Yesterday, a friend tagged me in a post asking college lecturers and seminarians to explain Chris Tomlin’s latest song, the title track of Passion’s new album White Flag. You can see the lyrics below this post. My friend was confused, and wanted an explanation. I’m not sure I can explain this song entirely – as a songwriter I know that once people are confused it is very hard to make them otherwise, and it would be harder again to provide thoughts on behalf of Chris Tomlin (or his co-writers) given that I have never met him. But I hope leaders encourage congregation members to ask these sorts of questions and test songs before integrating songs into their church songlist. I suspect the response from the people was clear to the Hillsong team who were on stage watching Chris Tomlin lead this song. If Aussies don’t really understand something, they just kinda mumble sing along – but if they love it, they’ll shout the roof down. Hopefully, it song doesn’t turn up on Australian church songlists without a clear introduction first outlining its meaning.
But hey, this kind of thing happens. Globalization creates an idea that all worship songs work everywhere. And, through my experience living in America over the past year, I’ve noticed some things about this song make it more difficult for an Aussie audience to sing, and yet very relevant for an American college crowd. And, as another friend recently challenged me – is that bad? Is it bad that it speaks particularly deeply in one local context, but fails to translate in a broader global one? Could you possibly be disappointed with 40,000 college students singing a song passionately?
Firstly, this song is built on war metaphors. America, as a nation feels called to a leading global position and I note a generally positive feeling about war in some churches. And, war is undeniably a biblical metaphor. But for Americans, war is also a modern reality, and when leaders deem it so, it even carries connotations of righteousness. Winning wars is even better, because that proves such endeavor entirely righteous – as God gives victory.
War talk falls down for many Australians. If we were to call war (who against?) we have been told we would be unable to defend ourselves for more than 10 days (urban myth? not sure, it’s still in the national consciousness). So, we’ve become good at talking ourselves out of war. It’s even become a measure of godliness that leaders avoid war (except for skirmishes America gets us into but we like them enough to turn a blind eye). Our national war stories are our most spectacular failures – e.g. case in point, Gallipoli. From them, we’ve received sobering lessons. War causes unnecessary deaths, and pain often spreads beyond those personally involved through widespread ecological damage, as in the South Pacific nuclear testing. The lines we fight across are rarely ‘worth it’ in hindsight, and the after effects of war can be crippling upon economies.
No war, it is better to negotiate seriously.
Also, even if Australians were gracious enough to trust their leaders, most hold inherent distrust of the information their leaders have access to, and the motivations of the people surrounding them. We’ve been attentive to The West Wing, The Good Wife and Yes Minister. And, our macroeconomics classes. A finance minister knows war spending will boost the economy, albeit briefly – if it is a short and deathless war, things will go great for him/her at the next budgetary announcement. Of course, this painless scenario is rarely the case.
Ultimately most Australians suspect war results in personal gain – the worst case of all is that the leader receives profit from military investments. In short, war has a negative connotation. Look, there are situations in which war might be entirely necessary in the modern era. But I can’t think of one right now, and that’s just being honest.
So, when the brilliantly gifted Chris Tomlin introduces a song about laying down the right to arms at Hillsong Conference 2012, it doesn’t go over so well. It’s kinda confusing. We don’t have a constitutional right to bear arms, so we’re already there, so to speak.
To depict Jesus’ act on the cross as surrender is second nature to most Australians. We never honestly believed that a marginalized Galilean from the edges of the Jewish protectorate could take on Rome through human warfare, or that to bow out is defeatist. That is why the cross is a powerful act – not because Jesus as God could have truly fought Rome, but because the act of Jesus on the cross was God’s plan all along – a refusal to fight in human terms and a symbol of reconciliation. It seems redundant to have to say it.
Secondly, the song uses one particular verb to evoke a series of biblical images that link together (probably very clearly in the songwriter’s heads). The first image evoked by the word ‘lifted’ in the bridge is found in this vignette:
Numbers 21:4-9. They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way;they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
The lifting up of a bronze snake above the people is then made into a typology of the cross by John the apostle in John 3:14. Here, these images are linked – lifting the bronze serpent in the desert, and exalting Jesus on the cross:
John 3: 12 – 16 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
As you can see, this thinking is connected through the verb ‘lift’, but within the lyrics nothing more is found to explain why we lift the cross – it isn’t the most straightforward connection for a new Christian. It can even seem like we are joining the Roman side yelling ‘crucify him!’. It seems every person I talk to has a different reading on this line. I suspect the messages I’ve heard on the bronze snake are from American ministries, or at Bible college in my Masters, but they are not known by most Christians.
Thirdly, from one of the commentators on the facebook thread, the bridge seems to promote the cross rather than Jesus which can make about as much sense as glorifying the empty tomb. Rather than ‘lift Jesus’, the words ‘lift the cross’ causes confusion because we speak against lifting (and in this instance we mean worshiping) an empty tomb at other times of the year – isn’t the cross also empty? So any power is not in the wooden instrument on which Christ died, but in Jesus Himself. Two criminals were also crucified on the cross and this instrument of torture was used widely in the empire. Which goes to show why we shouldn’t be forming Protestant theology against Roman Catholicism. Symbols are powerful, and to promote the cross is essentially the same as promoting Christ – if we allow it to be a symbol of Jesus’ love for us.
Anyways, I thought I’d just note my thoughts here because the discussions on my facebook were so interesting.
Exhibit B, Chris Tomlin song ‘White Flag’.
The battle rages on
A storm in tempest roar
We cannot win this fight
Inside our rebel hearts
We’re laying down our weapons now
We raise our white flags
We surrender all to you
All for you
We raise our white flag
The war is over Love has come
Your love has won
Here on this holy ground
You made a way for peace
Laying your body down
You took our rightful place
This freedom song is marching on
Bridge: We lift the cross Lift it high Lift it high (x8)
[ if these lyrics are wrong, please tell: http://www.metrolyrics.com/white-flags-lyrics-chris-tomlin.html ]