For Christmas I received several gift certificates for iTunes. This makes me happy. I love new music. I have music playing all the time, in the car, in the office, and when I workout. iTunes is great because you can sample lots of new music and pick and choose what you like. I have realized that iTunes, with all of its advantages may be costing us something too, however, and that it relates to our ability to read scripture.
When you hear a single released by an artist it gives you a limited picture of that artist. It is only one sampling of their sound. Often a single is misleading. You miss an artists true sound by judging them through one song. I can think of any number of bands who made it big with one hit but had no lasting following because that wasn’t really their sound. Or, artists that have a long and storied history that would be totally missed by listening to only one song they have written.
There is also the reality of albums and how they are assembled. Some songs can simply stand alone, but most songs weren’t just created as singles, they were written as part of an album and to be fully appreciated they need to listened to in their context. Take for example the classic U2 album The Joshua Tree. For Christmas I received the 20th Anniversary remastered version of the album. 20 years later it still stands out as an amazing music achievement. U2 fans have been divided, however, for over 20 years because of the 4th song on the album, Bullet the Blue Sky. After the first three songs which are smooth, soulful, and melodic, Bullet the Blue Sky is jarring. Many fans have alway hated the song. (Including my friend Dave, I know because he and I have debated this before) Why after such an incredible beginning is this song there?
Bullet the Blue Sky is about the 1980’s US military intervention in El Salvador. When writing the song Bono told the Edge to put El Salvador through the amplifier. It is aggressive, political, and disharmonious. Adam Clayton the bass player plays in a different key than the rest of the band throughout the song. And yet, it is one of the bands favorite songs and has been played at almost every live concert the performed for 20 years. I saw them perform it on the Popmart and Vertigo tours.
I believe the song is placed where it is on The Joshua Tree because it is supposed to be jarring. It is a song of protest. It’s placement emphasizes the disharmony and aggression, especially in comparison to With or Without You that precedes it.
When we listen to music outside of its context, there is a level of understanding and connection that is really lost from it. The same is true of scripture. Scripture is so accessible to us today. You can just type in a reference into a box on your browser and it pops right up. We don’t have to work to take the scripture and use it. But, the ease of access is also robbing us the ability to understand it.
Without context scripture makes no sense. Proof texting is a frequent reality in worship and preaching within evangelicalism particularly. We take a verse, pull it out of its context, ignore who said it, and make it say what we want it to say. Quite often we go to scripture looking for a verse that backs up what we want to say. That is irresponsible when it comes to understanding the Word of God.
Take Jeremiah 29:11 one of the most misused verses from scripture. We love this verse because it says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” This is a great verse, full of hope and promise. We read it and we just smile at our lives that God is planning out for us so that we can prosper exactly like we want to.
Jeremiah wrote this verse to slaves living in Babylonian captivity. If you read the immediate context you will find that God’s plans for deliverance take another 80 years to complete. The good news God delivered to these exiles was for their grandchildren. How many of us hear that and think about that when we read this verse.
Our instant gratification and the constant availability of information taken out of context is robbing us of hard earned understanding and appreciation. It is true of music, and it is true of scripture. So enjoy your iTunes, find some music you like, but if you really like a song, buy the album and get to know it. Do the same with scripture. Don’t read verses, read chapters and books and entire libraries by particular authors if you want to understand and to breath scripture. We must not take the shortcuts, without the work, we reduce the value of that which we claim to love.