A Holy Week PlaylistPop songs and the Gospels

A Holy Week Playlist
Pop songs and the Gospels

A few months ago, I did a Bible study with the Conference staff where I shared how I had soundtracked the entire Gospel of John. The requirements for the songs were that they had to come from pop radio (sorry, country and rap fans) and could not be from overtly Christian artists.[i] Since I exposed my love for bringing the Bible into a conversation with pop music, our Center for Communications invited me to prepare this song list to share.

Still, I didn’t want to do a list without some explanation about why I made the choices I did. So, this blog is the companion piece to lead you through this soundtrack of the most important and meaningful week of the Christian year. I also invite you to share your own ideas for songs by emailing me at michelle.morris@arumc.org.

If you want to subscribe to the playlist, click here. You can also listen to the songs embedded in the playlist below.

Here we go!

“I Want You to Know” by Zedd, feat. Selena GomezJesus’ Entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9, Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12: 12-10) Palm Sunday has to be a big song, and this dance number fits that bill. It has to be energetic and positive. But also, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the end, so the fact that it acknowledges that a storm has started brewing is important. Finally, Jesus recognizes that the time has come, “it’s our time” for the full-on challenge of Jerusalem and Roman authority to commence.

“Burn It Down” by Linkin ParkFlipping over tables in the Temple (Matthew 21:1-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19: 45-46) Jesus flips out and flips tables to get people’s attention that he now means business. Some of his disciples would likely be on board with this not-so-kind, not-so-gentle Jesus, and some would be disturbed. I imagine this song in part as a duet sung by Judas and Peter, in which Peter expresses the pieces of discomfort while Judas relishes in the moments of power. The chorus of this song declares the revolution that Jesus is undertaking (“Tear this Temple down and I will rebuild it in three days”).

“Believer” by Imagine Dragons Challenges to Jesus’ authority (many places, ie. Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 11: 27-33, Luke 20:1-8) Jesus came to challenge the dominant authorities of the day, and they did not take kindly to that challenge. I like this song to capture that reality because the believer here is not necessarily believing in the right things. There is tension in what the purpose of the belief is and in whom one is believing. Certainly it catches the reality of sorting through truth in the 1st (and 21st) century.

“Do You Really Want It?” by Nothing MoreJesus’ increasingly difficult teachings (i.e. tenant farmers in Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-19) As we get closer and closer to the cross, Jesus’ teachings get more and more difficult to swallow. He is calling for us to radically change ourselves and our society. This song recognizes that people say they want to change, but when it actually involves personal sacrifice, they aren’t so sure.

“Price Tag” by Jessie JJesus’ teachings about money (i.e. render unto Caesar and the widow’s offering) No huge surprise, some of the teachings that people most resist have to do with money. Jesus is deconstructing how money is used to preserve the government and also to oppress the poorest among us. We have missed the point about what money could be for us, which is a means to share readily all the resources God has shared with us. “Price Tag” comparably deconstructs where our priorities should be.

“Nothing More” by The Alternate Routes feat. Lily CostnerThe Greatest, or Only, Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12: 28-34, Luke 10:25-28, John 13:31-35) I don’t guess I ever noticed that during Holy Week Jesus focused in on teaching us the greatest (or in the case of John, the only) commandment, which is to love one another. Certainly story after story in the Gospel illustrates that love is not just a spoken thing, but a shown and lived thing. As this song puts it, “We are love. We are one. We are how we treat each other when the day is done. We are peace. We are war. We are how we treat each other, and nothing more.”

“Renegades” by X AmbassadorsThe Disciples will be harassed (Matthew 24:3-14, Mark 13:3-13, Luke 21:7-11) Jesus is calling his disciples to a new vision for the world. That will come with a great deal of resistance. But that is the work of world changers: buck the system and live as renegades.

“Chained to the Rhythm” by Katy PerryTrouble is coming and no one sees it (Matthew 24:15-28, Mark 13:14-23, Luke 21:20-24) This sounds like a soothing dance song, and in many ways it is, lulling us to a comfortable beat. But if you listen to the lyrics, the song itself is pointing out that such a predictable rhythm has caused us to quit noticing all the injustices around us or to quit doing anything about it. Nonetheless, a riot is boiling. In the story of Holy Week, Jesus shares a prophetic warning that the same is happening in Jerusalem.

“Wake Me Up” by AviciiStay Alert! (Matthew 24:37-44, Mark 13:35, Luke 21:34-36) Like the prior song, this song sings of wanting to just bury your head in the sand and ignore all the struggle and change around us. Jesus pushed back on such attitudes, insisting that the people around him must instead stay alert for what is coming.

“Gone, Gone, Gone” by Phillip PhillipsJesus is teaching about his death (John 12:20-36) As the cross looms ever closer, Jesus tries to prepare his followers for his inevitable death. It will be both traumatic and transformative. Resurrection is coming. “Gone, Gone, Gone” deals with the reality of loss and separation, but also with the assurance that it is not the final word.

“A Song for Someone” by U2Anointing at Bethany (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8) In the midst of the madness that is Holy Week, there is this quiet, intimate moment when either an unnamed woman, or Mary of Bethany (not to be confused with Jesus’ mother or Mary Magdalene) anoints either Jesus’ feet or his head. And yet, there is still controversy in this moment, about whether it was proper, and then there is the controversy that Jesus tells people to remember and tell this story, and yet no Gospel tells it the same way. The woman (Mary) seems to understand who Jesus is in the midst of all this noise. “A Song for Someone” also tells the story of a quiet recognition of who Jesus is, in the midst of all kinds of tensions and questions and struggles. It is a song of rest amidst the madness.

Demons,” and “Natural,” both by Imagine DragonsJudas prepares to betray Jesus (Matthew 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-11, Luke 22:3-6, John 13:21-30) Ah, Judas. We don’t know what to make of you. Some will say you were driven by greed and ambition, that your main concern was earthly power and riches, and certainly there is evidence in the Bible to suggest such a reading. For that Judas, “Natural” is a perfect fit. But some will point out that it is almost as if you didn’t have a chance. That you were predestined to be the betrayer, and that, quite literally, the devil made you do it. For that more sympathetic Judas, we turn to “Demons.” In truth, you probably show what we all struggle with: we fail you for both good and bad reasons, in all the roles we play.

“High Hopes” by Panic! At the DiscoDisciples argue over greatness (Luke 22:24-30) And speaking of desiring power, this moment when the Disciples, particularly John and James, try to claim a position at your right and left hand in glory, reminds us that none of the disciples are without their problems. I love this song for that moment, especially if we look at the telling of this story in other gospels where it is actually their mom who tries to get them their position. Like “Mama said, ‘Fulfill the prophecy, be something greater, go make a legacy, manifest destiny.’” Snowplow parent, anyone?

“The Last of the Real Ones” by Fall Out BoyPredictions that the disciples will fall away (Matthew 26:30-35, Mark 14:26-31, Luke 22:31-34, John 13:36-38) Jesus breaks the news to his closest followers that when times get bad, they are all going to fall away. What is their response? No, not us! Peter especially insists that he is ready to die for Jesus. I can imagine Peter singing this song by Fall Out Boy in that moment, a song that praises the object of his affection but also hints at the dysfunction of the relationship.

“Home” by Phillip PhillipsJesus goes to prepare a home (John 14:15-31) I mean, this song might as well be the sung version of the section of the farewell discourse when Jesus tells his people he will not leave them orphaned and goes to prepare a home for them.

“Hey Brother” by AviciiLove one another (John 15:9-17) I love this song for this moment (hundreds of other songs would work here) because it captures the responsibility we as the family of faith have for one another. It speaks of a relationship in which you would give your all for your brother or sister. It is also in this farewell discourse that Jesus is steadily moving his disciples from thinking of themselves as his followers to each other’s family.

“Iris” by The Goo Goo DollsJesus’ farewell prayer (John 17:1-26) “Iris” is such a heartbreaking song, and this moment in John is such a heartbreaking prayer. Both recognize a love that is worth giving up heaven for, that will be misunderstood by others, but that will necessarily go through significant loss before it is all over.

“Stay” by Rihanna feat. Mikky EkkoJesus asks the disciples to stay and pray with him (Matthew 26:36-38, Mark 14:32-34) There is a great deal of tension around the concept of staying at this moment. In John, the disciples have told Jesus they don’t want him to go. They want him to stay. When Jesus moves to the Garden of Gethsemane in the synoptic gospels, Jesus begs his followers to stay and pray with him. Neither group will get their wish: Jesus must go, and the disciples will fail at praying and fall asleep. Rihanna’s heartbreaking duet makes this moment all the more poignant.

“Mercy” by Shawn MendesJesus praying in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39-46, Mark 14:35-42, Luke 22:39-46, John 18:1) Luke’s gospel tells us that this moment in the garden was so wrenching for Jesus, he appeared to sweat blood. This is the moment when Jesus’ humanity and divinity might be most at war with one another. The divinity knows the fulfillment to come. The humanity knows the pain it will take to get there. I like to imagine Jesus singing the expanded chorus of “Mercy” to reflect those tensions. You can hear him singing to his disciples, to the human authorities, and perhaps to his own human side, “Please have mercy on me, take it easy on my heart. Even though you don’t mean to hurt me, you keep tearing me apart.” To the divine, to the God whose will will be done, but the one who could take this cup from him, he sings, “Would you please have mercy on me? I’m a puppet on your string. And even though you got good intentions, I need you to set me free.”

“Chains” by Nick JonasJesus gets arrested (Matthew 26:47-56, Mark 14:43-52, Luke 22:47-53, John 18:2-12) Okay, you need to make one small adjustment to this song for it to really work. Change the “she” to a “he.” Then imagine, as Judas is coming into the garden with the guards, that Jesus sees him and sings this song under his breath about Judas. Judas’ lips are still wine-stained from the Last Supper, and he comes to kiss Jesus and seal his fate. But remember, Jesus took on these chains as much for Judas as for any of us. He is in chains for our love.

“Human” by Christina PerriPeter’s Denial (Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:56-62, John 18:25-27) For all his bravado that he was going to be willing to die for Jesus, Peter falls away as fast as anyone else. But then, what do we expect? He is only human.

“Say Something” by A Great Big World and Christina AguileraJesus before the High Priest and Pilate (Matthew 26:57-68, 27:11-14; Mark 14:53-65, 15:2-5; Luke 22:54-71, 23:2-5; John 18:13-24, 29-38) Jesus does not offer much of a defense of himself before the High Priest and before Pilate. What defense he offers is mostly circular. All the people who had followed him up to this point probably expect him to lower the boom now, and yet he doesn’t. They are probably desperate. Desperate for him to “Say something! I’m giving up on you!”

“Bring Me to Life” by EvanescenceJudas’ Death (Matthew 27:3-10) However we think of Judas, at least in Matthew’s gospel, we learn he had great regrets for what he did. Regrets big enough to cause him to return the silver and take his own life. This song by Evanescence is a cry of desperation to be saved from such despair.

“A Light that Never Comes” by Linkin Park x Steve AokiJesus making his way to the cross (Matthew 27:24-37, Mark 15:15-26, Luke 23:17-34, John 19:1-27) We are accustomed to hearing sad, slow, mournful songs for the procession to the cross. Certainly that fits an understandable perspective of that moment. But remember, in the moment, what was happening was that a rebel was being executed. More likely the crowd, which has just chanted for Jesus’ death, is riled up. Add to that a defiant savior, who knows where all this leads, and I think a dubstep, furiously rapped song may actually fit the moment better. Imagine the people who had followed Jesus, who have now lost all hope in him as the Messiah, singing the chorus. They are again finding themselves, “Waiting for the light that never comes.” Then imagine Jesus proclaiming the verses. The first verse takes place as he is dragged around and tormented by soldiers. The slow moving then rapid fire beats that lead into the chorus correspond with whip thrashes. Then the second verse is sung before Pilate, as Jesus describes what kind of king he is. The slow moving then rapid fire beats are steps down the road to the cross, as Jesus is helped along by Simon. The last set of beats, then corresponds to the nails driving through his wrists and ankles. Jesus is defiant, knowing he will defeat death; the crowd who followed him, on the other hand, is losing all hope.

“Consequences” by Camila CabelloJesus is mocked and deserted (Matthew 27:38-43, Mark 15:27-32, Luke 23:35-38) The crowd has turned, and now most of the disciples have fled as well. I can imagine the disciples singing this song as they walk away. Loving Jesus had once been all they lived for. Now it seems “dumb, and dark, and cheap.”

“Rise” by Katy PerryJesus dies (Matthew 27:45-54, Mark 15:33-39, Luke 23:44-48, John 19:28-30) Jesus is going to defy the power of death, even as it looks like the nail is in and the vultures are circling. “Rise” was written for this moment on the cross.

“Wide Awake” by Katy PerryJoseph and Nicodemus bury Jesus (Matthew 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, John 19:38-42) Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were almost disciples. Both of them hovered around, almost at times coming to Jesus’ defense, but never making the full public commitment. Perhaps, as they came to collect his body, maybe out of respect, maybe out of loss, they figured they dodged a bullet. “Wide Awake” speaks of a sudden realization that the hopes you had were dashed, but now you know better and can move on. I can imagine Joseph and Nicodemus feeling that way.

“What Now?” by RihannaHoly Saturday There is no real gospel account of what happened between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I always think of all the people who lost Jesus. What was that day like for them? How desolate and lost must they have felt? I wonder if they were both in deep mourning, and also afraid to expose such grief. Rihanna almost screams such anguish in this song, sharing the trauma of depression that has to be covered up.

“Love Don’t Die” by The FrayThe empty tomb (Matthew 28:1-8, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-13) Love doesn’t die. Jesus lives! No matter if you bury love “six feet underground,” love will rise again!

“This is the New Year” by A Great Big WorldJesus hands us his ministry (Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 16:9-20, Luke 24:44-49, John 21:1-19) When Jesus comes to his disciples, wherever and however he does at the end of each of the Gospels, he gives them a mission. It is a mission to share his story and his love with the whole world. He hands us that mission, empowers us through the Spirit, and he “will give the world to” us. Now let’s go get it!

[i] Okay, so arguably U2 is the world’s most successful Christian rock band. Also, Katy Perry got her start as a Christian singer. Every Imagine Dragons song that gets released fits into the soundtrack of the Bible for me. Many of these options here might as well be Christian bands, but they are not overtly so; thus, I keep them on this list.

Two Extremes of Discipleship

Two Extremes of Discipleship

I am grateful that my work for the Center for Vitality of the Arkansas Conference allows me to travel the state to work with our amazing congregations. Lately, I have been focused on working with about 20 congregations who are developing intentional discipleship systems (appropriately these churches are referred to as The Twenty).

These churches are spread all around the state, which means I have a lot of time in the car, and when I am in the car, I am listening to the radio. So as I drive, my thoughts about my work invariably mix in with the lyrics of the songs I hear. Recently, two songs spoke to me as the two poles of discipleship: Fall Out Boy’s “The Last of the Real Ones,” and Camila Cabello’s “Consequences.”

“The Last of the Real Ones” opens with an image of someone feeling all alone and then finding the one around whose life he wants to revolve, even using an image of being the planets revolving around the sun (which in my head also implies Son). This person will follow his newfound companion because this companion is “the last of a dying breed,” confessing that the follower is “here in search of your glory. There’s been a million before me, that ultra kind of love you never walk away from. You’re just the last of the real ones.” Later, the singer proclaims tunnel vision in which all he sees is this “real one,” and then looks toward the “beginning of the end, the end of infinity with you.” Since there is no end to infinity, this moment marks both an end and beginning, which captures that dying/living moment of baptism. This song catches for me that turned around, running-after-Christfor-all-you-are-worth kind of love that real discipleship grows from. I cannot make claims that Fall Out Boy had those intentions in writing this song, but certainly, as I hear it, it speaks to a longing for an authentic, enthusiastic relationship with the one true Christ.

Of course, following Jesus is not always roses and sunshine, even if it begins that way. There are struggles as we learn to live differently, and we also periodically confront profound challenges to our faith, challenges that make it seem as if our relationship with Jesus is dying. It is Camila Cabello’s song “Consequences” that captures this part of the journey of discipleship for me. In particular, I can hear Mary Magdalene and Peter and John all singing this song to themselves on Holy Saturday. Listen to the tension in the two versions of the chorus present in the song:

“Loving you was young, and wild, and free, Loving you was cool, and hot, and sweet. Loving you was sunshine, safe and sound, A steady place to let down my defenses. But loving you had consequences.”

Then later, she sings, “Loving you was dumb, and dark, and cheap. Loving you will still take shots at me. For loving you was sunshine but then it poured And I lost so much more than my senses ‘Cause loving you had consequences.”

Following Jesus is transformative, and creates in us a new life where we can more fully live as the people we are created to be. But we do a disservice to ourselves and to those who are just learning to follow Christ if we make it seem like the journey is always an easy one. Even if we never waiver in our faith in Christ (which I expect most of us do at some point in life), we all face tests of our faith. Some of us are made to feel foolish for following Christ. Some of us will lose people in our lives because we choose to follow him. There are losses in the midst of great gain, and those losses are painful.

These two songs together remind me of my journey, and they help me stay focused on the work I have before me to help others grow in their relationship with Christ. They remind me of the joys and the struggles and keep me grounded in the reality before me even as they help me imagine the reign to come. What connects you to your journey as a disciple? Share with me at michelle.morris@arumc.org.

First UMC Hot Springs restores historic downtown Jesus mosaic

Perhaps you have noticed it as you drove through Hot Springs down Central Avenue. On the street side of First Hot Springs is an 18 foot 9 inch tall Jesus, beautifully portrayed in a mosaic of 488,000 Italian glass tiles, his arms outstretched as he welcomes all to come to him.

If you have noticed it, you are not alone. When FUMC Hot Springs disciples invite people to visit their church, they simply have to say, “It’s the one with the Jesus mosaic.” This incredible work of art is not only identified with the church, but also with Hot Springs itself. That is why, as it had recently fallen into disrepair, a group called “The Friends of the Mosaic Jesus” (comprised of Joyce and Neil Thornton, Steve Fulenwider and Maggie Foster) urged the people of the church to commit to its repair. Pastor David Moseley encouraged the necessary fundraising, noting that “It’s our gift to the City of Hot Springs.”

The restoration began this fall. What had initially cost $374.97 when it was installed in 1965, the mosaic Jesus now totaled around $80,000 to repair. Wendell Norton and his firm, who handled the restoration, were able to use some excess tiles that had been stored in the church since the 1965 installation to help with the work. In December, First UMC celebrated its completion in a service that included city personnel as well.

The next time you find yourself in downtown Hot Springs, keep your eyes and heart open to being welcomed by this beautiful body of Christ.

Book Review: The Forgotten Books of the Bible

In just a few sentences in his introduction, Hendrix Associate Professor and Mercy Community Church of Little Rock founder, Dr. Robert Williamson captures the aim of his book: “I hope that reading this book may open up a little-known part of the Bible to you in new and unexpected ways. These forgotten books have a lot to say. I don’t expect you will agree with everything they (or I) have to say, but I do hope they may provoke you to think and act in more theologically rich ways – as they have done for me” (xix). About halfway through his book, I realized how true that statement was. Each of the biblical books he examines are contrary voices to some dominant perspectives of Scripture. Then Williamson himself applies the texts to amplify voices in our current context that at times struggle to be heard.

Williamson studies the Five Scrolls, the Jewish name for the books of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. He points out that while each of these books have come to take a precious place in Jewish faith, as readings from these books are all tied to significant moments in the Jewish year, they are frequently ignored in Christian circles. Perhaps the reason for sidelining these texts is that they present somewhat challenging theological perspectives. In fact, Williamson shows through his careful study how these works challenge the voices of other biblical texts.

Song of Songs, with its joyful celebration of sexual expression, stands in contrast to the restrictive passages of Leviticus and some of Paul’s letters. Ruth is a bold answer to Ezra-Nehemiah’s call to cast out the foreign wives and children, as Ruth is a Moabite woman who not only integrates into Judah but becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Ecclesiastes presents a voice with little to no hope in an afterlife and a theology that God can be unreliable, which stands in notable contrast to much of the New Testament. Esther tells a Jewish story from a position of oppression which, while many of the biblical texts are written from similar perspectives, are not necessarily the voices we most like to hear.

At the center of the book, though, Williamson’s discussion about Lamentations may capture the heart of his project, and may also serve a great need in the church, and our society, today. Williamson points out that there are five voices in conversation in Lamentations: the Funeral Singer, Daughter Zion, the Strong Man, the Scoffer, and the Community Voice. Williamson takes time to distinguish the unique social and theological perspectives of each voice. In the end, however, the Community Voice finds ways to hold all of them together. That final voice recognizes that there is wide diversity in how we respond to situations, notably traumatic situations, and that all of those voices have their validity. They should all be heard, and they should all hold together to make a complete whole. This word is one we desperately need in our church today as we struggle to find unity amidst diversity.

This book might serve as a way to begin such “holding together” work. In his application of the biblical texts to current issues, Williamson deals with the #metoo movement (Song of Songs), immigration (Ruth), Black Lives Matter (Lamentations), Terror Management Theory (Ecclesiastes), and the rise in white nationalism (Esther). Because these issues can be very divisive ones, there is a distinct possibility that this book could exacerbate some division among us. However, because this book is structured as an invitation to see these biblical books as additional voices in the conversation, perhaps Williamson’s work could inspire frank conversation that is respectful and loving. After all, if the Bible can canonize diversity of thought and ways of living, can we not also model such a community? Surely there is hope amidst lamentation.

Should this book prove too controversial to attempt as a study, I do think it would serve as a welcome resource on the Five Scrolls for pastors and seasoned teachers of the Bible. Williamson’s exegesis is careful and also accessible. Though he works often with the Hebrew, he does so in a way that is not intimidating but rather inviting. His headings in the chapters could allow someone who chooses to do a sermon series on the scrolls quick reference to notable points about the works and their contexts.

You may not agree with everything Williamson says in this book, but do not seek agreement in reading it. Instead, seek a space for rich conversation, for in such spaces relationships grow. This potential for growth in knowledge of the Bible and each other is the central usefulness of Williamson’s work.