. The Psalms are full of adoration, praise, confession, lament, and thanksgiving. And the psalms are all about honesty.
But here’s the thing. If you want to honestly sing these honest songs you can never do it as a solo. There is always harmony going on even if you can’t hear it right away.
If you’ve ever tried to pray through the psalms you know that sometimes it can be really difficult. You might find yourself reading a psalm and think, “Well, I don’t feel like that today…so I guess I’m not going to pray this psalm. I guess I’ll go back to my favorite psalm now.” That’s just the moment when we need to wake up to the reality that the Psalms draw us out of ourselves and into a bigger community.
We might not want to pray a particular psalm because it doesn’t feel like we are feeling right now. But somebody has prayed this way before. And somebody might be praying this way right now. And that somebody might be sitting right next to you.
Honesty doesn’t live in a vacuum. You can’t be honest with God unless you are honest with your neighbor as well. It’s not wrong to think about what your favorite psalm might be, but the Psalms won’t let you stay in that place for long.
Honesty always requires communion. When you pray out of the totality of the Psalms you will find yourself praying with people you might not ordinarily pray with. This is not always comfortable. Pray a psalm today that is out of your “comfort zone.” Ask how this psalm might be leading you into a bigger conversation. A more real, more honest interaction with the world.
In the introduction to his Message translation of the Psalms, Eugene Peterson writes, “[I am] convinced that only as we develop raw honesty and detailed thoroughness in our praying do we become whole, truly human in Jesus Christ, who also prayed the Psalms.”
Yes, let’s pray like this. Let’s sing honest songs like this. Let’s make art like this.