I’ve been thinking a lot about a talk given by author and theologian Russell Moore at 2020’s Hutchmoot—the Rabbit Room’s annual conference. The talk was titled “Why We Need Fiction For Moral Formation,” and in it, Moore makes the case (and I’m paraphrasing since it’s been three months since I heard the talk) that so many of us are Biblically illiterate and desperately need a better understanding of storytelling to direct our lives. Moore doesn’t mean that we can’t literally read the words of scripture, rather that we haven’t been sufficiently taught how to see those words as part of a grand picture, a storyline that stretches from the creation of Eden in Genesis 1 to Eden’s ultimate restoration in Revelation 22. We prefer cherry-picked abstractions over overarching plot lines. We treat the Bible like that classic acronym: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
As I’ve reflected on it over the past months, I’ve realized we suffer not just from Biblical illiteracy, but illiteracy (as Moore defines it) across the world of art, story, and music—illiteracy that keeps us focused on abstractions and surface-level observations rather than what’s at the heart of a given work. These thoughts came to the fore of my mind again last week as I observed a Facebook thread beginning with the question: “Is there any Christian music that has a country feel? My daughter loves country, but I don’t love the lyrics or worldview so much.”
Let’s park here for just a moment. And so as to not call out this specific poster, let me just say: the assumptions, feelings, and desires of this particular poster are shared with so many within the Church, and especially with parents wanting to guard their children’s hearts. Any critique I offer of this specific question is not to call out a specific person. This question simply serves as a perfect example of what I’ve observed over and over again.
With that said, there are a few things at play in this question—some helpful and good, some that are actually quite harmful to our spiritual life and theology. First, I absolutely affirm the desire to provide good, meaningful art for our children. We should always be interested and involved in what our children are interested and involved in, not in a helicopter parent way, but in an encouraging and conversational way.
When presented with a song that makes us uncomfortable, we must ask ourselves why.Chris Thiessen
What strikes me about this request for country-tinged Christian music, however, are the generalizations. Notice, “Country” has a singular “worldview” that imbues its lyrics, while “Christian music” also has a singular “worldview” that is supposed to be better and safer. As I scroll through the suggestions people offer—Rhett Walker Band, Johnny Cash, Carman, Needtobreathe, Randy Travis—I can tell you with certainty that a plethora of worldviews, theologies, and attitudes are at play within their lyrics. This, like most issues, is not a dualistic issue. And sometimes a song that mentions Jesus or has a guise of wise spirituality but contains poor theology can be far more detrimental to our souls than the exploitation of beers, cigarettes, and women that permeate the vapidest bro-country.
Additionally, some topics and themes that may seem vapid, sinful, un-Christ-like—or insert your objectional adjective of choice—require a deeper understanding of story and music to interpret correctly. This is where Dr. Moore’s warning against illiteracy comes into play.
“Carrie Underwood has a song about a woman and her husband’s lover who collude to run him over with their two cars,” this same poster later asserts, sharing her concerns about what’s wrong with country music. The song referenced, 2012’s “Two Black Cadillacs,” is indeed a macabre story about marital unfaithfulness, violence, and revenge. However, context should always be a requirement when interpreting music and story. In this case, we must look into the long history of murder ballads within folk and country music to see what’s really at play in Underwood’s revenge tale.
The murder ballad is a lyrical folk tradition that stretches back to the 19th century American South (and even further in the British Isles). Often, these songs relayed the events of real murders as reported in the newspapers, and often, these murders were carried out toward women. As C. Kirk Hutson writes in his essay, “Whackety Whack, Dont Talk Back”:
Sometimes folksongs portrayed such men in a sympathetic light. Similar to the mass media of the late twentieth century, some folksongs—C. Kirk Hutson, “Whackety Whack, Don’t Talk Back”
turned them into tragic heroes—brave but misguided characters—not
brutal villains. On the scaffold, for example, they typically accepted their
fate “like a man.” Often they gave heart-wrenching confessions in which
they blamed whiskey or the victims themselves for their downfall. By
allowing southern males to shift responsibility for their abusive behavior, the culture trivialized femicide, because the murders were slighted or glossed over.
Traditional songs “Down in the Willow Garden,” “Omie Wise,” “Pretty Polly,” and countless others pervaded Southern culture for over a century, and have led to more recent murder ballads. Jimi Hendrix popularized the rock standard “Hey Joe” in 1966, singing, “I’m going down to shoot my old lady / You know, I caught her messing around with another man.” In 1994, Johnny Cash repopularized the murder story of Delia Green with his rendition of “Delia’s Gone”:
First time I shot her
I shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
Delia’s gone, one more round
However, in the last half-century, some women in country music have pushed back against the rampant abuse, violence, and exploitation they endure in the lyrics of country music. Wanda Jackson, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and others trailblazed the way in the 1960s. And more recently, we’ve seen a surge of women in country music who’ve flipped the murder ballad script as an act of defiance toward the genre’s violent history. The Chicks took out an abusive husband with a sly smile on their 1999 hit “Goodbye Earl”; Miranda Lambert did the same in response to a toxic relationship on 2008’s “Gunpowder & Lead”; and on her new record, evermore, Taylor Swift (joined by rock group HAIM) exacts justice on a man who cheated on and murdered his wife with “no body, no crime.”
It's important to recognize that presenting a topic or theme is not the same as condoning that topic or theme.Chris Thiessen
It’s in this mode that we must interpret Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs.” Sure, violence is violence. But it’s important to recognize that presenting a topic or theme is not the same as condoning that topic or theme. “Two Black Cadillacs,” like the other songs mentioned above, are less about revenge and more about the long history of violence, mistreatment, and toxicity that have ravaged country music and the southern culture it reflects. It’s also worth noting that the business side of the country music industry has a long history of misconduct toward and exploitation of women, and that narrative can’t be separated from the angst fueling songs like these. These are not themes to shrug off and turn a blind eye toward.
(For further reading on that, please read Marissa Moss’s thorough exploration of sexual harassment in country music for Rolling Stone).
Context matters. Learning how to interpret art matters.
And believe me, I get it. When we’re presented with something that makes us uncomfortable, when we’re presented with darkness or violence or evil, our instinct is often to shudder and move away from that thing and blame the messenger. However, we must confront the darkness. When presented with a song that makes us uncomfortable, we must ask ourselves why. Often (not always), the artist is trying to show us something broken about our world that we are perhaps a bit too comfortable with. An effect is always preceded by a cause. But if we only spend our time critiquing or avoiding the effect, we’ll miss the whole story and never fully embrace truth. We live in a world full of characters, themes, and plot lines. Not abstractions.
So the next time you encounter a woman sing about “colluding to murder a man with cars,” listen to her story. Truly hear her. If you do, you’ll probably find it was never about murder to begin with.