In the book of Acts when St. Paul engages with the philosophers on Mars Hill, he demonstrates a working knowledge of their philosophies by quoting their poets to them (Acts 17:28). If we are going to talk with our friends and neighbors about the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection we are going to need to be aware of their philosophies of life. That is to say, we must be prepared to deal with their view of God, sin, the world, what’s right vs. what’s wrong, and so on. In order to be conversant with our neighbors, much like St. Paul, it will be in our best interest (and theirs) to engage the culture by which they are influenced.
The self-titled album Monsters of Folk is a great primer on the dominant philosophies of our day, especially amongst twenty-somethings. The humorously named band, made up of Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis (of the band Bright Eyes), M. Ward (solo artist and part of She & Him), and Yim Yames (of My Morning Jacket) pull no punches in singing about everything from the problem of evil to questioning the authors of history. Blending Americana, early rock, and folk sounds with haunting melodies, the Monsters of Folk raise challenging questions to the Christian worldview that are on the minds of many of our non-Christian friends.
Song for song this album presents challenges to how we view the world, and I do not have the space to engage the whole album (though if you want my thoughts about a particular song, post below). Here I will look at the two songs that seem to be most directed towards people who believe in God, and I will offer up how we might begin to think about the challenges they present from a Christian perspective.
The album opens in a prayer questioning God’s ways, wondering if He can hear them. In Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F) amidst the sounds of angelic harps, the band sings of the beauty of God’s creation, where they claim to see Him. They ask the question ‘Why is there so much pain if God is everywhere and good?’.
Well I’ve been thinking about,
And I’ve been breaking it down without an answer
I know I’m thinking aloud but if your love’s
Still around why do we suffer?
Why do we suffer?
The problem of suffering and the goodness of God is a question often on the minds of those who do not know Christ, and quite frankly, sometimes on the minds of those who do! While we, as Christians might not be able to fully answer why God allows suffering, we can point to a God who has overcome it by going through it on the cross. The Bible never tells us what God’s hidden purposes are for allowing us to suffer, but it shows us Jesus. He suffers with us and for us, and promises, not merely an end to suffering, but a glorious defeating of it, which He has already begun working in His resurrection.
If the album opens with the Monsters of Folk questioning God’s goodness, the album closes by dismissing Him altogether. His Master’s Voice closes the album by presenting Muhammed and Christ rolling dice being commissioned by God to rewrite the Bible for a new generation of non-believers. Next, a pastor calls to his congregation to fight against the evil in this world which prompts a “soldier boy” to go to war against his master’s enemies. The idea in this song is that religious authority, and any authority for that matter, leads us in dangerous directions. The answer to listening to external authorities, then, is to be found by turning inward.
Muhammed and Christ speak twice as nice,
But the one that I like best, he sings inside my chest,
I hear my master’s voice now.
As the Monsters of Folk would have it, external authorities are at best misguided and at worst seeking power for themselves (a theme that comes up in other points on the album, especially in A Man Named Truth and arguably the album’s best song Baby Boomer).
As Christians, particularly those from a Lutheran perspective, we must despair of such a message. If Jesus is right (and we know He is!), then the “voice inside my chest” is the root of my problems (Matthew 15:17-20). If we are all to turn in on ourselves for truth, the result will be a terrifyingly self-serving world. However, before we dismiss this almost atheistic message altogether, we must admit that authorities, even those within the church, have abused their authority and proclaimed a destructive message. Thus, in reacting to the ideas proclaimed in this song, we must recognize that the correction to a destructive message is not to turn inward, but towards God. His correction to the destruction of sin is found in the Good News of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We can agree that many external voices are dangerous (even those that instruct us to turn inward!), but not all of them are destructive. For, the news the church should bring is forgiving and saving. It is full of hope and love because it points us to a God who grants us hope and love in His Son. Monsters of Folk may not agree, and neither may your friends, but that doesn’t change the news!
I am not one to recommend albums simply for evangelistic purposes, though in this case, I find this to be a very helpful album in understanding the answers my non-Christian friends are given to life’s biggest questions (which we are all asking). If you are looking for an introduction to the so-called “postmodern” mindset, you have no better place to turn than the Monsters of Folk. Lyrically, I cannot agree with the philosophy presented on the album, but, in the spirit of St. Paul, I can engage the messages presented. Musically this is a very engaging album and can be enjoyed on that level as well.
Album Highlights: Baby Boomer, Whole Lotta Losin’, Temazcal