Here’s a barometer of our culture. Today, the number 1 hit on the Billboard “hot 100” songs is Bad Guy by Billy Eilish, a 17 year old American. NPR calls her hit “ a haunting pop song.” In truth, it is a disturbing ode to either emotionally abusive relationships, at best, or domestic violence, at worst. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics:
“White shirt now red, my bloody nose
Sleeping, you’re on your tippy toes
Creeping around like no one knows
Think you’re so criminal
Bruises, on both my knees for you
Don’t say thank you or please
I do what I want when I’m wanting to
My soul? So cynical…”
Music has the power to lift our spirits, hearts and minds. This song doesn’t do that. Its lyrics evoke cynicism, resentment and a willing, participatory celebration of sexuality and “love” that falls outside any moral boundaries. Not a shred of hope of any alternative, of a better life. Everyone is “the bad guy”—her mom, her abuser/lover and even herself. It’s depressing.
It’s dark. Very dark.
Consider the Psalm appointed for Wednesday this past week, from Psalm 105:
“He sent darkness and made the land dark—for had they not rebelled against his words? (v.28)
Thousands of years ago, Pharaoh and his leadership elites rebelled against God’s words—“let my people go!” Just as our culture celebrates its autonomy from God in every way—including music—so Pharaoh and Egypt celebrated their autonomy from the God of Israel. As a result, God used darkness as one of the signs or plagues to deliver Israel from Egypt.
Paul picks up this very truth in his letter to the Romans in chapter 1 at verses 18-32, speaking of the state of humankind:
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts…” Romans 1:21-24 (Emphasis added)
Darkness is the place where God’s light does not shine. As Paul notes, when people no longer glorify God or thank Him, he has the power to withdraw his presence and allow the flood of darkness to come in. The result of darkened hearts and minds is described with a list which begins with “sexual impurity for the degrading of our bodies” (1:24). Think of Bad Guy, the number 1 hit today. Or how about the headline from Tuesday about how “drag queens” with criminal records for prostitution and sexual assault of children have been allowed to host “story hour” for children at public libraries in Austin and Houston TX—a practice which a clinical worker who has worked with over 4,000 serial predators has described as “a perfect grooming program” for the sexual assault of children.
But Paul’s list doesn’t end with sexual impurity. That’s only the beginning. Darkened hearts and minds become filled “with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity…envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice…” (see Rom. 1:29-32)Think of the malice behind the mass murders in El Paso. Or the unending strife in our public discourse, where darkness of speech, malice and gridlock have replaced civility.
It’s dark. Very dark.
During the summer, one of my daughters spent three weeks in South Africa helping children through art therapy as part of her post-graduate studies. She saw and felt deeply the effects of relentless poverty, hunger and unemployment in the townships, as well as the squalid condition in which the children lived. She felt the hopelessness around her, and it broke her heart. On a break, she had the opportunity to explore a cave. During the tour, she came to a place where there was an opening and a shaft of light shone through the pitch-black darkness. In that light there was no darkness and she could see the cave as it really was. In that moment Christ reminded her that he is the light who shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not and cannot overcome it. (John 1:5-9).
She put that truth to canvass as she painted a picture of a group of children she saw one day. The children were picking up plastic cups and sticks from the piles of garbage along the way, and when one would beat on a cup, others joined in—a joyful beat to which they sang and danced along the way. In her work with those children and their families, she found in them a remarkable faith in Jesus Christ despite their circumstance—a faith that expressed itself on the canvass of their hearts, especially in song and dance.
The God who created and stands over both light and darkness has come into our darkness. His name is Jesus. He was and is “the true light that gives light to everyone.” (John 1:9).
As I have shared in our new video series on the Book of Common Prayer 2019, the Daily Office, especially Morning Prayer, has helped me in my own life never to lose sight of the life and transforming love of Jesus Christ, whose light always pierces the darkness in me and around me. Many times I am able to find connections between the themes in the Psalms, the Old Testament and New Testament readings, as I listen prayerfully to God and write in my prayer journal.
And sure enough, wouldn’t you know that on that same Wednesday I read about darkness in Psalm 105, this was the appointed lesson from the New Testament:
“Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…” Phil. 2:14-16 (Emphasis added).
We now live in a culture that rejects the existence of God, creation, natural law, revelation (the Bible), and moral absolutes. We live in the darkness of a post-Christian culture whose only absolute is the freedom to reject all absolutes. We have a choice. We can curse the darkness; we can let it come in like a flood. We can huddle away and try to hide from it. Or we can shine as we bear the light of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus Christ, as missionaries in our workplaces and communities, in and through our own local Anglican churches, how can we “shine” in the darkness as we bear the light of Jesus Christ? Where can we paint on the canvass of our hearts and lives beauty and hope and human dignity in the image of God for those who are living in a world of darkness?
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is President and CEO of the American Anglican Council.