A biggish news-ish item broke for the 90s youth group set yesterday: dc talk's Facebook page cryptically indicated that they may, possibly, could be getting back together in 2017. The trio, which was the undisputed king of contemporary Christian music when I was a teenager took a brief sabbatical that somehow stretched into over a decade and a half. Since then various members have splintered off into solo careers or are now lead singers for other bands that were popular in the 90s but lost their original lead singer. All of which has created an interesting subgenre to which I refer to as Zombie CCM.
This post isn't actually about dc talk. Ten or eleven years ago, I would have been pumped about the news and now I'm kind of "Meh." Yet laying in bed last night I began to think of the other music that served as the soundtrack to my teenage years. Even as I have matured, I yearn for the innocence and earnestness of those years if not necessarily the embryonic beliefs that came with the package. Drifting off, my mind began to play a song that I loved by Caedmon's Call titled "40 Acres." It always gave me a sense of peace:
There's 40 acres and redemption to be found
Just along down the way
And there's a place where no plow blade has turned the ground
And you will turn it over here
'Cause out here hope remains
Before dozing off, I reached for my phone and typed "Out Here Hope Remains." That phrase felt like an anchor to which I could hold on in what has been a challenging season of life. I wanted to go back to the youthful image of 40 acres and a fresh start. Then I drifted off to sleep.
Yet when I woke up, something lodged in the back of my head was disquieted by the idea of 40 acres. Years ago I read an interview with one of the songwriters in which he said that 40 acres and a mule were given to those who were trying to make a new life for themselves out west. But that seemed too tidy. And then I remembered another song lyric about 40 acres. It is from an artist that is miles away from Caedmon's Call; one that would have scandalized teenage Christopher. In Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," he raps:
What you want, house or a car
40 acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar
Anything, see my name is Lucy, I'm your dog
M----------- you can live at the mall
Throughout Lamar's album To Pimp a Butterfly, the entity Lucy (or Lucifer) appears to tempt the rapper. Lucifer of course is the father of lies and thus all these promises and all the battles that Lucy wages only seek to destroy. As I have listened to that song on runs for the last several months, I wondered why that specific reference to 40 acres and a mule. I can understand the promises of houses, cars, and living at malls. But 40 acres and a mule?
That's when I did some homework. Forty acres and a mule is what was promised to freed slaves after emancipation. It was the way that some in the government promised to help these freed men and women begin to make a life for themselves. They would have the opportunity to create a fresh start. They could put their hand to the plow to help feed their family rather than a slavemaster.
It was a promise that was overwhelmingly not kept. I somewhat embarrassingly quote Wikipedia here, but it drives the point home: "The phrase '40 acres and a mule' has come to symbolize the broken promise that Reconstruction policies would offer economic justice for African Americans." I had so long heard the phrase "40 acres" and thought of hope and redemption, but for most of my brothers and sisters, it was the twist of a knife.
That horribly complicates things. From my causcasian context, 40 acres was a picture of God's grace yet for individuals from an African-American context, it was an example of Satan's lies. There is an enormous dissonance there. The result makes me wish that the songwriter had dug deeper into the background of that historical anecdote. It makes me wish that I had not just read a magazine interview and took it at face value.
Growing up, you discover that the things that you once thought were neat, tidy, and pure are not always what they seem. I think about how stories of genocide and obscene violence washed over me when I was younger simply because they were in the Bible. And when you discover these incidents, whether it be the monstrous behavior of someone you saw as a scriptural hero or the ugly origins of a song that inspired you as a youth, it's like your innocence is killed all over again. I truly hate that feeling.
This of course is why Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5 that we are to test everything and hold on to the good. God gave us minds to think about these things. In matters of faith, we have to examine and think critically of how it lines up with who God is shown to be in Jesus. Just as importantly in not more so, God gave us ears to hear the religious beliefs and theological musings of those outside our bubbles. Had I looked outside my own cultural context and listened to voices that were not in the majority, there are many times that I might have been able to say, "Hey, wait a minute..." Having ears to hear requires a lot of humility. It might have helped me identify some of my blind spots. Even still there is so much that I need to learn.
As I was going to sleep last night, the title of this post was absolutely going to be "Out Here Hope Remains." It was going to be about innocence, earnestness, and probably would have featured a hefty dose of nostalgia. It was probably going to be about looking back rather than looking forward to wherever God is calling us. I think that is a natural response in times of uncertainty.
I still want to hold on to that initial sense of hope. However hope does not remain on some metaphorical 40 acres. That was an illusion, just like the idea that a country or a church needs to be great only by turning the clock back 50 years. Redemption is still to be found and hope does still remain. God is out there preparing the way, but it's something which we have to seek out together. By God's grace we will find it and we, all of us, are going to be alright.