A lot of people can be almost unanimous where Billy Joel is concerned. We’ve all got a song or two of his that we like, but he is also perhaps the one man that other guys can universally call maritally stupid… and the church will pretty much universally accuse him of bad theology for saying that Heaven “ain’t” a better place in his 1977 hit Only the Good Die Young. The church protested the song and radio stations banned it… which only made it shoot up the charts. And to be sure, there are some theologically questionable (to say the least) lyrics in the song… but the song is not about theology, it’s more a commentary on the church, where Joel’s observations are much more astute.
So I was listening to the song on the radio yesterday, and I’ve been thinking about the lyrics since. Lyrics like,
Well they showed you a statue and told you to pray
They built you a temple and locked you away
Ah but they never told you the price that you pay
For things that you might have done…
That stained glass curtain you’re hiding behind
Never lets in the sun…
(Hey, I know you can’t read those without singing them!) Of course, in the song he’s trying to coax Virginia to set aside her Catholic values and have sex. Apparently, he’s singing about Virginia Callahan, a girl he had a crush on when he started playing in a band 13 years earlier. The Christian counters these lyrics with something along the lines of “paying the price” of temporal happiness to gain eternal happiness. Somehow it comes off sounding like a transactional matter of commerce, where asceticism facilitates the purchase of Heaven. Yeah, if we’re honest when we say it, it sounds weak even to us. There’s some truth in the observation that the stained glass keeps out the sun when we hide behind it. What are we afraid of, anyway?
You said your mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation
(Oh. The reputation.)
Aww, she never cared for me,
But did she ever say a prayer for me?
Okay, that’s damning. As I said, Billy Joel’s powers of observation are much more astute than is his theological acumen. And after all, that’s the front the church presents, isn’t it? Who’s going to take the time to learn “good” theology if they’re continually rejected by those who feign to teach it? This really is all about how the church treats the “outsiders.”
And so we come to perhaps the big one, the lyric that really got me thinking. Reminiscent in a fashion of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, where Satan descends into Hell (Book I, lines 254-270), saying
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell?
And here’s where I got to thinking, that perhaps we in the church have made a hell out of heaven. We took all of its attractiveness, warped it, and made the whole thing repugnant to the onlookers… and eventually, to many of ourselves as well. What did Billy Joel say? It’s a catchy line that we immediately want to condemn as from the lips of Satan himself, but I don’t think we can…
I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun…
The problem in wanting to write this off so quickly is simple: it’s true. Sinners are more fun. The Christian counters that fun is not defined by sex, drugs, and alcohol… but that’s a horrible stereotype of those who have fun outside the church — do they never laugh when they aren’t drunk? I think the accusation could more accurately be made of some Christians I know. And it all came down to this… Jesus hung with those people, and was criticized for it; his disciples were asked, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” He was called to them as the sick who needed the physician… but clearly he was laughing, eating, drinking, and having fun with them. He said,
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” ‘ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
It seems to me he was having much more fun with the sinners than with the Pharisees, the saints of the day. Maybe his mother never told him all that they could give him was a reputation. Even now, the image of a laughing Jesus is a bit much for some people… but it looks to me like Jesus spent his time laughing with the sinners rather than crying with the saints, content for the wisdom of his actions not to be seen until after the fact. Go thou and do likewise?